Saturday's Arkansas Derby pretty much wraps up the preliminaries for this year's Kentucky Derby and also serves as the anchor for a lovely weekend of top-level racing in Hot Springs.
Keeneland hosts the Lexington Stakes for 3-year-olds -- a race that ranks lower on the Churchill Downs list of Derby qualifiers but also fits nicely amid three other weekend graded stakes on a program of "racing as it was meant to be."
With just three weeks to go before this year's Kentucky Derby, Sunland Park on Sunday hosts the Copper Top Futurity -- for 2-year-olds technically eligible for the 2019 Run for the Roses. The 4 1/2-furlongs dash is for New Mexico-breds.
Unique Bella, Lady Aurelia and Accelerate are scheduled to return to action.
On the international front, Happy Clapper is set to try again against Winx on Saturday at Royal Randwick. That program also includes the Coolmore Legacy Stakes, a Breeders' Cup Challenge race for the Filly & Mare Turf.
We'll try again with this:
The Road to the Roses
Churchill Downs has scratched from consideration the only Japanese-trained horse eligible for the Kentucky Derby, Ruggero, after that colt's disappointing run in the Group 2 UAE Derby in Dubai. That means only two foreign horses -- Gronkowski from England and UAE Derby winner Mendelssohn -- are still on trajectory for Louisville. Here's what's up with the rest of the field:
The $1 million Arkansas Derby
Magnum Moon is the 8-5 morning line choice among nine in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby at Oaklawn Park. The undefeated Malibu Moon colt, winner of the Grade II Rebel over the course in his last start, is among those bucking the long history that a horse unraced at 2 cannot win the Kentucky Derby. A win here would make him, along with the similarly situated Santa Anita Derby winner Justify, a candidate to break that "curse". The Todd Pletcher trainee already is assured of a spot in the Churchill Downs field as a result of the Rebel win.
Also lining up at Oaklawn are Quip, winner of the Tampa Bay Derby, and Combatant, who has posted three seconds and a third in his last four starts but has yet to beat winners. The others in the Arkansas Derby field would be a bit of a shock. But we've seen plenty of those in this race over the years.
Saturday's Grade III Stonestreet Lexington at Keeneland offers 20 Derby points for the winner, 8 for second, 4 for third and 2 for fourth. As such, the race is a last chance for a "bubble" horse to top up the points total, bump a horse or two and still get into the Churchill Downs starting gate. It's like the final day of time trials for the Indianapolis 500.
The only two among the 12 starters fitting that description would appear to be My Boy Jack, who stands No. 21 on the Derby list with 32 points, and Greyvitos, 32nd on the list with 10 points. My Boy Jack likely would clinch a spot in the Derby by winning or running second. Even with a win, Greyvitos would need some defections by horses with more points. My Boy Jack, the 5-2 favorite, drew the outside gate.
Eight fillies are set for Friday's $400,000 Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park. Ami's Challenge is 3-for-4, including a win in the Dixie Belle over the course and, most recently, a runner-up showing in the Grade III Honeybee. Wonder Gadot looks to improve on "close but no cigar" performances at Fair Grounds. A surprise here would be ... well ... no surprise.
Six signed up for Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn Park and four of their names start with the letter "W". If this were baseball, Elias Sports Bureau would tell us whether that's ever happened before. Whitmore, Wilbo, Wings Locked Up and Wynn Time are joined by Ivan Fallunovalot and Smart Spree.
Filly & Mare Turf
A tough bunch signed on for Saturday's $350,000 Grade I Coolmore Jenny Wiley at 1 1/16 miles on the Keeneland greensward. The 11-horse field includes La Coronel, Cambodia, Off Limits, Dona Bruja, Sister Charlie and Fourstar Crook -- all quite capable of a winning performance.
Lady Aurelia is the star -- and the 4-5 morning-line favorite among 10 in for Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway at Keeneland, 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass. The Scat Daddy filly, trained by Wesley Ward, is making her first start since finishing 10th in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last fall. But she has won at the Group 1 level in England and France in each of the two previous years and will be looking for a rebound to support another trans-Atlantic voyage.
Eight are in for Saturday's $100,000 Bridgetown Stakes for 3-year-olds at Aqueduct, including a few one-time Triple Crown prospects.
Hart to Heart finished second in both of Keenland's Grade I mile turf races last year and the 7-year-old son of English Channel accordingly was assigned highweight for Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's 46 Mile. He drew the No. 6 gate in a talented, 10-horse field.
Uni and Fifty Five stand out among five entries for Saturday's $100,000 Plenty of Grace Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the Aqueduct turf.
Unique Bella returns in Friday's $700,000 Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park. It's her second start of the year, following a 9-lengths tour de force in the Grade II Santa Maria Feb. 10 at Santa Anita. She's won seven of nine career starts and the six rivals, while quality distaffers themselves, definitely have Unique Bella to beat.
Sunday it's the $200,000 Top Flight Invitational at Aqueduct.
They appear to have Accelerate to beat in Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Oaklawn Handicap. The 5-year-old son of Lookin at Lucky enters the race off a victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and before that won the Grade II San Pasqual. A caution flag: This will be his first start outside the state of California and the other 10 are pretty talented, too. Another California visitor, City of Light, has run off consecutive Grade I wins in the Malibu and Triple Bend at Santa Anita and may well be star in the making.
Chip Leader, Hollywood Handsome and Rafting are the favorites among seven set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland. The race is 9 furlongs on the main track.
With the pressure of international travel lifted, Winx can go about her business in Saturday's Group 1 Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes with a singleness of purpose. She may need it as the opposition once again includes Happy Clapper, who made the super mare work for her last victory in the Group 1 George Ryder on March 24 at Rosehill. Happy Clapper also won the Group 1 Doncaster just last week. Ten are set for the 2,000-meters race.
On the same program, the Group 1 Coolmore Legacy Stakes for fillies and mares at 1,600 meters offers a free pass to the Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf through the international "Challenge" program. The Legacy drew a field of 17 with little to choose among them.
News and Notes:
Breeders' Cup has added four Royal Ascot races to its "Challenge" series, providing a "win and you're in" opportunity for this autumn's World Championships at Churchill Downs.
The new races are the Group 1 Prince of Wales's Stakes at 1 1/4 miles, the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at 1 mile, the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at 6 furlongs and the Group 2 Norfolk Stakes for 2 year-olds at 5 furlongs. The latter is for colts and fillies but the "Challenge" guarantee is for a spot in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint.
The move has significant precedent. The Queen Anne already has produced Breeders' Cup Mile winners Barathea and Goldikova. The Prince of Wales's has sent Fantastic Light and Highland Reel to victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf.
The 1 1/2-miles Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes has been a Royal Ascot-Breeders' Cup linkup since 2011.
Speaking of great racing, Oaklawn Park is making what it calls "the most significant change to its racing schedule since World War II. In 2019, Oaklawn will open Friday, Jan. 25 and run through Saturday, May 4, three weeks after the million Arkansas Derby. Other than 1945 when the track had to postpone its season until the fall of that year because of wartime restrictions, Oaklawn has traditionally concluded its annual racing season with the Arkansas Derby in mid-April.
"This is a sea change in our scheduling," said Oaklawn President Louis Cella said. "This is an idea that has been discussed internally for a number of years and now the time seems right to make the change. The quality of our program is calling on us to present racing in the most favorable weather conditions. There is nowhere in America more beautiful for great racing than Arkansas in the spring."
That's like the discussion of which U.S. region has the best barbecue. There are lots of different kinds. They're all good.