Super Saturday in Dubai, major Kentucky Derby preps in three states and the Santa Anita Handicap all vie for attention on the Thoroughbred racing stage during the weekend.
Super Saturday primarily gives local horses a chance to sort themselves out before the rest of the world descends on Meydan for World Cup night March 31. Still, there are some epic battles and rivalries to be worked out.
The Kentucky Derby trail winds from the Tampa Bay Derby, featuring Flameaway and World of Trouble, through the Gotham Stakes at Aqueduct, where Free Drop Billy, Firenze Fire and Enticed tangle, to the San Felipe at Santa Anita, where Bold d'Oro meets McKinzie and Kanthaka.
The Grade I "Big Cap", the Grade I Kilroe Mile on the turf and the Grade I Tom Fool Stakes for sprinters -- all on Saturday's program at Santa Anita -- provide plenty of wrap-around quality for the San Felipe, indeed. And Breeders' Cup winners are resurfacing all over the place -- from Ireland to California.
Jumping right in:
The Road to the Roses
It's really good odds that some of the race-day favorites for the Kentucky Derby will be in action this weekend -- perhaps even in Ireland.
Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Gotham at Aqueduct has a "big three" of Free Drop Billy, Firenze Fire and Enticed in a field of nine. Enticed, a Godolphin homebred by Medaglia d'Oro, closed out his 2-year-old campaign with a win in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club but underperformed in the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park last month, finishing fourth, 14 3/4 lengths behind the winner. Free Drop Billy, a Union Rags colt, was second that day at Gulfstream. Trainer Dale Romans then scratched him from last weekend's Grade II Fountain of Youth in favor of this spot. He won the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall. Firenze Fire won the Grade I Champagne at Belmont last fall but then finished up the track in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and most recently settled for second in the Grade II Withers at the Big A.
Whilst the three stars in the Gotham have been a bit inconsistent, Nine Route, a The Factor colt, has won three straight races for trainer Jeremiah Englehart, albeit versus state-bred foes. Trainer Keith Desormeaux ships Beautiful Shot from California for the Gotham. He won his first two stars, then finished a rather distant third in the Grade III Bob Hope at Del Mar and has not raced since that heat in November.
In Florida ... If you're liking Mendelssohn as the European candidate for the Kentucky Derby, don't overlook Untamed Domain in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby. The Graham Motion-trained colt makes his first start on the main track, it's true. But he is by Animal Kingdom, who could run on anything. And, oh yes, he finished second in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, beaten only 1 length by Mendelssohn. He likely will be offered at generous odds, too, with more conventional candidates in the mix. Check how Mendelssohn does Friday night in Ireland.
Those more conventional candidates include World of Trouble, a Kantharos colt who won the 7-furlongs Pasco Stakes over the track Jan. 20 -- by 13 3/4 lengths -- and Flameaway, winner of the Grade III Sam F. Davis over course and distance Feb. 10. Flameaway, not coincidentally, finished eighth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, only 3 1/4 lengths back of Mendelssohn.
Other prospects in the Tampa Bay Derby include Tiz Mischief, an Into Mischief colt who was second to Enticed in the Kentucky Jockey Club but a distant third in the Grade II Holy Bull in his 3-year-old bow; Quip, a Distorted Humor colt from the China Horse Club-WinStar Farm combine who was 2-for-2 before fading to finish seventh in the Kentucky Jockey Club; and Vino Rosso, a Curlin product who chased Flameaway and Catholic Boy home in the Sam F. Davis.
At Santa Anita on Saturday, McKinzie, Bolt d'Oro and Kanthaka are the "big three" among eight 3-year-olds in the $400,000 Grade II San Felipe. The 8-5 favorite, McKinzie, officially is undefeated in three starts thanks to the disqualification of Solomini in the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity, which moved him up to the win. The Bob Baffert charge, a Street Sense colt, returned to win the Grade III Sham at Santa Anita in January.
Bolt d'Oro, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and second in the Eclipse Award voting to the winner of that race, Good Magic, is making a delayed start to his 3-year-old campaign after recovering from soreness. Good Magic disappointed in his seasonal debut, finishing third without any late kick in the Grade II Fountain of Youth last weekend and trainer Mick Ruiz hopes two-time Grade I winner Bolt d'Oro can show Saturday that he deserved the Eclipse over his less-accomplished rival.
