Noble Indy moved to the top of the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with a hard-fought victory in the Louisiana Derby and Runaway Ghost ran into the picture for the Run for the Roses with a win in New Mexico in highlights of weekend racing.
Winx scored her 24th straight win in Australia but there's still no word on a possible trip to Royal Ascot.
A week out from its big party at Meydan, Godolphin had a huge weekend on the world stage, scoring a first-ever Grade I victory in Japan and taking a close third behind Winx in Australia with a promising 3-year-old.
Synchrony and Good Samaritan impressed at Fair Grounds and Javier Castellano had a massive day at Tampa Bay Downs.
We've amassed this:
The Road to the Roses
Noble Indy shadowed a pacesetting long shot down the backstretch in Saturday's $1 million Grade II Twinspires.com Louisiana Derby, surged to the lead on the turn and held on doggedly to win by a neck over Lone Sailor, moving into the top spot on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. My Boy Jack trailed the field early, came wide enough on the turn for jockey Kent Desormeaux to grab a hot dog from the stands, and stalled out in the final sixteenth, settling for third.
Grade II Risen Star winner Bravazo retreated through the stretch run to finish eighth and jockey Gary Stevens said he was fighting the bit the whole way, trying to get out. "I can't explain why. He was sound after the race, pulled up good, but he was mad," Stevens said.
Noble Indy, a Take Charge Indy colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.28, earning 100 Kentucky Derby points. Lone Sailor, not previously prominent on the Road to the Roses, picked up 40 points to rank eighth. My Boy Jack got 20, jumping into 12th place on the leaderboard, and Givemeaminit, who finished 7 3/4 lengths back of My Boy Jack, added 10 points but still only stands at No. 23.
Noble Indy, trained by Todd Pletcher for Repole Stable and WinStar Farm, improved from a third-place finish in the Risen Star. Pletcher added blinkers for the Louisiana Derby. "I think the blinkers had him more focused," Pletcher said. "This race was a big step in the right direction. I was pleased with the way he conducted himself. He seems to be maturing as he gets more experience."
In New Mexico, Runaway Ghost ran his way into the Kentucky Derby picture with a 2 3/4-lengths victory in the $800,000 Grade II Sunland Derby, the race Mine That Bird used as a prep for his upset win in the 2009 Run for the Roses. Runaway Ghost, a Ghostzapper colt, got a wide trip under Tracy Hebert from gate No. 11 but rallied to the lead in the lane and was in command thereafter. Dream Baby Dream was second and Peace finished third, 6 lengths farther back. The 1 1/8 miles over a fast track went in 1:49.20.
"We knew with an outside draw we could get the horse to relax better and it worked out," said winning trainer Todd Fincher. "We had a long run to the first turn. We figured we might be a little wide, but that would be better than a horse laying on us, forcing our hand. He was actually a little farther back in the early stages than I thought."
Runaway Ghost was a late nominee to the Triple Crown and Fincher said, "We all want to go to the Derby."
Turning for home in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Twinspires.com Fair Grounds Oaks, Chocolate Martini and Eskimo Kisses were next-last and last in the field of seven. But by mid-stretch, pacesetting favorite Classy Act had given her all and Chocolate Martini was along just in time to gain the win and 100 points toward a start in the Kentucky Oaks. Eskimo Kisses was gaining ground at the end but settled for second, a head behind Chocolate Kisses and 3/4 length to the good of Wonder Gadot. Classy Act was a tired fourth as Chocolate Kisses, under Mitchell Murrill, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.44.
Chocolate Kisses, a Broken Vow filly, was claimed for $25,000 by trainer Tom Amoss Feb. 2 at Fair Grounds. She won her first race for the new barn but was a 13-1 shot in the Oaks. "She came to me in great shape," Amoss said. "We caught her coming into her maturity level just right."
The victory is a ticket to the Kentucky Oaks and Amoss said, "I don't think you can keep these owners away from the Oaks if she's healthy." The 100 points awarded Saturday put Chocolate Martini No. 1 on the leaderboard for a Kentucky Oaks start -- plenty to ensure a spot in the starting gate.
