Things get serious on the Kentucky Derby front this weekend with significant prep races in New York, Florida and California.
The Oaks crowd also has some important steppingstones in the same locations.
Oaklawn Park and Santa Anita have big-deal sprint stakes with trips to Dubai hanging in the balance. Santa Anita also has the Grade II San Pasqual for some nice older horses who were not at Gulfstream Park on Pegasus weekend.
A relatively quiet weekend on the international scene still finds two Fast-Track Qualifiers on the All-Weather Championship schedule Saturday at Lingfield Park in England. And for those who missed it in the frenzy of Pegasus, ace Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien has entered six horses, including some of Ballydoyle's stars, for the upcoming Winter Derby -- a major franking of the importance of the AWC.
In Dubai, Godolphin had a really good time of it in Thursday night's fourth World Cup Carnival meeting at Meydan.
Moving right along:
The Road to the Roses
The top race of the weekend for Derby contenders is Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. Among the 10 are Enticed and Tiz Mischief, the first two home in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club last fall at Churchill Downs; Free Drop Billy, winner of the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland before a flop in the Breeders' Cup; and a bunch of late bloomers including Pony Up, Mississippi, Audible and Master Manipulator.
Enticed, a Medaglia d'Oro colt, is 2-for-3 for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin and owner-breeder Godolphin. He was third behind Firenze Fire and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic in the Grade I Champagne in his other start. Free Drop Billy finished second in both the Grade III Sanford and Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga before winning the Breeders' Futurity. The Union Rags colt is trained by Dale Romans, whose trophy case still has an open spot for a Kentucky Derby prize.
Romans also handles Tiz Mischief, who just missed with a late run in the Kentucky Jockey Club, and Hollywood Star, who finished second in both the Grade II Saratoga Special and the Grade III Iroquois at Churchill Downs before a bad start from the outside post compromised his chances in the Breeders' Cup.
Enticed and Free Drop Billy drew the No. 1 and No. 2 gates for the Holy Bull and neither has shown a lot of early speed so the tactics will be interesting. Joel Rosario rides Enticed while Luis Saez has the mount on Free Drop Billy.
In New York, Champagne winner Firenze Fire and Nashua winner Avery Island headline Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Withers at Aqueduct. Avery Island, a Street Sense colt trained by McLaughlin for Godolphin, followed the Nashua triumph with a second-place showing behind Catholic Boy in the Grade II Remsen Dec. 2 and has not raced since. Firenze Fire, a Poseidon's Warrior colt under the tutelage of Jason Servis, followed the victory in the Grade I Champagne with a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but returned to New York to win the Jerome Stakes at Aqueduct Jan. 13.
The Withers field also includes a trio trained byTodd Pletcher: Bal Harbour, up from Florida where he most recently was second in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park; Coltandmississippi, who was third in the Jerome; and maiden winner Marconi, owned in part by the Coolmore partners from Ireland. California Knight rounds out the half dozen entries.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Swale at Gulfstream Park is 7 furlongs with six starters. It's a bit short for Derby candidates at this time of year and normally is a grab bag of 3-year-olds starting late or looking to overcome earlier setbacks. In the former category we find Strike Power, a Speightstown colt trained by Mark Hennig who won at first asking at Gulfstream Dec. 23 with an eye-opening Beyer Speed Figure of 102. That was 5 1/2 furlongs so there's a long way to go. Firmly in the 'earlier mishaps' category is Gotta Go, who won two straight races at Churchill Downs last fall before enduring a terrible trip in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club, eventually beating only one rival. Ian Wilkes trains the gray Shanghai Bobby colt.
The Swale field also includes sprint stakes winners Diamond King, Tricks to Doo and Piven.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita didn't attract any of the big guns rolling down the Derby trail but it's worth watching to see if something pops up. Four of the nine are recent maiden winners. Among the more experienced, Inscom, a Distorted Humor colt, finished second in the Eddie Logan Stakes in his last start but that was on the grass. Among the early disappointments looking for redemption is Regulate, a Juddmonte Farms homebred son of Quality Road who is 0-for-3 for trainer Bob Baffert.
Churchill Downs announced Thursday 360 3-year-olds are early nominees to this year's Triple Crown. The list is headed by last year's 2-year-old champion, Good Magic, and includes 19 based outside North America. Among the latter are 13 from Europe and three each from Japan and Dubai.
The Road to the Oaks
Eight signed on for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park and five of them are last-race winners. Miss Mo Mentum, an Uncle Mo filly trained by Mark Casse, has back-to-back winners and skipped over the slop to an 8 1/2-lengths victory in the Hut Hut Stakes over the course Dec. 9 in her most recent start. Take Charge Paula, a daughter of Take Charge Indy, won the House Party Stakes on that same Dec. 9 card while fighting for the lead all the way.
Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita will sort out some West Coast contenders among the 3-year-old filly crop.
Trainer Doug O'Neil's new venture in Arkansas is doing well and Guns Loaded, already a winner at the Oaklawn meeting, will try to repeat in Saturday's $125,000 King Cotton Stakes against what amounts to a reunion of former winners of the event. The 7-year-old gelding raced at Oaklawn in 2014 but thereafter was a denizen of California. He won his first start back Jan. 20. The competition is hot, including Ivan Fallunovalot, who won the King Cotton in 2015 and 2016; Recount, an Illinois-bred who was second in last year's edition; and Apprehender, who won the King Cotton way back yonder in 2014. St. Joe Bay, another California import and multiple graded stakes winner from the barn of Peter Miller, could be eyeing a repeat trip to Dubai, where he finished fourth in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen last season.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Palos Verdes at Santa Anita drew only five but two of them are Breeders' Cup winners and one of those likely is headed to Dubai. Roy H makes his first start since winning the 2017 Breeders' Cup Sprint and the Eclipse Award as the year's top U.S. sprinter. Brian Trump, racing manager for the owner, Rockingham Ranch, said a good showing at Santa Anita might put the 6-year-old More Than Ready gelding on a plane for the Golden Shaheen on World Cup night, where he could face stablemate X Y Jet, who was second in that race last March.
