Caption: Thunder Snow (blue) gets by North America to win Thursday night's Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 at Meydan and further his cause as a Dubai World Cup contender. (DRC/Andrew Watkins)
Catholic Boy is the morning-line favorite in the weekend's top Kentucky Derby prep in Florida while some potential late bloomers line up in California.
Ace turf miler World Approval returns to action at Tampa Bay Downs with international travel on the minds of his connections. And Unique Bella resumes her racing program in California while stretching out beyond a mile.
The Dubai World Cup Carnival heated up Thursday at Meydan with half-siblings Thunder Snow and Winter Lightning providing the fireworks -- and a potential preview of two big races later on the Carnival schedule.
The "News and Notes" section, below, is chock full of good news for a change.
Diving right in ...
The Road to the Roses
Catholic Boy, fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and winner of the Grade II Remsen, revs up his 3-year-old campaign in a field of seven for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Last year, the More Than Ready colt won at Gulfstream Park first up, then took the Grade III With Anticipation before shipping west for the Breeders' Cup. Mark Casse saddles Flameaway, a Scat Daddy colt who has won on both turf and dirt. Dale Romans continues his quest for a first-ever Kentucky Derby win with Hollywood Star, second in both the Grade II Saratoga Special and the Grade II Iroquois at Churchill Downs, in which Flameaway finished sixth. Vouch comes off a third-place showing in the Remsen. Septimus Severus and Vino Rosso are potential latecomers to the Derby picture.
Ax Man makes just his second career start in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita, going 7 furlongs. His debut, however, was good enough to make the Misremembered colt the 6-5 morning-line favorite among six starters. In that New Year's Day heat, the Bob Baffert trainee blasted out of the gate and never looked back, winning by 9 1/2 lengths while finishing 6 furlongs in 1:09.43. Baffert also has Nero, a Pioneerof the Nile colt owned by the Coolmore partners and Stonestreet Stable. The field also includes All Out Blitz, whose last outing was a second-place finish behind Derby contender McKinzie in the Grade III Sham Stakes. Mr. Jagermeister, a Minnesota-bred last seen at Canterbury Park in September, invades from Turf Paradise, where he has been working, and should be a nice price.
Saturday's $150,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct drew seven 3-year-olds to tackle 7 furlongs. There's not a lot to differentiate the top four on the morning line -- Devine Entry, California Knight, A Different Style and Global Citizen.
Fairyland, one of trainer Wesley Ward's 2017 Royal Ascot crew, makes her first start of the year as the 2-1 favorite in Friday's $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy at Turfway Park going 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather course. The Scat Daddy filly finished 12th in the Group 3 Albany Stakes in England, second in the Bolton Landing at Saratoga and eighth in the Qatar Juvenile Turf Sprint on Breeders' Cup weekend at Del Mar. She then won easily over the Turfway strip in December. She faces 11 rivals in the Cincinnati Trophy.
Six will line up for Saturday's $125,000 Martha Washington at Oaklawn Park. Cosmic Burst, a Violence filly, is riding a three-race winning streak achieved at Keeneland, Churchill Downs and Remington Park. The Donnie Von Hemel trainee has been working steadily at the Hot Sprints oval since early January. Secret Passion returns after running third in the local Dixie Belle. Tyfosha and Sassy Sienna both won their 3-year-old debuts over the track last month. Red Ruby is worth a look over a win in November around two turns at Churchill Downs.
Saturday's $150,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs attracted eight including Daisy, a Pennsylvania-bred Blame filly who won the Grade III Tempted at Aqueduct in November, then finished fourth in the Grade II Demoiselle a month later. Blond Bomber was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, then fourth in the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds. The others, including two still maidens, are less accomplished. It would not be wise to ignore Mihrab, a Tiznow filly trained by Graham Motion.
Mapit, a Tapit filly (of course!) is the morning-line favorite among 10 for Saturday's $50,000 California Oaks over the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. Mapit took five tries to break her maiden down south but got the job done impressively at 1 mile at Santa Anita on Jan. 20. Consolida makes her U.S. debut for trainer Patrick Gallagher after making two starts last year in her native England.
World Approval makes his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Mile in Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes -- possibly a warm up for a trip to Dubai and the $6 million, Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night. The 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding won five of his six starts last year, including three Grade I races. He's been working steadily at the Palm Beach training center for trainer Mark Casse. There are some nice horses among the other nine -- but none who could run with World Approval's best effort.
