Competitionofideas and Fahan Murah won the biggest races of the pre-New Year's weekend at Santa Anita while a few 2-year-olds, from New Orleans to New York, took their final shot to win consideration for bigger things in 2019.
On the international front, Saturnalia won the final Grade 1 event of the year in Japan, the Hopeful Stakes, flashing potential brilliance for the season to come. Next weekend brings one of South Africa's iconic races.
For the final time of 2018, let's get this party started with:
The Road to the Roses
None of the juvenile warriors in action this weekend has yet reached prominence as Classic contenders. But, this early on, who knows? At this point last year, Justify hadn't yet had a race.
Alwaysmining was quickly out front in Saturday's $100,000 Heft Stakes at Laurel Park, turned back a bid by the favorite, Win Win Win, and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths from that rival. It was another 6 lengths back to Clench in third. Alwaysmining, a Stay Thirsty gelding, finished 7 furlongs over a good track in 1:22.60 with Daniel Centeno overcoming a travel delay from Florida to take the controls.
"We weren't thrilled with getting the one-hole by any means," said winning trainer Kelly Rubley. "So our game plan was to see if we couldn't make the lead. The horse seems to relax well on the lead and it certainly worked out well for us today. There was a very nice horse on the inside of him and I was very glad to hear Danny say that he felt he had enough horse that that wasn't as much of a concern as we all thought in the stands."
Rubley said he plans to go race-by-race with Alwaysmining but will be looking to stretch him out in 2019. He won the Maryland Juvenile Futurity, also at 7 furlongs, Dec. 8 and captured an optional claimer going 1 mile Oct. 27.
At Fair Grounds, Classy John pressed the early pace in Saturday's $85,000 Louisiana Futurity for state-bred colts and geldings, charged to a daylight lead in the stretch and prevailed by 3/4 length over Jimi's a Star. Café Du Monde, perhaps feeling the effects of the powdered sugar on the beignets, finished 9 lengths farther back in third. Classy John, a Songandaprayer colt, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:11.69 for jockey Corey Lanerie.
Bob and Jackie dueled three-wide down the backstretch in Friday's $75,000 Eddie Logan Stakes at Santa Anita, took a short lead rounding the turn and held nicely down the stretch to win by 1 length. The favorite, Rijeka, was along from well back to finish second. More Ice also found a late burst of speed to get show money. Bob and Jackie, a Twirling Candy colt, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:35.16 with Heriberto Figueroa up for trainer Richard Baltas.
Please Flatter Me had things all her own way in Saturday's $100,000 Gin Talking Stakes at Laurel Park, leading from the early furlongs before drawing off to win by 5 3/4 lengths. Ujjayi was second, 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Our Super Freak. Please Flatter Me, a Munnings filly out of the Flatter mare She's Flattering, ran 7 furlongs on a good track in 1:23.81 with Alex Cintron at the controls. She improved to 3-for-3 with the first two wins coming at Penn National.
"The only thing I was concerned about was the racetrack. We took a lot of mud," said Please Flatter Me's trainer, Mark Reid. "She normally doesn't work or do anything in it, so there's always that question. But I knew she has tremendous ability and just attacks everything so I wasn't that worried. She won today going seven-eighths -- I think we're going to just keep stretching her and see what happens."
Espresso Shot moved into contention through the turn in Saturday's $100,000 East View Stakes for New York-breds at Aqueduct, worked to the lead by mid-stretch and drew off easily to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Shelley Ann led much of the way and held on for second, a head better than Elegant Zip. The favorite, Sassy Agnes, faded throughout and finished eighth. Espresso Shot, a daughter of Mission Impazible, got 1 mile on a muddy track in 1:40.73 with Eric Cancel riding. It was her second win from five starts. In her only try against open company, she was last of 12 in the Grade II JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes on the Keeneland turf.
"I think she appreciates going a mile," Cancel said of Espresso Shot. "I can place her a little bit better without having to do too much. She likes to be up close going long, and that's why I let her be where she wanted to be, and it worked out well."
