Two international sprint stars returned to action during the weekend -- Roy H winning at Santa Anita and X Y Jet fading to finish fourth at Gulfstream Park -- while War of Will and Win Win Win announced their arrival as Kentucky Derby contenders with impressive victories.
On the international front, Beauty Generation posted another impressive win in Hong Kong and his trainer is eyeing Japan. And Rocket Power may be edging his way into the big time in Dubai.
Let's edge right into this:
The Road to the Roses
War of Will turned what looked like a wide open race into a runaway win in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Lecomte Stakes at Fair Grounds. With Tyler Gaffalione at the controls, the War Front colt stalked the pace, then took complete charge in the lane, winning off by 4 lengths. Hog Creek Hustle was best of the rest, 2 lengths in front of Manny Wah. War of Will, owned by Gary Barber, finished the 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:43.44.
Out of a Sadler's Wells mare, the colt understandably started his career on the grass at Woodbine and Keeneland. But after he finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, trainer Mark Casse rerouted him to the main track at Churchill Downs, where he finally broke his maiden in the slop Nov. 24.
Quoth Casse: "This was about a month ago, but I had some friends over and I said, 'We have a big chance to win the Derby this year.' I don't usually say things like that, so that tells you what I think of him. I'll talk to Gary but the Risen Star would make the most sense. It's why we're here. We love this place and it's a great place to get a horse ready. I don't know that there would be a real reason to leave."
The $400,000 Grade II Risen Star on Feb. 16 is the first race to offer 50 points on the Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" -- usually enough to secure a spot in the starting gate on the first Saturday in May. War of Will earned 10 points for the Lecomte victory.
Across the Gulf in Florida, despite standing in the gate while a loose horse was chased down, Win Win Win was more than ready to win win win Saturday's $125,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, finishing the 7 furlongs like he was eager for more. The Hat Trick colt, out of the Smarty Jones mare Miss Smarty Pants, trailed his four rivals early, then shot to the front at the top of the lane and was all alone at the end. Overdeliver was 7 1/4 lengths back in second and 3 lengths in front of Cave Run. War Bridle and Gladiator King completed the order of finish.
"We've always liked this guy, and we're very happy with him," trainer Michael Trombetta said. "They left the two inside horses in there while they were chasing the loose horse, and I think he might have fallen asleep in there. He broke flat-footed, but Julian knows him really well. He had a nice little pace to run at and he showed what he can do."
Win Win Win, with Julian Pimentel up for trainer Mike Trombetta, not only demolished the field but also finished in track-record time of 1:20.89 on a day that saw stakes -- but not track -- records set in the other two features. He's 3-for-4. The first three races were at Laurel Park. Trombetta said he "maybe" will be nominated to the Grade III Sam F. Davis on Feb. 9. That's the next step on the Road to the Roses at Tampa Bay and offers Kentucky Derby qualifying points on the 10-4-2-1 scale.
Oaks Preps, or the Lane to the Lilies
Needs Supervision will bear watching after an eye-catching, 3/4-length victory in Saturday's $125,000 Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds. The Paynter filly, making her first start since a 5-furlong victory in the slop at Churchill Downs in November, tracked the early pace, moved to challenge at the top of the lane and battled gamely to the wire. Eres Tu was second and it was another 5 1/4 lengths to Granderia in third. Liora, racing for the first time since winning the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs, also in November, finished fourth. Needs Supervision, with Joe Rocco Jr. in the irons, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:45.34, improving to three wins and a second from four starts.
"I was confident because of the type of filly she has been from day one," winning trainer Jeremiah O'Dwyer said. "Different bunch today while stepping up in class against nice fillies and she proved today she can handle any surface." As to the future, he said, "I'll have to discuss that with the owners."
