Malagacy burst onto the Kentucky Derby scene in Arkansas Saturday while Rapper Dragon completed an historic triple sweep with a victory in Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby -- both performances promising even greater things to come.
Winx continued her march to fame and fortune in Australia.
And, speaking of things to come, many of the world's top horses are assembled at Meydan in Dubai for Saturday's $30 million Dubai World Cup night.
After pausing briefly to mourn the death of rock legend Chuck Berry, whose hits did include "Around and Around" and "You Can't Catch Me", let's get right to business.
The Road to the Roses
A new star on the 3-year-old scene? It sure looked like it as Malagacy, making just his third career start and first around two turns, surged to a 2-lengths victory in Saturday's $900,000 Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park. And as the Todd Pletcher trainee rocketed into the Triple Crown limelight, Bob Baffert's once-imposing 3-year-old crew took another hit with American Anthem beating only one rival in the Rebel.
Malagacy, a Shackleford colt, stalked the pace into the stretch turn under Javier Castellano, eased to the front and held off 112-1 chance Sonneteer by 2 lengths. Untrapped and Petrov were a pair of noses farther back in third and fourth. Malagacy ran 1 1/16 miles in a somewhat pedestrian 1:43.00.
The colt did not make his first start until Jan. 4 at Gulfstream Park, when he won a 5 1/2-furlongs maiden race by 15 lengths. He followed that with a 7-lengths score in a first-condition allowance event Feb. 12, going a furlong farther.
"The great thing he's got going for him," Pletcher said, "is a beautiful disposition and he's very ratable and he's fast. That's a great combination to have."
The Rebel victory earned Malagacy 50 points toward a potential start in the Kentucky Derby, moving him into fourth place on that list, and Pletcher made it clear that's the path the colt will follow. "The Arkansas Derby, timing-wise, would be good, and getting a mile-and-an-eighth race under his belt would also be beneficial," the conditioner said. "That would be Plan A, but in this business we all know that sometimes you have to call some audibles. Right now that's what the thinking is."
Mike Smith, who rode American Anthem, said his colt slipped and slid through the race. "I was okay as long as we were all slow," Smith said. "As soon as we had to pick it up and I would give him his head, legs went everywhere."
Baffert, who lost Derby contender Mastery to an injury last week after winning the San Felipe, is left without a viable Kentucky Derby runner at this point in the campaign. The plan now, according to assistant trainer Jimmy Barnes: "Regroup and head back to California and keep searching for a Derby horse."
At Laurel Park in Maryland, Twisted Tom came rushing up outside rivals in deep stretch to win Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes by a nose over the odds-on favorite, O Dionysus. Dharmaster was just another 1/2 length back in third. Twisted Tom, a New York-bred gelding by Creative Cause, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.69 under Feargal Lynch. Twisted Tom had been running on the New York Circuit, where he won two of four previous starts, all versus fellow New York-breds. O Dionysus, a Bodemeister colt, had two close seconds and a win in his three previous starts, all at Laurel and two of those in stakes.
"I was very pleased with his performance," winning trainer Chad Brown said from Gulfstream Park. "It was also a great ride. He never gave up on him." Lynch said Brown told him, "'Listen, he's not going to make up 6 lengths.' But luckily there was enough pace and they came back to us. When he switched leads and I got him to the outside and there was no kickback, he got it rolling."
The Private Terms often is seen as a preview of the Preakness Stakes, middle jewel of the Triple Crown, rather than for the Kentucky Derby.
Malagacy (red and blue silks) rolls to victory and a possible Kentucky Derby bid in Saturday's Rebel at Oaklawn Park, picture Oaklawn
Kentucky Oaks preps
Jenda's Agenda adjourned the proceedings early in Saturday's $100,000 Caesar's Wish Stakes at Laurel Park, taking the lead after a half mile and drawing off to win by 2 lengths. She remains undefeated in three starts. Forever Liesl was second with Tickled Pink and Star Super completing the order of finish after four late scratches. Jenda's Agenda, bred, partly owned and trained by Larry Jones, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.01 with Gabriel Saez up. Her first two wins came at Fair Grounds before shipping to the weather-battered East Coast. "I'll tell you, we didn't get to bring her into this race the way we wanted to," Jones said. "We came out of New Orleans and we've been locked in the barn all week. This may be the first race I've ever won coming out of a shedrow. It just goes to show how good she is. My training has nothing to do with it." He said he will point Jenda's Agenda to the Weber City Miss on April 22 over the same track. "We're trying to prep her for the Black-Eyed Susan" on Preakness weekend, he said.
On the international front:
Arrogate and the rest of the American contingent are out of quarantine at Meydan and ready for Saturday's massive Dubai World Cup night, highlighted by the $10 million World Cup itself.
