The $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational and its brand new $7 million turf companion highlight a weekend racing calendar that also includes a plethora of grassy competition from coast to coast.
Oaklawn Park wastes no time getting into the action with an early Kentucky Derby prep race on its opening-weekend calendar. And we do pay attention to those 3-year-old races in New Mexico ever since Mine That Bird came from the Land of Enchantment to win the 2009 Run for the Roses.
On the international front, it's Sun Met time in South Africa, where the horses exercise on the beach, occasionally in the company of beauty queens.
Diving right in:
Pegasus World Cup
For the third straight year, the Breeders' Cup Classic winner will line up on Saturday as the favorite for the $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Arrogate and Gun Runner were easy winners in their efforts. Now it's Accelerate's turn as he emulates Gun Runner by winding up his career in the Pegasus.
The 6-year-old certainly is the horse to beat, coming into the race as the winner of four Grade I events in a row. Those looking for a reason to doubt could note his training was scrambled ever so slightly by the recent rain in Southern California and that, of his 22 career starts, only two have been outside California -- the Breeders' Cup victory at Churchill Downs and a second-place finish behind City of Light in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap last spring.
City of Light is a rival again Saturday, coming off a career-best effort in winning the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. He's been training like a monster while dodging the California precipitation.
The others include: Gunnevera, third in this last year and second by 1 length to Accelerate in the Breeders' Cup Classic; Florida Derby winner and Kentucky Derby third Audible; Patternrecognition and True Timber, the first two in the Grade I Cigar Mile Dec. 1 at Aqueduct; and Bravazo and Seeking the Soul, second and third in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs Nov. 23.
Then there's Kukulkan. The 4-year-old Point Determined colt is undefeated in 14 starts, the first 13 of those in his native Mexico. In his first effort in the United States, he ran the shoes off all comers in the Carribean Classic at Gulfstream Park Dec. 8. Irad Ortiz Jr. rode Kukulkan that day but sticks with Gunnevera for the Pegasus. There's no downgrade in the irons for the Mexican star, however, as Frankie Dettori picks up the mount. Dettori also rides long shot Delta Prince in the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational (see below).
A side note: Accelerated on Wednesday was named the third-best horse in the world on the final 2018 Longines World's Best Racehorse Rankings. He was tops on the dirt, with a rating of 127 and trailed only Australia's star mare Winx and crack British runner Cracksman, both turf specialists.
The Road to the Roses
Nine are in for Friday's $150,000 Smarty Jones, a 1-mile test at Oaklawn Park, where the purses are huge and the competition is tough. The morning-line favorites are Gray Attempt, a Graydar colt who won the Sugar Bowl at Fair Grounds in his last outing, and Long Range Toddy and Bankit, the first two home in the Remington Springboard Mile. Long Ranger Toddy and Bankit are two-thirds of the Steve Asmussen contingent.
Asmussen also fields the 8-5 favorite in a field of 10 for Sunday's $100,000 Riley Allison Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico. That would be Nitrous, a gray Tapit who colt finished third in the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last spring, but then was a disappointment in two subsequent races in Kentucky.
An international field of 10 -- all but one of them graded stakes winners -- signed on for Saturday's initial $7 million Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational at Gulfstream Park. Japan is represented by Aerolithe, a Grade 1 winner in 2017 and a Grade 2 winner at 9 furlongs last October. Irish master Aidan O'Brien brings Magic Wand back across the Atlantic. On her last trip, the Galileo filly was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. She was second in both the Group 1 Prix de l'Opera and the Group 1 Prix Vermille before that. Japanese-bred Yoshida has four wins and three seconds from 10 starts on the grass, including a victory in the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs last May. He returns from a fourth-place finish, beaten less than 2 lengths by Accelerate, in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Among the others: Channel Maker won the Grade I Turf Classic Invitational before faltering in the Breeders' Cup Turf; Next Shares won the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, bombed in the Breeders' Cup Mile, then won the Grade II San Gabriel at Santa Anita Jan. 5; Catapult has been first or second in six straight races and missed winning the Breeders' Cup Mile by 1/2 length to Expert Eye; Bricks and Mortar won the Grade I Hall of Fame in August of 2017, was away for some 14 months and returned to win a prep for this impressively; Fahan Mura brings speed and comes off a victory in the Grade III Robert J. Frankel out west; Dubby Dubbie and the "house horse," Delta Prince, are the longest shots.
