Champions Day in Hong Kong and the Tenno Sho Spring in Japan top the international weekend racing calendar while minor tremors continue to shake up the prospective Kentucky Derby field.
Two 1 1/2-mile turf races for fillies and mares grace the weekend card in North America.
Although the weather doesn't reflect it everywhere, it must be spring since Belmont Park and Churchill Downs return to action.
And we spring into action with:
The international scene
The Hong Kong Jockey Club has bundled three of its Group 1 races into Sunday's Champions Day -- a bookend of December's Longines Hong Kong International Races lacking only a 1 1/2-mile race of making a mirror image.
A promised showing by European horses fizzled -- perhaps because the nasty weather in the UK, Ireland and the Continent disrupted training, perhaps for other reasons. That leaves the very talented Hong Kong runners to cope with a clutch of Japanese invaders and one from Dubai.
The Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup
The feature race of the day includes Time Warp, the winner of the two previous 2,000-meters Group 1 events of the season -- the Longines Hong Kong Cup in December and the Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup in February. Representing the up-and-coming types is the winner of the BMW Hong Kong Derby, Ping Hai Star.
An interesting sidelight to the race is the presence of two talented but balky runners.
The more highly regarded of two Japanese entrants, Al Ain, provided a testing 57 minutes for his trainer and rider Thursday morning as he bucked, reared, unseated the rider and generally refused even to consider the planned gallop. He eventually returned to quarters after submitting to a brief excursion the wrong way down the stretch.
And then there's Pakistan Star. The German-bred gelding is famous in Hong Kong for twice having basically stopped mid-race. In the first case, he refused to continue. More recently, jockey Joao Moreira got him going again and he showed enough talent to come charging late to finish a close fourth.
The Chairman's Sprint Prize
The 1,200-meters dash around one turn is nearly the personal preserve of trainer John Size, who will saddle five of the nine starters. Among them, 2017 runner-up Mr Stunning is a standout with a victory in the Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December and a second in the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup in February. The irony is, Mr Stunning was to have been ridden by his regular jockey, Nash Rawiler, who earlier in the month was suspended for 15 months for wagering and tipping horses. Sam Clipperton inherits the mount.
At Thursday's barrier draw, Size said he's grateful for the success that has landed five horses in the race. "The next step is to try to win it," he said.
That may not be a given. The two foreigners in the field are Blue Point, representing Dubai, and Fine Needle, trained in Japan. Both are owned by Godolphin and both are talented. Trainer Charlie Appleby rated Blue Point his best chance on Dubai World Cup night but the 4-year-old was scratched at the gate. Fine Needle comes off a victory in the prestigious Group 1 Takamatsunomiya Kinen at Chukyo.
Not to be overlooked is Lucky Bubbles, last year's winner. Despite a string of disappointments, he could be headed to Royal Ascot if he performs well in Sunday's race.
"Royal Ascot is one of the most prestigious race meetings in the world and it will be a great honor for us to participate," trainer Francis Lui said at Sha Tin on Wednesday. "As we have a suitable horse to be entered for the meeting, I decided to have an entry and would say that Lucky Bubbles will have a great chance to go."
The Champions Mile
The Mile kicks off the Group 1 festivities at Sha Tin and it's an all-Hong Kong affair with all eight runners trained locally.
Trainer John Moore won five of six runnings of the Mile early in the decade and looks to snap a two-race losing streak with Beauty Generation, winner of the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December and the Grade I Queen's Silver Jubilee Cup in January.
The race likely will be hotly contested, though, and several of the starters have beaten one another in previous engagements.
While some top sprint and middle-distance runners visit Japan, the heavyweight stayers line up in Sunday's Grade 1 Tenno Sho Spring. The lineup includes last year's Japan Cup winner, Cheval Grand, and progressive 4-year-old Clincher, whose team hopes to launch yet another Japanese assault on this fall's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Cheval Grand, who finished second in last year's Tenno Sho Spring, apparently didn't feel like running in his seasonal debut, finishing 13th in the Grade I Osaka Hai. But trainer Yasuo Tomamichi noted the 2,000 meters over the Hanshin course was "probably too short for him" and predicted a better outcome in the 3,200-meters event Sunday at Kyoto. "His last two runs in the spring Tenno Sho have been good, so I'll be expecting something similar to those this time," Tomamichi said. He's owned by Kazuhiro Sasaki, who pitched for the Seattle Mariners from 2000 through 2003 and was named the 2000 American League Rookie of the Year.