The World Cup has a decidedly American flavor. Trainer Bob Baffert not only brings Arrogate, winner of the Travers, Breeders' Cup Classic and Pegasus World Cup in his three previous starts, but also Hoppertunity, who finished third in last year's Dubai World Cup. Steve Asmussen has Gun Runner, who missed the Pegasus because of the now-history quarantine at Fair Grounds and, instead, romped in the Grade III Razorback at Oaklawn Park. Todd Pletcher will field Keen Ice, who is 2-for-20 in his career, has not won since defeating American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers and finished eighth in the 2016 Dubai World Cup, and Neolithic, who held on for third in the Pegasus.
Three Japanese horses are expected for the World Cup including Lani, who won last year's Group 2 UAE Derby and then was third in the Belmont Stakes. He has been disappointing since then, however. Mubtaahij, trained by South African wizard Mike de Kock, was second to California Chrome in last year's World Cup and is a real danger on his best. He warmed up with a good second in the Curlin Handicap last month.
The local team features Long River, winner of Round 3 of the Al Maktoum Challenge; Furia Cruzada, a Chilean-bred mare who won Round 2; and the Godolphin hopeful, Move Up, who hopes to do just that after finishing fourth in the Maktoum Round 3 in his first start of the year.
The World Cup is the culmination of a nine-race program, including the $1 million Dubai Kahayla Classic for Purebred Arabians. Altogether, the nine races are worth $30 million in purse money, making it the world's richest day of Thoroughbred racing.
Particularly juicy are the $6 million Group 1 Longines Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on the grass, with Postponed, Highland Reel and Seventh Heaven heading as short field, and a wide-open $6 million Group 1 Dubai Turf at 1 1/8 miles with contestants from England, Japan, France, Singapore and Ireland as well as Dubai.
The $2 million Group 2 UAE Derby provides 100 points -- basically a "get in free card" -- for the Kentucky Derby and the field is expected to include Epicharis, who already earned a spot in the Run for the Roses by winning the Hyacinth Stakes in Tokyo last month.
The international flavor of the night continues with three horses from Hong Kong, and one each from Bahrain, South Korea, Germany and Uruguay.
It was all Winx in Saturday's Group 1 China Horse Club George Ryder Stakes at Rosehill Gardens. After starting as step slow, the 5-year-old Street Cry mare, co-rated with Arrogate as the world's top horse, ranged up on the outside on the turn and jetted off to win by a bit more than 7 lengths despite coping with heavy turf. Le Romain edged Chautauqua in the minor placings as jockey Hugh Bowman kept Winx to task with her next start in mind.
In scoring her 16th straight win, Winx started locals asking whether she might even be considered the equal of Black Caviar, who retired undefeated after 25 straight wins. That's a tall order as Black Caviar's resume includes 15 Group 1 wins -- including a hard-fought victory in the 2012 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot, compared with Winx's current total of 11.
Still, her trainer, Chris Waller, said Winx performed beyond his expectations in the George Ryder and raised his hopes she has not yet fully realized her potential. He added the workout down the stretch run will stand her in good stead when she tackles 2,000 meters three weeks down the road in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth. "I didn't expect her to win like that," Waller said. "She is just an amazing horse."
Winx highlighted a big day of racing at Rosehill Gardens.
She Will Reign did just that in the day's richest race, the AUS$3.5 million (US$2.7 million) Group 1 Longines Golden Slipper for 2-year-olds. The Manhattan Rain filly, a AUS$20,000 purchase, rallied from well back to score her fourth win from five starts by 1 length, again proving the frequent assertion by Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee, "It's an easy game." Menari finished second but was set down to fourth for interference. That elevated Frolic to second and Tulip to third and gave fillies an official sweep of the top three placings. The favorite, Houtzen, finished fifth in the Golden Slipper.
Ben Melham rode She Will Reign over 1,200 meters in 1:15.04 for trainer Gary Portelli. Her only defeat was a second-place upset at the hands of Frolic in the Group 2 Reisling Stakes on March 4. Saturday's race was her first try at the highest level.
In the Group 1 Sky Racing Rosehill Guineas, New Zealand Derby winner Gingernuts served notice he will be a force for the future. The Kiwi-bred Iffrajj gelding picked up his fourth straight win, besting the favorite, Inference, by nearly 1 1/2 lengths. Gingernuts, with Tommy Berry up, ran 2,000 meters on the heavy turf in 2:11.46. So Si Bon was just a head behind Inference in third.
