The 144th running of the Kentucky Derby is the centerpiece of a weekend-long festival of top-shelf racing at Churchill Downs that also features the winners of last year's Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
There are graded races for virtually every division and even an early look at potential contenders for next year's Run for the Roses.
Across the pond, Newmarket on Saturday and Sunday hosts the Qipco 2000 Guineas for 3-year-old colts and Quipco 1000 Guineas for 3-year-old fillies and there are some good-looking ones set for those.
Diving right in:
The Kentucky Derby
Justify, the Santa Anita Derby winner, and Mendelssohn, the Kentucky-bred, Irish-based UAE Derby winner, loom large over Saturday's Kentucky Derby presented by Woodford Reserve.
Justify is undefeated in three starts and benefits from the tutelage of Triple Crown-winning trainer -- and four-time Derby winner -- Bob Baffert. He has never really been tested. Mendelssohn has had a more varied early career but, in his first time on the dirt, won the Dubai 3-year-old fixture by 18 1/2 lengths, embarrassing some good rivals. He's trained by Aidan O'Brien, who would love to find room in his overcrowded trophy case for a memento of America's most famous race.
Mike Smith rides Justify and he's quite rightly known as "Big Money Mike". Ryan Moore will handle Mendelssohn and he has proven his stuff in most of the best races around the world. They're both outstanding riders but Smith might get a slight edge as more familiar with the Churchill Downs surface and the complexities of riding in the Kentucky Derby. The key word is "slight".
But here's the thing about the Kentucky Derby: No one really knows yet how good these youngsters are. They're all still developing and either of the favorites is susceptible to what's known in the trade as a "bounce" -- a sub-par race following a big effort.
Mendelssohn arrived at Churchill Downs Monday and, after clearing quarantine, made his first appearance on the track Thursday morning for a little light work. Other than his usual noisy exhuberance, there was nothing notable about the well-watched event.
After Justify and Mendelssohn, it's anyone's race. The field is full of accomplished runners, including the winners of all the other major prep races: Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Blue Grass Stakes winner Good Magic; Florida Derby winner Audible; Louisiana Derby winner Noble Indy and Wood Memorial winner Vino Rosso.
Beyond those, there are previous winners who came up just a bit short in the big races but could be poised to move forward. That group includes most of the rest of the field.
The good news from Churchill Downs, as of late Thursday, is that there was no real news from the backstretch. At this juncture, any real news inevitably is bad news -- an injury, a temperature, a cough or some other issue that might force one of the competitors out of the race.
The not-so-good news is the weatherman can't decide whether or not it might rain on race day. The forecast has been calling for rain -- light or heavy, depending on the source of the prognostication -- on Oaks Day, Friday, but clearing for Saturday. That prospect seems to be slipping into Derby Day so handicapping should make provision for the possibility of a wet track.
Whatever. Nothing will dampen the enthusiasm of racing fans for what promises to be one heck of a race.
The Kentucky Oaks
Friday's $1 million Grade I Kentucky Oaks features among 14 starters Monomoy Girl, winner of the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland, and Midnight Bisou, winner of three straight including the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks. After those, there are plenty of potential surprisers.
Monomoy Girl, a Tapizar filly trained by Brad Cox, is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line. She is 5-for-6, with her only loss by a neck in the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs last fall. Midnight Bisou, a daughter of Midnight Lute trained by Bill Spawr, was beaten by a nose in each of her first two starts before starting the win skein. She's 5-2 on the line.
With the chance of rain Friday in Louisville, it's worth noting Midnight Bisou has won on a wet-fast track while Monomoy Girl's six starts have all come over fast strips.
Here's one to either believe or not, a "Ripley" longshot: Rayya. The Kentucky-bred daughter of Tiz Wonderful has made five career starts and the only horses who have finished in front of her are the talented Winter Lightning and the aforementioned Mendelssohn. Granted, the loss to Mendelssohn was by 18 1/2 lengths in the Group 2 UAE Derby. Bob Baffert now trains Rayya and, like Mendelssohn, she either will be right there this weekend or prove that the Dubai form isn't worth much. She's 12-to-1 on the morning line but likely won't go for that on race day.
