Tax (inside, pink cap) is a narrow winner in Saturday's Withers at Aqueduct, an important early Kentucky Derby Prep. Photo courtesy of Susie Raisher/NYRA
Mucho Gusto in California, Tax in New York and Harvey Wallbanger in Florida all won important preps for the Kentucky Derby while Battle of Midway edged McKinzie in the weekend's biggest test for older horses.
Feedback, Power Gal and Iva were winners on the road to the Kentucky Oaks.
Internationally, some familiar names were back on the board in England's All-Weather Championships.
The football season is over and it's two weeks until spring training gets going in Arizona and Florida.
Time to fully focus on:
The Road to the Roses
Tax saved ground early, then found room along the rail at the top of the lane in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Withers at Aqueduct, put a head in front and held on gamely to win by a head. The early leader, Not That Brady, was second, just to the outside of the winner, and Our Braintrust was another neck back in third.
The stewards quickly dismissed a claim of foul against Not That Brady resulting from some bumping in deep stretch. Tax, an Arch colt trained by Danny Gargan, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.27 and jockey Junior Alvarado commented, "He wouldn't have any trouble going a mile and a quarter."
Tax came to the Withers off a third-place finish in the Grade II Remsen over the same track Dec. 1. That race was won by Maximus Mischief, who shortly thereafter fled to Florida, where he finished third in Saturday's Holy Bull.
"As far as our next spot," Gargan said, "we'll look at the Tampa Bay Derby, also the Jeff Ruby (Steaks) at Turfway Park. Somewhere like that, a two-turn race. I don't want to back him up, the Gotham (at Aqueduct) is a one-turn mile and I think that's a sprinter's race.
"So, we'll probably come out of this race and go somewhere like that and probably come back here for the Wood. He's definitely going to run between now and the last prep so I can get three races in if we get lucky enough to get to the Derby," Gargan added.
Speaking of the $350,000 Grade II Fasig-Tipton Holy Bull, the result of that race Saturday at Gulfstream Park was a bit of a "Holy Bleep!" for the chalk bettors as Harvey Wallbanger shot through along the rail to grab the win at odds of 25-1 and Everfast, at 99-1, edged the odds-on favorite, Maximus Mischief, for second. The 50-cent trifecta payout was $3,086.50. Harvey Wallbanger was well back in third as the field turned for home. But with a big hole inside, jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. steered him right through, found another gear and won by 1 length, in 1:43.69.
Harvey Wallbanger, a Congrats colt, finished second in each of his first three races, all against tough competition. "He broke his maiden at Churchill (Downs), two turns, which is a big deal as far as I'm concerned," part-owner Harold Lerner said. "We'll look at the calendar" for the next race, he added.
Trainer Kenny McPeek said, "I think good horses rise to the level of competition, no question. He acted last fall like he was that kind. He really didn't fully understand what he was doing his first few starts and then he kind of figured it out. He's really got it down pat now."
McPeek said Harvey Wallbanger will be nominated to the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby although the Fountain is "up to debate." He already has penciled in for that race Signalman, winner of the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club, third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and second in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity to wrap up his juvenile season.
Maximus Mischief's trainer, Butch Reid, said the Holy Bull outcome will "set him up perfectly" for the Fountain of Youth -- a race shaping up as a key heat on the Road to the Roses.
Out west, Mucho Gusto had no trouble with sloppy conditions or a short field in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Robert B. Lewis Stakes. After tracking the pace, the Mucho Macho Man colt moved to the front on his own initiative on the turn and kicked clear in the final furlong, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. Gunmetal Gray loomed a brief threat and held off late-running Easy Shot by 1/2 length for place money.
Mucho Gusto, just one of the many Derby prospects from Bob Baffert's bountiful barn, ran 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:41.81 with Joe Talamo in the irons. Mucho Gusto now is 3-for-4 with the only loss a second-place finish behind undefeated stablemate Improbable in the Grade I Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity.
"This is the time of the year when you want to start getting excited about something," Baffert said. "We're still dreaming in Technicolor but they have to start performing and they have to move forward from here. But it's a fun position to be in.
"I want to run him in spots where he's going to be very competitive, and we have those other horses, so it depends on what the other horses are doing," Baffert added. "Right now I'm going to nominate my horses everywhere and whoever's doing great that week runs in that race ... Let the games begin."
