Avery Island, Audible and Lombo all were impressive winners as preparations for the Kentucky Derby hit another gear during the weekend from Florida to California. Strike Power also edged into consideration.
Among the 3-year-old fillies, Dream Tree staked out a spot among the top contenders for the Santa Anita and Kentucky Oaks.
Things started to shake out a bit in the turf divisions with Itsinthepost, Speed Franco and Thewayiam all winning graded stakes.
Roy H backed up his Breeders' Cup win with an easy victory in California and could be headed for Dubai.
And we're off!
The Road to the Roses
Avery Island prompted the pace in the $250,000, Grade III Withers at Aqueduct, took over the lead on the turn and coasted home first by 2 lengths over Grade I Champagne Stakes winner Firenze Fire. Marconi was squeezed back at the start, made a strong run toward the leaders on the turn but could do no better than third. Avery Island, a Street Sense colt owned and bred by Godolphin, ran 9 furlongs over a fast track in 1:51.01 with Joe Bravo up. He passed up the Breeders' Cup last fall, staying home instead to win the Grade III Nashua, then was second in the Grade II Remsen in December. Firenze Fire, meanwhile, finished seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Del Mar and returned to New York to win last month's Jerome Stakes at the Big A.
"It looked like he was push button, so it was great that he switched off that quick and then switched back on," said winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "We're not sure what we're going to do for the next race. I'll talk to Jimmy Bell with Godolphin and figure it out but we're not looking at the Gotham because it goes back to a mile."
Avery Island earned 10 points toward a Kentucky Derby berth, putting him in a five-way tie for fourth on that list. The 4 points earned by Firenze Fire moved him into a tie for the top spot on the list with Good Magic.
In Florida, Audible rated right off the pace in the $350,000 Grade II Holy Bull, emerged with a clear lead turning for home and romped home 5 1/2 lengths ahead of Free Drop Billy. It was another 7 3/4 lengths back to Tiz Mischief and the favorite, Enticed, was fourth. Audible, an Into Mischief colt, scampered 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.92 with Javier Castellano aboard for trainer Todd Pletcher. Audible now has three straight victories following two at Aqueduct. The 10 points he earned with the Holy Bull win move him into a five-way tie for the No. 6 spot on the Road to the Kentucky Derby ranking.
The next stop on Gulfstream Park's Derby series is the $400,000 Grade II Fountain of Youth on March 3 but Pletcher wasn't making any commitments. "I think the question now is do you run him two more times or one more time (before the Kentucky Derby), and we'll let him tell us kind of how he bounces out of this," said Pletcher, who saddled Always Dreaming for victories in the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby last year.
Dale Romans, still looking for his first Kentucky Derby win, trains both Free Drop Billy and Tiz Mischief. Free Drop Billy's jockey, Luis Saez, said the colt may have needed the race after a layoff and Romans said Sunday he is happy with the progress of both contenders.
In California, Lombo shot right to the lead in the $150,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis at Santa Anita, shook off some pressure and was well in command through the stretch, winning by 2 lengths over Ayacara in a relatively wide-open field. Dark Vader applied the early pressure to Lombo and held third while the favorite, Shivermetimbers, weakened through the stretch to finish seventh. Lombo, a Graydar colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.41 with Flavien Prat in the irons. He took three tries to win, scoring at 6 1/2 furlongs in his previous start. He also earned 10 points toward a berth in the starting gate for the Run for the Roses and is part of that five-way tie for No. 10 on the list.
Lombo is "just a big kid and got a little ADD to him but he's starting to figure it out," said winning trainer Mike Pender. "When he does really figure it out, I think he'll be really dangerous." Pender said he will keep Lombo at Santa Anita and "run him out of his stall for Mr. Stronach and the Santa Anita fans -- something I always plan on first and foremost."
In Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Swale Stakes at Gulfstream Park, Strike Power struck the lead quickly and held on to win by 2 3/4 lengths over late-running Gotta Go. Diamond King was a further 1 length back in third. Strike Power, with Luis Saez up, got the 7 furlongs in 1:22.68 over a fast track, running his record to 2-for-2. He won his career debut over the same track Dec. 23, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 102. The question now is, will he handle two turns? Trainer Mark Hennig said he doesn't yet have the answer. "Two turns would be an option," the conditioner said. "We'll have to see that through, probably. He's a horse who seems to relax when he's there and he's quick enough to put himself in the front."
