Clues to the Kentucky Derby, now just 11 weeks away, will be available this holiday weekend as far afield as Arkansas, Louisiana, California, Japan and Dubai.
Laurel Park hosts two important sprints. The Razorback at Oaklawn Park and the Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds point the way for older horses. X Y Jet looks for a final Dubai prep in the Pelican at Tampa Bay.
And, in Tokyo, Sunday's program includes two races pointing to Churchill Downs.
Focus on this:
The Road to the Roses
Monday's $500,000 Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn Park features 11 3-year-olds from some of the nation's top Triple Crown barns, past and present. Mourinho won the Smarty Jones for trainer Bob Baffert over the Hot Springs strip Jan. 15, returned to his Southern California base and makes the return for the Southwest. D. Wayne Lukas will saddle Sporting Chance, who won the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga last summer but hasn't raced since. Lukas also has Kentucky Club, a recent local maiden winner.
Steve Asmussen cross-entered Principe Guilherme, second in the Lecomte Stakes last month, in both this and the Risen Star at Fair Grounds. He has been doing his morning work in New Orleans. Asmussen also has Combatant, second in the Remington Springboard Mile and the Smarty Jones, and Zing Zang, who ran fourth in the Lecomte. Those two have been working at Oaklawn.
Todd Pletcher brings Road to Damascus, a recent maiden winner in Florida. Dale Romans has Seven Trumpets, last seen finishing second to Firenze Fire in the Jerome Stakes Jan. 13 in New York. The Desormeaux brothers, trainer Keith and jockey Kent, ship in My Boy Jack who found new life when moving from turf to dirt in his last start in California. Oklahoma-bred Ezmosh races out of Brad Cox's Oaklawn barn and drew the outside gate for the 1 1/16 miles.
In New Orleans:
Instilled Regard was drawing clear of his rivals at the end of the Grade III Lecomte Stakes last month and faces much the same cast in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds. The Arch colt, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, was 3 3/4 lengths clear of runner up Principe Guilherme in the Lecomte with Snapper Sinclair another neck back in third. Unless one of the recent allowance winners takes a giant step forward, Instilled Regard and Principe Guilherme, who was away slowly in the Lecomte, look like the ones to beat. The Risen Star is the first race in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series that offers 50 qualifying points to the winner -- a number that normally puts the recipient squarely, if not comfortably, into the Derby picture.
Instilled Regard, seen winning the Lecomte Stakes, can virtually lock down a Kentucky Derby berth with a win in Saturday's Risen Star at Fair Grounds, picture Fair Grounds
Choo Choo, a son of English Channel, is the narrow morning-line favorite for Saturday's $100,000 El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. The colt, trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, exits a win in the California Derby Jan. 20 over the same course but also has won on the Del Mar turf. Paved, a Quality Road filly, comes to this after a dominating win on the Santa Anita grass against maiden fillies and is 2-1 on the morning line.
Two of the seven entered for Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood at Laurel Park bear a second look. Still Having Fun, an Old Fashioned colt, is 2-for-3 over the course and won the 7-furlongs Frank Whiteley Jr. in his last outing -- by 4 1/2 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 92. He Hate Me, an Algorithms colt, returns from Florida after finishing second behind World of Trouble in the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay -- albeit 13 3/4 lengths behind the winner. Before that, he won the Tremont at Belmont Park impressively. The Miracle Wood is a one-turn mile.
Saturday's $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby drew a field of 10 with no clear favorite. In the mix, at least on the morning line, are Primo Touch, Fortified Effort and Redesign.
Monomoy Girl drew the rail and was installed as the 8-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra at Fair Grounds. The Tapizar filly won her first three races as a juvenile, two of them at Churchill Downs, then finished second, beaten just a neck by Road to Victory in the Grade II Golden Rod under the Twin Spires Nov. 25. She has not raced since but has been working steadily -- and quickly -- for trainer Brad Cox over the New Orleans strip. She's not the only one with graded stakes credentials. Patrona Margarita won the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs at long odds in her final start as a 2-year-old in September. Heavenly Love won the Grade I Alcibiades at Keeneland last fall but has failed to run back to that effort in to intervening starts. Wonder Gadot triumphed in the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct in December. In short, a pretty classy field.
Saturday's $100,000 Wide Country at Laurel is a "you pick 'em" affair with seven 3-year-old fillies. Last True Love and Enchanted Ghost, who finished second and third in the Marshua Stakes Jan. 27 figure to be in the mix again. Frigid Sister could improve after an awkward start compromised her chances in her last start.
