UPI Weekend Preview: Kentucky Derby hopefuls on display

One final look at globetrotting superstar Highland Reel, who heads off to the breeding shed in Ireland after this victory Dec. 10 in the Longines Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin. (HKJC Photo)
One final look at globetrotting superstar Highland Reel, who heads off to the breeding shed in Ireland after this victory Dec. 10 in the Longines Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin. (HKJC Photo)

The extended weekend in Thoroughbred racing features a slew of 2-year-old races stretching from Japan through Oklahoma to New York, with many of them pointing toward next year's Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.

Gulfstream Park offers five graded stakes on its Saturday card and they are handicapping challenges.


Internationally, the Group 1 Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes features promising Japanese 2-year-olds, the All-Weather Championship season marches on with a Fast-Track Qualifier at Newcastle and the Friday card at Jebel Ali in the UAE is worth a look.

And ... Hugh Bowman may be the Longines' World's Best Jockey of 2017 but Yutaka Take takes the Longines and IFHA International Award of Merit later this month in Tokyo. See "News and Notes".

But first, see this:


It was easy to miss, being run mid-week at Kawasaki, a regional Japanese track. But Wednesday's Zen-Nippon Nisai Yushun could turn out to be an important preliminary to next May's Kentucky Derby. The race was the middle leg of the expanded "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" -- a series offering a guaranteed spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate.


Le Vent Se Leve, a son of two-time Japanese Horse of the Year Symboli Kris S, dominated the race. After leaving a step slowly in a messy start, jockey Mirco Demuro gathered the colt up and put him into the mix turning for home. He accelerated so quickly he had to steady just to keep balance, then drew off to win by 1 length with plenty in reserve.

The victory points to a showdown in the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse Feb. 18 between Le Vent Se Leve and Ruggero, who won the first race in the series. Each of them has 10 points toward a Kentucky Derby start. The Hyacinth awards 30 points to the winner, though, so any other victor there would leapfrog into the lead.

This is the second year of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby". Last year's top points-earner, Epicharis, went on to finish second in the Group 2 UAE Derby in Dubai, then passed up the Kentucky Derby.

Saturday's $400,000 Remington Springboard Mile is the big deal on American soil in this division this weekend, also offering 10 Kentucky Derby points to the winner. A likely favorite is Greyvitos, a Malibu Moon colt who jumped up to win the Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar in his last outing after two earlier defeats at Santa Anita for trainer Adam Kitchingman. Greyvitos led all 7 furlongs in the Bob Hope and won by 1 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Mourinho. Victor Espinoza makes the trip to Oklahoma to take the mount.


The field of 12 also includes two from the Steve Asmussen operation: Combatant, a Scat Daddy colt who comes off a maiden win at Churchill Downs, and Flat Lucky, a Flat Out colt who was third in both the Kip Deville and Clever Trevor over the local oval. Redatory and Bode's Maker, first and second in the Clever Trevor, also are back to contest the Springboard Mile.

Doug O'Neill ships Flip the Coin Jan from his Southern California base where the Trappe Shot colt finally found the winner's circle on his fifth try in his most recent start at Del Mar Nov. 12. Midnight Strike was beaten in his first five outings, then broke his maiden in the Don C. McNeill Stakes at Remington Nov. 25. Trainer Larry Jones brings Believe in Royalty, a Tapit colt who won his last two starts, both at Laurel Park.

In California, seven state-breds are signed up for Saturday's $100,000 King Glorious at 1 mile. The standout is Bookies Luck, a Lucky Pulpit colt who has won three of his last four starts, all against fellow Cal-breds. His only loss in that stretch was a demoralizing eighth-place finish at Del Mar in August, after which Kent Desormeaux took over the reins and remains there for Saturday's effort. It's the first time around two turns for all them, though, so anything could happen.


Stoney Bennett tops a field of seven for Sunday's $150,000 Great White Way Division of the New York Stallion Series at Aqueduct. The Bustin Stones colt, trained by Ollie Figgins III, finished second in his most recent start in the Notebook Stakes after breaking in a tangle. Figgins said he's adding blinkers at the suggestion of jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. The race also features shippers from Florida and Kentucky.

Also of note for the juvenile colts and geldings are the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds and the Inaugural Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Both races are Saturday and each is run at 6 furlongs.

2-year-old fillies

The $100,000 Trapeze at Remington Park on Sunday drew 12, with lots of prospects. Terra's Angel, a Drosselmeyer filly, won the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies Turf and shifts back to the main track, where she won at first asking at Lone Star. Sydney Freeman, a Tizway filly, exits a win in the local Slide Show Stakes. Laudation, a daughter of Congrats, won the E.L. Gaylord Memorial over the track. She and runner-up Rose of Malibu are both in here. Howboutthiscowgirl has won at both Remington and Lone Star. Cosmic Burst won at Churchill Downs in her most recent start. Sassy Sienna, Elusive Truth, Stronger Than Ever and Secret Passion all have strong claims.


Pure Silver, already a graded stakes winner, headlines a field of six entered fro Saturday's $150,000 Fifth Avenue division of the New York Stallion Series at Aqueduct. The Mission Impazible filly won the Grade II Adirondack at Saratoga by 9 1/2 lengths but finished second, beaten 1 length, by I Still Miss You in the Key Cents Stakes at Aqueduct Nov. 24. Miss Hot Stones, a Bustin Stones filly, gets some consideration after a commanding victory in a recent maiden race over the track. The others have something to prove here.

Also of note: The Letellier Memorial on Saturday at Fair Grounds and the Sandpiper on Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs.

