There's plenty in the way of Kentucky Derby hopes on the line in Saturday's Fountain of Youth at Gulfstream Park, the highlight of a spectacular card at the Florida oval.
But Gulfstream does not quite have a monopoly on weekend action, with other worthwhile races at Santa Anita, Aqueduct and Oaklawn Park.
It's a big week internationally, too, with Winx seeking her 23rd straight win in Australia, the UAE Oaks in Dubai, Kentucky Derby preps, weather the winner in the British Isles, and the Barbados Gold Cup, where the weather is just fine.
And congratulations to Jose Ferrer, 2018 recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. See "News and Notes" for more.
As the "Beast From the East" batters England and Ireland with snow and cold, here's a ray of sunshine:
The Road to the Roses:
Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Xpressbet.com Fountain of Youth, featuring the reappearance of Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, is the highlight here. But let's have an eye on Dubai and England, too. Churchill Downs would like nothing more to have Derby runners from every corner of the world.
The morning-line favorite is Good Magic, a Curlin colt who has not raced since he broke his maiden while winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Nov. 4 at Del Mar. But trainer Chad Brown has had him working steadily at the Palm Beach training center, most recently going 4 furlongs in 48.30 seconds Feb. 24, the fifth-best time of 56 that day.
In his first two races, the colt finished second in a Saratoga maiden race and second again in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park.
He will face nine rivals going 1 1/16 miles in the Fountain, chief among them Free Drop Billy. The Dale Romans charge, by Union Rags, won the Grade I Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland in October before reporting ninth in the Breeders' Cup. He returned to finish second in the Grade II Holy Bull Feb. 3, 5 1/2 lengths behind the winner, Audible.
Then there's Strike Power, undefeated in two starts for trainer Mark Hennig. The Speightstown colt was an easy winner last time out in the Grade III Swale. But that was 7 furlongs.
Also to watch: Gotta Go, who was a fast-closing second in the Swale. The Shanghai Bobby colt, trained by Ian Wilkes, may benefit from the extra furlong and a half. Marconi was third in the Grade III Withers and the Tapit colt could improve.
The other potential Derby preps were overseas -- or were supposed to be.
The Churchill Downs "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" was scrambled when first Thursday's Patton Stakes at Dundalk in Ireland, then Friday's Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes at Kempton Park in England were postponed until March 9 and March 7, respectively, because of a nasty winter storm dubbed "The Beast from the East." Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien's top Kentucky prospects, including Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn, originally were slated to run in both, then just at Dundalk.
O'Brien did not leave them in for the Kempton race so his options now are limited to the rescheduled Patton; the final race in the European series, the Burradon Stakes on March 30, in which a win would guarantee a spot in the Run for the Roses; or the UAE Derby on World Cup night in Dubai, which is part of the main "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series that includes the main U.S. preps.
In Dubai, Rayya defeated Godolphin's heavily favored Winter Lightning in the UAE Oaks on Thursday night at Meydan. Winter Lightning had won the two previous meeting between the fillies. Trainer Doug Watson said he will consider Rayya for the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night and a win there would qualify her for either the Kentucky Oaks or the Kentucky Derby. She is an early nominee to the Oaks but not to the Triple Crown series.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Dream Tree and Midnight Bisou stand out among six entered for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Ysabel Stakes at Santa Anita. Dream Tree, the morning-line favorite, is undefeated in four starts including the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos in December and the Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita last month. Bob Baffert trains the Uncle Mo filly. Midnight Bisou, by Midnight Lute, finished second in her first two trips to the track, then won the Grade II Santa Ynez in January. One Fast Broad has run well against fellow California-breds and Spring Lily shows promise.
Fly So High, a Malibu Moon filly, is the even-money favorite on the morning line for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Davona Dale Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Phipps Stable runner, trained by Shug McGaughey, won on her second try Nov. 16 at Aqueduct, leading all the way to a 7 3/4-lengths victory. She rated for jockey Jose Ortiz in her most recent start Jan. 4 at Gulfstream, then easily drew off to win by 5 1/2 lengths. The eight-filly field also includes Take Charge Paula, winner of three in a row including the Grade III Forward Gal.
By the NYRA oddsmaker's estimation, there's some sorting-out to be done among the New York-based 3-year-old fillies. Saturday's $200,000 Busher Stakes at 1 mile should help that process along. War Heroine, Midnight Disguise, My Miss Lilly and Sara Street-- half the eight-filly field -- are posted at less than 5-1 on the morning line. War Heroine is in from California where she won a minor stakes going down the Santa Anita hillside turf course last month. But she earlier won impressively on the Del Mar dirt. Midnight Disguise has two wins and a second from four starts, all at the Big A. My Miss Lilly was third in the Forward Gal in a recent Florida trip. Sara Street, a Godolphin homebred, comes off a maiden win.
A dozen, including some heavyweights, accepted for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Mac Diarmida at 1 3/16 miles over the Gulfstream Park lawn. Sadler's Joy makes his first start since finishing fourth, beaten just over 2 lengths, in the Breeders' Cup Turf last fall. Oscar Nominated, winner of the W.L. McKnight in his last start, drew the outside gate. Nessy and Gold Shield, second and fourth in that, return. Muqtaser returns from a five-month vacation after finishing second in the Grade II Knickerbocker. Do not overlook -- at least on your trifecta ticket -- Patterson Cross. Named after the popular thriller writer James Patterson and his main character, Alex Cross, the 5-year-old son of Arch always seems to be in the mix, especially at Gulfstream Park. Patterson is a part-owner.
