Winx returns to action in Australia, seeking her 31st straight win, while early Derby and Oaks preparations continue in Japan as weekend highlights of international Thoroughbred racing.
On the U.S. front, Gulfstream Park supports Saturday's Fountain of Youth Stakes for Kentucky Derby prospects with a stellar card on the turf. Oaklawn Park, Aqueduct and Santa Anita also contribute to the festivities.
Starting at the top:
Winx faces only six rivals in Saturday's Group 1 TAB Chipping Norton Stakes. Among them are Happy Clapper, Egg Tart, Patrick Erin, Unforgotten and Brimham Rocks, who finished second, third, fourth, fifth and eighth in Winx's last victory, the Group 2 Apollo Feb. 16.
Winx, of course, seeks her 31st consecutive victory and showed no signs of rust -- or age -- in the February start off a layoff.
This actually could be renamed the Chris Waller Stakes as Waller trains the entire field, bar only Happy Clapper, from Patrick Webster's yard. And Webster wasn't holding out much hope for getting the better of Winx. "He came through the Apollo Stakes well and hopefully he can run second to Winx again," Webster told ANZ Bloodstock News. "He can't beat her on what she showed in the Apollo."
The Chipping Norton has all the attention but Saturday's program includes two more Group 1 races -- the Australian Guineas at Flemington and the Surround Stakes at Randwick.
Saturday finds the Japan 1000 Guineas Trial at Hanshin; Sunday, the Japan 2000 Guineas Trial at Nakayama. It's a long way to the Derby and Oaks but the sorting-out process is fun to watch. Check back for results.
Pakistan Star is moving -- not on the track, necessarily, as he's had his issues there. Rather, he's moving from trainer Tony Cruz to Paul O'Sullivan as owner Kerm Din and the new conditioner hope a change of scenery will spark a renewal of the interest that saw Pakistan Star win a pair of Group 1 events last season. His career, which started in a blaze of glory with a last-to-first win in his debut in July 2016, has stalled. On occasion, he has stopped mid-race and shown other peculiarities that have kept him from fully realizing his potential.
Cruz said: "I did my best but he wasn't an easy horse to handle in the beginning. He was full of habits but we all like this horse very much."
O'Sullivan said: "Anybody would be happy to train him. But with him comes the challenges. He's not straightforward so hopefully a change of environment, things might improve, who knows?"
Group One performer I Can Fly returns to racing Get A Run For Your Money With BetVictor Fillies Race Friday at Dundalk in Ireland. The 7-furlongs Polytrack contest is a Fast-Track Qualifier for the Ladbrokes Fillies And Mares' Championship over the same distance and surface at Lingfield Park on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, Good Friday, April 19.
I Can Fly, trained Aidan O'Brien and owned by a Coolmore Partnership, won the G2 Boomerang Stakes at Leopardstown last September and was beaten only a neck by Roaring Lion, the 2018 Cartier Horse of the Year, in the G1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot the following month. The 4-year-old Fastnet Rock filly makes her first start since finishing 12th in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
A likely rival to I Can Fly is Surrounding, a 6-year-old mare who has two straight wins over the Dundalk surface, the most recent of which saw her defeating Irish 1,000 Guineas runner-up Could It Be Love.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream Park fits the current mold of U.S. turf racing -- a big field, loaded with inconsistent talent. Six of the 11 are stakes winners, most of them graded stakes winners. Arguably the classiest is Channel Maker, winner of the Grade II Bowling Green and the Grade I Turf Classic Invitational last year. But he was 11th in the Breeders' Cup Turf and fifth in the Pegasus World Cup Turf. This division needs some sorting out.
A Thread of Blue, impressive winner last time out in the Dania Beach Stakes, is a standout among eight 3-year-olds entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Hard Spun colt, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, is 2-for-3 on the grass and his primary opponent here, Louder Than Bombs, was second in the Dania Beach, 3 1/2 lengths back. This race could be a breakout for one of them.