The other four in the Palos Verdes are outclassed on paper. Mongolian Saturday, winner of the 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, has never replicated that form but will try to get things back on track with the ever-popular turf-to-dirt angle. Bobby Abu Dhabi, Americanize and Red Lightning complete the field.
A talented bunch is set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual at Santa Anita, including two-time Dubai World Cup runner Mubtaahij and two who finished ahead of him in the Grade III Native Diver in November, Prime Attraction and Irish Freedom. Accelerate and Pavel also add spice to the field of nine, going 9 furlongs on the main track.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Dania Beach for 3-year-olds at Gulfsream Park features Untamed Domain, making his first appearance since finishing second, beaten just 1 length after a terrible start, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Del Mar. The Animal Kingdom colt came into that race off a victory in the Grade II Summer Stakes at Woodbine and could be on his way to a nice career for trainer Graham Motion. Speaking of nice careers, there's a Frankel colt in here, too. Gidu, an Irish-bred colt, finished second in his career opener at Saratoga last summer, then won by 3 1/2 lengths, ridden out, when he returned to action at Gulfstream in December. Todd Pletcher trains this one. Speed Franco, Renaisance Frolic and Cuestion de Tiempo also have shown promise.
Five of the first six finishers from last month's Grade II San Gabriel -- Itsinthepost, Flamboyant, Editore, Isotherm and Free Rose -- face off again in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos at Santa Anita. This time, they add a furlong, going 1 1/4 miles over the same grass. Itsinthepost and Flamboyant have been the most consistent in terms of in-the-money finishes. Isotherm makes his second start off a long layoff and could improve.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park features 3-year-old fillies last seen at such disparate sites as Del Mar, Churchill Downs, Woodbine, Fair Grounds and Le Bouscat in France. All have shown talent but on the basis of recent form and a win over the course in the Ginger Brew Stakes in her last outing, French-bred Thewayiam merits a close look. She did draw the rail, however.
United Arab Emirates
The Dubai World Cup Carnival's fourth meeting on Thursday night at Meydan featured the Group 2 Al Rashidiya sponsored by Jebel Ali Port at 1,800 meters and the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort sponsored by DP World at 1,400 meters -- both on the turf and both won by Godolphin runners.
In the Al Rashidiya, Benbatl did Godolphin and trainer Saeed bin Suroor proud, drawing clear in the final 200 meters to win by 3 3/4 lengths. The 4-year-old Dubawi colt raced in mid-pack until rider Oisin Murphy produced him turning for home and quickly put the issue to rest. Bay of Poets and Bravo Zolo made it a 1-2-3 finish for Godolphin. The disappointment was the Mike de Kock-trained Al Sahem, a star in South Africa. The 4-year-old Silvano colt led into the lane but then faded to finish last of seven. He was making his first start in more than a year after enduring the onerous quarantine requirements imposed on South African exports. More can be expected.
"He is a horse we have always really liked and he has won this well tonight, following up his course and distance win in the Singspiel Stakes on the first night of the carnival," bin Suroor said of Benbatl. "Obviously we will have to talk to His Highness Sheikh Mohammed, but the Group 1 Jebel Hatta on Super Saturday and then hopefully the (Group 1) Dubai Turf on World Cup night, both over this course and distance, would be the obvious targets."
Jungle Cat stalked the pace set by another former South African, Janoobi, in the Al Fahidi Fort, ran by that one at mid-stretch but then had to continue under pressure from a stubbon Janoobi before winning by 3/4 length. Godolphin's Dream Castle and D'Bai finished third and fourth with yet another South African, Noah From Goa, in fifth. Jungle Cat, a 6-year-old Iffraaj entire, finished a close-up fourth in last year's Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night.
Lingfield Park hosts two All-Weather Championships Fast-Track Qualifiers this Saturday, including the Betway Winter Derby Trial, won last year by subsequent three-time Group 1 winner Decorated Knight.
Victory Bond, the ante-post favorite for the Winter Derby itself, faces eight opponents in the Trial, a 10-furlongs test that guarantees the winner a free start in the Betway Easter Classic over the same course and distance on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, Good Friday, March 30. Ryan Moore has the mount for trainer William Haggas. The 5-year-old shares top rating of 107 with the mare Elbereth, who has won three of eight starts on all-weather courses and finished second in two G2 contests on turf last year.
Saturday's other Fast-Track Qualifier is the 6-furlongs Betway Cleves Stakes, a qualifier for the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championships. Lancelot Du Loc, who won this last year and went on to win the Stewards' Cup at Glorious Goodwood in the summertime, is among 20 entries.
Kachy, runner-up in the 2016 Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, also is entered for the 6-furlongs qualifier after winning his all-weather debut in a 6-furlongs handicap at Lingfield Jan. 19. "This looks an obvious race for Kachy because he wouldn't have to run again before Good Friday if he wins," said trainer Tom Dascombe. "I would like to think that he would have a strong chance."
Also among the entries are Caspian Prince, Boom the Groom, Kimberella, Gracious John and Intisaab.
Winx is scheduled to make her next on-track appearance Feb. 17 in the Apollo Stakes at Randwick but, as things stand now, she would have to do it without regular rider Hugh Bowman. Bowman is under two careless riding suspensions, the most recent of which extends through Feb. 22. He has appealed in hopes of finding a way to keep the mount on the super mare, who has won 22 straight races and three consecutive Cox Plates. Bowman has been aboard for 20 of those wins, including the last 19.