Another thing: Rayya was competitive with Mendelssohn until the field neared the stretch in the UAE Oaks and stayed on well to finish second in that race. If she should win this -- or even come close -- Mendelssohn's Derby odds likely will plunge. There is an Oaks-Derby Double on Friday's wagering menu.
Others to watch: Sassy Sienna, the improving winner of the Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn; Coach Rocks, the improving winner of the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks; Chocolate Martini, who took a big step forward to upset the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks; and the improving winner of the Grade II Gazelle at Aqueduct, My Miss Lilly.
If significant rain comes, Eskimo Kisses might move up. By far her best career effort was over a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park and she followed with second-place finishes on dry tracks in the Fair Grounds Oaks and the Ashland.
Elsewhere around North America (and one South American note thanks to Jim Gluckson at Breeders' Cup):
Last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Always Dreaming, returns to the scene of that triumph for Friday's $400,000 Grade II Alysheba at 1 1/16 miles on the Churchill Downs main track. The Bodemeister colt has not won in four starts since the Run for the Roses.
Good Samaritan, winner of the Grade II New Orleans Handicap in his last outing, is the 5-2 morning-line favorite in the Alysheba with Always Dreaming and Hoppertunity both posted at 3-1. Hoppertunity, now 7, returns from a win in the Tokyo City at Santa Anita going 1 1/2 miles.
On Derby Day, last year's Derby runner-up, Lookin at Lee (honestly, did you remember?) shows up in an optional claimer that also includes Cherry Wine, who finished second in the Preakness. Neither has done much recently.
In Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs, National Flag, Mask, Restoring Hope and Madison's Luna are tightly bunched at the top of the morning line. Seahenge, who was fifth in the Group 2 UAE Derby, beaten 26 lengths, is 12-1 on the line.
Last year's Kentucky Oaks winner, Abel Tasman, makes her first start since a second-place in the Breeders' Cup Distaff in Friday's $350,000 Grade I LaTroienne at Churchill Downs. The Quality Road filly, trained by Bob Baffert, has not been worse than second in 10 starts following a learning experience in her career debut. She's the even-money favorite and one of two running in the China Horse Club silks. The other, Ivy Bell, has a similar record of mostly exact finishes, albeit a step lower on the class ladder.
Salty, who chased Abel Tasman home in last year's Grade I Acorn and Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks, will try again. Farrell swept last year's Fair Grounds races for 3-year-old fillies but finished 14th in the Kentucky Oaks, proving she's not fond of a wet track -- which the weatherman predicts again this year on Friday. Martini Glass has put together a good winter and early spring and could be an upsetter.
Way down farther south than the Mason-Dixon line:
On Tuesday at Palmero Racecourse in Buenos Aires, Argentina, Sinfornia Fantastica made the most of the long stretch to post a 3-lengths upset victory over Magica Stripes Tuesday in the Group 1 Gran Premio Criadores, earning an automatic berth in the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff this fall at Churchill Downs.
Part-owner Pablo Maggio said he "will think about" the Distaff for Sinfonia Fantastica. But he added, "I think the best situation in making the trip will be to get an American owner who wants to live that dream with us."
Last year's first and second, Limousine Liberal and Awesome Slew, return for Saturday's $500,000 Grade II Churchill Downs at 7 furlongs. They're challenged by the likes of last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint runner-up Imperial Hint, and consistent sprinter Whitmore, who notched two stakes wins at Oaklawn this spring.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Friday's $200,000 Grade II Eight Belles at Churchill Downs finds a terrific field of seven 3-year-old fillies set to go 7 furlongs. Amy's Challenge and Mia Mischief are the 5-2 co-favorites. The former is undefeated in three starts around one turn and failed to hold the lead when tried twice to see if she could go longer. Nonetheless, second in the Grade III Honeybee and third in the Grade III Fantasy, both at Oaklawn, are not results to sneeze at. Mia Mischief has three wins and three seconds from six starts and won the Purple Martin at Oaklawn in her last outing by 8 1/4 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 93 -- tops in this field.
