Fifty Fifty speeds to victory in Monday's (01 January) Chinese Club Challenge Cup in Hong Kong, perhaps marking the beginnings of a new star. (HKJC photo)
The first of the year is about new beginnings and so it was for Thoroughbred racing in Japan, perhaps in Hong Kong, and in several locations around North America.
The first major Kentucky Derby prep for the newly turned 3-year-olds, however, fell victim to a byproduct of the New Year -- particularly nasty weather on the East Coast. Frigid cold forced postponement to a date uncertain of the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct.
Fortunately, there was plenty of turf action in Florida and California to keep the punters occupied while awaiting the thaw. And there was promise of good things to come there, too.
As we head into the new season, let's revert to reporting these by divisions -- at least for now.
The Road to the Roses
The first major race of the year for Kentucky Derby hopefuls fell victim to the weather as the Jerome Stakes was part of Monday's Aqueduct card felled by abysmal cold. The morning-line favorite for the race, at even money, was Firenze Fire, winner of the Grade III Sanford at Saratoga and the Grade I Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park in October. The Poseidon's Warrior colt is looking to rebound from a flop in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile where he finished seventh, beaten 20 lengths.
NYRA officials said the Jerome will be rescheduled when the long-range weather forecast provides some certainty it will not have to be canceled a second time. Trainer Dale Romans, who shipped Seven Trumpets to the Big A for the race, said he will leave the horse in New York. "They'll run it one of these days," he told Daily Racing Form.
Cold weather also enveloped Laurel Park in Maryland and four scratches limited the field to six in Saturday's $100,000 Heft Stakes. Of those, Diamond King proved aces, pressing the pace into the stretch before taking charge and winning off by 1 1/2 lengths from Devine Entry. It was another 8 lengths back to Big Bella Brown in third. Diamond King, a Quality Road colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track on a cold day in 1:24.45 with Frankie Pennington up. He has a perfect record except for the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club, where he clipped heels, losing Pennington.
"I knew it was going to be tough especially because you don't know what to make of that last race," said Diamond King's trainer, Butch Reid. "Did he get anything out of that? Psychologically you don't know where they're at after they get dropped like that. He's obviously a very smart horse and he just put that behind him and stepped right up to the plate today." Reid said he plans to try Diamond King at longer distances and see what happens.
At Fair Grounds in New Orleans, Pound for Pound celebrated New Year's Eve with a hard-fought win in the $100,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred colts and geldings. The Redding Colliery colt, at odds of better than 20-1, outfinished the favorite, Givemeaminit, winning by a neck. Greeley Went West was 3 lengths behind that one in third. Pound for Pound ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.11 with Miguel Mena riding. "I was happy with the way he ran and I think we have a future with this horse," said winning trainer Jose Grimaldo.
Blazing Navarone started last of eight in Sunday's $85,000 Four Rivers/John Deere Stakes for New Mexico-bred 2-year-olds, swung six-wide into the stretch and rallied to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Del Mar Summer and Golden Band filled the trifecta slots. Blazing Navarone, a Song of Navarone gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.46 with Enrique Gomez aboard. It was his first win since June.
The Lane to the Lilies
Strategic Dreams took a strategic spot near the back of the field in Saturday's $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park, circled five-wide into the lane and outfinished Enrage, winning by 1 3/4 lengths over that one. Vertrazzo was third and the favorite, Limited View, beat only one rival. Strategic Dreams, with Feargal Lynch riding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.92 and Laurel then canceled the final three races of the day because of the extreme wintry weather. She is 3-for-4 with her only loss a fifth-place showing in the Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park. "We just let the speed develop and once we got into the straight she just picked them up," Lynch said. "She's a very nice filly. I like it whenever the horse gets confident, gets to the outside and lets herself run."
Iona Star battled for the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred fillies at Fair Grounds, then seized command in the stretch run and won off by 4 lengths over Feisty Embrace. It was another 3/4 length to Cool Spring in third. The odds-on favorite, Champagne Diva, ran evenly to finish fourth. Iona Star, a Star Guitar filly, ran 6 furlongs in 1:12.17 with Diego Saenz in the irons. "She had a good trip," Saenz said. "She was in front the whole time and that's what we wanted. She likes the long stretch. She finished well."