Gulfstream Park

Saturday's program has five graded stakes, two on the grass and three on the main track.

Seven fillies and mares are signed on for the $100,000 Grade III Rampart, a one-turn mile. There are some puzzles. Curlin's Approval was going great guns until she stumbled at the start of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint in her last start and wound up beating only one rival. Lewis Bay was third in last year's Kentucky Oaks but hasn't run a race since Nov. 26 of last year. Does trainer Chad Brown have her ready? Gamble's Ghost was a powerhouse over the Woodbine all-weather but only one of her 15 career starts has been on dirt, producing a fading fourth-place finish. King's Ghost has won three of her last four but steps up in class. Good handicapping challenge here.


The $100,000 Grade III Sugar Swirl is 6 furlongs on the main track for fillies and mares. Dearest, a 4-year-old Midshipman filly, is the class of the field. She won the event last year but has raced only twice since, most recently July 1. If she's not up to the comeback effort, several of the others have been running extremely well a few steps down the class ladder and the outcome could be a scramble.

Ditto the $100,000 Harlan's Holiday at 1 1/16 miles. Flatlined makes a rare main-track appearance after flattening out late in his last start on the Keeneland grass in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile. Destin won the 1 3/4-miles Marathon on the Breeders' Cup undercard at Del Mar two starts back. Mr. Jordan runs huge figures at Gulfstream Park West (the old Calder) but not so much elsewhere. Seven-year-old Page McKenney has had a good season up north. Go figure.

On the Gulfstream grass:

A look at the past performances shows the nine signed on for the $100,000 My Charmer at 1 mile on the lawn last raced at Del Mar, Remington Park, Woodbine, Aqueduct and Keeneland as well as in South Florida. So, it's a typical early-season Gulfstream Park puzzle. Among the most likely puzzle pieces: On Leave, a close third in the Grade II Goldikova at Del Mar in her last start, and Stormy Victoria, second in an Aqueduct stakes in her most recent.


Blacktype looks like a logical choice in the $100,000 Tropical Turf at 1 mile on the ... well ... turf. The Christophe Clement trainee, a 5-year-old French-bred gelding by Dunkerque, won the Grade II Knickerbocker at Belmont Park two starts back. Others could step up, however, and a couple who ran well at this summer's key Kentucky Downs meeting are worth a look.

On the international front:


While the juveniles doing battle Wednesday at Kawasaki include some top dirt-running prospects, Japan's most ambitiously placed 2-year-old colts will be at Hanshin Racecourse on Sunday for the Group 1 Asahi Hai Futurity Stakes. The field couldn't be much more wide open. Danon Premium, by Deep Impact, has won both his two starts so far, including the Grade 3 Saudi Arabia Royal Cup over 1,600 meters at Tokyo in a record time of 1 minute, 33.0 seconds. After that race, jockey Yuga Kawada said, "It was his first race at Tokyo, and just his second overall, but it was a great performance. Everything's been perfect with him." Also to watch: Tower of London, a Raven's Pass colt bred by Darley's Japanese branch and winner of three of four starts; Asakusa Genki, an American-bred colt by Stormy Atlantic who won the Grade 3 Kokura Nisai Stakes in September and finished third to Tower of London in the Grade 2 Keio Hai Nisai Stakes; and Fast Approach, whose sire, Dawn Approach, was undefeated at 2.



Eight are set to go on Saturday at Newcastle in the 2-miles Betway Conditions Race -- the first of four Fast-Track Qualifiers for the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship Final on Good Friday next. The field includes accomplished all-weather performer Watersmeet and Group 3 runner-up Mountain Bell. Watersmeet finished second to Winning Story in last season's Good Friday finals and has eight wins on the all-weather surfaces for trainer Mark Johnston. Mountain Bell, a Mount Nelson filly trained by Ralph Beckett, was second in the Grade III St Simon Stakes at Newbury in October 2016, finishing in front of some subsequent Group 1 runners. She has made only two starts since, including a fourth in her all-weather debut at Kempton Park Nov. 29. Not to be ignored is Cohesion, a David Bridgwater trainee who was fourth in the final last season.

News and Notes

Hugh Bowman is the Longines World's Best Jockey for 2017 but Yutaka Take will be taking home the 2017 Longines and IFHA International Award of Merit, recognizing lifelong contribution to Thoroughbred racing. The honor will be bestowed Dec. 21 before the running of the Group 1 Arima Kinen at Tokyo Racecourse. Taking part will be Juan-Carlos Capelli, vice president of Longines, Louis Romanet, Chairman of the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities (IFHA), and Winfried Engelbrecht-Bresges, CEO of the Hong Kong Jockey Club.


Take made his riding debut in 1987. As of Dec. 11, 2017, the Japan Racing Association credits him with 3,940 wins, of which 322 came in graded stakes, 74 of those in Group 1. Take has won at least one Group 1 for 23 straight years and a graded stakes race for 31 consecutive years. He also has the most victories in a year, 212, as well as the most earned prize money in a single year, with that figure standing at about US$38,931,850. He has more 100 wins to his credit in eight other countries -- Australia, France, Germany, Hong Kong, Korea, United Arab Emirates, United Kingdom, and the United States.

"As a jockey, I am happy to fly with a saddle back and forth locally as well as internationally as requested," Take said. "It doesn't matter if there is a difference in the rules and language, I have been riding the same way everywhere, and therefore did not recognize that I was making a contribution to the achievement and improvement of global horse racing. If my attitude to horse racing has delivered me international recognition with this award, I will make a continuous effort to the development of global horse racing."


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