Preparations for the Pegasus World Cup races and Dubai World Cup night take center stage this weekend as Kentucky Oaks and Derby hopefuls get a break in the action.
The Dubai action produced a pair of dramatic winners -- one of whom eventually could have a shot at Louisville in May.
While the U.S. contenders for the Run for the Roses were idle, host officials at Churchill Downs were not, announcing a big purse increase for this year's running. See News and Notes.
Jumping right in:
The $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational and its new companion, the $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, continue to take shape as the Jan. 26 date draws near.
Accelerate, still working in California, will try to become the third straight Breeders' Cup Classic winner to win the Pegasus. Challengers include Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby third Audible, Cigar Mile winner Patternrecognition and Something Awesome, owned by Stronach Stables.
Lightly raced Tom's d'Etat has been confirmed for a gigantic class test after a victory at Fair Grounds. City of Light and Seeking the Soul, the 1-2 in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, also are expected for the 9-furlongs Pegasus. Gunnevara and Bravazo seemingly dance every dance and have this one on their cards, too.
The Turf continues to take shape although last weekend's San Gabriel victory earned Next Shares a ticket to the rich lawn party. Catapult, second in the Breeders' Cup Mile, also is prepping in California for the Pegasus Turf. The Aidan O'Brien-trained Magic Wand remains on the possibles list, adding needed international intrigue to the event.
North America was geared down to a virtual jog coming home in Thursday night's Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1 and still won by 9 lengths from Kimbear. Muntazah was third and Godolphin's main hope, Gold Town, reported fourth. North America finished in 1:35.88, just 0.67 shy of the Meydan track record.
North America, a 7-year-old Dubawi gelding owned by Ramzan Kadyrov, was making his first start since finishing 10th in the 2018 World Cup behind Thunder Snow after missing the break. In the buildup to that race, he finished third in the Maktoum Challenge Round 1, second in Round 2 and victorious -- by 5 1/4 lengths over Thunder Snow -- in Round 3.
"That's the way he is," trainer Satish Seemar said of North America. "I was telling (jockey Richard Mullen) to let him do his thing. We had the right draw. If he pops out, just don't stop him. I know when he's in form like that, he's so good ... He could have set a track record today but no one was there to challenge him. He'll go to Round 2."
Mullen added: "This is step one. There are a few to go, so let us not get carried away ... I know he is a 7-year-old but he has probably had less races than most 3- or 4-year-olds in Europe. He is very lightly raced and very well looked-after. They have the whole summer off, so 7 is the new 3 or 4 in UAE terms."
The second- and third-place finishers are both trained by Doug Watson, who allowed North America was "just fantastic tonight." Watson said both Kimbear and Muntazah likely will stay at the 1-mile distance in the Group 3 Firebreak Stakes on Valentine's Day.
Neither Gold Town nor Heavy Metal, who faded to finish last of nine, can be counted out for upcoming Carnival features. Gold Town, winner of the 2018 UAE 2000 Guineas, was making his first start since finishing fourth in Mendelssohn's tour de force victory in the UAE Derby on 2018 World Cup night and Heavy Metal, a 9-year-old gelding by Exceed and Excel, returned for the first time since winning the Godolphin Mile on that same program.
A few things in recent World Cup Carnivals have been as certain as death and taxes -- among them, Godolphin and Doug Watson. This season, the Phoenix Ladies Syndicate bids to join that group. The newly formed syndicate hit the ground running, winning with their first runner this season, and hit new heights Thursday night as Walking Thunder, a Kentucky-bred colt by Violence, demolished his opposition in the UAE 2000 Guineas Trial.
Walking Thunder left his rivals looking like they were the ones walking as he reported 9 lengths in front of runner-up Manguzi. Al Seel's Legacy was third and heavily favored Godolphin color-bearer Royal Marine, a Group 1 winner on the Longchamp turf last season, settled for fourth.
Walking Thunder, under Connor Beasley, overcame the outside gate in a field of 13, running his record to 3-for-3. He has never won by less than 4 1/2 lengths.
"He's a very good horse," trainer Ahmad bin Harmash said of Walking Thunder. "We are trying to get to the UAE Derby with him. He's doing very well and has trained very well. He ran a great race. Congratulations to this new group of owners."
The Group 2 UAE Derby offers 100 Kentucky Derby Qualifying points to the winner -- enough to guarantee a spot in the starting gate at Churchill Downs.