Midnight Fantasy, the heaviest of favorites, ran to her notices in Saturday's $89,000 Lousisiana Futurity for state-bred fillies at Fair Grounds, drawing off to win by 10 lengths, ridden out. Miss Bitters was second, 1/2 length in front of Goodprofit. Midnight Fantasy, a daughter of Midnight Lute out of the Macho Uno mare St. Jean, ran 6 sloppy furlongs in 1:11.62 with Adam Beschizza up for trainer Joe Sharp. She now is 3-for-3, all by impressive margins, but has yet to face open company.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
Giza Goddess ran by outside the early leader on the stretch turn in Sunday's $100,000 Blue Norther at Santa Anita and was home free down the lane, winning by 1/2 length despite a late second effort by Colonial Creed. Thriving was third with a late bid. Giza Goddess, a Cairo Prince filly, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.64 with Brice Blanc aboard. Rafael Bejarano, aboard Colonial Creed, claimed foul but the stewards took no action. Giza Goddess needed five tries to become a winner but now has won two in a row.
"After a maiden win you always wonder how they're going to do against winners," said winning trainer John Shirreffs. "This was a big step up for her and in her last race, she had the outside post so she had to hustle to get to the lead. I was wondering if she'd settle well today, and she did." About the inquiry, Shirreffs said Blanc told him Giza Goddess "leaned in, but the other filly wasn't going anywhere."
Competitionofideas rallied four-wide into the stretch in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I American Oaks at Santa Anita, moving quickly from last of eight to take the lead and win by 2 3/4 lengths. K P Pergolicious, at odds of better than 90-1, led into the stretch and held off the others to save second, a head in front of Amandine. Competitionofideas, a Speightstown filly, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 1:59.77 under the well-timed ride by Joel Rosario.
Trainer Chad Brown shipped Competitionofideas from New York for the American Oaks, her first try in graded stakes company. After taking four tries to find the winner's circle, Competitionofideas notched an allowance win at Belmont Park, then reported third in the Winter Memories Stakes at Aqueduct. Despite the significant jump in class, as noted here on Thursday, it's never smart to ignore Chad Brown, especially in top-level races on the grass.
"It's great to finish out the year like this," Brown assistant Jose Hernandez said. "This filly had settled in real good here at Santa Anita and she was doing good coming into this race. She finished up really strong today."
Note the 2005 edition of the American Oaks was won by Cesario, a Japanese visitor who also won the Japanese Oaks and since has been a high-quality producer. Her latest star is Saturnalia, winner of Friday's Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes at Nakayama in Japan (see below).
Filly & Mare Turf
Fahan Mura shot to the lead in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Robert J. Frankel Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita and wasn't caught, winning by 3/4 length over late-running Excellent Sunset. It was another 1 length back to Quebec in third. Fahan Mura, a 4-year-old English Channel filly, got 9 furlongs over firm going in 1:46.85 with Edwin Maldonado riding. She was coming off a 12th-place finish in the Grade I Matriarch at Del Mar.
"The fractions were good for her, but they were good for her last time, too," said winning trainer Vladimir Cerin. "For some reason she just didn't fire. I leave it in Edwin's hands. He's improved her by letting her be herself. He never interferes with her. He's a big reason why she's doing well."
On the international front:
Saturnalia, a 2-year-old with promise in both pedigree and early performance, rang out the 2018 Grade 1 season in Japan with a sparkling victory in Friday's Hopeful Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse.
After tracking the pace while scraping the paint, jockey Mirco Demuro found Saturnalia behind horses as the field hit the stretch run with Admire Justa taking the lead. With less than 200 meters to run, a hole opened just to Admire Justa's outside and Saturnalia ran right through, winning by 1 1/2 lengths.
Admire Justa and Nishino Daisy were second and third as Saturnalia finished the 2,000 meters in 2:01.6 over firm going, remaining undefeated in three starts.
Saturnalia is a half brother to Epiphaneia, who won the predecessor race to the Hopeful in 2012, then went on to win the Japan Cup in 2014. Saturnalia is by Lord Kanaloa, an emerging star sire in Japan, out of the 2005 Japanese Oaks winner Cesario.