Earlier on the card, Hartnell took a break from his competition with Winx to contest the 2,000-meters Ranvet Stakes -- only to finish second to a different foe, German-bred Our Ivanhowe. Our Ivanhowe, under Kerrin McEvoy, finished in 2:10.62 with The United States close behind Hartnell in third. Preferment was scratched. Our Ivanhowe, a 7-year-old son of Soldier Hollow, was making his first start of the season after struggling during the Southern Hemisphere springtime, including a 17th-place finish in the Group 1 Melbourne Cup. He had not won since taking the Group 1 Doomben Cup last May.
Russian Revolution, the favorite, won the Group 1 Nathan's Famous Hotdogs Galaxy Stakes by a neck over Redzel with Jungle Edge a close third. Russian Revolution is a 3-year-old Snitzel colt.
At Flemington on Saturday, trainer Darren Weir saddled Palentino and Tosen Stardom to a 1-2 finish in the Group 2 Incognitus Blamey Stakes at 1,600 meters. He also sent out Real Love, who finished fourth, but scratched Black Heart Bart from the event.
Rapper Dragon entered the history books Sunday at Sha Tin, cementing a first-ever sweep of the Four-Year-Old Classic Series with a rousing win the 140th running of the BMW Hong Kong Derby.
The Street Boss gelding raced patiently behind the eager ones as he stepped up to 2,000 meters for the first time on a rainy day that produced soft turf. But when jockey Joao Moreira set him down for the stretch drive, Rapper Dragon quickly accelerated to the lead. Pakistan Star made his typical late run from the back of the field only to finish second, 1 3/4 lengths back. Beauty Generation was another 1 3/4 lengths in arrears in third.
It was the first Derby win for Moreira and sixth for the winning trainer, John Moore.
"I got emotional," Moreira said. "I was saying to everyone beforehand that it was the race I wanted to win the most and thanks to God that I achieved that. I was given a 100 percent fit horse by the team … and we were able to deliver, so it's a dream come true." He admitted he might have hit the lead a bit too early, though. "He started to snake around a bit. He went in, he went out, I had to switch the whip, left and right, and switch it again. But good horses can do those things and still win the races," said Moreira, known to Hong Kong fans as "Magic Man".
Rapper Dragon was the third horse in a position to sweep the series, which starts with the Hong Kong Classic Mile and progresses to the 1,800-meters Hong Kong Classic Cup.
"This is a really classy animal," Moore said, calling Rapper Dragon "my champion." "He's done everything right. He progressed through the classes, today was the grand final and we won it."
Now, Moore has the pleasant problem of trying to figure out where to place Rapper Dragon in the upcoming international races that lead to the season's end. One option is the Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at the same 2,000 meters on May 1. But Moore indicated he's inclined to the Group 1 Champions Mile on May 7, where he can duck reigning Hong Kong Champion -- and last year's Derby winner -- Werther.
"The way Werther's working at the moment -- his work the other morning was just unbelievable," Moore said. "Rapper Dragon's got versatility so I'm sure I can freshen him up and bring him back to the mile. He's got the gate speed, so I'm sure he'd be a live chance in the Champions Mile."
Pakistan Star and Beauty Generation also will have plenty of opportunities later this spring and again in the fall in the lead-in to December's big Longines Hong Kong International Races.
Meanwhile, back in the States:
Mor Spirit contested the pace in Saturday's $250,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, shook off the opposition on the stretch turn and went on to win easily as the odds-on favorite. Domain's Rap just edged Madefromlucky in a photo for place. Mor Spirit, a 4-year-old Eskendereya ridgeling trained by Bob Baffert, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track on a beautiful Hot Springs day in 1:41.62 with Mile Smith up. In his previous outing, Mor Spirit finished second in the Grade II San Antonio at Santa Anita, behind only next week's Dubai World Cup starter Hoppertunity. "Today, he was ready," Smith said. "Really ready. He jumped well and was on the bridle the whole way and won really nice."
Streamline tracked the early speed in Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn Park, took over on the turn and rolled home confidently under Chris Landeros to post the 12-1 upset. Eskenformoney was second, just ahead of Tiger Moth. The 1-5 favorite, Terra Promessa, was unable to find the early lead and raced in traffic all the way into the final turn, then faded to finish fifth. Streamline, a 5-year-old, Illinois-bred daughter of Straight Line, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.67. Brian Williamson trains the mare for his mother-in-law, Nancy Vanier. Williamson said he told Landeros to be sure Terra Promessa didn't get loose on the lead, adding, "It kind of worked. We broke super and it looked like the favorite kind of got boxed in. He kept here in the pocket, there." Noting Streamline finished a close third in last year's Grade I Apple Blossom, the trainer said, "If she comes back good and looks fine, we're running" in this year's edition. There was substantial "bridge jumper" money on Terra Promessa in the show pool, substantially inflating payoffs for all three top finishers.