In New Mexico, Blamed, the heaviest of favorites, ran to her notices in Sunday's $200,000 Sunland Park Oaks. With Ken Tohill up, the Maryland-bred daughter of Blame tracked the early pace set by Kram, then easily took over and won off by 6 1/4 lengths with only mild encouragement. Kram held second, 8 lengths in front of Charge Back. Blamed ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.32.
Good Samaritan strolled out of the gate in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II New Orleans Handicap, dropped to a distant last on the backstretch and then circled all four rivals to win by 2 1/4 lengths, going away. Hollywood Handsome, Scuba and Han Sense completed the order of finish. The favorite, Grade III Mineshaft winner The Player, was pulled up at the top of the stretch. Good Samaritan, a 4-year-old Harlan's Holiday colt, finished 9 furlongs on a fast track for jockey Joel Rosario.
Bill Mott trains Good Samaritan for the red-hot ownership combo of WinStar Farm, China Horse Club, Head of Plains Partners and SF Racing. He was making his first start since finishing second, 1/2 length behind Seeking the Soul, in the Grade I Clark Handicap Nov. 24 at Churchill Downs.
"He's the kind of horse you let him do whatever he wants to do," Rosario said of Good Samaritan's tardy start and leisurely early stroll. "He was happy where he was. He just likes to run." WinStar Farm's Elliott Walden said the owners would "like to win a Grade I on the turf with him at some point."
At Sunland Park in New Mexico, Faypien dueled through much of Sunday's $100,000 Harry Henson Stakes for fillies and mares, then finally edged away late in the stretch drive to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Kell Paso. Adore was third. Faypien, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper filly, is based in Southern California with trainer Bob Baffert. She ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.28 with Martin Garcia up.
Synchrony took position along the rail, within hailing distance of the leaders, in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Muniz Memorial Handicap at Fair Grounds, came off the fence to find running room at the top of the lane and got clear late, winning by 1 3/4 lengths. Arklow was second and Zulu Alpha, who showed the way early, saved third.
"He's so willing," said winning rider Joe Bravo, who booted home Synchrony in 1:49.59. "He's just having fun. You show him an opening and he's gone."
Synchrony, a 5-year-old son of Tapit, was making his second start off a long layoff. In the Grade III Fair Grounds Handicap last month, he finished second, 1/2 length back of Mr. Misunderstood, who finished fourth in the Muniz. "The sky's the limit for this horse," said winning trainer Michael Stidham. "If he comes out of it well, we'll be going for some big games."
Itsinthepost waited and waited in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Luis Rey at Santa Anita, moved to the front after exiting the final turn and opened up a daylight lead. The 6-year-old French-bred gelding then had just enough to withstand a late bid by Hayabusa One, winning by 3/4 length over that rival. It was another 5 1/4 lengths back to Responsibleforlove in third. Itsinthepost ran 1 1/2 miles on good turf in 2:27.73 with Tyler Baze in the irons.
Since finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Turf, Itsinthepost has reeled off consecutive victories in the Grade II San Gabriel, Grade II San Marcos and Grade II San Luis Rey. He also won the San Luis Rey last year. "I've had some good turf horses, but some of them, they'll kind of tail off at some point," said winning trainer Jeff Mullins. "Not this horse. He's just solid every time. With this horse, the further, the better."
Belvoir Bay took the rail route to the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Mizdirection Stakes for fillies and mares down the Santa Anita hillside course, then held on to win by a head over Blame It On Alphie. Classy Tune was another 1/2 length back in third. Belvoir Bay, a 5-year-old British-bred mare by Equiano, got home in 1:13.51 with Tyler Baze at the controls.
Madison's Luna sprinted to the front at the quarter pole in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Hutcheson Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park and showed his heels to five rivals, winning by 5 lengths. Soutache was best of the rest, 2 1/4 lengths ahead of Tricks to Doo. The favorite, Impact Player, had no impact, finishing next-last. Madison's Luna, a Tapit colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.45 with Julien Leparoux handling the reins. The colt won his first career start at Tampa Bay Downs Feb. 10.
"I'm very pleased, maybe a little surprised how he did it," said Madison's Luna's trainer, Philip Bauer. Bauer said the colt now will try the Grade III Pat Day Mile at one turn on the Kentucky Derby undercard May 5. "I think he'll stretch out. We saw how he can relax behind horses," Bauer said. "He does everything the right way, especially for a Tapit. Sometimes they can be temperamental."