Clincher, a 4-year-old colt by Deep Sky, already is a proven stayer. He was second in last year's Grade 1 Kikuka Sho (Japanese St. Leger), run over 3,000 meters at Kyoto. In his most recent start, he finished third to Rainbow Line in the Grade 2 Hanshin Daishoten at Hanshin, going 3,000 meters. Japan has had a long string of disappointments in the Arc and any prospect of a realistic chance is sure to bring strong interest among the local punters.
Crossed Baton led throughout Wednesday's Investec Blue Riband Trial at Epsom and held in the final furlong to win by a head over a closing My Lord And Master. Dee Ex Bee, the favorite in a field of eight, was another 1 1/4 lengths back in third, followed by James Cook and Simpson. Crossed Baton, a Juddmonte Farms homebred son of Dansili, earned a "wild card" spot in the Investec Derby by stint of his victory in the trial.
Crossed Baton, ridden by Frankie Dettori on Wednesday, has won both his 3-year-old starts, both at 1 1/2 miles. The earlier came on the all-weather surface at Kempton.
Trainer John Gosden, who notched his sixth Trial win, said he was gratified that Crossed Baton showed he could handle the track. But Dettori, who also won the event last year with Cracksman, said the colt will have to do better to win the Derby. "It was not a Derby-winning performance," he said of Wednesday's effort."
Meanwhile, back in North America:
The Road to the Roses
Gronkowski and Quip early in the week exited the field for the Kentucky Derby, opening up slots for Combattant and Instilled Regard.
Gronkowski, who won the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, reportedly had a slight fever, which caused trainer Jeremy Noseda to back off the trip to Louisville. A run in the Belmont Stakes five weeks farther down the road is not out of the question, he said.
Quip won the Tampa Bay Derby and was second in the Arkansas Derby but trainer Rodolphe Brisset said the three-week turnaround to the Run for the Roses might be too much for his colt.
Oddly, Mendelssohn now is doubly qualified for the Derby. He earned 100 qualifying points by winning the Group 2 UAE Derby in Dubai on World Cup night, easily earning a spot in the field. He also was No. 2 in the standings behind Gronkowski in the European series and, with "Gronk" out, inherits the right to claim that spot.
Santa Anita Derby winner Justify and Mendelssohn are early favorites for the May 5 Kentucky Derby. The leaders on the main "Road to the Kentucky Derby" board are, in order: undefeated Arkansas Derby winner Magnum Moon; reigning 2-year-old champ and Blue Grass Stakes winner Good Magic; Florida Derby winner Audible, and Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso. Good Magic is trained by Chad Brown; the other four, by Todd Pletcher.
Mendelssohn and Justify are No. 8 and No. 9 on the list, respectively.
Filly & Mare Turf
Friday's $150,000 Grade III Bewitch at Keeneland attracted seven disaffers to tackle 12 furlongs. Daddys Lil Darling is the 3-5 morning-line favorite after winning the Grade I American Oaks at Santa Anita last December. Daring Duchess enters after finishing second in a pair of Grade III events at Gulfstream Park.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Barbara at Santa Anita at 12 furlongs has a field of six. Bob Baffert saddles Plein Air, an Irish-bred Manduro mare who racked up seven wins from 10 starts in Italy. She won the Astra Stakes at Santa Anita in January in her only previous U.S. start. The other five emerge from the allowance ranks.
Ten are lined up for Saturday's $125,000 Elusive Quality Stakes at 7 furlongs on the Belmont Park greensward. Eight-year-old Undrafted makes his seasonal debut for trainer Wesley Ward. Great Stuff might be ready for this after a third in the Grade I Carter at Aqueduct in his previous start.
Saturday's $100,000 William Walker Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs is 5 furlongs on the lawn with largely untested youngsters. Beckford raced in top company in England as a 2-year-old but makes his first start since finishing fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf last fall. Masked, trained by Bob Baffert, comes off consecutive wins at Santa Anita and Drena's Star won his last two outings at Fair Grounds.
On Sunday's list of fixtures we find the $125,000 License Fee Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont Park, 6 furlongs, and the $100,000 Grade III San Simeon at 6 1/2 furlongs down the Santa Anita hillside turf course.
Saturday's $75,000 Powder Break for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park got a competitive field of 11 to tackle the grassy mile.
Golden Gate Fields on Sunday hosts the $100,000 Silky Sullivan for 3-year-olds and the $100,000 Campanile for 3-year-old fillies, both at 1 mile on the turf.