Filly & Mare Turf
Take your pick of eight entered for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III The Very One Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The field includes 2017 Queen's Plate winner Holy Helena but she's been distinctly unholy of late. Eskimo Kisses is entered only if the race comes off the turf. She won last year's Grade I Alabama at Saratoga but hasn't raced since finishing a dismal seventh in the Grade I Spinster at Keeneland in the fall.
A fascinating field of eight 3-year-old fillies is set for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Herecomesthebride Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Among them are recent impressive maiden winners Connectivity and Cambier Park, both trained by Chad Brown. Cambier Park, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, was a $1.25 million item at the 2017 Keeneland yearling sale. Brown also fields Golconda, who makes her U.S. bow after racing in France last year. That description also fits Primela, who will make her first American start for Cherie DeVaux. My Gal Betty, who failed to fire in the Breeders' Cup, makes her first start of 2018. Lots to be decided here.
Precieuse was a budding star in France in the Summer of 2017 after winning the Group 1 Poule d'Essai des Pouliches. She then reported seventh in the Grade I Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot and was not seen again until last August at Saratoga, where she finished second in the restricted De La Rose Stakes, beaten just a head by Uni. She vanished again and finally resurfaces in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Honey Fox Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park. She has been working well at the Palm Meadows center for trainer Chad Brown but faces a tough, experienced and well-balanced field.
Nine runners, including one filly, are entered for Saturday's $200,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita. All show promise.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Canadian Turf at Gulfstream Park drew the last-out winner of the Tropical Park Derby, Phipps Stable homebred Breaking the Rules, and last-out winner of the El Prado Stakes on the Gulfstream green, Hembree. The other five all finished up the track in one or the other of those races.
Fair Grounds has a pair of 1-mile turf stakes on Saturday, the $60,000 Dixie Poker Ace with a dozen Louisiana-bred lining up, and the $75,000 Black Gold, open to any 3-year-old. Eight signed on for the Black Gold.
Recruiting Ready appears the one to beat in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Gulfstream Park Sprint. The 5-year-old son of Algorithms exits a second-place finish in the off-the-turf Gulfstream Park Turf Sprint, behind only World of Trouble. The latter was second in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Quijote, last seen winning the Sunshine Millions Sprint against fellow Florida-breds, will be coming late. Seven-year-old Storm Advisory cuts back in distance and has plenty of back class.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Eight are set for Saturday's $100,000 Spring Fever at Oaklawn Park. None has reached stardom but Amy's Challenge was good here last year, finishing second in the Grade III Honeybee and third in the Grade III Fantasy. She won the American Beauty Stakes over the track in January in her 2018 debut. Shanghai Tariff has two wins over the track this season. Vertical Oak was eighth in the American Beauty but was a lot better than that last year with four wins from eight starts.
Seven are set to tackle 10 1/2 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Bernardini Stakes at Aqueduct. There are no household names in the field but trainer Jimmy Jerkens said he feels Weather Biz, a 5-year-old son of Tiznow, is ready to take a step forward while tackling additional distance. In his most recent start on January 13 in an optional claiming route at Aqueduct, Weather Wiz finished second behind the ultra-consistent Stan the Man while earning a 93 Beyer Speed Figure.
News and Notes:
Oaklawn Park has announced yet another purse increase. The latest in a long series of improvements includes a $100,000 hike, to $500,000, for the Grade III Count Fleet Handicap on April 23. Getting $50,000 increases are the Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap April 14, the Essex Handicap on March 16, the May 3 Oaklawn Mile and the May 4 Oaklawn Invitational. The track also restored to the calendar the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes, which was not originally scheduled this year.
"We couldn't be any more excited about how the 2019 racing season has started and for the future of our racing program," said Oaklawn President Louis Cella. "We have seen tremendous support for our races from around the country and, locally, we've had great crowds on track that are staying after the races and enjoying our gaming area afterwards."