New Money Honey, seen winning the 2016 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf at Santa Anita, is among the favorites for Saturday's Grade I American Oaks over the same course. Photo courtesy of Breeders' Cup
The ball drops at Times Square, fireworks explode around the globe and North American Thoroughbreds celebrate their birthdays at midnight on Jan. 1.
A few of the newly turned 3-year-olds waste no time starting their once-in-a-lifetime quest for the Kentucky Derby starting gate as Aqueduct rings in 2018 with the $150,000 Jerome Stakes. On New Year's Eve, Laurel Park and Fair Grounds give this year's 2-year-olds one last chance to shine before their birthday.
It could be a big year as there's plenty of opportunity for rising stars with the retirement of the likes of Arrogate and Gun Runner.
Santa Anita escorts out tired old 2017 with a trio of classy graded stakes on New Year's Eve. There's some classy turf action here and there elsewhere, too, especially at Gulfstream Park and Tampa Bay Downs.
Speaking of classy, we've got the results of Thursday's Grade I Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds at Nakayama Racecourse in Japan. Let's just say, time flew.
And further speaking of classy, with all best wishes to all racing fans everywhere in the world, here's our final UPI Horse Racing Preview of 2017:
The Road to the Roses
If it warms up enough (Thursday's racing was canceled because of the colt), Monday's $150,000 Jerome at Aqueduct is the first major test of 2018 for ambitious 3-year-olds. The race is part of the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, offering 10 qualifying points to the winner. Entries were pending at press time.
Diamond King, A Different Style and Whirlin Curlin are the oddsmaker's picks among 10 entered to go 7 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Heft Stakes at Laurel Park. A Different Style, a colt by The Factor, exits a victory in the James F. Lewis III Stakes over the course. Diamond King won his first two starts, then lost jockey Frankie Pennington when he clipped heels at the start of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs Nov. 25. Whirlin Curlin, by guess who, has two straight wins including the Maryland Juvenile Futurity in his most recent effort.
Saturday's $200,000 Damon Runyon Stakes at Aqueduct is restricted to state-bred juveniles but don't overlook it. Trainer Wesley Ward brings Battle Station, a Warrior's Reward colt who won the Bertram Bongard in September and finished second versus open company in his last start at Churchill Downs. Sea Foam, a Medaglia d'Oro colt, finished second three times before winning his last two for trainer Christophe Clement. They are the bookends in a field of nine with Sea Foam on the rail and Battle Station perched outside. Evaluator won the Sleepy Hollow against state-breds but hasn't done much in two graded stakes starts. Audible and Jaye Jaye are both worth a look.
Sunday's $100,000 Louisiana Futurity at Fair Grounds attracted a dozen state-breds, none of them a particular standout other than -- maybe -- the morning-line favorite, Givemeaminit, by first-crop sire Star Guitar. He makes his first start in his home state after contesting graded stakes at Saratoga, Keeneland, Del Mar and Churchill Downs but remains a maiden. Still, he was third in the Grade I Hopeful at the Spa and fourth in last month's Breeders' Cup Juvenile so he certainly has the class edge in this bunch. More familiar with the winner's circle are Gladyousawme (3-for-3), and the 1-2 finishers in the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile, Greeley Went West and Divine Bean.
At Sunland Park, matching 2-year-old events on Saturday and Sunday feature New Mexico-bred juveniles going 6 furlongs. It costs nothing to pay attention and you never know. Remember Mine That Bird.
Kentucky Oaks preps
A baker's dozen will contest Saturday's $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park at 7 furlongs. The 7-2 favorite, Limited War, drew the rail. The Maryland-bred daughter of Freedom Child has won four of five starts but was sixth in the Grade II Adirondack at Saratoga. She has won on the lead and from off the pace. A Kentucky-bred Tizway filly, Gibby, comes off a sharp win at Parx Racing and drew gate No. 8.
Sunday's $100,000 Louisiana Futurity at Fair Grounds has seven state-bred fillies. Minit to Stardom, another by Star Guitar, is the 6-5 morning-line favorite after winning the Louisiana Champions Day Lassie by 7 1/4 lengths, going away. Champagne Diva, by Tale of the Cat, totally dominated her first start over the course Dec. 9 and returns as the 9-5 second pick under Chantal Sutherland.
