Firenze Fire and Instilled Regard moved forward on the Kentucky Derby trail during the weekend while Oaklawn Park opens its rich Derby series on the Monday holiday.
Oaklawn, Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita all had important weekend stakes with implications for the remaining 11 1/2 months of 2018.
There were stirrings in England, Ireland and the UAE. In Australia, the Magic Millions sales went gangbusters and so did the attendant races.
The Road to the Roses
His training was disrupted by the nasty winter weather and the race was delayed two weeks for the same reason but Firenze Fire nonetheless rallied from last of six to win Saturday's $150,000 Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct by 1/2 length, catching pacesetter Seven Trumpets in the final jumps. Coltandmississippi finished 5 1/4 lengths farther back in third in the first race of the Big A's series leading to the Grade I Wood Memorial.
Firenze Fire, a Florida-bred Poseidon's Warrior colt, ran 1 mile on a muddy track in an undistinguished 1:42.88 with Manny Franco up for trainer Jason Servis. Given the weather and track conditions, it was not a day for fast times although state-bred claimers got the same distance earlier in the card in 1:40.88. Winning at the same distance over a fast Belmont Park strip in the Grade I Champagne in October, Firenze Fire was timed in 1:35.91.
"The track is not good for the way my horse runs," Franco said. "It's a little bit deeper, which is why I almost didn't make it in time."
The Jerome victory earned 10 points toward a potential Kentucky Derby start. Combined with his earnings in the Champagne, Fireze Fire now now has 20, second only to Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic. Servis said the next target on the Road to the Roses might be the $250,000 Grade III Withers at Aqueduct Feb. 3. "But I'll have to talk to the owners."
Way down yonder in New Orleans, Fair Grounds kicked off its Derby prep series with Saturday's $200,000 Grade III LeComte. California invader Instilled Regard, with Javier Castellano up, tracked the pace, took over the lead at the top of the stretch under strong handling, then was hand-ridden to the line a 3 3/4-lengths winner. Steve Asmussen saddled the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers, Principe Guilherme, Snapper Sinclair and Zing Zang.
Instilled Regard, an Arch colt, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:42.59 and earned 10 Kentucky Derby points. He now has 14, putting him in a three-way tie for fourth place. The other 4 came from a second-place finish in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity in his previous start.
"I didn't want to dictate the pace," Castellano said. "It was only his third time going two turns. He put himself in good track position. I could've gone to the whip but I didn't want people chasing me. I wanted to save it for the finish. He's a great horse and he's got a great mind and I like the way that he conducted himself."
"The best thing about him other than his raw talent is that nothing bothers him," added winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "He ships well and settles in wherever he goes."
The holiday weekend's trio of Derby preps continues Monday at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas with the $150,000 Smarty Jones. Mourinho, a West Coast raider trained by Bob Baffert, is the narrow morning-line pick over Fair Grounds-based Combatant and Florida-trained Navistar in a field of seven.
Stronger Than Ever hooked up in a stretch duel with the favorite, Wonder Gadot, in Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds and prevailed by a neck at odds of 33-1. It was another 4 1/2 lengths back to Missive in third. Blond Bomber was fourth. Stronger Than Ever, a Congrats filly trained by Kenny McPeek, finished 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:44.28 with Florent Geroux in the irons.
Stronger Than Ever won her first two races, then finished seventh in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. She rebounded from that to run third in the Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park Dec. 17. The Silverbulletday win earned her 10 points toward a potential start in the Kentucky Oaks.
"She did everything like she was supposed to do," said McPeek assistant Greg Geier. "Hopefully we can go from here. I thought she would run well especially with the pace that was in the race and we just let them sit there and wait and make one big run. She ran a good race at Remington, she stuck wide out there and got a little tired but she did fine today."
The first stakes race of the Oaklawn Park season was a doozy as the first three finishers in Friday's $125,000 Fifth Season were all 25-1 or more long shots. Sonneteer, under C.J. McMahon, rallied boldy to win by 3/4 lengths over Futile with Far Right the same margin farther back in third. Sonneteer, a 4-year-old Calumet Farm homebred colt by Midnight Lute, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.40. The 50-cent trifecta returned $3,337.40 with the favorite, Dazzling Gem, reporting fifth.
Sonneteer finished second in last year's Grade II Rebel and fourth in the Grade I Arkansas Derby. Friday's win, however, was only his second from 18 starts. McMahon said trainer Keith Desormeaux told him "to just let him break and let him do his thing, you know, let him be a horse. That's what I did."
