Early Derby and Oaks preps in Florida and Louisiana and the Sunshine Millions program at Gulfstream Park share the spotlight in weekend Thoroughbred racing.
Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Roy H resurfaces in California, possibly en route to Dubai.
Speaking of which, preparations for Dubai World Cup night continued to simmer Thursday at Meydan and we've got those results. And a Japanese star is on site and getting ready for Pegasus World Cup day at Gulfstream Park.
We're ready for this:
On a good night for Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby, Poetic Charm was the cherry atop the sundae winning the featured $250,000 Cape Verdi sponsored by Azizi Developments at 1,600 meters on the turf. With James Doyle subbing for the suspended William Buick, Poetic Charm raced steadily before taking over the lead from stablemate Asoof 200 meters out and won by 4 lengths over that one. Furiz Cruzada closed well to finish third.
"I was a bit short of room for a moment, but once the gap opened, I knew I had the horse underneath me and she picked up in style," Doyle said. "She has a lot of speed, this filly, and could win over seven (furlongs, or 1,400 meters), but the extra furlong and nine furlongs in the Balanchine should not be a problem."
The $250,000 Group 2 Balanchine is part of the Valentine's Day card at Meydan.
Godolphin has won the Cape Verdi seven times now. Appleby, who had a triple on the night, has won the event twice.
The internationalization of the Carnival marched forward as Swedish sprinter I Kirk posted a decisive victory on the undercard. I Kirk was away quickly and never threatened in the dirt sprint while making his first start since winning the Zawawi Cup at Jagersro in July. The performance puts him in the picture for the $2.5 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen sponsored by Gulf News on Dubai World Cup night.
American trainer Kenny McPeek established a record for "earliest appearance by an American trainer at the Carnival" with two runners on the card. Harlan Strong finished sixth in the Azizi Star, going 2,000 meters on the turf. And Honorable Treasure was second in the Azazi Farishta at 1,200 meters on the dirt, albeit 3 1/4 lengths in arrears of the aforementioned Swedish runner I Kirk.
If the idea to add a turf event to the Pegasus World Cup was to attract international competition -- it seems to have worked. Japanese mare Aerolithe, a Grade 1 winner at home, arrived at Gulfstream Park on Wednesday to prepare for the $7 million Grade I Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational on Jan. 26. The trip took Aerolithe from Tokyo to South Korea to Alaska and onward to Miami before a van ride north to Hallandale Beach, Fla. "She traveled really well, much better than expected," said Kate Hunter, Pegasus World Cup field representative for the Japan Racing Association. Hunter said Aerolithe's connections had hoped to make the Breeders' Cup but could not because of transportation issues.
Other international contenders on the Jan. 26 program include Coolmore's Ireland-based Magic Wand, headed for the Turf, and Kukulkan, the undefeated winner of Mexico's Triple Crown and winner of the Clasico del Caribe over the Gulfstream dirt course in December, will targets the $9 million Grade I Pegasus World Cup Invitational.
The likely favorite for the feature, Breeders' Cup Classic winner Accelerate, remains in California where heavy rains have limited his training schedule.
Aircraft Carrier, formerly of the Aidan O'Brien yard, lowered the Wolverhampton course record Monday while earning a spot in the All-Weather Championships Finals Day with a victory over the Tapeta course. The 4-year-old Declaration of War colt, now trained by John Ryan after a private purchase, extended his range to 2 miles after a pair of 14-furlong victories in December.
Jockey Martin Harley settled Aircraft Carrier near the back of the six-horse field in Monday's race, produced him through the final furlongs and won by 3/4 lengths over Godolphin colors-bearer Festival of Ages. All-Weather Championships veteran Watersmeet settled for third. Aircraft Carrier finished in 3:31.18, bettering the mark held by Watersmeet by 0.74 second.
"I knew the step up to 2 miles today would be a big help," Harley said. "That was proper good performance. The good stayers -- like Sheikhzayedroad and them horses -- are workmanlike. It is not about today or tomorrow, but much further down the road. I can see this horse making into a good one down the road."