Fast Gator had to fight for the lead in Saturday's $85,000 La Senora Stakes for New Mexico-bred 2-year-old fillies at Sunland Park. But the Diabolical filly plugged right on, disposed of the early challenge and held off Country Club Cutie by 1/2 length for the win. Fast Gator, with Ry Eikleberry up, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.16, remaining undefeated in four starts, all in the Land of Enchantment. Actual 'gators really are fast but only at sprint distances.
Filly & Mare Turf
Daddys Lil Darling waited patiently along the rail and just behind the leaders in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I American Oaks, surged to the lead at the top of the stretch and held off a dramatic late run down the outside by Madame Dancealot to win by 1/2 length. Kathy's Song was third and New Money Honey faded to finish fourth after pressing the pace. Daddys Lil Darling, a Scat Daddy filly who finished second in the Kentucky Oaks and came a thunder clap away from contesting the Investec Oaks in England, finished the 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 2:00.11 under Mike Smith and notched only her second win on the season.
Daddys Lil Darling's trainer, Kenny McPeek, lamented some adversity that prevented his filly from getting a Grade I win earlier. Those misfortunes included a thunderstorm at Ascot that spooked Daddys Lil Darling before the Investec Oaks. She bolted and was scratched. "It was a bit frustrating because she was always competitive but didn't have things go her way," McPeek said. "But she's a special filly and you just have to keep trying with those kind ... Next year, she may be even better. Even at a mile and a half, she'd be really good."
Midnight Crossing, the longest shot on the board, led virtually all the way in Saturday's $100,000 Robert J. Frankel Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita and held on to win by 1/2 length over the favorite, Elysea's World. Laseen was a neck farther back in third. Midnight Crossing, a 4-year-old Irish-bred filly by Dark Angel, ran 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:48.10 with Brice Blanc in the irons. It was her first win since an allowance score at Woodbine May 14. "At the three-eighths pole, that's when the running started," Blanc said. "She was there for me. There were some nice fillies that finished strongly. I was a little worried that they'd outkick me but she kept really digging in."
Dream Awhile came from off the pace in the first flight of Saturday's $75,000 Tropical Park Oaks at Gulfstream Park, swung seven-wide into the lane and was up to win by 3/4 length over fellow closer Westit. Storm the Hill finished third, a neck farther back, after leading briefly in the stretch. Miss Sky Warrior finished sixth in her first effort on the turf. Dream Awhile, a War Front filly out of the Montjeu mare Baroness Richter, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.77 with John Velazquez riding. It was her second U.S. start after a third at Aqueduct in November. The filly, now trained by Chad Brown, won at first asking at Deauville in her only start as a 2-year-old. Owner Joseph Allen said he was especially gratified to win with a homebred. "It's very hard to do. You have to be very lucky," Allen said. "It's a difficult game but this is the culmination of a lot of time, a lot of hard work and a lot of people who are part of the effort."
In the second division of the Oaks, Ghostly Presence attended the pace, came under a drive a furlong from the finish and arrived in time to win by 1 length over pacesetting Team of Teams. I'm Betty G finished third. Ghostly Presence, a Ghostzapper filly down from Canada for the winter, ran 1 1/16 miles on the lawn in 1:42.79 under Rafael Hernandez. At Woodbine, she had three wins and two seconds this fall and winter after a slow start. "The two horses we thought had speed did their job and we just sat behind them," Hernandez said.
Hallie Belle hooked up in a long stretch battle with Into Summer in Saturday's $75,000 Pago Hop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Fair Grounds and prevailed by a neck over that stubborn rival. The favorite, Sensitive, produced a late run from the back of the pack to take third, 1/2 length farther behind. Hallie Belle, a Medaglia d'Oro filly racing in Godolphin blue, ran about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.14 with Robby Albarado up. Hallie Belle got a late start on the season, finishing second at Laurel Park on Sept. 29. Since, she has swept all three of her starts, moving quickly up in class. "We always thought that she was talented enough and as long as she stayed sound and mentally healthy that she could be a stakes winner," said trainer Mike Stidham. "With this 3-year-old race at the end of the year it was the right thing to do. It all worked out."
