Was this year's Kentucky Derby winner in action this weekend? Possibly, as the racing schedule was filled with potential for the U.S. Triple Crown, Breeders' Cup and the Hong Kong Triple Crown.
Top-shelf grass racing was on tap in the parts of North America not buried in snow or immobilized by bitter cold.
It was relatively warm, for example, in California and Florida, where we start with:
The Road to the Roses
McKinzie looked every bit the Triple Crown contender in Saturday's $1000 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita -- although it didn't appear he had to flash his best form to get the job done. With Mike Smith aboard, the Street Sense colt waited patiently behind the relatively modest pace, came out to find clear sailing entering the stretch and carried on, winning by 3 1/2 lengths, buttoned up in the final yards. All Out Blitz made the early going and held on for second, 4 lengths ahead of My Boy Jack. McKinzie finished in 1:36.58.
McKinzie won at first asking at Santa Anita Oct. 28 and followed that with a victory in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity thanks to a disqualification after finishing second. He now is officially 3-for-3. He earned 10 points toward a Kentucky Derby start.
"He came back to run like we hoped," said winning trainer Bob Baffert of McKinzie. "I was happy. Everything went smooth. That's what you want. I don't have to work him that much before the next one." Baffert said he may point the colt to the $400,000 Grade II San Felipe March 10 as he prepares him for Churchill Downs. "We'll try and get two (races) into him. I think he showed more maturity today," the trainer added.
Across the continent at Gulfstream Park in Florida, Mask blasted out to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Mucho Macho Man Stakes and never looked back, drawing clear in the stretch to win by 6 1/4 lengths. Well-regarded rivals Bal Harbour and Dak Attack finished second and third. Mask, a Tapit colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.65 with Javier Castellano up for trainer Chad Brown. It was only his second start and followed an off-the-pace score at Belmont Park Oct. 20.
Brown said he was surprised to see Mask on the lead "but not disappointed. I was hoping he'd break well and when I saw that first fraction I knew he'd be pretty tough to beat at that point because he's been training with really good horses in the morning and he's been galloping out particularly strong in his works. The only thing left to see midway through the race was, was the layoff going to hit him the last eighth or not and it didn't. He just widened."
If he progresses down the Triple Crown trail -- and Brown said he seems "firmly on that path -- Mask will join his stablemate, Good Magic, winner of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and a candidate for the Eclipse Award as 2017's best 2-year-old.
Midnight Bisou stalked the pace into the stretch in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Ynez at Santa Anita, surged to the lead and shook free, winning by 4 1/2 lengths. Steph Being Steph led briefly and barely held on for second, a nose in front of the favorite, Win the War. Midnight Bisou, a Midnight Lute filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.40 with Mike Smith up. The Bill Spawr trainee finished second in her only two previous starts, including the Grade III Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar.
"She wants to route, no question," Spawr said. "Being around her, the way she acts, her temperament, she'll relish a route." That quality could come in handy as Midnight Bisou collected 10 points toward a potential start in the Kentucky Oaks by virtue of the win. She now is No. 8 on the list.
On the international front:
Legal Eagle and Oh Susanna starred Saturday at Kenilworth Racecourse in Cape Town South Africa. Legal Eagle, twice the South African Horse of the Year, took the Group 1 L'Ormarins Queen's Plate for the third straight year, securing a fees-paid spot in the Breeders' Cup Mile through the international Challenge. Oh Susanna qualified for a spot in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf with a win in the Group 1 Cartier Paddock Stakes.
Legal Eagle, a 6-year-old gelding by Greys Inn, scored his 12th win from 21 lifetime starts and showed true grit in achieving it. Still well back with 2 furlongs to run, the 6-year-old Greys Inn gelding edged past Captain America late and then held off long shot Copper Force. Sail South and Marinaresco were fourth and fifth with no more than 1 length covering the five of them.
Legal Eagle, now a perfect 8-for-8 at the one-mile distance, came into the Queen's Plate off a half-length victory in the 7-furlong Green Point Stakes at Kenilworth on Dec. 12. Sean Tarry trains the venerable gelding for a new ownership team.
One race before the Queen's Plate, the 3-year-old filly Oh Susanna surged to the lead in the late going in the Paddock Stakes and held off Lady In Black for the win. It was her first victory since breaking her maiden last April but the Street Cry filly entered Saturday's race off a good second-place finish in the Group 1 World Sports Betting Fillies Guineas.
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.
Sunday's program at Sha Tin was all about turning up contenders for the forthcoming Hong Kong Classic Mile, the first leg of the Triple Crown for 4-year-olds, and trainer John Size looked like finding one in Time to Celebrate. Size already has the early favorite for the Classic Mile in Nothingilikemore. But with Time to Celebrate validating his favorite status in the Class 2 Violet Handicap under Joao Moreiria, he landed another -- although perhaps not with too much enthusiasm. "We just have to take him towards the other races and see if he's good enough to get some prize money," the trainer said. "His rating suggests he hasn't got a winning shot but he can earn some money for the owner."