Monday's $500,000 Grade III Razorback at Oaklawn Park drew a tough field of 11 with lots of back class and a bit less in terms of recent form. Sonneteer, Futile and Far Right all return after finishing 1-2-3 in the Fifth Season over the track in their last outing.
Three of the first four from last month's Louisiana Handicap are back to mix it up in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Mineshaft Handicap at Fair Grounds. Cedartown, a 4-year-old Candy Ride colt owned by Godolphin, jumped up to win his first race of the year, posting a 100 Beyer Speed Figure while defeating runner-up Scuba by 2 lengths. Scuba returns, as does fourth-place horse The Player. Keep an eye out for First Premio, a Pure Prize colt making his first start on the main track for trainer Mark Casse.
Afleet Willy and Bodhisattva return from their 1-2 finish among six set for Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell at Laurel Park. That pair is joined by Turco Bravo, last seen finishing third in the Jazil Stakes at Aqueduct over the same 9-furlongs trip; Zanotti, winner of the Queen's County at Aquedect in December; and a pair of local allowance types.
A fascinating and talented cast is on stage for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Bayakoa at Oaklawn Park. Farrell, last year's toast of New Orleans, seeks her third straight win on the rebound from a Kentucky Oaks disappointment. Last year's Bayakoa winner, Terra Promessa, also needs a turnaround after getting home fifth in her season debut over the course. Illinois-bred Streamline won the Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn last season and has missed a top-three finish only once in 20 career starts.
The joker in the Bayakoa deck could be Polar River, a Congrats filly who was the toast of Dubai two years ago, winning the UAE Oaks and UAE 1000 Guineas before finishing second in the UAE Derby. However, she failed to hit the board in three starts at last year's Dubai World Cup Carnival and was shipped to the United States, reporting fifth in her American debut at Churchill Downs last November. She has been training at Fair Grounds.
Ten distaffers signed up for Saturday's $100,000 Maryland Racing Media at Laurel Park. In the Navy Now, Line of Best Fit and Sky Flower return after filling the trifecta in that order in the Jan. 27 Nellie Morse over the course. Among the others, Not Taken finished 2017 strongly and returns with some strong works from a layoff of nearly three months.
Monday's $200,000 Grade III Royal Delta at Gulfstream Park was pending at press time.
Mr. Misunderstood has won eight of his last nine starts and might be undefeated in that time period had not trainer Brad Cox given him a chance on the main track in the Grade III Illinois Derby last April. That record is enough to make him the morning-line pick in a well-matched field for Saturday's $150,000 Grade IIII Fair Grounds Handicap. He's 3-for-3 over the course. Among the others, Galton has done nothing but earn money since he was claimed for $62,000 last June by trainer Mike Maker. Catcho En Die makes his second start since journeying up from his native Argentina and shows a lot of promise with trainer Bill Mott calling the signals.
Filly & Mare Turf
The nine-horse field for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Buena Vista at Santa Anita includes some competitive rivals. Among them, the morning line finds it tough to separate Madame Stripes, Madam Dancealot, Insta Erma and Sassy Lil Lila. The fillies and mares will go 1 mile on the lawn.
Saturday's $250,000 Grade III General George at Laurel Park drew an awesome field of seven -- awesome both in the sense of some serious talent and in the sense the field includes both Awesome Banner and Something Awesome. Those two finished first and third in the Fire Plug Stakes over the course Jan. 20, sandwiching It's the Journey, who also returns. Perhaps more likely are Great Stuff, a 6-year-old son of Quality Road who returns from a victory in the Grade III Toboggan at Aqueduct, and Do Share, a Candy Ride gelding who accounted for the Gravesend at Aqueduct in his last outing.
X Y Jet gets his warmup for an expected trip to Dubai in Saturday's $100,000 Pelican, a 6-furlongs sprint at Tampa Bay Downs. The 6-year-old Kantharos gelding finished second in the 2016 Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen. He suffered through some injuries that sidelined him for some seven months after Dubai and again for 13 months before returning last fall. Now that he's back on form, trainer Jorge Navarro is keen to go one up in the March 31 renewal of the Golden Shaheen at Meydan. Barring scratches, he will face eight rivals in the Pelican.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Eleven fillies and mares, many of them front-running types, are set for Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Barbara Fritchie at Laurel Park. Highway Star, a repeat graded stakes winner, finished second in the Grade II Go For Wand in New York in December. Divine Miss Grey and Boule were 1-2 in the Interborough at Aqueduct in their last start. Berned, Moiety, Bishop's Pond, Ms Locust Point and Quezon all won stakes races in their last appearances.