After winning the Breeders' Cup Mile last fall at Del Mar, trainer Mark Casse and owner Charlotte Weber discussed the potential of overseas travel for World Approval. At that time, the discussion centered on Royal Ascot and Weber said, "There's never a never." World Approval is also nominated to the Dubai race, however.
Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap is a puzzle with some of the pieces a bit rough around the edges. Heart to Heart was a terror most of last year but faded to finish 10th in the Breeders' Cup Mile and faded again to get home next-last in the Grade II Fort Lauderdale last month. One Go All Go, second in the Fort Lauderdale, reappears here but hasn't won since September of 2016. Hi Happy has raced only four times since coming from Argentina after the 2015 season and not at all since last April. Now he's moved across the continent from Florida and handed off to Todd Pletcher. Channel Maker raced in California last fall, finishing second in the Grade I Hollywood Derby.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Thunder Road Stakes at Santa Anita has a field of six going 1 mile. The usual suspects include Om, Blackjackcat and Bowie's Hero.
Filly & Mare Turf
Ultra Brat and Dream Dancing, the first two finishers from last month's Grade III Marshua River Stakes, stand out for recent form in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Suwannee River Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Still, Kitten's Roar is the 2-1 morning-line favorite from the outside gate. Also of note, Midnight Crossing makes her first start since winning the Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes at Santa Anita Dec. 30. Five of the nine entrants are graded stakes winners.
A tough field of eight fillies and mares signed on for Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. Dona Bruja won a pair of Grade III events in her first starts up from her native Argentina and finished second in last year's Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington. La Coronel was second over the course in last year's Grade III Florida Oaks, then ended a very productive season with a win in the Grade I QE II Challenge Cup at Keeneland. There are a few upwardly mobile allowance winners and a dangerous pair of Illinois-bred long shots in Lovely Loyree and America Mon Amie.
Unique Bella is the 3-5 morning-line favorite as she kicks off her 4-year-old season going 1 1/16 miles in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Maria Stakes at Santa Anita. The Tapit filly won five straight races last season before finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She returned in December to win the Grade I La Brea at Santa Anita. Her four rivals for the Santa Maria include Mopotism, an UncleMo filly who finished fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff and third in the La Brea, then returned last month to win the Grade II La Canada. The other three are all capable of making their presence felt if given the opportunity.
Louisiana Premier Night features six stakes races and four starter events, all for Louisiana-breds.
The chief contenders for Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup at 6 furlongs are Chief Lion, a 6-year-old Wildcat Heir gelding who returns west after a year and a half on the East Coast, and Chief Cicatriz, a 5-year-old Munnings gelding who won this last year and made two starts in Oaklawn Park stakes but then had a long layoff before returning to win the Hank Mills Sr. Stakes Jan. 20.
On the international front:
United Arab Emirates
Thursday night at Meydan well could have been a preview of a couple races on the big night, March 31, as Thunder Snow was a workmanlike winner of the Grade II Al Maktoum Challenge Round 2 and his younger half-sister, Winter Lightning, dominated the UAE 1000 Guineas.
Thunder Snow, who finished second in his seasonal debut in Round 1 of the Maktoum Challenge, waited impatiently behind two front-runners, moved when given the okay by jockey Christophe Soumillon turning for home and wore down North America to win by a neck. It was another 4 lengths back to Round 1 winner Heavy Metal in third.
"Basically, I think he was the best horse in the race and I rode him accordingly," Soumillon said. "His stamina was never an issue, whereas the other pair are quick horses who had more early speed. My horse actually wanted to go after them earlier in the back straight, but I was happy to take my time and wait until the home straight."
Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said the Godolphin runner clearly improved from his last outing. Asked if the performance could presage a run in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, he said, "That will be up to Sheikh Mohammed."
Winter Lightning also improved on her previous outing. In her first start of the year, she was all out to beat Rayaa by a nose. Thursday night, she blew by that rival with 200 meters to go in the Guineas and edged away to win by 2 lengths.
"She is just a lovely filly to be involved with and makes my job very easy," said winning rider Patrick Cosgrave. "She just gets on with things, breaks well, relaxes, travels strongly and quickens when I ask. She is improving and, if connections want, I see no reason why the extra 300 meters of the Oaks would be a problem."
Bin Suroor, who also trains Winter Lightning, said Godolphin's hierarchy will look at the possibility of the Group 2 UAE Derby as an alternative.
