The Dubai World Cup, the Florida Derby, and the reigning Kentucky Derby winner are back from a long layoff and the finals of England's All-Weather Championships make for one of the top weekends of the Thoroughbred racing year.
In addition, Gulfstream Park has some quality turf racing, including a return by a Breeders' Cup grass winner.
Graze on this:
The World Cup
Trainer Bob Baffert sat next to Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and creator of the World Cup, at Wednesday's barrier draw and hopes to shake His Highness' hand again Saturday if West Coast can win the $10 million Grade I Dubai World Cup.
The task won't be easy for West Coast, a 4-year-old Flatter colt who won the Grade I Travers last summer at Saratoga, then finished third in the Breeders' Cup Classic and second behind Horse of the Year Gun Runner in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup.
Baffert has saddled three World Cup winners but this year faces a diverse cast including two tough locals -- Godolphin' Thunder Snow, winner of last year's UAE Derby over the course and a featured player in three races earlier this season at Meydan, and North America, who defeated Thunder Snow in their last meeting.
Then there's Talismanic, trained in France for Godolphin by Andre Fabre. The reigning Breeders' Cup Turf winner makes his first start on the dirt. Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Forever Unbridled returns from that effort last November for one last race. Pavel, Furia Cruzada, Gunnevera and Baffert's second starter, Mubtaahij, round out a field in which almost nothing would be a total surprise.
Baffert, however, said he's optimistic about West Coast's chances. "All we can hope for is racing luck and a good start," he said.
The last two runnings of the Dubai World Cup, however, have produced anything but good starts. In 2016, California Chrome won even though his saddle slipped badly early in the race and jockey Victor Espinoza was fighting for balance the who way around. And last year, Arrogate famously got away from the gate a hopeless last, only to rally under a patient ride by Mike Smith to get Baffert his third win. Smith recently said he still can't believe he won the race.
The $2 million Group 2 UAE Derby Sponsored by Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group is of particular interest to Americans because it could send as many as three runners to the May 5 Kentucky Derby and another to the Kentucky Oaks.
The winner of the UAE Derby is awarded 100 Kentucky Derby points and the runner-up, 40. Those totals usually are enough to win a spot in the starting gate. In addition, Japan's runner, Ruggero, currently tops the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings and could move on to the Run for the Roses even if he does not grab one of the top two spots Saturday. And Rayya, who takes on makes for the first time, already is qualified for the Kentucky Oaks on the basis of her victory in the UAE Oaks on Super Saturday.
The favorites in the UAE Derby are a trio from the Coolmore Partners from Ireland and trainer Aidan O'Brien -- Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf winner Mendelssohn, Seahenge and Twoandthreepence. The expected scenario is to have Seahenge ensure a lively pace and enable his stablemates to produce a winning late run.
The race could be ripe for an upset, however, and among those being overlooked is the sole American-based entry, Reride. The Candy Ride colt has won both his starts this year, most recently the Mine That Bird Derby in New Mexico.
Also Saturday at Meydan:
The $6 million Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,400 meters on the turf finds the runner-up in last year's Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, Cloth of Stars, pitted against a fierce team of Japanese raiders headed by Rey De Oro, the reigning 3-year-old champ in his homeland. The field also includes the Aidan O'Brien-trained Idaho, a full brother to the retired Highland Reel.
A field of 14 for the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf Sponsored by DP World also includes a strong team from Japan. But the field also features a strong and diverse cast from England, Ireland and South Africa. The Godolphin "home team" includes Benbatl, one of trainer Saeed bin Suroor's top hopes for he evening. The race is run at 1,800 meters.
American runners are favored in both the sprints on the rich card. The $2 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored by Gulf News, 1,200 meters on the dirt track, features Breeders's Cup Sprint winner Roy H, last year's Shaheen winner Mind Your Biscuits and 2016 Shaheen runner-up X Y Jet, all visiting from the United States. U.S. chances in the $1 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint Sponsored by Azizi Developments were not hurt when Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Stormy Liberal drew Gate No. 5 and Breeders' Cup runner-up Richard's Boy drew gate No. 7 in the field of 14.
The $1 million Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup sponsored by Al Tayer Motors is the evening's turf marathon with 16 set to tackle 3,200 meters -- about 2 miles. Vazirabad, owned by the Aga Khan, shoots for a record third straight win but the race is competitive. Others include 2017 Royal Ascot Gold Cup winner Big Orange and Godolphin's Gold Star, another of trainer Bin Suroor's favorites.
The card opens with the $1 million Grade II Godolphin Mile on the dirt. Second Summer seeks a second straight win in a relatively wide-open field of 14.
Back to North America:
The Road to the Roses
Audible, winner of three straight races including the Grade II Holy Bull in his previous start, is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $1.1 million Grade I Florida Derby at Gulfstream Park. The winner gets 100 Kentucky Derby points, guaranteeing a spot in the Run for the Roses.