Saturday's $300,000 Grade I American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles on the turf drew a sparkling field of 10. Rymska, a French-bred filly by Le Havre, has won all three previous starts this year -- at Gulfstream Park, Laurel Park and Aqueduct. Daddys Lil Darling, by Scat Daddy, was second in the Kentucky Oaks and won on Kentucky Downs turf in course-record time. She also was to have run in the Investec Oaks at Epsom in England but was scratched after being spooked by lightning and thunder. New Money Honey, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and went on to win the Grade I Belmont Oaks Invitational in July. Madame Dancealot is a graded stakes winner. Desert Duchess has won three in a row, including a Kentucky Downs allowance.
Six signed on for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Robert J. Frankel for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles on the turf. Four are Irish-breds, one French-bred and one bred in Kentucky. The Gallic one, Penjade, has won four of her last five but makes the move from New York. Responsibleforlove, a daughter of Duke of Marmalade, Elysea World, by Champs Elysees, and Laseen, a Dylan Thomas mare, all have been on the fringes in graded stakes company.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Midnight Lute, 6 1/2 furlongs on the main track, drew a field of nine including Masochistic, a dual Grade I winner on the circuit earlier in his career. This will be his first start since Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. The field, however, is very well balanced and provides excellent wagering opportunities.
"The Great Race Place" also has the $75,000 Eddie Logan for 2-year-olds on the turf on Friday, the $75,000 Blue Norther for 2-year-old fillies on the grass on Sunday and the $75,000 Joe Hernandez for 4-year-olds and up down the hillside turf course on Monday.
Tampa Bay Downs
Saturday's card features a pair of $100,000, 5-furlong turf sprints -- the Turf Dash and the Lightning City for fillies and mares.
There's always something going on at Gulfstream when it's below zero in Chicago. This weekend's excitement is four turf stakes on Saturday: The H. Allen Jerkens at 2 miles, the Via Borghese for fillies and mares at 1 3/16 miles and the Tropical Park Derby and Tropical Park Oaks.
A year-end flashback: We remember a ridiculous winter day in the late 1980s, well before the advent of regular full-card simulcasts, when the Illinois Racing Board okayed importation of the Gulfstream Park signal to the state's OTBs to replace the weathered-out local product. The local "broken down horseplayers" (a Dave Feldman term) seemed almost as interested in envying the shirt-sleeved crowd under the swaying palm trees as they were in the classy steeds on the track.
Time Flyer, a Heart's Cry colt and grandson of Sunday Silence, rallied from far back in the field to win Thursday's Grade I Hopeful Stakes for 2-year-olds at Nakayama Racecourse and forge his way into the picture for next year's Japanese Classics -- and perhaps more.
Time Flyer, racing for Sunday Racing Co., bided his time at the rear under Cristian Demuro, launched a very wide bid on the stretch turn and outfinished Gendarme, an American-bred Kitten's Joy colt, by 1 1/4 lengths, finishing 2,000 meters in 2:01.4. Stay Foolish ran well at the end to finish third, another neck back. Lucas, a full brother to retired Japanese superstar Maurice, finished sixth with Yutaka Take in the irons.
"He will improve for the Classics because he's still young and has a good turn of foot," Demuro said of Time Flyer, "and I think the distance will not be a problem."
Even before its recent elevation to Grade I status, the Hopeful was used by owners and trainers looking to the following year's Classics rather than toward a juvenile championship. Past Hopeful runners include Victoire Pisa, who went on to win the 2011 Dubai World Cup; Epiphaneia, who later captured the 2014 Japan Cup, and this year's winner of the Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby, Rey de Oro.
It's not impossible that Time Flyer could make an impact on the world stage before the year is up. The Grade II UAE Derby on World Cup night in Dubai is available. And a victory in the Hyacinth Stakes at Tokyo Feb. 18 wold earn the colt enough points in the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby to ensure a spot in the Run for the Roses 29 years after his grandsire's victory.
Odds and ends:
Happy 2018 to all. It's only weeks to the Pegasus World Cup, three months until the Dubai World Cup, a little more than four months until the Kentucky Derby and a bit more than 10 months until Breeders' Cup rolls around again. The days are getting longer now. And Cubs pitchers and catchers report to camp in Mesa, Ariz., in less than seven weeks. What's not to like?