"I knew I was riding the strongest 2-year-old of the season but it was his first time over 2,000 meters so I was a little worried," Demuro. "He really showed his strength though squeezing his way through the narrow opening. I am really looking forward to his 3-year-old season."
Next Saturday brings one of South Africa's iconic races, the L'Ormarin's Queen's Plate, and the accompanying Cartier Paddock Stakes for fillies and mares, both Grade 1 events at Kenilworth. The tentative field for the Queen's Plate, a 1,600-meters test run left-handed on the turf, tentatively includes last year's winner, the venerable Legal Eagle, as well as Soqrat, Rainbow Bridge, Do It Again and Snowdance. Super filly Oh Susanna features in the Paddock, although she again faces Lady In Black, who defeated her by 3/4 length Nov. 15. More in the first preview of 2019.
Breaking the Rules rated in midfield through most of Saturday's $75,000 Tropical Park Derby, came five-wide around the leaders heading for home and drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths. Sniper Kitten came from farther back to finish second, 1 length better than Therapist. Breaking the Rules, a Phipps Stable homebred colt by War Front, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.33 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up.
Too Charming led the way in the $75,000 Tropical Park Oaks and lasted just long enough to win by a head from Andina Del Sur. Semper Sententiae was another 1 length back in third while the favorite, Too Cool to Dance, was fifth. Too Charming, a Bernardini filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:41.21 with Paco Lopez in the irons.
Vision Perfect sped to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Janus Stakes at 5 furlongs on the turf and kept going, winning by 2 1/2 lengths from Extravagant Kid. It was a similar margin to Pay Any Price in third. Vision Perfect, a 6-year-old by Pollard's Vision, finished in 54.71 seconds with Irad Ortiz Jr. up.
Girls Know Best shook free of a pace battle with Smiling Causeway midway through Saturday's Abundantia Stakes for fillies and mares, then outfinished Morticia, winning by 3/4 length. Smiling Causeway reported third. Girls Know Best, a 4-year-old daughter of Caleb's Posse, ran 5 furlong on firm turf in 55.20 seconds for jockey Jose Oritz.
Red Knight waited behind rivals for the first 1 1/2 miles of Saturday's $100,000 H. Allen Jerkens, kicked into gear quickly to take the lead rounding the fourth turn and held off Soglio by a head under the wire. Six and a half lengths later, Nessy was third. Red Knight, a 4-year-old Pure Prize gelding, finished the 2 miles on firm turf in 3:19.87 with Luis Saez riding.
Si Que Es Bueno got first run to the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Via Borghese Stakes for fillies and mares and survived a late bid by Holy Helena to win by a neck. Peru was third. Si Que Es Bueno, a 5-year-old, Argentine-bred mare by Equal Stripes, finished 1 3/16 miles on the green course in 1:56.75 with Chris Landeros up.
Mr. Buff tracked the pace for the first half mile in Saturday's $100,000 Alex M. Robb Stakes for New York-breds, was set down for the drive entering the lane and held on to his narrow lead at the end by nose over Twisted Tom. The favorite, Control Group, was another 3 1/2 lengths up the track in third. Mr. Buff, a 4-year-old Friend or Foe gelding, ran 1 1/8 miles on a muddy track in 1:53.59 with David Cohen riding.
Split Time bided her time in Sunday's $100,000 Bay Ridge Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares while saving ground down the backstretch. Asked for run around the stretch turn, the 4-year-old Take Charge Indy filly slipped through along the fence and drew off to win by 1 1/4 lengths. No Hayne No Gayne was second and Unbridledadventure passed the favorite, Bonita Bianca in the closing yards to get third. Split Time, with Junior Alvarado riding, got 9 furlongs on a good track in 1:55.56. "It didn't look that easy from on top of the horse, but everything worked out," Alvarado said.
Cordmaker rallied to the lead in the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Jennings Stakes for Maryland-breds and kicked clear, winning by 3 1/4 lengths. Rockinn On Bye was second, 1/2 length ahead of John Jones. Cordmaker, a 3-year-old Curlin gelding, ran 1 mile on a good track in 1:35.84. Alex Cintron had the mount.