Also in the Eight Belles are Gas Station Sushi, undefeated in two starts including the Grade III Beaumont at Keeneland in her last start; a pair of recent maiden winners and Salt Bae, who was the distant second in the Purple Martin.
Older distaffers tackle 7 furlongs out of the Churchill Downs backstretch chute in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Humana Distaff. Finley'sluckycharm, Lewis Bay, American Gal and Salty, first, third, fourth and fifth -- all within 1 length -- in the recent Grade I Madison at Keeneland, are among the favorites. If Ivy Bell doesn't go in the La Troienne Friday, she's in the mix for this.
Deauville and Beach Patrol renew their rivalry Saturday at Churchill Downs in the $500,000 Grade I Old Forester Turf Classic. Beach Patrol won last year's Grade I Arlington Million as Euro invader Deauville settled for third for a second straight year -- each time beaten less than a length. Both have been consistent performers at the highest level although Deauville hit a rough patch late last season while traveling to Woodbine and Hong Kong. The rest of the field is talented, too: Shining Copper, Kurilov, Camelot Kitten, Channel Maker, Synchrony, Editore, Yoshida and Arklow.
How often does a horse beaten 55 3/4 lengths (yes, 55 3/4 lengths) in his last start go to the post as the favorite in a Grade II stakes on Derby Day at Churchill Downs? That's the case as Threeandfourpence tops the morning line at 4-1 for Saturday's $300,000 American Turf for 3-year-olds. That last loss, of course, was to Mendelssohn in the UAE Derby. Still, it wasn't much of an effort and his first three career runs, all on turf, weren't anything to write home about either. Trainer Aidan O'Brien and jockey Ryan Moore undoubtedly have something to do with the oddsmaker's analysis. Others frankly look better, including Rushing Fall, if she's not running Friday in the Edgewood. And there's nothing wrong with Speed Franco, who's up from Florida with two wins and three seconds from six starts. What a goofy game.
Nine are in for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fort Marcy at Belmont Park, going 1 1/8 miles on the inner turf. Spring Quality was in good form at the end of last season and makes a 2018 debut. Ditto Manitoulin. Two make their U.S. debuts: Silverwave, a Group 2 winner in France last seen finishing 18th in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and Robert Bruce, undefeated in six starts in his native Chile including four Group 1 events. Silverwave and Robert Bruce now are both in Chad Brown's shedrow.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Sheepshead Bay for fillies and mares at Belmont Park attracted seven. Holy Helena looks likely for the 1 3/8-mile test on the inner turf after winning the Grade III The Very One at Gulfstream Park in her last start. Watch for Santa Monica, who came from Ireland after last season to the care of Chad Brown and won her first U.S. start by daylight at Keeneland last month.
Rushing Fall, undefeated in four starts, is the 4-5 morning line favorite for Friday's $200,000 Grade III Edgewood for 3-year-old fillies on the Churchill Downs green course. The More Than Ready filly, trained by Chad Brown, won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last fall, then kicked off her 3-year-old season with a victory in the Grade II Appalachian at Keeneland. If not Rushing Fall, look to Altea, who was competitive at the Group level in France last year and a just-missed third in the Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay in her U.S. debut in March.
Primarily international form is on display for five of the seven entered for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Senorita for fillies and mares at Santa Anita. Another is a recent maiden winner over the course going a furlong more than this 1 mile. The likely one is West Palm Beach, owned by Michael Tabor and boasting three straight wins -- two in England last fall on the all-weather and most recently in his U.S. debut over the Santa Anita turf. He's an Irish-bred 4-year-old by Scat Daddy.