An evenly balanced field of eight is entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Canadian Turf at Gulfstream Park, going 1 mile. Several of them return from disappointing performances, including March, Shakhimat and recently gelded Highland Sky. Several others have won in arguably easier spots including Galleon Mast, victor in the restricted Sunshine Millions Turf in his previous outing. Hogy has been very effective with a late run in turf sprints, mostly around 5 furlongs.
Seven are in for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Palm Beach for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park and the handicapping question of the day is: Go with Hawkish, making just his second career start, or stick with the more experienced Speed Franco or Maraud? Speed Franco, a Declaration of War colt, officially has won half his four starts and was disqualified to second in another. He won the Grade III Dania Beach over the course and the same 1 mile in his last start. Maraud, by Blame, also is 2-for-4. Hawkish, an Artie Schiller gelding, has rested since winning with a late rush on Jan. 6 over the course and distance. At this stage in their careers, "Ya pays yer money and ya takes yer chances."
Filly & Mare Turf
Daring Duchess, Summersault and Holy Helena appear to hold the best hands among seven entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III The Very One Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Daring Duchess, the 8-5 morning-line favorite, comes off a fading second in the Grade III La Prevoyante Handicap and the 6-year-old Arch mare will appreciate the cutback from that 1 1/2 miles to this 1 3/16. Summersault, a 6-year-old daughter of Rock Hard Ten, was fourth in the La Prevoyante. Holy Helena, last year's Queen's Plate winner, was victorious in her first try on turf Feb. 4 over the course.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream Park is restricted to 3-year-old fillies, of whom eight signed up. Prospects are topped by French-bred Thewayiam, who already has two wins over the course this meeting, most recently in the Grade III Sweetest Chant. Brattata finally broke through with a win in her first Florida start last month after playing the bridesmaid's role in four earlier races in New York. Amertume, a beautifully bred filly by Tapit from the Storm Cat mare Honest Pursuit, won at first asking and could be special.
Celestine is the heavy favorite in the $100,000 Sand Springs at 1 mile on the lawn Saturday at Gulfstream Park. The 6-year-old Scat Daddy mare was third in last year's renewal and returned from a break to finish second in her seasonal debut Jan. 27.
A field of 11 signed on for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint. Favorable Outcome, a Chad Brown-trained Flatter colt, might have the best argument for a favorable outcome after finishing third in the Grade I Malibu at Santa Anita in his most recent start. A year ago, he won the Grade II Swale over the Gulfstream track. Among the others, Mr. Jordan has finished second five times in 10 tries at Gulfstream Park, including a narrow loss in the Sunshine Millions Classic in his last race. He shortens up for this. Eight Town needs a rebound from a dud in the Grade III Fred Hooper in his most recent effort. Unbridled Outlaw and Rock and Fellers were sharp in finishing 1-2 in their last but drew the outside gates for this race.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $125,000 Spring Fever Stakes for fillies and mares at Oaklawn Park has a highly contentious field of 11 set to tackle 5 1/2 furlongs. It's a handicapping challenge and a juicy wagering opportunity.
On the international front:
Winx is back in the Group 1 TAB Chipping Norton Stakes Saturday at Royal Randwick. The winner of 22 straight races was last seen landing her third straight Group 1 Cox Plate Oct. 28. An earlier start was scrubbed because her regular rider, Hugh Bowman, was serving a suspension and trainer Chris Waller didn't want to risk using a substitute for what amounted to a tune up. Instead, she won a trial heat, looking like she was ready to rumble. If so, this should be easy for her. An overseas trip remains a possibility later in the year.
It's test time for Japanese 3-year-olds. The Tulip Sho, or Japanese 1000 Guineas Trial, is Saturday at Hanshin at 1,600 meters on the turf. The Hochi Hai Yayoi Sho, or 2000 Guineas Trial, covers 2,000 meters on Sunday at Nakayama. There's one more trial for each of the big races, which are run April 8 and April 15. The Derby and Oaks are run late in May.
Top U.S. owner Ken Ramsey returns to Barbados in search of a third victory in the Caribbean's most prestigious race, Saturday's Sandy Lane Barbados Gold Cup at Garrison Savannah in Bridgetown. Represented by Grade II winner Shining Copper and Queen's Plate victor Sir Dudley Digges, the Ramsey color-bearers will square off against two-time defending Gold Cup winner Dorsett, trained by Bajan Robert Pierce.
And, by the way, if you can't get to Bridgetown for the Gold Cup, Horse Racing Radio Network's dynamic duo of Mike Penna and Jude Feld will be trackside and broadcasting the action live. Tough job but someone's gotta do it. Catch them streaming on www.horseracingradio.net or Sirius XM. Jude's handicapping tips for this and the rest of the weekend can be had at www.popejude.com.
News and Notes
Tampa Bay Downs jockey Jose Ferrer has been named as the 2018 recipient of the George Woolf Memorial Jockey Award. The Woolf Award, which a jockey may win only once, honors a rider whose career and personal character earn esteem for the individual and the sport of Thoroughbred racing. It is decided by a vote of active jockeys across the country. Ferrer, 53, Tampa, Fla., was one of five finalists, defeating Javier Castellano, Alex Birzer, Joe Talamo and Rodney Prescott.
"It means the world to have the guys I've ridden with throughout my career vote for me," Ferrer said. The award came slightly more than five months after it seemed his career might be over because of injuries suffered in a multi-horse spill at Delaware Park. Ferrer incurred a collapsed lung, eight broken ribs and three fractured vertebrae.
"For any Thoroughbred jockey, winning the George Woolf Award is probably the highlight of that jockey's career," said Terry Meyocks, national manager of the Jockeys' Guild.