Molto Bella dueled to the lead in Saturday's $125,000 Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, found another gear in the lane and drew off to win by 6 1/2 lengths. Into Trouble was best of the rest, 1/2 length in front of Another Time. The favorite, Bella Ciao, was bumped at the start, raced three-wide and finished sixth. Molto Bella, a Violence filly, finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in stakes-record time of 1:22.20 under Luca Panici. Although it was only her second win, Molto Bella was second in the Rags to Riches Stakes at Churchill Downs in October and fourth, albeit some 18 lengths back of the winner, in the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct Dec. 1.
"Ian said he wanted to go back to one turn today and see where she takes us," part-owner Randall Bloch said. "We may be back for the Suncoast Stakes, but we'll let Ian make the call." The Suncoast, on Feb. 9, is run at 1 1/16 miles and offers qualifying points for the Kentucky Oaks.
Roy H, winner of the last two editions of the Breeders' Cup Sprint, could not have been more impressive in winning Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Palos Verdes at Santa Anita. The 7-year-old More Than Ready gelding cruised home first by 4 lengths with jockey Paco Lopez leaving plenty in the tank for another swing at the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan on March 30.
Roy H sat easily behind two rivals down the Santa Anita backstretch, moved up on his own initiative around the turn and was in front to stay heading for the wire. He finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.89, geared down in the final yards. It was his third straight win and second consecutive Palos Verde victory. After last year's Palos Verde, trainer Peter Miller took Roy H to Dubai, where he finished third in the Golden Shaheen.
"He loves to run and I had a whole lot of horse the whole way," Lopez said. "He definitely ran as good today as he did in the Breeders' Cup. He was just incredible."
Miller said he saw more than enough to start packing his bags. "We're going to try Dubai again," he said. "Hopefully, this time we'll get it right."
Things didn't work out quite so well in Florida for another Dubai veteran.
Quijote appeared to be tilting at some pretty impressive windmills in Saturday's $100,000 Sunshine Millions Sprint at Gulfstream Park, dispatched at odds of better than 23-1 with top-shelf international sprinter X Y Jet the odds-on favorite. But X Y Jet, coming off a seven-months layoff, was burned out in a blistering pace duel, fading to finish fourth. Quijote was the beneficiary, rallying from next-last to win going away. Ray'swarrior applied the pace pressure and also wilted but held second, 2 3/4 lengths behind the winner and 3/4 length to the good of Sweetontheladies. Quijote, a 6-year-old Pomeroy gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.98 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard.
Quijote was fifth in the 2018 Sunshine Millions Sprint, won easily by X Y Jet, who went on from that to finish second in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen two months later, one slot in front of Roy H and one behind the now-retired Mind Your Biscuits.
"We actually knew there was going to be a lot of speed and he's a closing type. It's nice when things go to plan," said Georgina Baxter, who trains the winner for Midwest Thoroughbreds. "The plan was that they were going to go at each other's throats and we would pick up the pieces in the end."
In New York, Solid Wager rallied from last of five to win Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Toboggan Stakes at Aqueduct by 1 1/2 lengths over pacesetting Skyler's Scramjet. The favorite, Gold for the King, was third with a minor rally in the lane. Solid Wager, an 8-year-old Birdonthewire gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.95 with Jose Lezcano in the irons.
Solid Wager returned east from California for the first time in some 18 months. In his last visit, he finished eighth in the Grade I Met Mile in 2017.
"He's been with us for about three weeks now," said winning trainer Chris Englehart. "He shipped to us just after his last race at Santa Anita. I'll certainly speak to Mr. (owner Gary) Barber and see where he'll want to go following this win, but the Tom Fool certainly might be a good spot and one we'll consider." That $200,000 Grade III event is March 9.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Forever Liesl rallied from next-last, overcoming a wide trip, and kicked clear in the stretch to win Sunday's $100,000 Ladies Handicap at Aqueduct by 4 1/4 lengths. Sara Street was second, 7 1/2 lengths better than Crimson Frost. Forever Liesl, a 5-year-old Mineshaft mare, ran 9 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:54.12 under Eric Cancel. It was her third win from her last six starts, dating back to August.