On the horizon: Next weekend's lineup includes the $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita, which should bring out Some more-heralded West Coast challengers; the $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs with Catholic Boy on the roster; and the $150,000 Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct. Sporting Chance, a son of Tiznow who hasn't raced since winning the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last Sept. 4, is expected to return to action in the $500,000 Grade Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park Feb. 19. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas said that colt may not be fully ready, adding "I think we've got a very talented horse, so maybe he'll overcome me."
The Road to the Oaks
Dream Tree, the odds-on favorite, had no trouble winning her fourth race without a loss, dominating Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita. After waiting kindly through the early furlongs, the Uncle Mo filly surged to the front entering the stretch and drew off to win by 3 3/4 lengths without much encouragement from jockey Drayden Van Dyke. Exuberance was second, 1/2 length in front of Steph Being Steph. Dream Tree ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.45.
Dream Tree won at first asking at Santa Anita Oct. 27, narrowly won the Desi Arnaz at Del Mar the following month after skipping the Breeders' Cup, then romped home first in the Grade 1 Starlet at Los Alamitos Dec. 9. The Las Virgenes was her first start as a 3-year-old. After the two-month layoff, said trainer Bob Baffert, "I thought she was fresh and she was getting a little excited on her way to the gate. I just love the way she sat off those front-runners. I know she has a lot of speed. I think she's getting better mentally and she's relaxing and she really brought it at the end."
Take Charge Paula waited just behind the early leader in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park, came wide into the stretch with a clear lead and ran on well to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Sultry. Was third. Take Charge Paula, a daughter of Take Charge Indy, finished the 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.47 with Paco Lopez up. Winning trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said, "Paco knows her and rode her well. I'm not sure what we're going to do with her next." He said he will consult with owner Peter Deutsch about stretching Take Charge Paula out around two turns. "There's a chance we could try the Davona Dale," McLaughlin said. It was the third straight win for Take Charge Paula and fifth from seven starts overall.
Next week: The $150,000 Suncoast at Tampa Bay Downs, the $125,000 Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park, the $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy at Turfway Park and the $50,000 California Oaks on the Golden Gate all-weather.
Breeders' Cup winner Roy H rallied willingly from last of four to win Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Palos Verde Stakes at Santa Anita and likely is off to Dubai. The 6-year-old More Than Ready gelding was out for little more than exercise as he drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths, well in hand for jockey Kent Desormeaux. He finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.68 with Americanize and Red Lightning in his wake. The 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner, Mongolian Saturday, was last and beaten some 10 1/4 lengths in a return to the main track. For Roy H, it was his sixth win from his last seven starts. He might have a seven-race win streak if he hadn't been impeded by a riderless horse in the Grade I Bing Crosby last July.
Winning trainer Peter Miller said he's looking at the $400,000 Grade I Triple Bend at 7 furlongs on March 10 and then the Group 1 Golden Shaheen at Meydan on Dubai World Cup night. "That would probably be what we'd do, but one day at a time, one race at a time," he added. "The horse has been a model of consistency. I don't think I've ever had a horse put in seven top races in a row like he has against top-quality horses. He's certainly the best sprinter I've ever trained."
In Arkansas, Wilbo rallied four-wide to take the lead in the lane in Saturday's $125,000 King Cotton Stakes at Oaklawn Park and inched away to a 2-lengths victory over the favorite, Ivan Fallunovalot. Recount was just a neck behind that one in third. Wilbo, a 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.85 with David Cabrera riding. He's now 2-for-2 at the Oaklawn meeting. "It feels great," said winning trainer Chris Hartman, who had finished second in four consecutive King Cottons with Alsvid. "We've been beat by some real good horses in this race and we beat a good field today."
Itsinthepost hit the lead in the stretch run in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos and just held on in the final strides to win by a nose from Hayabusa One. Editore was 2 1/1 lengths farther back in third. Itsinthepost, a 6-year-old French-bred gelding by American Post, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 1:58.24 with Tyler Baze at the controls. It was his second consecutive win after finishing a decent seventh, beaten only 5 1/4 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Turf. Asked about the tight finish, winning trainer Jeff Mullins quipped, "Tyler could have waited just a little longer before he went, but it worked out. He knows him. He's ridden him more than I have."