Audible, owned by China Horse Club and Head of Plains Partners, is trained by Todd Pletcher. The Into Mischief colt started his career running against fellow New York-breds but quickly matured early this year, winning an optional claimer by nearly 10 lengths before the Holy Bull.
He faces the first two finishers from the Grade II Fountain of Youth, Promises Fulfilled and Strike Power, and the winner of the Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct, Catholic Boy, in a field of nine.
Thirteen 3-year-old fillies are set for Saturday's $300,000 Gulfstream Park Oaks. The race lacks a clear favorite although the field includes Take Charge Paula and Heavenhasmynikki, second and third in the Grade II Davona Dale and the first three from the Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs -- C.S. Incharge, Daisy and Mihrab.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields drew 12 and the oddsmaker settled on Frank Conversation, a 5-year-old son of Quality Road who makes his first start since winning the John Henry Turf Championship last October at Santa Anita.
Sadler's Joy is the 2-1 morning-line pick for Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Pan American at Gulfstream Park after winning the Grade II Mac Diarmida over the course March 3. A cast of nine is assembled.
Filly & Mare Turf
Lull looks to get back to the winner's circle as the narrow favorite in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park. She finished fifth last time out in the Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar. Prominent among nine opponents is On Leave, who has been on leave since winning the Grade III My Charmer at Gulfstream Dec. 17.
Best Performance is the morning-line pick in Saturday's $150,000 Sanibel Island for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park. The Broken Vow filly makes her first start since finishing second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Among the rivals, Amertume comes from a nice second in the Grade III Herecomesthebride.
Last Year's Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, returns to action for the first time since August when he lines up against five rivals in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Hardacre Mile. Always Dreaming, a Bodemeister colt trained by Todd Pletcher, has not won since the Derby victory. He was last seen finishing ninth in the Grade I Travers last summer but has been working impressively at Palm Beach Downs for his return. He will have to contend with the likes of Irish War Cry, second in the Grade III Hal's Hope in his last start, and Tommy Macho, winner of the Grade III Fred Hooper in January.
Elsewhere on the international front:
The All-Weather Championships
Good Friday brings the fifth All-Weather Championships Finals Day at Lingfield Park in England -- the culmination of a series that began last October. Horses qualified for the finals either by winning a designated "Fast-Track Qualifier" race in the appropriate division or by racing at least three times on All-Weather surfaces in Great Britain, Ireland and France; or twice in those jurisdictions and once on dirt in Dubai. Purses for Finals Day total 1 million pounds sterling.
Master The World and Mr Owen, who fought out an eventful finish to Group3 Betway Winter Derby in February, feature among 10 runners for the featured Betway Easter Classic over 10 furlongs on the Lingfield Polytrack. Mr Owen was first home in the Winter Derby but the stewards reversed that order of finish, putting Master of the World on top.
Master Of The World was awarded the Betway Winter Derby in the stewards' room after Mr Owen, who was first past the post by a head, veered right and impeded him close home. Utmost and Victory Bond, first and second in the Betway Winter Derby Trial Feb. 3 also are contesting the Easter Classic.
Also on the card:
Watersmeet will try to improve on his second in last year's Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship over 1 mile and 7 furlongs. Rivals include Group 1 winner Red Verdon.
Diagnostic is a narrow favorite in the 32Red Fillies' and Mares' All-Weather Championships at 7 furlongs. Thirteen are set to go in this event including Fast-Track Qualifiers Soul Silver, Summer Icon and Nivvo.
Defending champion Kimberella is the narrow favorite to repeat in the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championships at 6 furlongs while racing eight rivals. Among them is Kachy, who defeated Kimberella over course and distance Feb. 3. Gifted Master is top-rated and French challenger City Light complicates the equation.
Corinthia Knight is the favorite in the 32Red Three-Year-Old All-Weather Championships after winning two Fast-Track Qualifiers. He, however, has to face Never Back Down, who won a third Fast-Track event between the two in December at Wolverhampion. The latter, however, has not raced in the interim.
Hot favourite Second Thought (William Haggas/James Doyle, 6/4 with Sun Bets) has the chance to become the first horse to win two different races on All-Weather Championships Finals Day. He is unbeaten in six stars on the All-Weather and captured the 32Red Three-Year-Old All-Weather Championships on Good Friday 12 months ago. This year, he is the strong favorite to take the Sunbets All-Weather Mile Championships over 10 rivals.
And, back in the USA:
Saturday is the fourth annual NYRA Claiming Championship Series with 10 starter stakes races worth $695,000. Named after some of the most familiar claiming horses to run at the Big A, the Claiming Championship is open to horses which have started for a claiming price this year or last year. The series offers distances ranging from six furlongs to 1 1/8 miles.