La Coronel, Dream Awhile and Madam Dancealot are the morning-line favorites in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Longines Churchill Distaff Turf Mile. Eleven are set to go and there's no shortage of upset potential in a well-balanced field.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Westchester at Belmont Park got last year's Preakness winner, Cloud Computing. The Maclean's Music colt has not raced since finishing eighth in last year's Travers at the Spa. He has a lot on his hands here against the likes of Tommy Macho and Conquest Big E.
Eleven turf sprinters come from as far afield as Germany, British Columbia and Florida to contest Friday's $200,000 Grade III TwinSpires Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs. The lukewarm favorite in a contentious field is Vision Perfect, a 5-year-old son of Pollard's Vision who exits a win in the Silks Run at Gulfstream Park. Bucchero was fourth, beaten just 1 length, in last fall's Breeders' Cup but hasn't run back to that effort. Delectation was a Group 3 winner in England and Germany but one-paced in his only previous U.S. start last October at Keeneland. Restless Rambler has won nine of his last 12. Those were against significantly less talented rivals but he doesn't know that. Riser makes his first appearance since a fading third in the Grade III British Columbia Derby last September at Hastings.
Who fancies Shanghaied Roo as a candidate for next year's Kentucky Dergy? He, Luv This Lifestyle and Myhotrodlincoln are the favorites among nine in for Thursday's $100,000 Kentucky Juvenile at Churchill Downs, a 5-furlongs affair. Derby City is 20-1 on the morning line. We'll see.
Over the waves:
Does it come as any surprise that Irish powerhouse trainer Aidan O'Brien has a strong hand for Saturday's Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket? Well, no.
Start the O'Brien list with Gustav Klimt, a Galileo colt who won his seasonal debut in a Guineas trial last month at Leopardstown. He's the early favorite for the Guineas and could be as good as any. But wait. There's more. Saxon Warrior was 3-for-3 last season and makes his 2018 debut. He's by the dominant Japanese sire Deep Impact out of the Galileo mare Maybe, who was a Group 1 winner as a 2-year-old. Then there's long shot Murillo, who is by Scat Daddy out of a Rahy mare.
Don't hand the trophy to O'Brien quite yet, though. William Buick is back from Hong Kong to ride Masar for Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby and that New Approach colt was a Group 2 winner in his last start, just 16 days out from a romping win in the bet365 Craven Stakes. Mark Johnston saddles Elarqam, a Frankel colt owned by Sheik Hamdan who was 2-for-2 as a juvenile. Sir Michael Stoute sends out Expert Eye, a Juddmonte Farms homebred by Acclamation. Roaring Lion is a Kitten's Joy colt handled by John Gosden for Qatar Racing. And for those fancying a longer chance, Frankie Dettori will get a leg up on James Garfield, who defeated Expert Eye in their last meeting two weeks ago at Newbury.
Sunday, the 3-year-old fillies chase the Qipco 1000 Guineas. The heavy favorite is Happily, another from O'Brien's Ballydoyle star machine. She makes her first appearance since finishing last of 14 in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf with a no-chance trip. Before that, she won Group 1 events in Ireland and France.
Sunday's Grade 1 NHK Mile Cup at Tokyo Racecourse features some of Japan's top 3-year-old prospects. Chief among them is Tower of London, a Raven's Pass colt who already has four wins to his credit, including the Grade 3 Arlington Cup at Hanshin going 1,600 meters. His chances aren't hurt by the successful combination of jockey Christophe Lemaire and trainer Kazuo Fujisawa and he holds entries for Royal Ascot, showing the sincerity of his connections.
Fillies have won the last two editions and this year's field includes Tetradrachm, a daughter of Rulership who boasts two previous wins over the track.
This race has produced some superstars including 2004 winner King Kamehameha, who went on to become a top Japanese sire, and 2008 winner Deep Sky.