Caul Paul continued his sprint dominance with an off-the-pace, 1 1/4-lengths triumph in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Swale at Gulfstream Park. With Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons, the Friesan Fire colt took his time down the backstretch. Moving up confidently outside rivals, he hit the front after straightening up into the lane and won convincingly. Zenden and Topper T filled the trifecta -- the latter with a late move in the final sixteenth. Call Paul is 3-for-3 at distances less than 1 mile but finished third in both the Grade I Champagne and the Grade III Nashua, both times tiring late.
"He broke a step slow but I didn't go crazy. When I tipped him out, he responded really well," Ortiz said.
Tax, Mucho Gusto and Harvey Wallbanger each earned 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby scoreboard but Gunmetal Gray and Maximus Mischief also added to their totals. Two-year-old champ Game Winner, who has yet to make his 3-year-old debut for Baffert, leads the list with 30 points. Knicks Go, Signalman and Gunmetal Gray are tied for second with 18 points apiece.
Coming up on the Derby trail: Friday's $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park, Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs and Sunday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita.
Feedback pressed the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Forward Gal at Gulfstream Park, moved smoothly to the lead when asked by jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. and held off Bye Bye J by 1/2 length in the final strides. Champagne Anyone also was coming late and finished third, a neck farther in arrears. Feedback, a Violence filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.51. She was making just her second start, following an 8-lengths tour de force victory at Saratoga in August and a long rest. Despite the inexperience, she was the odds-on favorite in the Forward Gal.
"I'm happy and relieved, " said Feedback's trainer, Chad Brown, "because this horse really didn't have quite enough works into her where I really wanted to run her quite yet. But looking at the schedule and trying to hopefully get her on the Oaks trail, I figure if we don't get her started this weekend, it was going to be hard to get there. We were a little short on works but she showed her class and her ability to overcome it."
Power Gal produced a late burst to win Saturday's $125,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park by 1/2 length over Marathon Queen. Taylor's Spirit, who set a pressured pace, held third and the favorite, Sunset Wish, finished fourth. Power Gal, a Japanese-bred filly by Empire Maker, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.82 under David Cohen. She notched her second win in her fourth career start.
"She's a filly we liked a lot," trainer Mark Casse said. "Early on in the year, she had a few little nagging injuries. Took her to New York, she won in New York and I thought her last race was sneakily good. We shipped her to Oaklawn because there's such a great 3-year-old series, filly and colt series. That's one of the reasons she's there." He said Power Gal will remain in Hot Springs to continue her campaign.
Iva, a Wesley Ward-trained daughter of Scat Daddy, rallied four-wide into the stretch in Friday evening's $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy Stakes at Turfway Park, chased down the leaders and won by 1 1/4 lengths. Workaholic was second, 1/2 length in front of Malibu Party. Iva, with Julio Garcia in the irons, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:18.82. She exited a second-place finish behind Bye Bye J in the House Party Stakes on the Gulfstream Park dirt after winning her first two starts on the Indiana Grand turf and the Belterra dirt. "I had to come from behind, but I knew I had the best horse in the race," said Garcia. "I followed the 14 (Dream Boat Anna) and a couple others and had to wait, but I had plenty of horse. She was the best."
Coming up: Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita and Saturday's $150,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs.
Battle of Midway worked to the lead late in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Pasqual at Santa Anita and outfinished odds-on favorite McKinzie, winning by 1/2 length. Giant Expectations, who led much of the way while pressured by McKinzie, held third, 4 1/4 lengths farther back. Pavel and Dalmore completed the order of finish. Battle of Midway, a 5-year-old son of Smart Strike, ran 9 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:46.95 under Flavien Prat. Third in the 2017 Kentucky Derby, Battle of Midway won the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile that fall and has never finished out of the money in California.
"I thought we could get him (McKinzie) and I thought Prat rode a great race," said winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "The other horse fought back, but we got lucky in the last couple jumps. We'll enjoy this and see what's up."
A Thread of Blue went straight to the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Dania Beach Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, extended the advantage throughout and won off by 3 1/2 lengths. Louder Than Bombs was better than the other nine with Current another 1/2 length back in third. A Thread of Blue, a Hard Spun colt trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.96 with Luis Saez up. He's now won three of his last four starts.