Speed Franco put a head in front of pacesetting Gidu in the final jumps to win Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Dania Beach Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park. The favorite, Untamed Domain, was another 2 3/4 lengths back in third. Speed Franco, a Declaration of War colt, finished 1 mile on good going in 1:36.28 after stalking Gidu the entire way. He scored his second win from four starts. Gidu, a Frankel colt, now has a win and two seconds after three trips to the races. Untamed Domain, by Animal Kingdom, was making his first start since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
Speed Franco's trainer, Gustavo Delgado, applauded jockey Emisael Jaramillo for his tactics. "I prefer the horse to be in the front or second," Delgado said. "His last race I didn't like. He was back. I told the jockey, 'No more, no more, you put the horse in front or second.'"
Filly & Mare Turf
Thewayiam advanced toward the front along the rail turning for home in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Sweetest Chant Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park, came out for running room and was along late to win by 3/4 length over Salsa Bella. Andina Del Sur was third. Thewayiam, a French-bred filly by Thewayyouare, finished 1 mile on good turf in 1:36.90. Winning trainer Graham Motion said he feels there is "a good shot" Thewayiam will resurface in the $100,000 Grade III Herecomesthebride on March 3. "When you've got a horse that really suits this turf course, you've got to take advantage of it," Motion said.
After tracking a slow pace, Accelerate got through along the rail near the top of the stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual at Santa Anita and accelerated well enough to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Prime Attraction was second and Mubtaahij, after leading briefly, settled for show money. Accelerate, a 5-year-old son of Lookin at Lucky, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.58 for jockey Victor Espinoza. Accelerate was second in the 2017 San Pasqual but posted only a single win from seven intervening races. "He got bumped around a little bit but this horse showed a lot of guts today," said Juan Leyva, assistant to winning trainer John Sadler. "He's obviously a really nice horse and he showed it today. We don't really tell Victor anything. He knows how to ride."
In other action:
Citizen Geller settled early in Sunday's $85,000 Mt. Cristo Rey Handicap, advanced around the turn and was along to win by 3/4 length at the end of the 4 1/2 furlongs. Tilla Cat was second, 1/2 length in front of Big Hitter. Citizen Geller, a 6-year-old Pro Prado gelding, finished in 50.14 seconds with Ry Eikleberry along for the brief ride.
Over the bounding waves:
Utmost and Kachy captured the two listed feature races Friday at Lingfield Park, guaranteeing spots in the All-Weather Championships Finals on Good Friday.
Utmost, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway colt, made all in winning the 10-furlong Betway Winter Derby Trial, a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Betway Easter Classic over the course and distance. Betway made him the 4/1 early favorite for that race.
Trained by John Gosden and ridden by Robert Havlin, the George Strawbridge homebred Victory Bond and jockey Ryan Moore by 1 1/4 lengths with Battle of Marathon third. All three could return for the Group 3 Betway Winter Derby, run over the same distance on Feb. 24.
Kachy will head straight to the 6-furlong Betway All-Weather Championships Sprint Final, where he is the 5-2 favorite, after reeling in front-running Caspian Prince in Friday's Betway Cleves Stakes, then holding off last year's Sprint Final winner, Kimberella, by a short head.
Trainer Tom Dascombe said, on current form, Kachy deserves a chance in the final. "I don't know what the opposition will be but you would think that, unless something comes back from Dubai, he would have to go into the race with a favourite's chance," he said.
Sunday's Group 3 Centenary Vase Handicap did nothing to clarify the picture for this year's BMW Hong Kong Derby as trainer John Moore's Derby prospects, Rivet and Ruthven, reported fifth and sixth, respectively. They, and all the others, were chasing Dinozzo, who led all the way under Joao Moreira in winning for the second time in five days, following Wednesday night's triumph at Happy Valley.
Trainer John Size said he took the opportunity presented by cool weather to pull of the quick comeback. "In the summer, it's very tough," he said. Moreira, meanwhile, said he simply took what was given him, riding Dinozzo on the engine without much pressure or pace. He won by 3 1/2 lengths with Gold Mount and Eagle Way second and third. "Under the circumstances, they let me do everything I wanted in front," the "Magic Man" said.
Size said he doesn't know what's next for Dinozzo, a 5-year-old Irish-bred gelding by Lilbourne Lad, although the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup on Feb. 25 would be an option. "I will see where he ends up in the ratings, Size said. "I never make decisions on a racetrack."