Six turned out for Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Las Flores at Santa Anita. The heighweight, conceding four pounds to four of the rivals, is Coniah, a 5-year-old Harlington mare who finished 2017 with three straight runner-up placings, then won the Grade III Las Cinegas in her first start this season. The main competition is Skye Diamonds, a 5-year-old daughter of First Dude who returns to action for the first time since running fourth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint at Del Mar last November.
On the international scene
United Arab Emirates
Gold Town destroyed Thursday's Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan, winning by 10 1/2 lengths as jockey William Buick patted his neck through the final 100 meters. The Street Cry gelding made it 2-for-2 over the Dubai dirt course and is on course to start as the favorite in the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night March 31 -- a race that offers 100 points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby.
Gold Town, trained by Charlie Appleby for Godolphin finished the 1,600 meters of the 2000 Guineas and 1:37.77 and Buick said he never felt an danger once he got the promising gelding off to a clean start. "It's always a concern if you were to miss the break," Buick said. "But he's very professional and it was never a problem. He gave me a great feel." Buick said he doesn't anticipate Gold Town would have any trouble stretching out to the 1 3/16 miles of the UAE Derby.
Gold Dream, last year's champion dirt runner in Japan, returns to action Sunday in the Group 1 February Stakes, a Breeders' Cup Challenge race that offers a guaranteed spot in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs. Gold Dream, a 5-year-old son of Gold Allure, won both of Japan's top-level dirt races, the February Cup and the Champions Cup, last year but finished 14th in the Dubai World Cup. Trainer Osamu Hirata said he is satisfied with Gold Dream's progress since the Champions Cup win in December and only hopes for a good start in the February Stakes.
His competition includes the runner-up from the 2017 Champions Cup, T M Jinsoku (JPN). The 6-year-old son of Kurofune (JPN) had been laboring at lower levels before jumping up to win the Miyako Stakes (G3) at Chukyo before throwing a scare into Gold Dream in his first try at the highest level. Nonkono Yume (JPN) was second in the 2015 Champions Cup and second again in the 2016 February but has not impressed since then. Best Warrior returns after running third, fourth and second in the last three editions of the February Stakes.
Also on Sunday's card at Tokyo Racecourse is the third and final leg of the Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby-- the Hyacinth Stakes. Ruggero, winner of the first leg in the series, has the inside track to get the guaranteed slot in the Run for the Roses as the winner of the second leg is not competing.
Last year, Epicharis earned a spot in the Run for the Roses with a victory in the Hyacinth. His connections opted instead to contest the Group 2 UAE Derby, where he finished second to Thunder Snow, and he did not accept the invitation to Louisville. Ruggero's connections have indicated more interest in the Kentucky Derby and his nominated to the U.S. Triple Crown series.
The Hyacinth is no slam dunk, though, with several new entrants in the Japan Road to the Derby having shown recent success.
Sunday's HK$10 million Hong Kong Classic Cup at Sha Tin is the second leg of the 4-Year-Old Classic Series and asks the runners to add another 200 meters beyond the first leg, the Hong Kong Classic Mile.
Nothingilikemore was the winner in that first leg but trainer Tony Cruz likes the three he has in Sunday's race: Exultant, who was making up ground late in the Classic mile, plus The Golden Age and Doctor Geoff. "Exultant is the pick of them, for sure," Cruz said as he prepared for the race. "All three are in good form, though, and this Sunday's race will hopefully take them into the Hong Kong Derby with big chances"
Nothingilikemore, trained by John Size, also is among the 13 in the Classic Cup, along with place-getters Singapore Sling and Morethanlucky. John Moore could send out Group 1 winners Rivet and Ruthven in a field looking very competitive.
News and notes:
Oaklawn Park has announced another purse increase -- the 18th consecutive year purses have increased at the Hot Spring, Ark., oval. Effective Saturday, all allowance and maiden special weight purses go up by $3,000. Allowance races will range from $79,000 to as high as $83,000. Maiden special weight races will increase to $78,000 from $75,000. And all claiming races and maiden claiming races with a claiming price of at least $30,000 will receive a $2,000 per race boost. "Our goal is to offer the best purses in the country along with the most competitive racing," said General Manager Wayne Smith.