Kanthaka, by Jimmy Creed, jumped up to win the Grade II San Vicente in his first start of the year at odds of 11-1. The 99 Beyer Speed Rating he earned in that win is second-best in this field, behind only the 103 assigned Bolt d'Oro for his win in the Grade I FrontRunner last year.
Rain is in the forecast for Southern California and none of the "big three" has yet raced on a wet track. For that matter, neither has any of the others.
The Derby preliminaries stretch across the North Atlantic with Friday night's rescheduled Patton Stakes at Dundalk in Ireland providing Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn a chance to earn 20 points toward a start in the Run for the Roses through the "European Road to the Derby" series.
Mendelssohn, a Scat Daddy colt, is one of three in the race trained by Irish master Aidan O'Brien. He makes his first start on anything other than turf when he steps onto the Dundalk all-weather surface but O'Brien has been plotting this since well before the Breeders' Cup triumph. Seahenge and Threeandfourpence complete the O'Brien trio. Given the long layoffs and the weather delay in running this race, not to mention the surface consideration, several of the others who have recent experience at Dundalk easily could complicate the result.
On Wednesday evening at Kempton Park, Gronkowski won another delayed Derby qualifier, the Kentucky Derby Conditions Stakes. He earned 20 points for that win, the same as will go to the winner of the Patton. The remaining race in the series, the Burradon Stakes at Newcastle March 30, has 30 points for the winner. Gronkowski's trainer, Jeremy Noseda, said his charge will not race in the Burradon but, rather, will have a final Dergy prep in the United States.
All of that means the winner of the Burradon almost certainly will be the top points-earner in the series and get first dibs on the Kentucky Derby slot.
Stronger Than Ever, winner of the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds, meets Red Ruby, winner of the Martha Washington, and Amy's Challenge, winner of the Dixie Belle, in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park. The others include Sassy Sienna and Cosmic Burst, who were second and third in the Martha Washington and try again.
Saturday's $600,000 Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, sandwiched between the Pegasus World Cup and the Dubai World Cup, has several of the usual suspects with only a single out-of-towner in a seemingly wide-open field. Bob Baffert saddles Hoppertunity and Mubtaahij, both still listed as possibilities for Dubai on March 31. Accelerate and Prime Attraction finished 1-2 in the Grade II San Pasqual Feb. 3. Giant Expectations and Accelerate finished first and second in the Grade II San Antonio Dec. 26 with Giant Expectations going on to a ninth-place finish in the Pegasus. The invader is Fear the Cowboy, who finished fourth, beaten 13 3/4 lengths in the Pegasus.
Seven are entered for Saturday's $150,000 Stymie Stakes at Aqueduct, going 1 mile. There are no household names but Backsideofthemoon comes off a win in the Jazil Stakes over the track going 9 furlongs, Fellowship was second in the Grade III General George over a sloppy Laurel Park track in February and Vulcan's Forge was second in the Grade III Toboggan at 7 furlongs in his last effort.
After gallantly chasing Gun Runner in his last four starts, War Story gets a big dose of class relief in Saturday's $100,000 Challenger Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding finished fourth in the Grade I Whitney, fourth again in the Grade I Woodward and fourth yet again in the Breeders' Cup Classic before sagging to get home 10th in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup in his last start. Rested a bit by trainer Jorge Navarro, War Story faces a half-dozen rivals in the Challenger, none of whom has been running at this level. But, should War Story be discouraged, look to Rafting, who has been successful over the track, and possibly Brazilian-bred Vettori Kin, who chased most of the field home in last year's Dubai World Cup but looks from workouts to be improving for trainer Kenny McPeek.
Highway Star comes into Saturday's $150,000 Heavenly Prize Stakes at Belmont Park with a significant class edge. The 5-year-old Girolamo mare finished second in the Grade III Go For Wand in her last start in December and won the Grade II Gallant Bloom last September. Between those, she finished 11th in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Others of note: Divine Miss Grey, Bishop's Pond, Boule and Holiday Disguise. The latter is riding a five-race winning streak but all of those were against fellow New York-breds.
Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita attracted a diverse field of six to tackle 7 furlongs on the main track. The morning-line favorite, City of Light, and Edwards Going Left finished 1-2 in the Grade I Malibu in December and meet again. City of Light has not raced since but Edwards Going Left returned to win the California Cup Sprint by 6 lengths in January. Giant Expectations, last seen finishing ninth in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup, is entered here but cross-entered in the Santa Anita Handicap later on the program. Captain Scotty, a speedball trained by Peter Miller, makes just his third career start after two dominant wins.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Tom Fool at Aqueduct is a 6-furlongs scramble with 10 entries -- many of them looking highly competitive in this company. Great Stuff won the Grade III Toboggan in his last start. Do Share, Life in Shambles and Threefiveindia were the three best in the Gravesend over the track Dec. 23. Green Gratto and Favorite Tale are 8 and 7 now, respectively, and wins have been few and far between. But they still have plenty of back class.
Whitmore makes his first starts since finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint as a field of six negotiates 6 furlongs in Saturday's $125,000 Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn Park. The 5-year-old Pleasantly Perfect gelding won this event last year, then went on to win three other graded stakes. He has never finished out of the money in six starts at Oaklawn, including a third-place finish in the Arkansas Derby. Wilbo, the King Cotton winner, drew the outside gate and the Candy Ride gelding has won four of his last seven starts. He faces off again with Ivan Fallunovalot, second in the King Cotton but a consistent performer at this level. Wynn Time, a 4-year-old Illinois-bred by Three Hour Nap, has five wins and a second from six starts but steps way up in terms of class and experience.
World Approval looks like he'll take a world of beating in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita. The Breeders' Cup Mile winner has won six of his last seven starts with the lone loss coming when he was asked to go 1 1/4 miles in the Grade I Manhattan last summer in New York. And he lost by only 1 3/4 lengths in that. The edge is off even the threat of rain as World Approval owns a win in last year's Grade I Fourstardave over yielding going at Saratoga. Om, Chanel Maker and Bowie's Hero are among seven opponents.
Saturday's $225,000 Grade II Hilsborough Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs attracted a Grade I field of 10. Wow. Take your pick from the likes of Grade I Matriarch winner Off Limits, Grade I American Oaks winner Daddys Lil Darling, Grade I QE II Cup winner La Coronel and Grade II Mrs. Revere winner Lovely Bernadette. Perhaps the only distinguishing factor here is that Off Limits, Daddys Lil Darling and Lovely Bernadette all make their first start of 2017 while La Coronel prepped with a second-place finish behind Dona Bruja in the Grade III Endeavour over the course on Feb. 10. But a closer examination of the past performances shows Off Limits and Daddys Lil Darling have won off layoffs, so that may not be a concern. What a nice race.
Let's see what Gidu can do in Saturday's $75,000 Columbia for 3-year-olds at Tampa Bay Downs. This is a Frankel colt trained by Todd Pletcher who won on his second try going 5 furlongs at Gulfstream Park in December, then was caught by Speed Franco after leading most of the way in the Grade III Dania Beach last month going the same 1 mile as this race. He is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line.
Filly & Mare Turf
The favorites in a 12-filly field for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay Downs all make their first or second U.S. start after earlier campaigns in Europe. French-bred Altea, a daughter of Siyouni, would up her 2-year-old season with a second-place showing in the Group 3 Prix des Reservoirs at Deauville Oct. 18 and now answers to trainer Chad Brown. She is the 7-2 morning-line pick. Salsa Bella, also by Siyouni and also now in Brown's care, won her only start in France in 2017 and opened her U.S. account with a close second behind Thewayiam in the Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park Feb. 3. Beckoning, an Irish-bred filly by Kodiac, raced only once as a juvenile, winning on the all-weather at Dundalk. Goodthingstaketime, a daughter of Canford Cliffs, won her U.S. debut on the Del Mar turf in November.
The domestic contingent is headed by Almond Roca, already a two-time winner over the Tampa Bay greensward this season, and Closer Still, second to Thewayiam in the Ginger Brew Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January.
