Well Defined, Sparky Ville and Haikal raised Kentucky Derby hopes with victories in the weekend's big 3-year-old races, while Bellafina had all she could do to secure victory among the 3-year-old filly ranks.
With all the action in, last year's Juvenile champion, Game Winner, remained atop the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings while continuing to prep for his first start of the year. He also was the top solo choice in the second pool of the Kentucky Derby Futures wager -- closing Sunday at 5-1 behind the 5-2 favorite, "all others".
A side note: Sparky Ville and the winner of a big Japanese Oaks prep (see the International roundup) were both produced by Storm Cat mares, yet another reminder of the impact that superstar continues to have on the breed.
Here's how it went with just 12 weeks left on:
The Road to the Roses
Well Defined took the lead straight out of the gate in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs and was never threatened, winning off by 2 3/4 lengths over Kentucky Wildcat. The others were double-digit lengths behind -- among them the favorite, Grade I Breeders' Futurity winner Knicks Go, who faded badly for the second straight race to finish fifth, 13 lengths behind the winner. Well Defined, a With Distinction colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.70 with Pablo Morales up for trainer Kathleen O'Connell.
Well Defined ran against fellow Florida-breds early in his 2-year-old season, then finished 12th in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. He was a fading fifth, beating only one rival, in his only intervening start, the Mucho Macho Man at Gulfstream Park.
"He's had little things that have happened and he's grown up mentally and physically, and today he showed up with his game face on," O'Connell said. "He is kind of a free-running horse. His rear end slipped out from underneath him in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and he was compromised on early position when he ran in the Mucho Macho Man and got bottled up inside. But he's a young horse who's improving, mind-wise and everything-wise."
Well Defined earned 10 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, moving in to a six-way tie for the No. 9 spot but O'Connell said his next race will be up to the owners, Stonehedge LLC.
The weekend's big 3-year-old race on the West Coast, the $200,000 Grade II San Vicente, was run at 7 furlongs Sunday on a wet Santa Anita track and produced an upset. Sparky Ville, a Candy Ride colt who was competitive without winning in graded stakes as a juvenile, finished the job Sunday, rallying from well off the pace to outfinish Dressman and win by a nose. It was another 6 1/2 lengths back to the odds-on favorite, Coliseum, whose effort was hampered by a slow start. Sparky Ville, out of the Storm Cat mare Lorelai K, finished in 1:21.93 under Joel Rosario. The winner is trained by Jeff Bonde. Dressman and Coliseum are from the Bob Baffert barn.
"We are very happy with the way our horse had trained for this race," Bonde said. "But it's always scary when you get a look at those Baffert 'Maseratis'. It pretty much unfolded the way we had hoped." Still, he said, Sparky Ville is an unlikely Derby prospect. "This horse seems like he's more adept at 7 furlongs to a mile so I'm not sure he wants a mile and a quarter," Bonde said.
At Aqueduct, Haikal tracked the pace in Saturday's $150,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes, saved ground through the turn and finally found room inside the early leader to go through and win by a neck. Joevia held second after surrendering the lead and Tikhvin Flew was third. Haikal, a Daaher colt trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Shadwell Stable, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.24 with Rajiv Maragh in the irons.
"This horse, if the track plays fair, I think he can sit where he wants to sit and make his move," said McLaughlin assistant Joe Lee. "Rajiv said he finished full of run. The Gotham (March 9 at Aqueduct) could be next, hopefully, he comes out of this in good shape. We'll obviously leave it up to the boss and Sheikh Hamdan. It's their decision."
Friday night's $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial was postponed until next Friday because of the frigid weather at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Bellafina led from the start in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita and held off a late bid by Enaya Elrabb, winning by 3/4 length. Calf Moon Bay was along late to edge Mother Mother for third. Bellafina, the heaviest of odds-on favorites, ran 1 mile on a good track in 1:35.99 with Flavien Prat up for trainer Simon Callaghan. The Quality Road filly won for the fifth time from seven starts. She finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
"I think the main track was a little bit sticky today and Mother Mother never gave us a break the whole way, so I think it was a good performance," Callaghan said. "Obviously, when you come off such a scintillating win by a length, many people are disappointed, but we are happy to get the win and we're going to freshen her up for the Santa Anita Oaks."
Point of Honor took back early in Saturday's $100,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, made steady progress through the turn and won going away. Lady Kate dueled to the early lead and held on for second, 2 3/4 length to the good of Sweet Diane. Point of Honor, a Curlin filly, ran 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:39.78 for jockey Javier Castellano. She won at first asking at Gulfstream Park in December and was making the second start of her career in the Suncoast.
"She won her first race very easy, but the horses behind her that day were not much," said Point of Honor's trainer, George Weaver said. "I think this was probably an acid test for her and she passed it with flying colors. She was very responsive to Javier and the way she drew away was very impressive. ... Hopefully, it's on to bigger things. We'll try to work backward now to get her to the Kentucky Oaks."