Big Changes rated kindly through the early furlongs of Saturday's $150,000 Sunshine Millions Turf at Gulfstream Park, took over when prompted by jockey Javier Castellano and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Second Mate was second, edging Archer Road. Big Changes, a 7-year-old Midshipman gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.48.
Big Changes picked up his fifth career stakes win in his South Florida debut. He has won six of his last eight starts, all at different tracks. "We were very excited to ship in there and get a victory," trainer Brad Cox said by phone from New Orleans. "He ran very well. Javier let those couple horses in front of him show the way. He had a good trip and he showed his class turning for home. He's a nice horse."
Filly & Mare Turf
Pantsonfire stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Astra Stakes at Santa Anita, surged to the lead outside rivals at the top of the stretch and won off by 5 1/4 lengths. K P Pergolicious was second, 1/2 length in front of Lynne's Legacy. Pantsonfire, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred mare by Sir Percy, ran 1 1/2 miles on good turf in 2:27.83 with Flavien Prat up for trainer Richard Baltas. It was her fourth win from 20 starts, the first four in Ireland.
Detouring over bounding main:
Beauty Generation swept to an easy victory in Sunday's Group 1 Stewards' Cup at Sha Tin, leading all the way to a 3-lengths victory. Conte, making his first Group 1 start in Hong Kong, edged Dubai-bound Southern Legend for third. It was the sixth straight win for Beauty Generation, who now has two more assignments at home before trainer John Moore asks owner Patrick Kwak about a trip to Japan.
Jocky Zac Purton hardly moved during the Stewards' Cup, shaking his reins a few times early in the stretch run, then sitting chilly through the final 100. Beauty Generation, he said, was "coasting. There was a bit more there ... I thought Beauty Generation's performance last time was better than today but he had a bit of a let-up after the Hong Kong Mile (G1, Dec. 9) and John had him on the way back up today. He doesn't need to get any better. He just needs to keep doing what he's doing and that's enough."
"He's the best of the lot," Moore said when asked to rank his career tops.
Moore said Kwok wants to see his horse top Viva Pataca's record of HK$83,197,500 earnings. "I'd love to travel him," Moore said. "If he wins the Champions Mile (Group 1, April 28), it'll be down to the (Kwok) family as to whether we go to Japan for the Yasuda Kinen (G1) or we put him away for next season. It's always up to the owner." The Yasuda Kinen is June 2 at Tokyo Racecourse.
In Sunday's companion feature, Beat the Clock hit the lead at mid-stretch in the Group 1 Centenary Sprint Cup and held on gamely to win by a neck over he onrushing Mr Stunning. Winner's Way and Fifty Fifty were third and fourth in the 1,400-meters (about 7 furlongs) event. Mr Stunning won the Longines Hong Kong Sprint Dec. 9 with Beat the Clock third. D B Pin, second in the December race, beat only one rival in the Centenary Cup.
Rocket Power scored his fourth win of the UAE season Saturday night at Meydan, leaving trainer Ahmad bin Harmash looking for a new target. Under Connor Beasley, the 6-year-old Kyllachy gelding took the lead after the field straightened into the lane, then was all out to win by a head from his stablemate, Azraff. He finished 1,400 meters on the turf in 1:24.09.
Rocket Power's first three wins came at Jebel Ali. "We decided to come here over 1,400 meters on the turf because he was not rated highly enough for the Jebel Ali Mile," Bin Harmash said. "So we now know he is as good on the Meydan grass. The Jebel Ali Mile is next week, so we will have to see how the handicapper reacts and how the horse is after this race. If not, we will find something back here on turf at Meydan in the Dubai World Cup Carnival."
Back in the states, around the ovals:
Souper Tapit chased down pacesetting Jay's Way in the late going in Saturday's $200,000 Sunshine Millions Classic, dueled down the lane with that one and prevailed by 1/2 length. Dalmore, always in the mix, was a neck farther back in third. Souper Tapit, a 5-year-old son of Tapit, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.62 with John Velazquez up. The Mark Casse trainee, a Grade III winner at Woodbine in 2017, was stepping up from a long spell in the allowance ranks.