Daring Duchess led all 1 3/16 miles of Saturday's $75,000 Via Borghese Stakes at Gulfstream Park and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Martini Glass. Flipcup was third while the favorite, Galileo's song, finished eighth in a dull effort. Daring Duchess, a 5-year-old Arch mare, finished in 1:55.21 with Jose Ortiz aboard. It was her second win from six starts during 2017. "I thought we'd get a little more heat early on," said winning trainer Mike Maker. "But that was an Eclipse Award-winning ride by Jose." Perhaps so. We'll find out Jan. 25. "Whatever happens during the Eclipse Awards, I know I'll be happy and I know I'll have a great chance to win," said Oritz, who got this column's vote.
Looking to the future: Ippodamia's Girl pressed the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Blue Norther Stakes for 2-year-old fillies on the Santa Anita grass, took over the lead and held off a late charge from well back by One Fast Broad to score by 1/2 length. It was 1/2 length more back to Silken Spy in third. The favorite, Retro, was eighth, lacking any late speed. Ippodamia's Girl, a Stormy Atlantic filly out of the Peterhof mare Ippodamia, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:35.93 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons. The Mike Puype trainee made it two straight wins. "I don't know what 2018 will look like for her," said winning trainer Mike Puype. "There's a list of stakes ... Watching her train, I hate to say the wrong thing but she's really not much on the dirt. Her stride is different on the turf than the dirt."
Run Time saved ground near the rear until the final turn in Saturday's $100,000 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Gulfstream Park, advanced along with the favorite, Bullard's Alley, into the stretch and beat that one by a head bob at the wire. Gold Shield was third, 2 1/4 lengths farther back. Run Time, a 4-year-old Gio Ponti colt, finished 2 miles on firm going in 3:23.97 with Tyler Gaffalione in the irons. The colt took 11 tries to find the winner's circle but now has two wins and a second from his last three outings. "I rode this horse at Kentucky Downs going a mile and a half the day he broke his maiden," Gaffalione said. "So it basically was like the same thing as today -- just let him fall back and relax and make one big run."
Durocher outfinished Mr. Cub in all-Chicago-baseball exacta in Saturday's $75,000 Tropical Park Derby at Gulfstream Park. With Paco Lopez up, Durocher tracked the pace and rallied three-wide when he got outside for room in the stretch. He won by 3/4 length in 1:42.11 in his first start for trainer Joseph Russo. Profiteer was third. Durocher finished third in the recent Claiming Crown Emerald and Russo noted, "If you notice the last race, the last time he ran past the wire, he finished with a lot of energy ... He tries every time. You can't ask for better than that."
Pubilus Syrus, under Kent Desormeaux, collared the favorite, Inscom, in the final yards to win Friday's $100,000 Eddie Logan Stakes for 2-year-olds at Santa Anita by a head. Choo Choo, who contested the early pace, held on for third. Pubilius Syrus, a Candy Ride colt out of the Pulpit mare Ruthenia, finished 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.58. It was his second win from six starts and followed a runner-up showing in the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar. Another reason that, for all its faults and shortcomings, you gotta love racing: The race is named for Eddie Logan, known as "The Footman," who operated a shoeshine stand at Santa Anita from opening day, Dec. 25, 1934, through New Year's Day 2009. Logan died Jan. 31, 2009, at age 98. (Thanks to Santa Anita's Ed Goldman and Mike Willman for the reminder).
One to watch closely: Mr. Misunderstood raced wide just behind the speed in Saturday's $75,000 Woodchopper Stakes for 3-year-olds at Fair Grounds, challenged the leaders at the top of the stretch and ran on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over First Premio. Kitten's Cat finished third. Mr. Misunderstood, an Archarcharch gelding, ran about 1 mile on firm going in 1:35.95 under Shaun Bridgmohan. He has won eight of his last nine starts, the loss coming in an experiment on the dirt in the Grade III Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course last April. "He's very impressive on the turf," said winning trainer Brad Cox. "We'll see how he comes out of it. We won't come back in the Colonel E.R. Bradley (on Jan. 13), but we may look at the Fair Grounds Handicap and go from there." The latter is a $150,000 Grade III affair on Feb. 17.