In New Mexico, Mt Veder opened a big lead in the stretch run in Sunday's $100,000 Bill Thomas Memorial, then had just enough left to hold off Southern California invader Blameitonthelaw by a neck. Concord Fast was another 2 lengths back in third. Mt Veder, a 5-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, got 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.18 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. up.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Selcourt led from gate to wire in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Monica at Santa Anita, kicking away late to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Marley's Freedom was second, followed by Skye Diamonds, odds-on favorite Paradise Woods and Just a Little Hope. Selcourt, a 4-year-old Tiz Wonderful filly, negotiated 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.00 with Tyler Baze Riding.
Selcourt now is 3-for-3 this season. In her previous start, she won the Grade II Las Flores. "She's been great all winter, going up the ranks and stepping up to the challenge," said winning trainer John Sadler. "There's one step left, which is to go for the Grade I, so we'll look around and see what's available." He mentioned the Humana Distaff May 5 at Churchill Downs and the Beholder Mile at Santa Anita June 2 as possible targets to accomplish that goal.
At Oaklawn Park, odds-on favorite Mia Mischief kicked away in the stretch run to take Saturday's $150,000 Purple Martin Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 8 1/4 lengths, ridden out. Salt Bae beat the other six after leading through the early furlongs. Criminal Mischief was along for third. Mia Mischief, an Into Mischief filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.65 with Ricardo Santana Jr. in the irons.
"I thought she relaxed nice off the pace," said Darren Fleming, assistant to winning trainer Steve Asmussen. "I'm sure everybody expected us to be the pace, but Ricardo changed it around and she relaxed nice behind them and came and got them." Santana called it "a perfect trip."
At Gulfstream Park, Elevenses, the prohibitive favorite, was along in time to reward her backers with a 3/4-length victory in Saturday's $75,000 Any Limit Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Onebrethatatime was second, 4 1/4 lengths in front of Twice Around. Elevenses, a More Than Ready filly trained by James Jerkens, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.89 under Luis Saez. She's now 3-for-4.
And, in New York, Lezendary took command early in Sunday's $100,000 Cicada Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct and held sway, winning by 3 1/4 lengths over Shamrock Rose. Gibby was third and the favorite, Shamrock Rose, reported fourth. Lezendary, a Zensational filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.16 for jockey Trevor McCarthy.
On the international front:
Winx pulled out her 24th straight win with a determined stretch run in Saturday's Group 1 The Agency George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill Gardens. But there still is no answer to the question whether she will travel to England or Europe.
With Hugh Bowman up, the 7-year-old Street Cry mare took her usual casual approach in the Ryder, racing at the back of the pack until the turn was in view. She picked it up willingly at that point and was in her usual contending position entering the stretch. But by then, Happy Clapper was out front and in full stride, harboring no intention of yielding. In fact, it was deep stretch before Winx hit the front and she won by just 3/4 length.
Kementari, a very promising 3-year-old owned by Godolphin, finished third and might have done better with a clean trip in the lane. Happy Clapper and Kementari are headed for the Group 1 Doncaster Mile (G1) April 7. Winx is targeting the Group 1 Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes a week later. Then?
"To be fair to the owners (Magic Bloodstock Racing and partners), we haven't even discussed it," trainer Chris Waller said of the prospect of Royal Ascot. But he sounded a note of caution on the issue, adding, "If she's going for a fourth Cox Plate, we could only go for one race, maybe two."
Waller also remained focused on the domestic agenda as he saluted the others in the Ryder field. "It did make her stretch," he said of Happy Clapper's stout stretch run. "It's perfect for what we're headed for -- the Queen Elizabeth in three weeks' time."
With the quarantine issues and the stress of travel -- not to mention the specter of Black Caviar's narrow brush with defeat at Ascot -- the issue whether Winx takes to the air seems to remain very much up in the air.
The Ryder victory, in addition to being Winx's 24th in a row, was her 17th at the Group 1 level. That skein includes victories in three straight runnings of the Cox Plate.
"I've always treated them with the respect they deserve," Bowman said of Winx's rivals. "But this mare is just better than them... Every horse is different," he added. "But this horse has really captured the imagination of the world."