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds in New Orleans is the only official points race for the Kentucky Derby, offering 10 to the winner and 4, 2 and 1 to the next three finishers. The 1 mile, 70-yards test drew a field of 14 with one also-eligible and the oddsmaker wasn't able to find much to separate them, making Plus Que Parfait the favorite at odds of 9-2. The Point of Entry ridgling was last seen finishing second in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs Nov. 24.
Most of the rest of the field has a lot to prove with several still looking for a victory against winners and one still a maiden. Mister Money was a good fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and Tight Ten finished ninth in that race with a rough trip. War of Will was fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and really woke up in his last race, winning easily on the slop at Churchill Downs in November.
Across the Gulf, a wide-open field of seven is set for Saturday's $125,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The narrow favorite is Win Win Win, a colt by the Japanese-bred sire Hat Trick, who has two wins and a second from three starts at Laurel Park. Zenden won both his previous starts at Gulfstream Park. Gladiator King won the Inaugural Stakes over the Tampa Bay course but has been up and down. Jackson has been in the mix in all four starts, also at Gulfstream. Cave Run and Overdeliver both won at first asking and take on winners for the first time.
A field of seven is assembled for Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds. The deserving favorite on the morning line is Liora, a Candy Ride filly who has been idle since winning the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs Nov. 24. That was her second straight win since trainer Wayne Catalano moved her off the turf. Also high in the oddsmaker's estimation are Cowgirls Like Us, winner of the Trapeze Stakes at Remington Park in her last start, and Needs Supervision, an easy winner on that Nov. 24 card at Churchill Downs with a Beyer Speed Figure 8 points higher than the one earned by Liora in the Golden Rod.
Bella Ciao is the 7-2 pick on the morning line for Saturday's $125,000 Gasparilla at Tampa Bay Downs. The Flatter filly was fourth in the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga last summer but hasn't lived up to that promise yet. She was third in the Hut Hut Stakes at Gulfstream Park in her most recent start in December. Ten other fillies are set to contest the 7-furlongs event. If the morning line holds, you can have Godolphin's homebred Discreet Cat filly Twist and Shout at 10-1 off her maiden win.
Saturday's program at Gulfstream Park has four Sunshine Millions races -- two each on turf and dirt. They're restricted to Florida-breds and won't be confused with the Pegasus races. But they're competitive events with decent-sized fields and well worth a look.
Two-time Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Roy H makes his first appearance since the Churchill Downs triumph in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Palos Verdes at Santa Anita -- likely en route to Dubai. The 7-year-old More Than Ready gelding finished third in the 2018 Golden Shaheen on World Cup night after winning that edition of the Palos Verdes. His six rivals include Kanthaka, a 4-year-old Jimmy Creed colt who got a rest after bailing out of last year's Triple Crown trail and finished sixth in the Grade I Malibu on Dec. 26 in his return to action. Conquest Tsunami has the credentials to compete on a good day, including a third in last year's Al Quoz Sprint on the Meydan turf.
Five signed on for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct but, for the oddsmaker, it's between Gold for the King and Skyler's Scramjet. The former has finished third in his last two starts, the Gravesend Stakes and the Say Florida Sandy, and wheels back on just one week's rest. The latter was second in the Gravesend and was a graded stakes winner over the course 10 months ago.
Great Wide Open, a 7-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Starspangledbanner, is the 2-1 morning line favorite among nine in Saturday's $125,000 Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap at Fair Grounds. The Conor Murphy charge comes off a win in the Diliberto Memorial over course and distance -- about 1 1/16 miles on the turf.
Seven fillies and mares will tackle 9 furlongs in Sunday's $100,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct.
Sunday's $75,000 Grade III Astra Stakes at Santa Anita drew a field of 10 to tackle 1 1/2 miles on the grass, weather permitting.