It was Durocher on Saturday at Gulfstream Park and Pee Wee Reese on Monday at Santa Anita so maybe it was really a Dodgers weekend rather than the Cubs'? We'll see how things go in the rubber match in next year's NLDS. Meanwhile, Pee Wee Reese led most of the way to a handy 2 3/4-lengths victory New Year's Day in the $100,000 Joe Hernandez Stakes down the hillside turf course. The 5-year-old son of Tribal Rule, with Joe Talamo in the irons, finished in 1:12.37. Next Shares and the favorite, Richard's Boy, finished second and third.
Pay Any Price, the odds-on favorite, didn't pay much of a price for his gate-to-wire win in Saturday's $100,000 Turf Dash Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. But even the small return was in some doubt late as jockey Edgard Zayas had to keep busy to get Pay Any Price home 1/2 length in front of closing long shot Jaguar Poz. Conquest Enforcer was another 1 length back in third. Pay Any Price, a 7-year-old gelding by Wildcat Heir, ran 5 furlongs on firm going in 55.63 seconds. Trainer Ralph Ziadie had been pointing Pay Any Price to the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint before he developed a foot abscess. Owner Rich Averill said the long-range plan now is to bring Pay Any Price, a $25,000 claim in July of 2016, up to next fall's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs, where he hopes the chestnut can show "he is one of the best turf sprinters in the country." Next step on that road is the $125,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint Stakes Jan. 27.
In the companion $100,000 Lightning City Stakes for fillies and mares over the Tampa Bay Downs turf, Smiling Causeway rallied late and outfinished Wealthy Shipman by 1 1/2 lengths for the win. Cousin Claire was another 3/4 length back in third. Smiling Causeway, a 3-year-old Giant's Causeway filly, finished in 55.82 seconds under Daniel Centeno. "Well, that is the first time she came from that far behind to win, so you always worry a little," said winning trainer Arnaud Delacour. "But she looked comfortable and when the other horses started coming back, it looked like Danny had a lot of horse." Delacour said Smiling Causeway probably will get a break until The Very One Stakes at Pimlico in May.
Silent Bird dueled for the lead with Americanize early in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Midnight Lute Stakes at Santa Anita, then found long shot Tough Sunday coming to join the mix in the final furlong. When all was done, it was Silent Bird a neck in front of Tough Sunday, who had a nose in front of Americanize. Silent Bird, a 5-year-old son of Summer Bird, covered 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.03 for jockey Kent Desormeaux. Smokey Image and Masochism were scratched. Silent Bird was fourth in the Grade I Triple Bend at Santa Anita in March, then was off until he got home third in the Grade II Pat O'Brien at Del Mar in his last start Aug. 26.
"It was a typical one hole draw," said Silent Bird's trainer, Mark Glatt. "He doesn't like dirt in his face, so I told Kent, 'Whatever you do, let's try, with the rail draw, to get to the outside. When he broke a little flat, Kent kind of asked him to run and then he jumped into the bit, so at that point he figured to just keep his position and he kept it all the way."
Around the ovals:
My Magician was up in the late going to nip Renaissance Rosie by a neck in Saturday's $75,000 Politely Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares. Up Hill Battle was 3/4 length farther back in third. My Magician, a 5-year-old Street Magician Mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.82 with Jomar Torres riding.
John Jones tracked the pace into the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Jennings Stakes for state-breds, took the lead in the lane and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Bridget's Big Luvy led through the first 3/4 mile and held on for second, 1 length better than Rockinn on Bye. John Jones, a 5-year-old Smarty Jones gelding, ran 1 mile in 1:36.36 with Edgar Prado up.
The Dave's Friend Stakes and Thirty Eight Go Go Stakes were canceled because of the particularly nasty weather.
Royal Son dominated a scratch-shortened field in Friday's $50,000 Prairie Bayou Stakes, stalking the pace before drawing off in the stretch to win by 7 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Dac was second, 4 1/2 lengths to the good of Zulu Alpha. Royal Son, a 5-year-old Tiznow gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.04 with Dean Sarvis in the irons. The WinStar Farm-bred gelding has been a consistent earner from Florida to Canada without ever quite breaking through at the top level although he won the John Battaglia Memorial over the track in 2015. "The scratches helped bring us closer to the rail," said winning trainer Kellyn Gorder. "But I was pretty confident in how he would run anyway. He just loves this track."