The Ryder was just one of five Group 1 events on Saturday's card at Rosehill. The feature, in fact, was the Longines Golden Slipper, the world's richest race for 2-year-olds and, this year, the preserve of fillies.
Estijaab exited the outside gate in the Slipper, quickly got to the front and led home an all-filly top three finish. Oohood and Sunlight were second and third. Written By, the favorite, was the first colt across the line, finishing fourth. Winning jockey Brenton Avdulla said the race went exactly according to his plan. "The gate speed she's got is unbelievable. I knew she could get across and control," he said.
Estijaab, a daughter of Snitzel, got the 1,200 meters on soft turf in 1:12.01 just as a storm descended on the course. It was her second win in a row and third from four starts but by far the biggest of her career as the Golden Slipper offers a purse of AUS$3.5 million -- about US$2.69 million.
Also on the card:
D'Argento, also handled by Bowman and trained by Waller, won the Group 1 Sky Racing Rosehill Guineas. Waller immediately encouraged Bowman to think about sending the So You Think colt on to the 2,400-meters Australian Derby April 7 but Waller said he'll have another think about that.
In the Group 1 Ranvet Stakes, Gailo Chop took the lead with 400 meters to go and gradually edged clear, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. Single Gaze and Prized Icon contested the pace through most of the 2,000 meters of soft turf and battled it out for second with Single Gaze getting the better of that by 1/2 length.
In Her Time rallied outside the leaders to win the Group 1 PFD Food Services Galaxy at 1,100 meters. The 6-year-old daughter of Time Thief returned from a five-month layoff following a second-place finish in the Manikato Stakes at Mooney Valley.
Fine Needle found just enough in the final strides to edge Let's Go Donki in Sunday's Grade 1 Takamatsunomia Kinen at Chukyo Racecourse. Fine Needle, bred by Darley Japan and owned by Godolphin, kicked into gear from mid-pack with about 200 meters left in the 1,200-meter sprint and rallied outside Let's Go Donki to win by a nose. Nac Venus was third and the only foreign entrant, Blizzard, settled for fifth although beaten only little more than 1 length. Fine Needle, a 5-year-old son of Admire Moon, finished in 1:08.5 over firm going.
"I wasn't really sure whether I had actually won as the margin was so close between us and the runner up," said winning rider Yuga Kawada. "But my only concern was to ride the horse to his best to the end, so the victory was just a result which came along with it and he deserved it."
It was the first JRA Grade 1 win both for Godolphin and for trainer Yoshitada Takahashi and opens up a world of opportunity for them and the horse.
"It gave me a great sense of accomplishment to have been able to be the first to give the owner their first Grade 1 title in Japan and I would like to credit my whole stable staff for their effort and teamwork," Takahashi said. "This victory opens a number of options for us and future plans will be discussed with the owners including possible overseas challenges to Hong Kong and/or England. In any case, my job as a trainer is to have Fine Needle conditioned and ready for any decided plan."
Blizzard's trainer and jockey, Ricky Yiu and Karis Teetan, said their Hong Kong-based horse couldn't quite handle the going. "The horse really tried," Yiu said. Teetan told Hong Kong Jockey Club's Andrew Hawkins: "It was a firm track on top and was rated as such but it felt shifty underneath. It was like when a car gets stuck in the mud and the wheels keep spinning."
Back in the States, around the ovals:
Battle at Sea led all the way to a 2 1/4-lengths victory in Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Derby for Louisiana-bred 3-year-olds. Pound for Pound was second, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Gracida. Battle at Sea, an Into Mischief colt trained by Mike Maker, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.90 under Jose Ortiz.
Testing One Two raced wide and behind the leaders through the early furlongs of Saturday's $75,000 Crescent City Oaks for state-bred fillies, then asserted herself through the stretch run, drawing off to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Champagne Diva was second and Remember Daisy recovered from a bad trip in time to get up for third. Testing One Two, a Star Guitar filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:43.21 with Diego Saenz riding.
Sully's Dream was a gate-to-wire winner in Saturday's $60,000 New Orleans Ladies, reporting 4 1/2 lengths ahead of Vagabond Princess. Mannerly was another 1 1/2 lengths back in third and the favorite, Mom's On Strike, was fourth. Sully's Dream, a 4-year-old Colonel John filly, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.73 with Gary Stevens in the irons.