Cedartown moved from a pace-stalking position to take the lead in the lane in Saturday's $75,000 Louisiana Stakes at Fair Grounds and drew off to win by 2 lengths over Scuba. Hawaakom was third and the odds-on favorite, The Player, faded to finish fourth. Cedartown, a 4-year-old Candy Ride colt, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.18 with Joe Bravo in the irons. Michael Stidham trains the winner for Godolphin Racing. He now has four wins and three seconds while touring the country from Delaware Park to Keeneland, out to Zia Park in New Mexico and back to the bayous.
"He has just gotten really consistent where he has never been worse than second in his life," Stidham said of Cedartown. "He keeps stepping up every time we raise the bar. We're lucky to have him." He said he would "love to win" the $400,000 Grade II New Orleans Handicap March 24. "So that's what we'll try to do."
Mopotism stuck her head in front of pacesetting Mended at the wire in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II La Canada Stakes at Santa Anita. Mended held second, just another head in front of the late-running German-bred La Force. The favorite, Majestic Heat, finished fifth. Mopotism, a 4-year-old Uncle Mo filly, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.29 with Mario Gutierrez up. An infrequent winner, Mopotism was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last November at Del Mar, then third in the Grade I La Brea in her last start before Saturday's heat. "This is a good filly," said Leandro Mora, assistant to winning trainer Doug O'Neill. "She's always been a good filly and we know she can run with any Grade I horses. She needs to learn how to win and today should be big step in the right direction. She is more than capable of doing this."
Farrell was quickly out front in Saturday's $125,000 Pippin Stakes for fillies and mares at Oaklawn Park, lengthened the lead early in the stretch run and held off Ever So Clever at the end by 3/4 length. Streamline was third and the favorite, Terra Promessa, faded to finish fifth in her first start since last July. Farrell, a 4-year-old Malibu Moon filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.41 under Channing Hill. Farrell swept last year's Fair Ground series for 3-year-old fillies but then was 14th in the Kentucky Oaks. She rebounded to win the Grade II Chilukki Stakes at Churchill Downs in November and had been idle since. "She stepped up today," said winning trainer Wayne Catalano. "This was a solid field. The goal is the Apple Blossom. We're trying to win a Grade 1 with her. That's why we're running her here today. The Apple Blossom -- a Grade 1 -- that's what we're here for." Terra Promessa won last year's Pippin but finished second behind Stellar Wind in the Apple Blossom.
Shining Copper was on the lead but under pressure all the way in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Fort Lauderdale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, was headed by 30-1 long shot One Go All Go late in the stretch run but came back to win by a head. All Included finished third and the odds-on favorite, Heart to Heart, reported next-last of eight after a poor start. Shining Copper, an 8-year-old Aragorn gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on good turf in 1:43.44 with Jose Ortiz up.
Owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and trained by Mike Maker, Shining Copper now has won four of his last five starts, most recently the Grade III River City Handicap at Churchill Downs in November. "You don't get that old without having a heart and trying hard," trainer Mike Maker said. "He's just a tough old dude. He loves to run. He's an unbelievably smart horse."
The Fort Lauderdale was a prep for Shining Copper's visit to Barbados for the Sandy Lane Gold Cup March 3 -- always a target for the Ramseys and Maker. "He'll be pretty tough to handle," the trainer said. "They have very tight turns and you need to be forwardly placed and he fits the bill."
Tower of Texas got to the lead inside the sixteenth pole in Saturday's $75,000 Colonel E.R. Bradley Handicap at Fair Grounds and kept rolling to a 1 1/2-lengths victory over Galton. Saham was third and the favorite, Monster Bea, beat only one rival. Tower of Texas, a 7-year-old Street Sense gelding, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.62 with Florent Geroux riding. After a summer in Canada, he shipped to Gulfstream Park to finish third in the Grade III Tropical Turf Dec. 16 before making his first Fair Grounds raid.
Tower of Texas' owner, Scott Dilworth, said trainer Roger Attfield suggested the trip. "When he said come to New Orleans and Fair Grounds, you got good food, good horse racing ... What else can I say?" Dilworth said. "He's been so good to us," he said of Tower of Texas. "We've been so blessed with him and as long as he's enjoying running, we'll be there for the ride."
Filly & Mare Turf
Ultra Brat waited just behind the early leader in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park, sailed by and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths. The favorite, Dream Dancing, and King's Ghost rallied to finish second and third. Ultra Brat, a 5-year-old Uncle Mo mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on turf rated good in 1:45.35 with Nik Juarez in the irons.