Kell Paso stalked the pace in Sunday's $65,000 Bold Ego Handicap for fillies and mares, came four-wide to the lead and edged clear, winning by 1 length over the favorite, Diabolical Dame. Tilla Cat was third. Kell Paso, a 3-year-old filly by Divine Park, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:02.22 with Aldo Arboleda up.
Headlines from around the world:
Time Flyer rallied from the back of the field to an emphatic victory in Thursday's Grade I Hopeful Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse and into the picture for next year's Classics -- and possibly a lot more. The Heart's Cry colt, owned by Sunday Racing, bided his time under Cristian Demuro, launched a very wide bid on the stretch turn and outfinished Gendarme, a Kitten's Joy colt owned by Koji Maeda, 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, under jockey Yutaka Take.
"Today we went very fast so I waited a little bit because I tried to stay behind," Demuro said. "I had confidence that he could catch the front but we were tight and couldn't find the space, so I followed Yutaka, who was in front of me and, after we went out, he was just a very good horse. He will improve for the Classics because he's still young and has a good turn of foot," the rider added, "and I think the distance will not be a problem.
Time Flyer now has three wins and two seconds from five starts. The Hopeful in the past has been used as a springboard for success beyond the scope of Japan's earlier-season 2-year-old races has produced the later winners of the Dubai World Cup, the Japan Cup and the Japanese Derby. Time Flyer could even qualify for the Kentucky Derby with a win in the Hyacinth Stakes in February -- the biggest of the three races in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby."
A pair of budding prospects got home 1-2 in Monday's Chinese Club Challenge Cup at Sha Tin, adding some names to the mix for the Group 1 Stewards Cup on Jan. 28. Fifty Fifty, a speedy gray 5-year-old New Zealand import, took command as the field turned into the stretch in the 1,400-meters New Year's Day feature, shrugged off a challenge from another improver, Beat the Clock, and won by 1/2 length in 1:21.10.
Two of Hong Kong's established stars, Helene Paragon and Beauty only finished third and fourth in a Chinese Club Challenge Cup field that boasted five Group 1 winners. The mix will be different in forthcoming Group races as weights even and the stars are sent after their true objectives. But after a spate of recent retirements thinned the top ranks, the Hong Kong Jockey Club will welcome some new challengers.
"If he comes out of this race in good form we will definitely consider the Stewards' Cup. I can't find another mile race for him, so this is my plan," said Fifty Fifty's trainer, Peter Ho. "He's a tough horse.When Beat The Clock came to him, he fought again. He has a big heart and he'll be a better miler." The Stewards' Cup is run at 1 mile.
While they couldn't land the feature, jockey Joao Moreira and trainer John Size dominated the New Year's Day action at Sha Tin with five wins for the champion jockey and four for the champion trainer,
United Arab Emirates
Frankyfourfingers turned back a challenge from Claim the Roses some 400 meters from home in Friday's Jebel Ali Mile Prep and cruised home first by 3 1/2 lengths under a confident ride by Royston Ffrench. Claim the Roses held second, 1/2 length to the good of Albernathy. Frankyfourfingers, a 7-year-old son of Japanese sire Sunday Break, was making his first start in 11 months and scored his first win since his career highlight -- a victory in the Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 in 2015, where he defeated Prince Bishop.
"That was very impressive today on his first visit here to Jebel Ali, which has really suited him," Ffrench said. "All his preparation coming into the race had gone well and he is, really, a lovely horse and a big favourite in the yard. He is fragile and has not raced that much, so a lot of credit must go the trainer and the team in the yard."
Odds and Ends:
Beginning Feb. 1, Turfway Park will offer a $200 bonus to each owner or partnership represented in an overnight race if the field offers 10 or more wagering interests -- the TENacious Turfway Park Starter Bonus." "The name refers to the tenacity of horsemen who tough out winter racing, and we want to reward that," said General Manager Daniel 'Chip' Bach. Bach also noted handle increases "significantly" in races with 10 betting interests.
Our old buddy Joe Kristufek is the new racing analyst for Fair Grounds. Since "Joey Da K" never seems to shed any work when he piles on more, he also continues his chores for two other Churchill Downs Inc. properties as oddsmaker at Arlington Park and lead analyst at Churchill Downs itself. That's in addition to his work for Ellis Park, Breeders' Cup and America's Best Racing. You go, Joe.