Christophe Soumillon, who rode Royal Marine, said his mount "got off to a slow start and he finished well in the end. He needed that run."
One more stop on the international tour:
Simply Brilliant won Wednesday night's Group 3 January Cup Handicap at Happy Valley, then stumbled just one stride past the line, dropping jockey Alexis Badel to the turf. The remainder of the field managed to steer clear of the fallen rider, who was not seriously injured, and Simply Brilliant got in an extra lap around the iconic in-town course before being safely caught by an outrider. "Not too bad. Quite Stiff. It could have been worse," Badel said.
Trainer Frankie Lor seemed caught unawares by his charge's victory.
"I was a bit surprised he won. He has improved," Lor said. "But when he won over a mile last time, I thought it looked like 1,800 meters would be suitable for him. He's progressed and he might still keep progressing through the season. Happy Valley races usually are a little bit easier to win than at Sha Tin, so it's hard to say how much better he might be. We need to see after this if he can improve again."
A logical progression might see Simply Brilliant in the Group 3 Centenary Vase Handicap at Sha Tin but Lor already has Glorious Forever for that race. And, he said, the Group 1 Hong Kong Gold Cup's 2,000 meters likely are too much for Simply Brilliant, not to mention the caliber of the likely field there.
Looking a bit father ahead, entries have been announced for the first Group 1 events of the year in Hong Kong -- the Stewards' Cup, first leg of the Triple Crown series, and the Centenary Sprint Cup, first leg of the Hong Kong Speed Series. Both are run Jan. 20 over the Sha Tin turf.
The Stewards' Cup, at 1,600 meters, drew seven entries, chief among them Beauty Generation. Arguably the world's top turf miler, Beauty Generation would make his return from a dominating victory in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile in December.
The 1,200-meters Centenary Sprint Cup has nine entries including Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint winner Mr Stunning and the four who finished immediately behind him in that heat -- D B Pin, Beat the Clock, Little Giant and Born In China.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
La Signare and Bellavais are the morning-line favorites for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Marshua's River for fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park. Bellavais, a 5-year-old Tapit mare trained by Todd Pletcher, comes off a fourth-place finish in the Grade III My Charmer last month at Gulfstream. La Signare, a French-bred filly by Siyouni, won the Grade III Wonder Again at Belmont Park in her first U.S. start last June but then was 10th in the Grade I Belmont Oaks July 7 and have been idle since. The other six in the field are no slouches.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Tropical Turf, 1 mile at Gulfstream Park, drew seven entries, headlined by Heart to Heart. The 8-year-old son of English Channel was a multiple Grade I winner last year before tailing off in the fall.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III La Canada for fillies and mares, 1 1/16 miles at Gulfstream Park
A talented field of nine signed on for Saturday's $100,000 Las Cienegas Stakes at Santa Anita, about 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill. Selcourt is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line as the 5-year-old Tiz Wonderful mare tries the turf in an effort to rebound from a 12th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. That a short price against a well-matched field, however.
Laurel Park on Saturday hosts a quartet of races for sprint- to mid-distance runners.
Stan the Man and Bonus Points are the morning-line picks for the $100,000 Native Dancer at 1 1/16 miles. Noted in the $100,000 Nellie Morse for fillies and mares at the same distance are Timeless Curtis and Face It.
Cautious Giant and Do Share share the favorite's role in a field of six for the 6-furlongs, $100,000 Fire Plug And the $100,000 What a Summer Stakes for fillies and mares at 6 furlongs has West Virginia-bred Late Night Pow Wow as the 4-5 morning line pick.
News and Notes:
The 145th running of the Kentucky Derby May 4 will offer a purse of $3 million, up from $2 million last spring. The Kentucky Oaks also gets a bump, from $1 million to $1.25 million as part of an overhaul of the 34-race stakes schedule during the Churchill Downs spring meet. Several other stakes also will see an infusion of reward money.
"Our recent investment into historical racing machines is paying immediate dividends to Kentucky horsemen," said Churchill Downs Racetrack President Kevin Flanery. "It's extremely gratifying to meaningfully raise the purse of the iconic Kentucky Derby and other important racing fixtures on our stakes schedule as we continue to advance the overall racing program at Churchill Downs."
Historical Racing machines are similar to slot machines but base payouts on the results of randomly selected past races. Oaklawn Park and Kentucky Downs, among other tracks, have had great success raising purse money through investment in Historical Racing and Illinois regulators are moving toward implementation at that state's tracks.