It was the first graded stakes win for Ultra Brat and owner and breeder Alex Campbell Jr. said he was "thrilled with the race ... She's coming on late but we're hoping she's going to be a good filly. We'll race her the whole year."
Mom's On Strike and Giada Vegas both took the outside route around the leaders in Saturday's $75,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial on the Fair Grounds greensward and finished 1-2, separated by 1/2 length. Inveniam Viam came from even farther back in the nine-horse field to get show money. Mom's On Strike, a 5-year-old First Dude mare, got the 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:43.72 under Adam Beschizza. She now has three straight wins for trainer Joe Sharp. It was her first stakes win -- a circumstance that prompted Sharp to label her a "hard luck" mare in previous starts.
Plein Air, making her first U.S. start, led the whole 1 1/2 miles of Sunday's $100,000 Astra Stakes at Santa Anita and held gamely in the final yards to win by 3/4 length over Evo Campo. Lucy De was another 1 3/4 lengths back in third while the favorite, How Unusual, was seventh in a dull effort. Plein Air, a 5-year-old Irish-bred mare by Manduro, finished in 2:27.34 with Tyler Baze riding. She raced in Italy before arriving in California, where Bob Baffert assumed training duties. The previous high point of her career was a fourth-place finish in the Group 1 Premio Lydia Tesio in Rome in 2016.
Another Plein Air, a 4-year-old Lonhro filly, is in training in Florida. She also is a two-turn turf runner. Stay tuned.
The action in this division continues Monday at Santa Anita with the $100,000 Grade III Megahertz Stakes. Insta Erma, Thundering Sky and Madame Stripes piqued the oddsmaker's interest.
Yockey's Warrior eased away from four rivals in the stretch run of Saturday's $75,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes at Fair Grounds, winning by 2 1/4 lengths. Chublicious was best of the rest, 3 lengths to the good of Blue Wings. Yockey's Warrior, a 6-year-old son of Warrior's Reward, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.43 with Miguel Mena up. It was his third straight win and sixth from his last seven starts. He finished eighth in the Grade III Commonwealth Stakes at Keeneland in the middle of that string. "He was so much the best," Mena said. "He's the best he's ever been. He pulled up like it was a workout."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Selcourt showed her heels to seven rivals in the stretch run of Sunday's $100,000 Kalookan Queen Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita. After leading most of the way, the 4-year-old Tiz Wonderful filly responded when asked by jockey Tyler Baze and won off by 7 1/2 lengths. Cuddle Alert was second and Cuyathy finished third. Selcourt got 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.88. She was returning from an eight-months absence and now has two wins, a second and a third from just four career starts. John Sadler trains.
Over the waves:
The All-Weather Championships continue to attract first-tier horses as Frontiersman, runner up to Highland Reel in last year's Group 1 Coronation Cup, headlines a field of 11 for the Fast-Track Qualifier Monday at Wolverhampton. The winner of the 2-miles contest over Tapeta gets a free and guaranteed spot in the Betway All-Weather Marathon on Finals Day, March 30, at Lingfield. Frontiersman, a 5-year-old, is trained by Charlie Appleby for Godolphin. "We always wanted to try him over this trip," Appleby said, "and we might as well have a go on the All-Weather as they tend to go a bit steadier, which will give him every chance of staying ... If he wins, it opens up a couple of options over the winter, including going out to Dubai or keeping him here for Finals Day." The field also includes De Coronado, a full brother to Zenyatta, and French invader Funny Kid.
Speaking of the All-Weather Championships, 9-year-old Captain Joy earned a spot in the Sun Bets All-Weather Mile Championship on Finals Day with a victory Friday at Dundalk. Under Pat Smullen, the almost-white veteran moved by the pacesetter entering the straight and ran on well to win by 3/4 length from Beach Bar with Geological third. Trainer Tracey Collins said Captain Joy is ripe for a try to repeat as winner in the finals. "We gave him one run before and we were hoping we wouldn't have to give him another run to qualify for Lingfield," Collins said. "He has now won three Fast-Track Qualifiers during his career and not many horses do that."
Normally, the winner of Saturday's Hong Kong Shipowners Association 60th Anniversasry Cup Handicap at Sha Tin would be celebrated locally and little noted outside the SAR. Maybe not this time as trainer Chris So said he hopes to take the victor of that race, Classic Emperor, on to the $10 million Dubai World Cup on March 31 at Meydan. "The World Cup is really strong. It is world class," So said. "But I hope we can get in, although we would have to do a lot of things before that to even qualify. Even if not, there are plenty of races for him at a mile that will hopefully be suitable, and not just on the main night itself."