Isotope stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Thirty Eight Go Go Stakes for fillies and mares, got through on the inside in the stretch run and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Trace of Grace. Total Control was third and the favorite, Sower, finished fourth but was set down to fifth for interference. Isotope, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred filly by Successful Appeal, ran 1 mile on a good track in 1:37.73 with Jorge Vargas Jr. in the irons.
Colonel Sharp dueled to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Dave's Friend Stakes, opened a daylight advantage and was all out to salvage the win by a head over Altissimo. The favorite, Laki, was another 3/4 length back in third. Colonel Sharp, a 5-year-old Colonel John gelding, got 6 furlongs on the good main track in 1:09.30.
Elevated Vision, at odds of nearly 40-1, rallied to the lead in the lane in Saturday's $75,000 Politely Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares and held off My Magician for a 1-length victory. Anna's Bandit was a neck farther back in third and the favorite, Crabcakes, faded to finish next-last of nine. Elevated Vision, a 3-year-old Great Notion filly, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.69 with Jevian Toledo in the irons.
Noble Commander led all the way in Saturday's $75,000, off-the-turf Woodchopper Stakes for 3-year-olds and ran on well to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Marzo. Ballard High was third. Noble Commander, a Forestry colt, ran 1 mile on the sloppy, sealed track in 1:39.16 for jockey Jeromy Lermyte.
The companion $75,000 Pago Hop for 3-year-old fillies also came off the turf, which seemed to suit Pretty Lady, Cool Beans and Roussalka just fine. Pretty Lady battled on the front end throughout the sloppy 1 mile, then held off Cool Beans by a head with Roussalka a nose farther back. The favorite, Remember Daisy, was fourth with a wide trip. Pretty Lady, a Scat Daddy filly, finished in 1:39.23 with Adam Beschizza up.
Nun the Less raced well back in the field in Friday's $50,000 Prairie Bayou Stakes, took the overland route around the turn and raced by his rivals in the stretch, winning by 1 length over Lanier. Royal Son was third and the favorite, Camelot Kitten, finished eighth. Nun the Less, a 6-year-old Candy Ride gelding, toured 1 1/16 miles of all-weather track in 1:42.54 with Walter De La Cruz up. The race is named for the winner of the 1992 Jim Beam Stakes.
Mariah's Galaxy, never far back, rallied down the lane to win Friday's $65,000 Lookout Stakes for Louisiana-bred fillies and mares by 3 1/2 lengths over long shot Salty Martini. Tap Dance Star reported third. Mariah's Galaxy, a 4-year-old daughter of Greeley's Galaxy, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:41.40 under Kevin Smith.
Just Stormin showed the way in Saturday's $75,000 B-Connected Stakes for state-breds, brushed off a challenge turning for home and outfinished Imindycatbirdseat for a 1-length victory. It was another 6 lengths back to the favorite, Much Class, in third. Just Stormin, a 6-year-old Freud gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.78 with Kerwin Clark up.
Hardcore Troubador, under Ry Eikleberry, worked to the lead in Saturday's $65,000 KLAQ Handicap, got clear in the stretch and won by 3 1/4 lengths, geared down. Big Finish couldn't produce one and settled for second, 1 1/2 lengths to the good of Dontpreachto Darcy. Hardcore Troubador, a 4-year-old, California-bred gelding by Roi Charmant, ran 5 furlongs on a fast track in 56.18 seconds.
Susans Violette made all the going in Saturday's $85,000 New Mexico State Racing Commission Handicap for fillies and mares, then just did hold on at the end, winning by a nose from Tijuana. Pay as You Go was a further 3 1/2 lengths back in third. Susans Violette, a 3-year-old daughter of Stellar Rain, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.51 with Enrique Gomez in the irons.
Thunder Dome rallied five-wide into the stretch in Saturday's $85,000 Johnnie L. Jamison Handicap for New Mexico-breds, got the lead inside the sixteenth pole and won by 1 length over Go for a Stroll. Stormin the Jewels led briefly late and settled for third. Thunder Dome, a 4-year-old gelding by Dome, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in an undetermined time (due to malfunctioning equipment) with Alfredo Juarez Jr. at the controls.