Starship Jubilee cleared the field in the stretch run to win Saturday's $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf at Gulfstream Park by 4 1/2 lengths over long shot Bitacora. Mrs. Ramona G. was third. Starship Jubilee, a 6-year-old mare by Indy Wind, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.33 for jockey Javier Castellano. She also won this last year and, since, landed the Grade II Canadian Stakes at Woodbine.
Tampa Bay Downs
Tapa Tapa Tapa shadowed pacesetting Almond Roca through the early stages of Saturday's $50,000 Wayward Lass Stakes for fillies and mares, surged to the lead on the turn and drew off to win by 5 lengths, ridden out by Antonio Gallardo. Pure Lemon and Figarella's Queen were along for second and third with Almond Roca finishing fourth. Tapa Tapa Tapa, a 5-year-old Tapit mare, completed 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.27 -- a stakes record.
Midnight Pleasure rallied from last to win Friday night's $50,000 Forego Stakes by a neck in a four-way scramble in the final strides. Mr. Ashley, at odds of 67-1 nosed out Torazo for place money. Midnight Pleasure, a 5-year-old Midnight Lute gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:17.08. "Down the lane his class came out and he really powered home," said jockey John McKee. Never give up. He kept coming and coming."
Dubara broke a step slow in Saturday's $75,000 Marie G. Krantz Memorial for fillies and mares but made up the lost ground in time to win by 3/4 length from long shot Promise of Spring. Hanalei Moon was third Dubara, a 5-year-old, British-bred mare by Dubawi, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.47 with Jamie Spencer in the irons. Previously raced in England, Dubara scored his first U.S. win from six starts.
Harlan Punch had to battle for the lead in Saturday's $75,000 Louisiana Stakes, then inched away to win by 3/4 length. Silver Dust rallied for second with Phat Man 2 3/4 length further back in third. Harlan Punch, a 6-year-old gelding by Harlan's Holiday, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.04 under Florent Geroux. The Brad Cox trainee has been on an extended tour of New Mexico, Oklahoma And Arkansas.
First Premio, making his first start since June 30 at Woodbine, rallied smartly to the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $125,000 Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap and kicked away to a 3 1/4-lengths victory. Sir Dudley Digges was second, a neck in front of the odds-on favorite, Great Wide Open. First Premio, with Brian Hernandez Jr. up for trainer Mark Casse and Team Valor International, ran about 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.17. He's a 5-year-old son of Pure Prize.
Wynn Time, the odds-on favorite, had to battle all the way before winning Saturday's $75,000 Duncan F. Kenner Stakes by a neck over late-running Control Stake. Balandeen was third. Wynn Time, a Three Hour Nap gelding out of the Five Star Day mare Five Star Swank, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.78 with Marcelino Pedroza in the irons, scoring his third straight win at Fair Grounds -- two on the dirt and one in his only career effort on grass.
Blazing Navarone led through the first half mile of Sunday's $85,000 Albert Dominguez Memorial Handicap, was headed by Hute, then came again to win by a head over that rival. It was a further 2 1/4 lengths back to Shining Source in the 1 1/16-miles race for New Mexico-breds. Blazing Navarone, a 4-year-old Song of Navarone gelding, finished in 1:43.71 with Ry Eikelberry in the irons.
News and Notes:
Jockey Virginia Tormey, 23, earned her first career victory Friday when she guided Miss Chuckie H to win the first race at Turfway Park by 8 1/2 lengths. Breaking from post seven, Tormey positioned Miss Chuckie H just outside the leader before taking over on the turn of the 6 1/2-furlongs test for older fillies and mares. The win came with Tormey's ninth mount.
"I love riding horses. I could ride all day. I figured as a jockey I could get paid to ride," Tormey said.