Size also saddled Ping Hai Star to a last-to-first win in the Class 3 Orchid Handicap. But he indicated that one is more suited to sprinting an likely will not be stretched out to the mile.
Trainer Frankie Lor sent out Morethanlucky to his fourth win of the season and that one, too, became a Classic Mile contender. "I think he can step up to 1,800 meters and even 2,000 meters, especially against 4-year-olds when anything can happen," Lor said. "But the Classic Mile looks a good race for him. As long as his form holds, he will probably run." Entries for the Hong Kong Classic Mile close Monday.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Itsinthepost rallied from a pace-stalking trip to lead an all-French-bred exacta finish in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Gabriel at Santa Anita. Racing for the first time since finishing a good seventh in the Breeders' Cup Turf, the 6-year-old American Post gelding surged to the lead in the lane and prevailed by 1 1/4 lengths over Flamboyant, who rallied from last of 10. Editore was third and Smokey Image, after leading much of the way, finished fourth. Itsinthepost finished 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:47.59 with Tyler Baze in the irons.
"I think he's definitely better at a mile and a quarter or further," said winning trainer Jeff Mullins. "But as well as he's been doing, he's been really, really fresh, and I knew if he got the trip he' d be okay and he got that trip." About Itsinthepost's immediate future, Mullins said, "We've had a few options thrown at us we're just not sure what we'll do yet."
Flameaway was under pressure all the way in Saturday's $100,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park but turned back all contenders and held on to win by a neck over long shot Pony Up. Renaissance Frolic was third. Flameaway, a Scat Daddy colt, ran 7 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:29.78 with Julien Leparoux in the irons. The colt came to the race after winning the off-the-turf Grade III Dixiana Bourbon at Keeneland and finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf in his first actual start on the stuff he can eat.
"He's a cool horse, said Norman Casse, son and assistant to winning trainer Mark Casse about Flameaway. "He's a got a wealth of talent. I don't know if he's figured it all out yet. I think he got a little lost at the top of the stretch. It looked like those horses were going to run by him, but as soon as they put their heads in front he picked up the bridle again and ran on ... We're looking forward to the future with him."
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Brew at Gulfstream Park, 7 1/2 furlongs on the lawn, for 3-year-old fillies was every bit the scramble it was expected to be. Thewayiam saved ground on the middle of the pack all the way into the stretch, came off the rail and found a seam to get to a 1-length win over Closer Still. Andina Del Sur was third. Thewayiam, a French-bred daughter of Thewayyouare, got home in 1:30.19 with Jose Ortiz at the controls. It was her third win from six starts but followed an 11th-place showing in the Grade III Jimmy Durante at Del Mar in November.
"My trip was perfect. I just followed instructions," Ortiz said. "I dropped in to the rail and tried to get her to relax and she did very well. When I asked her to go, she picked it up and is all heart. She split horses like it was nothing and gave me a great kick in the end."
Triple Chelsea raced closely behind the leaders in Saturday's $50,000 Pan Zaretta Stakes for fillies and mares at Fair Grounds, worked out of traffic with a furlong to run and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Contributing. One Last Shot was another 1/2 length back in third. Triple Chelsea, a 5-year-old Hat Trick mare, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:04.19 with Adam Beschizza in the irons. She got the new year off to a good start after going winless in seven starts in 2017.
Around the ovals:
Piven stalked the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Limehouse Stakes for 3-year-olds, took command in the stretch and won by 4 lengths from Aequor. Empire Power was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third. Piven, a Florida-bred colt by Prospective, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.47 with Jose Ortiz riding.
Cicatrix took the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Glitter Woman Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then held off Morning Destiny in the final yards to win by a neck. Foxtrot Sally was third, another 2 1/2 lengths in arrears. Cicatrix, a Kentucky-bred Violence filly, reported in 1:12.20 with Julien Leparoux in the irons.
Shining Source rallied boldly from last of seven to take Sunday's $85,000 Albert Dominguez Memorial for New Mexico-breds by 1 3/4 lengths over Thunder Dome. He's Another Who was third. Shining Source, a 7-year-old Source gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.35 with Luis Contreras up.
Paddy O'Lionel was last away from the gate in Saturday's $65,000 B-Connected Stakes for Louisiana-breds but closed late with a four-wide rally to win by a nose over Social Misfit. The favorite, Harbor Pilot, held a brief lead and finished third. Paddy O'Lionel, a 4-year-old Paddy O'Prado gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.98 with Gerardo Mora in the irons.
In Eclipse Award news:
There were no particular surprises in the announcement of finalists for the 2017 Eclipse Awards. Gun Runner remains a shoo-in for Horse of the Year.