Kentucky Derby preparations heat up in Arkansas this weekend with the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park and make their first stop in Kentucky as Turfway Park stages its renamed Jeff Ruby Steaks on the all-weather track.
Yes, "Steaks". The new sponsor is Jeff Ruby's Steakhouse, with locations across the Ohio River in Cincinnati, and in Louisville, Ky., among others.
The weekend also features a pair of tough and classy races for fillies and mares, a stellar field for the Essex Handicap in Arkansas as Oaklawn ups the ante on its season, and noteworthy races in Florida, Maryland and New York.
On the international front, it's the BMW Hong Kong Derby -- the race of the year at Sha Tin for local owners.
Noteworthy: With Arrogate out of the picture, Winx and Gun Runner have ascended to the top in the first Longines World's Best Racehorse rankings of the year. Winx's 129 was earned in her first race of the year, the Group 1 TAB Chipping Norton Stakes; Gun Runner's, in the final race of his career, the Pegasus World Cup.
And we're off!
The Road to the Roses
Would it be a 3-year-old race at Oaklawn Park without a Bob Baffert shipper from California? It almost seems it's part of the condition book. In Saturday's $900,000 Grade II Rebel, the colt that fits the bill is Solomini, who makes his 3-year-old debut. Solomini, a Curlin colt racing for Zayat Stables and Mrs. John Magnier, lost the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity in December on disqualification -- the ruling that advanced McKinzie to victory. Before that, he was second, 4 1/4 lengths behind Good Magic, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Of course, the jury is still out on how good Good Magic's magic really is, so we'll see if Solomini justifies his favorite's role, at 3-2 odds, on the morning line.
The Rebel field also includes Sporting Chance, who has been forgotten recently but won the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last summer. The Tiznow colt, trained by D. Wayne Lukas, was an even fifth in the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his only previous start this year. Combatant, a Scat Daddy colt trained by Steve Asmussen, has three straight second-place finishes in good races. The others in this 11-horse field seem to ambitiously placed.
Magicalmeister, Sky Promise and Arawak, the first three in the John Battaglia Memorial, will find the waters a lot deeper in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Turfway Park all-weather course. The Steaks offers 20 Kentucky Derby points to the winner, which in some years has been enough to get into the big dance.
Rivals showing up at Turfway for the Steaks last raced as far afield as South Florida, Toronto, the San Francisco Bay area and Louisiana. Several make the switch from turf to the all-weather. Others have raced only on dirt tracks. It's a program-stabber, all right. But stabbing the right ones should be profitable.
Kudos to the management of Turfway and Jeff Ruby Steakhouse for maintaining this historic event, originally known as the Spiral Stakes but also known by a variety of other colorful names over the years. Many excellent horses have contested the race, not the least of them Animal Kingdom, who won the Spiral in 2011 as his final prep for victory in the Kentucky Derby.
The supporting card also resuscitates the marquee event of the old Kentucky Cup races, the Kentucky Cup Classic, won in a dead heat by Silver Charm and Wild Rush in the autumn of 1998, just two months before Silver Charm's duel to the wire with Awesome Again in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Here's hoping alternative revenue sources, an ambitious physical renovation and an even-handed regulatory environment can restore the track itself to its rightful place on the Kentucky circuit.
Saturday's $75,000 Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park traditionally was a spot for 3-year-old not quite up to the level of the Spiral Stakes but still harboring hopes. This year's renewal finds a mixed bag -- a few refugees from the Triple Crown trail and some who undoubtedly could parlay a good effort into, say, a stab at the Preakness Stakes. At any rate, it's wide open from a wagering perspective.
Still Having Fun is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park, leading a well-matched field of nine. The Old Fashioned colt is 3-for-4 with the only loss by a neck to Whirlin Curlin last December in a state-bred stakes. Still Having Fun has progressed from that while Whirlin Curlin has not. Also of note here: Diamond King, third in the Grade III Swale at Gulfstream Park; Bal Harbour, second in the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park; and Roaming Union, whose last outing may have suffered from a dislike of the Turfway Park all-weather course.
The Lane to the Lillies
Bet She Wins did just that in her only previous start on an all-weather surface, winning the Arlington-Washington Lassie at Arlington Park last September by 9 1/2 lengths. She didn't fare so well on the dirt in the Grade I Alcibiades at Keeneland in the fall but returns to the all-weather as the favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park. The First Samurai filly is trained by Chris Block. Go Noni Go, a Get Stormy filly, has been running well since Mike Maker put her on the turf last summer at Kentucky Downs but makes her first start on the all-weather.
Mo Shopping, Limited View and Smokinpaddylassie are the big three among eight entered for Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park. Mo Shopping and Smokinpaddylassie both show two straight wins. Limited View has a less limited resume, showing two stakes wins including the Marshua Stakes in her last start. This is more likely a preliminary for the Black-Eyed Susan on Preakness weekend than for the Kentucky Oaks but you never know.
Saturday's $300,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park attracted the first two finishers from the Grade III Razorback -- Leofric and Rocking the Boat. Dazzling Gem was fourth in last year's Essex and comes off a win over the track. Multiplier won last year's Grade III Illinois Derby at Hawthorne. Hedge Fund just missed to Multiplier in that race, also comes off a win and is owned by the red-hot combine of China Horse Club, WinStar Farm and Head of Plains Partners. Petrov, Untrapped and Dalmore have loads of back class. A competitive field should produce lively wagering action.