That's not a bad field for the first running of a race like this.
A full field plus two also-eligibles is entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III W.L. McKnight Handicap at Gulfstream Park -- a 1 1/2-miles test with a hugely diverse cast. Zulu Alpha and Canessar look likely if they're ready to go off layoffs. Hunting Horn and Hunter O'Riley would be in the hunt on their best effort. Postulation would move up with some cut in the surface and the ever-changing forecast, as of Wednesday, was for showers in the area.
Saturday's $200,000 Unusual Heat Turf Classic for California-breds at Santa Anita drew 11 to tackle 1 1/8 miles on the lawn. Rye, Camino Del Paraiso, Accountability and He Will were the first four finishers in this race last year, separated by just 1 length, and all return for another try. Ashleyluvssugar drops into the state-bred ranks in his first start as an 8-year-old.
Bigger Picture is the 4-5 favorite on the morning line in a field of nine for Sunday's $200,000 Grade III John B. Connally Turf Cup at Sam Houston. The 8-year-old Badge of Silver gelding finished second in the Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup in his most recent start in November but hasn't won in eight starts since capturing this event a year ago.
Filly & Mare Turf
The dozen signed on for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III La Prevoyante Handicap at Gulfstream Park include everything from multiple graded stakes winners to maiden after 10 starts. Their backgrounds include Ireland, Peru, Argentina and Canada. Holy Helena won the 2017 Queen's Plate on the Woodbine all-weather. A few have decent recent form but this is a tough puzzle.
Vasilika came three-wide around the second turn in Monday's $100,000 Grade III Megahertz Stakes at Santa Anita, got by Ms Bad Behavior and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. Zaffinah was only a head farther back in third. Vasilika, a 5-year-old Skipshot mare, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:34.82 with Flavien Prat up. Vasilika was claimed for $40,000 by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer Feb. 11, 2018. Since then, she has won nine of 11 races including the Grade I Rodeo Drive and a pair of Grade II events. She earned more than $1.5 million in 2018, nearly all of it after the claim.
Stormy Liberal, the two-time Breeders' Cup Turf winner, is the featured attraction in Saturday's $150,000 Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint. The 7-year-old Stormy Atlantic gelding comes off a second-place finish in a Grade III event own the Santa Anita hill and looks to punch his ticket for a repeat trip to the Al Quoz Sprint, where he finished second last year. This is no slam dunk, however, as the field of eight also includes World of Trouble -- second in the 2018 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. There should be enough early speed to set up Stormy Liberal for the stretch run.
Ten signed on for Saturday's $150,000 Ladies Turf Sprint at Gulfstream Park. It's a well-matched bunch with Stormy Liberal's trainer, Peter Miller, saddling both Surrender Now and Painting Corners. Blue Bahia and Morticia are worth a glance.
Saturday's $125,000 South Beach Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park is 7 1/2 furlongs, starting virtually on top of the first turn. That normally gives inside draws an advantage, especially in this full field. That said, it's hard to look past the three outside horses -- Road to Victory, Capala Temptress and Andina Del Sur.
Saturday's $100,000 Cal Cup Turf Sprint for California-breds at Santa Anita lured seven to tackle the downhill course.
Saturday's $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly/Mare Turf Sprint at Santa Anita, also for California-breds, drew a field of eight.
Midnight Bisou kicks off her 4-year-old campaign as the odds-on morning-line favoritein Sunday's $300,000 Grade III Houston Ladies Classic at Sam Houston Race Park. The Midnight Lute filly was last seen finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. She also was third in the Kentucky Oaks and Alabama and has never reported worse than third in 11 career starts.
Coal Front, Aztec Sense and Copper Town all look promising in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fred W. Hooper, a one-turn mile at Gulfstream Park. All carry question marks, though. Coal Front, a 5-year-old Stay Thirsty ridgling, was away from the races for 14 months before fading to finish fifth in the Grade III Bold Ruler in November at Aqueduct. He returned to win the Grade III Mr. Prospector at Gulfstream Dec. 22 by 3 3/4 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 102. Aztec Sense has a seven-race win streak on the line but faces better here. Copper Town came a cropper when facing stakes company for the first time in the Grade I Met Mile Dec. 1 but faces much easier here and his connections are hot. Unbridled Juan could do.