Filly & Mare Turf
A Bit Special stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Sweetest Chant at Gulfstream Park, challenged between the leaders on the turn and scooted away to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Regal Glory, part of the early mix, held on for second by 1 3/4 lengths from Le Feve. A Bit Special, a British-bred filly by Mukhadram, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.62, ridden out by Julien Leparoux. She boasts four win from five starts, all at Gulfstream, dating back to last August.
Over the bounding main:
Lots of action on the All-Weather Championships front:
On Friday on the Lingfield Polytrack, Grey Britain challenged for the lead in the last of 16 furlongs and ran on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Watersmeet. Stargrazer trailed by another 5 length. Grey Britain, trained by John Ryan and ridden by Adam Kirby, scored for the second time on an all-weather surface and also has victories on the green at Newmarket. The race was not a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Good Friday All-Weather Championship Finals but Grey Britain has a likely in through three starts in the program.
Over the same course on Saturday, Wissahickon secured a spot in the 10-furlongs Betway Easter Classic and Kachy a stall for the Betway All-Weather Sprint Championship. Both also have some ambitious assignments past Easter.
Whissahickon, a 4-year-old Tapit colt trained by John Gosden for George Strawbridge, was way too good for his rivals. The odds-on favorite under Frankie Dettori, he was in some traffic trouble but ran on smoothly for the win when he saw daylight.
"The obvious plan is to go for the Winter Derby and the Easter Classic," Gosden said.
"I have always been a great supporter of All-Weather racing and when they put programs together like this, they should be supported ... Wissahickon is a lovely horse who will probably end up racing in America come the fall and next year. He is a Tapit, so he is really going to suit the surfaces out there."
Kachy, a 6-year-old by Kyllachy, posted his second All-Weather course record in the 6-furlongs Betway Cleves Stakes to earn a spot in the finals. He broke the record for the same distance in December at Wolverhampton. Saturday, jockey Richard Kingscote took Kachy right to the lead and he was in no danger thereafter, winning by 3 1/2 lengths in 1:08.32. Kachy also won the Cleves last year, en route to a runner-up showing behind French runner City Light in the finals.
Colin Gorman, assistant trainer to Cheshire-based Tom Dascombe, said, "I wouldn't say that he is better than last year, but he is just a bit more relaxed with his racing and life in general. It was a good performance."
Back in the USA, around the ovals:
Marquee Prince saved ground into the stretch in Saturday's $60,000 Lloyd Captain Maestri Memorial for 3-year-olds, came out for running room and got home first by 1 1/4 lengths over Spectacular Gem. Bluegrass Parkway was third. Marquee Prince, a Cairo Prince colt, ran about 1 mile on firm turf in 1:39.48 with Florent Geroux riding.
Excessivespending emerged from a crowd to win Saturday's $75,000 Nelson J. Menard Memorial for fillies and mares by 1/2 length over the favorite, Oxford Comma. La Dame Blanche was third. Excessivespending, a 5-year-old Shackleford mare, ran about 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:04.25 under Mitchell Murrill.
Runaway Ghost took charge in the stretch run in Saturday's $75,000 Fort Bliss Stakes, running by pacesetter Secular Nation to win by 2 1/2 lengths over that foe. It was another 5 3/4 lengths to Cowboy Cool in third. Runaway Ghost, a 4-year-old Ghostzapper colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.44 with Santiago Gonzalez in the irons.
Precious Looker dueled through deep stretch with the favorite, Singing Mary, before winning Saturday's $85,000 Enchantress Stakes for 3-year-old, New Mexico-bred fillies by a nose. Reina Del Norte was a further 3 lengths back in third. Precious Looker, a daughter of Tailfromthecrypt, ran 1 mile in 1:40.18 for jockey Casey Chavez.
Hustle Up, the odds-on favorite, drew off easily through the lane to win Saturday's $85,000 Red Hedeman Mile for state-bred 3-year-olds by 5 1/2 lengths. Sunscreen was second, 1/2 length to the good of Quite Peace. Hustle Up, an Abstraction gelding, finished in 1:39.21 under Luis Contreras.