Speaking of the Dubai World Cup program itself, nominations announced Monday are a who's who of the current racing elite. Among those nominated to the $10 million Cup itself are West Coast, Forever Unbridled, Hoppertunity, Talismanic, Gunnevera, and Gold Dream. The $6 million Dubai Turf drew a nomination for Australian superstar mare Winx, who is a massive long shot to make the trip. Breeders' Cup winner Roy H and defending champion Mindyourbiscuits will carry American hopes in the Golden Shaheen, a $2 million sprint on the dirt.
There were 1,412 nominations for 739 horses.
"The 2018 Dubai World Cup is a truly global, world-class race day like no other, offering an action-packed meeting with the very best international horses, owners and trainers being represented in its nominations," said Malih Al Basti, Meydan Vice Chairman and Chairman of the Meydan Racing Committee. "It is also very heartening to see 19 countries on the list and we once again look forward to hosting an exceptionally international day of racing."
The big news from Down Under is that Winx will skip the Group 2 Apollo Stakes Feb. 17 for lack of regular rider Hugh Bowman. Bowman is serving dual suspensions for careless riding and would not be available for the Apollo. Trainer Chris Waller said Winx is ahead of schedule for her more important races in the autumn, so adding a trial to replace the Apollo is not a big issue. Had Bowman run afoul of the stewards mid-season, Waller said, a replacement would have been named.
Saturday's Group 1 Ladbrokes C F Orr Stakes at 1,400 meters at Caulfield drew a field ranging from a pair of experienced 7-year-olds in Hartnell and Black Heart Bart to the winner of last season's Group 1 Caulfield Guineas, Mighty Boss. Also in the mix are two Japanese-bred runners -- Brave Smash, who finished third in the AUS$10 million Everest Stakes last October, and Tosen Stardom, who won a pair of Group 1 events toward the end of last season. Darren Weir trains Black Heart Bart and both of the Japanese imports.
Friday's 1,2,3 Fillies' Conditions Race at Chelmsford City is a Fast-Track Qualifier for the All-Weather Championships on Good Friday, March 30, with the winner guaranteed a slot in the 32 Red Fillies' And Mares' Championship. Carolinae heads a field of five, hoping to qualify for a shot in that final, where she finished seventh last year. She already has a pair of respectable efforts this season at Wolverhampton.
"I don't believe we have seen the best of her on the All-Weather, despite the fact she is a six-year-old," said trainer Charlie Fellowes. "I think the fillies' division looks weaker this year, which I am licking my lips about, because you have no Muffri'ha or Realtra or anything like that knocking about." Fellow Newmarket-based trainer David Simcock saddles two runners in top-rated Soul Silver and Veena.
News and notes:
Breeders' Cup is adding a $1 million turf sprint for 2-year-olds, starting with this fall's renewal at Churchill Downs Nov. 2 and 3. The race is specifically designed to cater to strong interest in turf racing in the United States and to entice foreign entries for the Breeders' Cup World Championships, said Breeders' Cup Senior Vice President Dora Delgado.
"Each year, the Juvenile Turf and the Juvenile Fillies Turf are oversubscribed at the Championships," Delgado said. "We feel that the Juvenile Turf Sprint will also be a popular draw among horsemen from North America and overseas stables and will generate interest among North American racetracks to card races in this division."
Breeders' Cup also announced a $500,000 increase, to $2 million, for the TwinSpires Breeders' Cup Sprint. With that bump and the addition of the new race, there will be 14 championship races on this year's two-day card, plus $1 million in undercard purses, bringing the total of purses and awards on offer to more than $30 million. Not coincidentally, the one-night Dubai World Cup program offers $30 million.
The organization did not announce a site for the 2019 World Championships. Nor did it announce any action on more radical proposals for change -- including a reported suggestion that the $6 million Classic be moved to December.
More good news: The West Virginia Racing Commission, after some back-and-forth among commissioners, has approved the $1.2 million purse for the Grade II Charles Town Classic. The race, to be run April 21, has brought new focus to the state's racing but the commission earlier threatened to reude the purse to $300,000.
Charles Town VP of Racing Operations, Erich Zimny, thanked state and commission officials for the action, adding, "With this approval behind us, we can't wait to get started on putting on the best show possible for our fans."
Still more good news: Keeneland officials have announced a reduction of pari-mutuel takeout rates on win, place, show and exacta wagers for the 2018 Spring meet. The takeout on win, place and show wagers will decrease from 17.5 percent to 16 percent and, on exactas, from 22 percent to 19.5 percent. Takeout for the Pick Five will be 15 percent. Takeout for all other exotic wagers will remain at 22 percent.