Filly & Mare Sprint
A truly tough field of eight is entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fasig-Tipton Hurricane Bertie Stakes at 7 furlongs out of the Gulfstream Park backstretch chute. The headliner is Shamrock Rose, whose victory in November's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint capped a three-race win streak. Blamed has lost only twice in eight starts -- one of those defeats at the hands of Shamrock Rose. Dream Pauline, Stormy Embrace and Pacific Gale were the first three finishers in the Grade III Sugar Swirl over the same track in December.
Vertical Oak, a 5-year-old Giant Oak mare who finished 2018 with two straight wins, tops the field for Saturday's $100,000 American Beauty Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Amy's Challenge, Jessica Krupnik and Sistern Nation loom the biggest threats among the other nine.
Saturday's $150,000 California Cup Sprint for state-breds at Santa Anita has a field of six including Edwards Going Left, Richard's Boy, Touching Rainbows and Heck Yeah.
Dawn the Destroyer is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line in a field of eight for Friday's $100,000 Interborough Stakes at Aqueduct. Your Love, Yorkiepoo Princess and Sower also drew the handicapper's eye.
On the overseas beat:
One of the year's biggest in South Africa has attracted the local sport's biggest stars, including recent Queen's Plate winner Do It Again, the venerable Legal Eagle and star filly Oh Susanna. Saturday's renewal of the Grade 1 Sun Met Celebrated with G.H. Mumm drew a relatively small but nonetheless stellar field of 13 over the Kenilworth course.
Trainer Justin Snaith has the upper hand, at least on paper, with Do It Again and Cartier Paddock Stakes winner Oh Susanna among four starters. They were the stars on the Queen's Plate card, providing Snaith with the Grade 1 double. Oh Susanna won the 2018 Sun Met with Legal Eagle finishing fourth. Legal Eagle, now 7 by Southern Hemisphere reckoning, has won three of five intervening starts but was fourth behind Do It Again in the Queen's Plate.
With Oh Susanna taking on the boys again, Lady In Black is left the favorite for Saturday's Grade 1 Bidvest Majorca Stakes for fillies and mares. Lady In Black pressured Oh Susanna to the finish in the Paddock, falling just 1/2 length short of catching her.
Racing in South Africa often mixes with society and fashion (the Durban July is a prime example) so it was no surprise to find Miss South Africa, Tamaryn Green, joining a few of the Sun Met contenders for a stroll on the Capetown beach the weekend prior to the race. Among the lucky participants were Do It Again, Oh Susanna and Snaith himself.
We'll be catching up in the Roundup with Thursday night's excellent Meydan card, featuring the $250,000 Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort. In that, Winx's trainer, Chris Waller, fields Comin' Through. South Africa's Marinaresco also is in the Fort. Last year's winner, Jungle Cat, went on to win the Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night.
News and Notes
Further shakeup in the Hong Kong trainer and jockey ranks.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club announced this week it has approved a trainer's license for 13-time local champion reinsman Douglas Whyte, marking an end to Whyte's riding career following the Feb. 10 racing date and a start to a new chapter. "It would be an understatement to say that I'm looking forward to this challenge," Whyte said.
The Licensing Committee also waived its normal retirement standards to allow trainer John Moore to keep at it through the 2023-24 season. "The Licensing Committee's policy is that elite-level trainers may be granted a license beyond the age of 65," said Andrew Harding, HKJC executive director of racing. "Having commenced training in Hong Kong during the 2001-2002 racing season, John has been crowned champion trainer on a record 10 occasions. In all bar one of the 17 racing seasons he has since completed, John has been in the top five on the trainers' championship in respect of wins and-or prize-money earned." Good enough.
Also, South African native Callan Murray has told the Licensing Committee he will not seek an extension of his current Hong Kong license. Murray, a star graduate of the South African Jockey Academy, told UPI he plans to relocate to Singapore. Through Wednesday's Happy Valley meeting, Murray had 24 top-five placings from 125 rides this season but only a pair of wins.