There are no Silver Charms in Saturday's $100,000 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. But there is a worthy favorite in Royal Son, a 6-year-olds Tiznow gelding who is 3-for-4 over the course. The Kellyn Gorder trainee makes his first start of the year after winding up 2017 with a 7 1/4-lengths triumph in the Prairie Bayou over the course, earning a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 105. If he's a little rusty after 2 1/2 months on the sidelines, look to Camelot Kitten, Designed for War or Dac.
At the age of 7, Something Awesome will try to learn a new trick in Saturday's $100,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial at Laurel Park -- stretching out to 9 furlongs. The Awesome Again gelding comes off a victory in the 7-furlongs, Grade III General George and has never attempted 9 furlongs in any of his 22 previous starts. That normally obscure Daily Racing Form note showing trainers' success at "sprint to route" shows Something Awesome's conditioner, Jose Corrales, with a $0.17 return on investment with such moves. Yet, Something Awesome is the morning-line favorite. Zanotti, a 5-year-old Geo Ponti gelding, has finished first and second in his last two starts -- both at 9 furlongs.
Ten fillies and mares are set to contest Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Margarita at Santa Anita and it looks like a contest, for sure. The morning line has seven of the 10 at single-digit odds, starting with Mopotism at 7-2. She comes off a second, 9 lengths back of Unique Bella, in last month's Santa Maria and doesn't have to contend with that formidable rival this time around the track. Unique Bella missed some training after developing a cough and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer decided to skip this heat and may instead point the Eclipse Award-winning filly to the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. Also in the Santa Margarita field: Fault won the Grade II Buena Vista in her last start but also is cross-entered in Sunday's Grade II Santa Ana on the Santa Anita turf. If she starts here, she, La Force, Mended, Mistress of the Night, Majestic Heat and Bishop's Pond all figure to play a role.
A classy cast, indeed, has assembled for Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn Park. Seven of the eight are graded stakes winners and the one who is not, Sandy's Surprise, won last year's $300,000 Zia Park Oaks. The morning-line favorite is Actress, followed by Blue Prize and Martini Glass. But it certainly would be no surprise to see Streamline or Tiger Moth first across the finish line. Also here are Farrell, who swept las year's Fair Grounds races for 3-year-old fillies but apparently doesn't like to get her hooves wet, and Terra Promessa, who won last year's Grade III Bayakoa over the Oaklawn strip but then struggled during the remainder of the season. Either of them could be the one under favorable circumstances.
Proud and Fearless traveled from the East Coast to New Mexico during her 3-year-old season and resurfaces as the 7-2 favorite in a competitive field for Saturday's $75,000 Latonia at 1 mile on the Turfway Park all-weather course. The Proud Citizen filly, owned by Brereton Jones and trained by Larry Jones, arguably faces an easier task in this race than in most of her 2017 matchups -- provided she can handle the surface switch. If not, it's a wide-open affair. Susie Bee, a 6-year-old English Channel mare, also is worth a glance.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Ivy Bell is the 5-2 morning-line favorite among seven in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park. But any of them could have a claim in a wide-open race. Ivy Bell, a 5-year-old Archarcharch mare, finished 2017 with a pair of runner-up finishes and makes her seasonal debut for trainer Todd Pletcher. Jordan's Henny comes from a victory in the Grade III Hurricane Bertie in January. Rich Mommy and Mines and Magic both sport good resumes.
Ten turned out for Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct with Startwithsilver and Quezon catching the oddsmaker's eye. Startwithsilver, a 5-year-old mare by Jump Start, won the Broadway Stakes for state-breds last time out. Quezon, a 6-year-old Tiz Wonderful mare, has back-to-back wins in the La Verdad and Garland of Roses.
Saturday's $100,000 Conniver Stakes at Laurel Park has nine distaffers going 7 furlongs. The morning-line picks here are My Magician and Uphill Battle, both daughters of Street Magician, who must be very proud.
Saturday's $200,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita features Pubilius Syrus, winner of three of his last four starts; Inscom, still looking for his first victory over winners; and Irish-bred River Boyne, who takes a step up the class ladder while showing promise.
Filly & Mare Turf
As noted above, Force is cross entered in both Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Ana, Santa Anita, and Saturday's Santa Margarita on the main track. Either field would be tough but this one also includes Midnight Crossing, Evo Campo, How Unusual, and Sassy Little Lila, among others. Lots to sort out.
Two weeks out from the Dubai World Cup and the finals of England's All-Weather Championships, action has slowed down a bit -- except in Hong Kong.
Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin Racecourse is -- unlike most other derbies around the world -- restricted to 4-year-olds. It's the culmination of a three-race series that sees distances stretch out from 1 mile to 1,800 meters to the Derby's 2,000 meters, or about 1 1/4 miles.
This year finds the winner of the first two legs, Nothingilikemore and Singapore Sling, facing off with a bunch of rivals, old and new, hoping the added distance will make a difference. Trainer John Size and jockey Joao "Magic Man" Moreira said a bad start cost Nothingilikemore any shot at winning the middle leg of the series, adding a training race since then showed him more relaxed.
Among the upstarts is Ping Hai Star, who gets visiting star jockey Ryan Moore as a sub for Moreira, who sticks with Nothingilikemore.
In recent years, the Derby also has been a pathway to the many Hong Kong international Group 1 events yet to come in the remainder of the current season and the start of the 2018-19 campaign.