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Weekend Preview: Kentucky Derby preps take center stage

By ROBERT KIECKHEFER, UPI Racing Writer
California Chrome was a star in Dubai two years ago. The Carnival races at Meydan start Jan. 12 -- who will star this time? (DRC Photo)
California Chrome was a star in Dubai two years ago. The Carnival races at Meydan start Jan. 12 -- who will star this time? (DRC Photo)

As frigid winter weather continues its grip on much of North America, the 2018 Breeders' Cup Challenge program gets under way Saturday in South Africa, where it's mid-summer.

California and Florida have some early Derby and Oaks preps and the All-Weather Championships roll on in England.

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Since we're tired of shivering, let's start where it's warm.

On the international front:

South Africa

The 2018 Breeders' Cup Challenge program kicks off Saturday at Kenilworth with a pair of Group 1 races.

The L'Ormarins Queens Plate features the likes of Legal Eagle, Marinaresco, Captain America and Gold Standard going 1,600 meters on the Kenilworth turf and offers a guaranteed berth in the Breeders' Cup Mile, plus expense money. Legal Eagle almost never misses the frame with 11 wins and seven places in 20 lifetime starts. The 6-year-old gelding by Greys Inn, trained by Sean Tarry, comes off a win in the Group 2 World Sports Betting Green Point Stakes Dec. 2. Captain America, Gold Standard and Sail South finished third, fourth and fifth in that 1,600-meters heat.

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On the same card is the Group 1 Cartier Paddock Stakes for fillies and mares at 1,800 meters. This is a gateway to the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

It's extremely difficult and time-consuming to export horses from South Africa because of quarantine regulations. But efforts to ease those restrictions, without risking the spread of disease, appear close to bearing fruit in international and bilateral negotiations.

England

Caspian Prince had 'em all the way in Tuesday's featured Betway Conditions race over 5 furlongs on Tapeta at Newcastle, earning a Fast-Track Qualifier berth in the AWC finals at Lingfield Park on Good Friday, March 30. As seems to be the case more frequently as the AWC attracts ever higher quality runners, there's no guarantee the 9-year-old son of Dylan Thomas will continue on with the remainder of the season's program, however.

Caspian Prince, who scored a Group 2 win over Marsha in July at The Curragh, shrugged off challengers from both his inside and outside before landing the victory by a head over Atletico, finishing in 57.90 seconds, just 0.07 second off the course record. Final Venture was third, just ahead of the favorite, Intisaab.

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"We will see how he is and see where we go," said Carol Easton, assistant to trainer Tony Coyle. "There is no definite plan. Qatar is a possibility, but I don't think we will be going to Meydan. He ran in Qatar last year and it seemed to suit him. I don't know about the Lingfield final on Good Friday. We will just have to see what happens."

Back in North America:

The Road to the Roses

McKinzie, a Street Sense colt trained by Bob Baffert, headlines a field of seven set to go 1 mile in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. The colt is 2-for-2, winning at first asking at Santa Anita, then jumping right up to win by Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity Dec. 9. Will we be talking about him come Derby time? Travers time? Baffert also saddles Mourinho, a Super Saver colt who finished second in the Grade III Bob Hope at Del Mar. City Plan, also by Street Sense, exits a victory in the Gold Rush Stakes on the all-weather surface at Golden Gate Fields. Eoin Harty trains the Godolphin-owned colt. The Desormeaux brothers have had My Boy Jack on the turf but, after a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, the Creative Cause colt gives the main track a whirl -- sometimes a good angle.

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Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes at Gulfstream Park drew Bal Harbour, the winning of last month's Smooth Air Stakes over the same track and September's Sapling at Monmouth. Todd Pletcher trains the First Samurai colt. Whereshetoldmetogo returns after running second in the Smooth Air. Trainer Dale Romans, still looking for that Kentucky Derby winner, fields Dak Attack. The Ghostzapper colt is 2-for-2 with a win last time out in the Ellis Park Juvenile. Several others return from the Smooth Air including Coltandmississippi. We'd like to see that one win to hear Pletcher explain the name.

Oaks preps

Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita, 7 furlongs, attracted 10. Win the War was 2-for-2 at Woodbine before escaping winter. Artistic Diva and Steph Being Steph, the 1-2 finishers in the Anokia Stakes over the course on Oct 22, will renew their acquaintance. Yesterday's News finished second in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos. Midnight Bisou was runner-up in the Dezi Arnez at Del Mar.

Turf

Itsinthepost, a multiple graded stakes winner, returns in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Gabriel at Santa Anita for the first time since finishing an honorable seventh in the Breeders Cup Turf. Isotherm won the Grade II San Marcos two starts back over the course and the same 10-furlongs distance. He Will was second, a nose behind Hunt, in the Grade II Seabiscuit at Del Mar in his last start. Free Rose was fairly fearsome in 2016 but made only one start last year, finishing fourth in the Grade I Shoemaker Mile in June. Carla Gaines tries more distance in an effort to get Smokey Image back into the winner's circle. None of the 10 has shown consistent talent and none is younger than age 5.

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Eight are entered for Saturday's $100,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, a 7 1/2-furlongs run over the green course. Speed Franco is 2-for-2 with his last effort resulting in a 6-lengths win Pulpit stakes at 1 mile on the same surface. Flameaway won the off-the-turf Grade III Dixiana Bourbon at Keeneland before finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Trainer Todd Pletcher has two -- Pony Up, who was second in the Pulpit, and Mojovation, looking to improve over his first four starts, all on the dirt.

Filly & Mare Turf

Ten 3-year-old fillies will contest Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew at Gulfstream Park, 7 1/2 furlongs on the lawn. There are no monsters in the cast although it's worth noting Malibu Saint won her last start, the 1-mile Wait a While Stakes, over the course. Otherwise, there are some maiden winners, some locals and some snowbirds, all providing some wagering opportunities.

Turf Sprint

Saturday's $50,000 Pan Zaretta Stakes for fillies and mares at Fair Grounds proved more than popular with a full field and four also-eligibles elbowing for room in the starting gate for the 5 1/2-furlongs sprint. Rapid Rhythm and Contributing are the lukewarm morning-line favorites is a field that actually is wide open.

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In Eclipse Award news:

Frank Stronach will receive the Eclipse Award of Merit at the awards dinner Jan. 25 at his own Gulfstream Park for his many contributions to racing.

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