Vale Dori quickly assumed a narrow lead over Finest City and the duo battled that way through most of the first mile in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Santa Margarita at Santa Anita. Then Vale Dori started to edge clear, finally prevailing by 1 1/2 lengths. It was 9 1/2 lengths back from Finest City to Autumn Flower in third. Vale Dori, a 5-year-old, Argentine-bred mare by Asiatic Boy, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.81 with Rafael Bejarano in the irons. It was her fifth straight win, four of which came in graded stakes. "I thought that from the first jump Finest City would be fast and would be on the lead," Bejarano said. "When I saw that she didn't really want to go and didn't relax into the first turn, I just took control." Bob Baffert trains the mare for Sheik Mohammed bin Khalifa al Maktoum.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Distinta was along in the final sixteenth to take Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park by 1/2 length over fellow late-running long shot Wheatfield, who shipped in from New Orleans for the race. Dearest was third and the odds-on favorite, Curlin's Approval, finished fifth. Distinta, a 5-year-old Summer Bird mare, was sent to the post at odds of almost 12-1 and ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.95 with John Velazquez at the controls for the first time. It was her sixth straight in-the-money finish and first-ever win in a graded stakes. "I warmed her up pretty good," Velazquez said. "I wanted to be closer to the horses up front. It worked out really well. When I asked her down the lane, she responded really good. I saw her the last time and it looked like she was too far back. She had to make up too much ground."
Clothes Fall Off started a bit slowly in Saturday's $125,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct, advanced four-wide into the stretch and kicked away to a 4 1/4-lengths victory. Disco Chick and Hot City Girl completed the trifecta. Clothes Fall Off, a 5-year-old Daaher mare, ran 6 furlongs on a good inner track in 1:11.06 with Rajiv Maragh in the irons. She won this event last year but was winless in three intervening starts. Maragh said the race set up perfectly. "The pace developed in front of her, which is something she likes. She's got one sharp run, so when the pace develops it helps her closing kick. My job today was to just give her a clear trip and in the stretch, I felt like I had a lot of horse so I put her in the clear and she did the rest."
Enola Gray dueled her way to the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Irish O'Brien Stakes for California-bred distaffers at Santa Anita, then took things firmly in hoof and went on to win by 4 lengths. Desert Steel was second, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of Lily Kai. Enola Gray, a 4-year-old daughter of Grazen, got the gravity-assisted 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf in 1:11.91 with Tyler Baze in the irons. She has six wins from nine starts and has never finished off the board. I'm dying to run her a mile on grass," said winning trainer Phil D'Amato. "The way she galloped out today, Tyler couldn't hardly pull her up." He said he's eyeing the Grade II Royal Heroine at 1 mile on the grass April 8.
In other racing:
Matt King Cole and Afleet Willy came bumping down the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial with the former prevailing by a head. Kaitain was third, 2 1/4 lengths farther back. The rider of Afleet Willy claimed foul and the stewards took a look at the stretch run but took no action. Matt King Cole, a 4-year-old colt by Cool Coal Man, finished 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.07 with Horacio Karamanos up.
Next Best Thing opened a big lead in Saturday's $75,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares and went on to win by 1 length over If I Was a Boy. Bawlmer Hon was third. Next Best Thing, a 5-year-old Stephen Got Even mare, toured 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.40 with Katie Davis in the irons.
Laki sat second behind the early speed in Saturday's $75,000 Not For Love Stakes for Maryland-breds, challenged on the turn and got clear in the stretch to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Sonny Inspired was along to finish second, 1 length ahead of pacesetter Nicardelic Rocks. Laki, a 4-year-old Cuba gelding, was timed in 1:09.56 with Karamanos riding.
Conquest Farenheit led all the way to a 2 1/4-lengths victory over Taco in Sunday's $75,000 Pasadena Stakes for 3-year-olds. Cistron pressed the pace early and held on for show money. Conquest Farenheit, a Scat Daddy colt, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.58 with Norberto Arroyo Jr. riding.
Golden Gate Fields
Fast and Foxy was quickly on the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Camilla Urso Stakes for fillies and mares, opened up a substantial lead and held on at the end, winning by a nose over an onrushing Turkish Tabby. Code Warrior was third. Fast and Foxy, a 7-year-old mare by Thisnearlywasmine, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.20 with Catalino Martinez up.
Shining Source found room on the inside in the stretch run of Saturday's $85,000 New Mexico State University Handicap for state-breds and got clear to win by 1 length. Liberty Lover led briefly before settling for second, 1/2 length to the good of Streaks Bro. Shining Source, a 4-year-old gelding by Source, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:38.83 under Elvin Gonzalez.
And now, we're off, like a coooool breeze.