Monte Man circled wide into the turn in Saturday's $60,000 Costa Rising Stakes for state-breds, swung wider still through the stretch run and outfinished Rock n Sake to win by 1 1/4 lengths. The favorite, Trust Factor, was third, a neck back of Rock n Sake. Monte Man, a 5-year-old Custom for Carlos gelding, ran about 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:04.28 with Adam Beschizza in the irons.
Split Time had to wait to find room in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Maddie May Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-old fillies. But once jockey Junior Alvarado got her to the outside, the Take Charge Indy filly outfinished Our Super Nova, winning by 1/2 length. Cause We Are Loyal rallied to take third. Split Time ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.50.
Tampa Bay Downs
On Florida Cup Day at the Gulf Coast track, all races for Florida-breds and each worth a tidy $100,000:
Massive favorite Imperial Hint jogged off with the victory in the Horse Races Now Sprint, winning by 5 lengths over Deland. Delta Bluesman was third. Imperial Hint, a 5-year-old son of Imperialism, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.78 with Javier Castellano up. Imperial Hint was second in last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Florida Fuego got by pacesetter Mermaid of Honor in the stretch drive to win the Stonehedge Farm South Sophomore Fillies by 1 1/4 lengths. It was another 7 1/4 lengths behind Mermaid of Honor to Starship Bonita in third. Florida Fuego, a Kantharos filly, ran 7 furlongs in 1:25.10 with Castellano at the controls.
Castellano made it a three-bagger in the EG Vodka Turf Classic, booting home Swagger Jagger first, a nose to the good of odds-on favorite Galleon Mast. Second Mate was third. Swagger Jagger, a 5-year-old entire son of Crown of Thorns, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.08.
He's Bankable led most of the way, under pressure, in the DRF Bets Sophomore Turf and held on in the final strides to win by a nose over March to the Arch. The X was another 2 1/4 lengths behind in third. He's Bankable, with Julien Leparoux in the irons, ran 1 1/16 miles on the green course in 1:41.29.
Leparoux then made it two in a row with a pace-stalking victory aboard Noble Commander in the Ocala Breeders' Sales Sophomore. Noble Commander, a Forestry colt, drew off to win by 3 lengths over Silent Tiger. Lord Barna was third. Noble Commander completed 7 furlongs on the main track in 1:25.26.
In the day's final stakes, it was Castellano again, riding Madame Uno to a front-running, 1-length victory in the Pleasant Acres Stallions Distaff Turf. Surprise Wedding and Bonita filled out the trifecta. Madame Uno, a 4-year-old First Dude filly, got 1 1/16 miles in 1:41.57.
"I'm very fortunate," Castellano said of his four-wins day. "From the beginning, I've had a lot of support from a lot of trainers and owners who have given me a lot of cool horses to ride."
Tango Run had the run of the race in Saturday's $75,000 Southern Park Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-old fillies and waltzed home first by 2 lengths over pacesetter Fancy Feelin. Dotthei was third. Tango Run, with Rex Stokes III aboard, waited behind rivals, came around them into the lane and finished 6 furlongs over a fast track in 1:14.85. The winner is by Run Away and Hide.
On Sunday's Sunland Park Derby undercard:
Hennessey Express led all the way to a 2 1/4-length victory in the $100,000 New Mexico Breeders' Oaks for state-breds. Movin On was second, 5 1/4 lengths better than McGoldie. Hennessey Express, a daughter of Roll Hennessey Roll, rolled 1 1/16 miles on the fast track in 1:44.31 with Roimes Chirinos in the irons.
Blazing Navarone led much of the way in the $100,000 New Mexico Breeders' Derby for state-breds, turned back a challenge and went on to win by 3 3/4 lengths from Dani's Choice. Western Warning was third. Blazing Navarone, the odds-on favorite, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.84. Ry Eikleberry rode the Song of Navarone gelding.
G M Gage rallied from far back in the $100,000 New Mexico State University Handicap for state-breds and won a four-horse scramble to the finish by a neck over Shining Source. It was another neck back to Thunder Dome and yet another neck to Hute in fourth. G M Gage, a 5-year-old Elijah's Song gelding, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:40.55 for jockey Tracy Hebert.