The international scene:
It's "Super Saturday" at Meydan with primarily locally based horses strutting their stuff while awaiting the influx of globetrotters for World Cup night three weeks down the calendar. Each of the seven Thoroughbred races on the March 31 card has a counterpart on "Super Saturday." A brief rundown, based on races scheduled for the big night:
Dubai World Cup
Thunder Snow and North America get a rubber match in the Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3, the local precursor to the World Cup itself.
Thunder Snow, a 4-year-old Helmet colt racing for Godolphin, and North America, a 6-year-old son of Dubawi, split their two previous meetings, North America winning Round 1 of the Al Matoum Challenge and Thunder Snow victorious in Round 2. The field of 12 also incudes Furia Cruzada and Second Summer, the fourth- and fifth-place finishers in Round 2.
Dubai Sheema Classic
Six of the 14 entered for the Dubai City of Gold at 2,410 meters on the turf are owned by Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin juggernaut with Hawkbill, Frontiersman and Best Solution heading the bunch. Others in this intriguing cast for the City of Gold include proven stars in such diverse venues as Belmont Park and South Africa. The winner will have to step up on the Sheema Classic, which expects the like of Cloth of Stars and top names from Japan.
The Jebel Hatta at 1,800 meters on the turf, is a prep for the Dubai Turf with five of the 11 entrants, including most of the best, running for Godolphin with Folkswood and Benbatl prominent among them. The field also includes former South African Janoobi and Australian-bred Whisky Baron. Again, Japan will have a lot to say about the Dubai Turf itself.
Heavy Metal is a logical choice to repeat in the Burj Nahaar, a 1,600-meters test leading to the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night. But he drew the outside gate in a field of 13, potentially a drawback in a field that also includes Ross, who finished second in the 2017 Godolphin Mile, ahead of Sharp Azteca.
Dubai Golden Shaheen
My Catch and Comicas finished 1-2 in the Al Shindagha Sprint Feb. 8 and they return as the likely favorites for the Mahab Al Shimaal. The race at 1,200 meters on the Meydan dirt is a trial for the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News. Those running well here, though, face a dominating trio of Americans including last year's winner, Mind Your Biscuits, Roy H. and 2016 Shaheen runner-up X Y Jet.
Al Quoz Sprint
Godolphin has six of the 16 in the main field for the Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint at 1,200 meters on the grass. Nonetheless, the overwhelming favorite in this prep for the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night is Sheikh Hamdan Al Maktoum's Ertijaal. The Oasis Dream gelding, now 7, won last year's Al Quoz Sprint and already is 2-for-2 during this year's World Cup Carnival.
The Al Bastakiya is a 1,900-mete prelude to the Group 2 UAE Derby. Godolphin fields Masar, a New Approach colt last seen finishing sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, only 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner and now Kentucky Derby candidate Mendelssohn.
City Light tracked pacesetting Jack Flash through the early stages of Tuesday's Prix Anabaa at Chantilly, took the lead some 2 furlongs out and held off the favorite, Dubai-bound runner Rosa Imperial, to win by 3/4 length. Lucky Team finished third as City Light, a 4-year-old son of Siyouni, got home in 1:16.49. Jack Flash, trained by Gina Rarick, faded to finish sixth. The victory earned City Light a guaranteed, fees-paid position in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championships on Finals Day March 30 at Lingfield Park. "I have to speak to the owners (Ecurie Jean-Louis Bouchard), but I'd really like to go to Lingfield with him," said winning trainer Stephane Wattel. "I think the track should suit him at Lingfield. It's a very good championship and I ran him in this race specifically to qualify."
As the Good Friday finale draws ever closer, Dundalk on Friday and Wolverhampton and Chelmsford City on Saturday evening host the final Fast-Track Qualifiers of the season.
At Wolverhampton, the sunbets.co.uk Lady Wulfruna Stakes is a win-and-you're-in for the Sun Bets All-Weather Mile Championships on Finals Day. Prominent in that is the William Haggas-trained Second Thought, who already qualified for finals with a win at Kempton Park in November. The 4-year-old is undefeated in five starts on the all-weather surfaces and won the 32Red Three-Year-Old Championshp last year.
The Chelmsford City race is a qualifier for the Betway All-Weather Marathon and could feature Dal Harraild, who was a close sixth in the Group 2 Lonsdale Cup at York in August and makes his first start on an all-weather surface.