Even with the Magic Millions sale setting records, the attendant races refused to take a back seat.
Sunlight, with Luke Currie up for trainer Tony McEvoy, tracked the pacesetter in Saturday's Aus$1.94 million Magic Millions 2-year-old Classic, then went by to win by a handy 2 lengths over Fullazaboot. Outback Barbie was a close third. Sunlight, a bay filly by Zoustar, went to the post as the favorite while Fullazaboot went off at odds of just more than 100-1 in the 1,200-meters event. Sunlight now has three straight wins, all at Gold Coast. McEvoy confirmed his filly will point to the Golden Slipper Stakes in Sydney in March.
A race earlier on the Gold Coast card, Pierata was in front and 1 1/2 lengths clear of Goodfella at the finish of the Aus$1.94 million Magic Millions 3-year-old Guineas with Calculated third. Pieratta, a Pierro colt, finished the 1,400 meters in 1:21.02 with Corey Brown producing the Gregory Hickman trainee in the late going from off the pace. Pierata has three wins from four starts this season.
Back in North America and around the ovals:
English Soul led from gate to wire in Sunday's $100,000 East View Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-old fillies, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over Midnight Disguise. It was another 5 lengths back to Cryinthemoonlight in third. English Soul, an English Channel filly out of the Belong to Me mare Soul Possession, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:42.32 with Manny Franco in the irons. Trainer Ray Handal said English Soul can run on any surface but has "a lot more options on the dirt, and we can kind of pick out more places with her as well. For now, I think we'll keep her on the dirt and maybe try her against open company."
My Boy Tate wasted little time getting to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Say Florida Sandy Stakes for New York-breds and carried on to win by 3 lengths over Gold for the King. Celtic Chaos rallied from last of eight to earn show money. My Boy Tate, a 4-year-old Boys At Tosconova gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:27.14 with Dylan Davis up. Trainer Michelle Nevin said My Boy Tate might get a swing against open company. "Why not? We'll see," Nevin said.
Inside Straight prompted the pace in Saturday's $75,000 Cotton Fitzsimmons Mile, dueled to the lead in the lane and prevailed by a head over a late bid from High Security. Way Striking, the early leader, salvaged third. Inside Straight, a 5-year-old Super Saver gelding, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.63 with Glenn Corbett up.
Reride held on to win Saturday night's $60,000 Big Drama Stakes for 3-year-olds by a nose over Double Star in a drama-filled stretch run that found the latter demoted to third behind Bobby's Wicked One because of stretch interference. Reride, a Candy Ride colt, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:26.69 with Diego Saenz up.
Medal of Courage stalked the pace in Saturday night's $50,000 Fremont Stakes, dueled with Forerun in the stretch and finally put that one away, winning by 1 3/4 lengths. Wonder Run was third. Medal of Courage, a 6-year-old Warrior's Reward gelding, ran 5 furlongs on a fast track in 57.98 seconds under Timothy Thornton.
Testing One Two split rivals a furlong out in Friday night's $60,000 Take Charge Brandi Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and kicked away to a 4-lengths victory. Upset Brewing was up for second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Laudation. Testing One Two, a Star Guitar filly out of the Scat Daddy mare Yes Sir, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:27.08 while toting Saenz. It was her third straight win and followed a 16 1/2-lengths victory in the Louisiana Legacy.
Summer House waited behind the speed in Friday night's $50,000 El Dorado Stakes for fillies and mares, took over when the leader tired and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Lucky Loretta. Giagiajoe was third. Kathballu was a late scratch. Summer House, a 6-year-old Tiznow mare, got 5 furlongs on a fast track in 59.12 seconds with Thornton riding.
Sky Defence tracked the pace in Sunday's $65,000 Winsham Lad Handicap, took the lead on the stretch turn and went on to win by 3 3/4 lengths over L.A. Tower. Forest Mouse was 4 lengths farther back in third. Sky Defence, a 5-year-old First Defence gelding out of the Sky Classic mare Skyladysky, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.31 with Ken Tohill in the irons.
News and Notes
Yavapai Downs in Prescott Valley, Ariz., has a new owner -- a group led by Phoenix-based JACOR Partners and including Kentucky Downs President Corey Johnsen -- and a new lease on life. The group announced Friday it purchased the property out of bankruptcy and plans to return live racing to the facility. The track has been dark since 2010.
"This track is a real gem," said JACOR principal Tom Auther. "Yavapai Downs is a great structure that will be a fun place to offer summertime horse racing in Arizona with all the amenities, attractions and great summer temperatures associated with Prescott."