Final preparations are well under way this week for the 145th running of the Kentucky Derby, with contenders putting in final works at major tracks around the country and Churchill Downs gearing up for its final week.
There have been no defections from the list of 20 3-year-olds set for the May 4 Run for the Roses but trainers are keeping a close watch on the weather forecast, with the words "rain", "showers" and "thunderstorms" prominent in predictions from Friday right through race day.
Improbable, the only one of trainer Bob Baffert's Derby trio already on the grounds, galloped a mile and a half Thursday morning with the track muddy and sealed after overnight showers. "He'll probably work on Sunday," said Baffert assistant Jimmy Barnes. "I couldn't be happier with the way he's looking."
Stablemates Roadster and Game Winner are due to arrive on the Churchill Downs backstretch Saturday for the white-haired trainer, who already has handled five Derby winners, two of whom went on to win the Triple Crown.
Derby contenders Haikal and Tax both put in works at Belmont Park Thursday and are due in Louisville Monday. Master Fencer, winner of the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby," cleared quarantine in Chicago and was reported en route to Louisville late Thursday.
The weather issues also affected the Kentucky Oaks candidates. Jaywalk worked 5 furlongs at Keeneland, minus trainer John Servis. "We moved the work up a day because of the weather and I missed it," the trainer said from his Philadelphia base.
Churchill Downs takes the Kentucky racing baton from Keeneland on Saturday, signaling change in the air nationwide. Aqueduct hands over this weekend to Belmont Park and Hawthorne Race Course clears the decks for Arlington Park's summertime run. Oaklawn Park in Arkansas nears the end of its highly successful season.
And speaking of change, be sure to see the News and Notes section for the new members of the Racing Hall of Fame.
But first, a brief look at other weekend action around North America:
Paradise Woods drew outside in a field of eight for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Margarita at Santa Anita and was installed as the morning-line favorite. The Union Rags mare won the 2017 Santa Anita Oaks and Zenyatta, both Grade I affairs, but has come up short in seven graded races since then. None of the rivals has done much to frighten off believers in a comeback.
Filly & Mare Turf
Keeneland rings down the curtain on its all-too-brief spring meeting with Friday's $150,000 Grade III Bewitch Stakes for fillies and mares. There's no clear favorite in the 10-horse field with Ickymasho installed as the 7-2 favorite on the morning line. The British-bred Multiplex mare comes off a pair of Grade III seconds at Gulfstream Park and has yet to win in six U.S. starts.
Ten signed on for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III San Francisco Turf Mile at Golden Gate Fields with the favorite, Bowies Hero and River Boyne, drawing the inside and outside gates, respectively. Bowies Hero, a 5-year-old son of Artie Schiller, has not raced since finishing 11th in the Grade II Del Mar Mile last August but has had plenty of success at the trip. River Boyne, a 4-year-old colt by Candy Man, finished fourth in his two previous 2019 starts, both in graded stakes at Santa Anita.
Sunday's $100,000 Singletary Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita got a field of 7, none of whom yet stirs the imagination. That said, Jasikan makes his first U.S. start after ending 2018 with a win at Dundalk in Ireland. On the flip side, Urban Light ran well enough as a 2-year-old in Ireland but hasn't hit the board in two previous tries in California. More likely is Neptune's Storm, who has been competitive and finished second in the Pasadena Stakes in his last race.
Undefeated Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint winner Bulletin is the standout in a field of eight 3-year-olds signed on for Saturday's $125,000 William Walker Stakes at Churchill Downs. The City Zip colt, trained by Todd Pletcher, won both starts as a juvenile and opened his 2019 account with an impressive, front-running victory in the Palisades Turf Sprint at Keeneland April 4. His ownership team includes the China Horse Club-Winstar Farm connections who campaigned Triple Crown winner Justify.
Saturday's $125,000 Elusive Quality at Belmont Park is pretty much a "you pick 'em" event with seven starters going 7 grassy furlongs. Krampus is the morning-line pick after winning the Grade III Canadian Turf at Gulfstream Park. The 5-year-old Shakespeare gelding is 2-for-2 at Belmont but those races were in the fall of 2017 and the Canadian Turf win was a 5-1 upset.
Sunday's $125,000 License Fee for fillies and mares at Belmont Park has seven takers with Mrs. Ramona G. the highweight while coming off a third-place finish in January in the Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf for trainer Jeremiah Englehart.
Title Ready and King Abner headline a field of 10 for Sunday's $300,000 Grade III Steve Sexton Mile at Lone Star Park. Title Ready, a 4-year-old More Than Ready colt trained by Steve Asmussen, was second in the Stymie Stakes at Aqueduct in his last start and makes his first Texas appearance. King Abner, a 5-year-old Hansen gelding, exits a runner-up showing in the Tiznow Stakes at Santa Anita.
Beauty Generation galloping on the Turf Course earlier this week, picture Hong Kong Jockey Club
On the international front:
Champions Day at Sha Tin Racecourse comprises three Group 1 races with international challengers for the Hong Kong "home team" and implications for future international challenges abroad.
The star of the show is Beauty Generation, co-rated the No. 1 horse in the world and reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year. The 6-year-old Road to Rock gelding will defend his title in the FWD Champions Mile against six rivals, all of them familiar locals. He rides an eight-race winning streak and the question is less whether he can win No. 9 in a row than whether a victory would propel him to the Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen in Japan June 2, where he might meet that country's reigning Horse of the Year, Almond Eye.
Almond Eye, a 4-year-old daughter of Lord Kanaloa, swept aside all filly competition last year, defeated older males in the Grade 1 Japan Cup and started this season with a win in the Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night at Meydan.
"I would love to go," Beauty Generation's owner, Patrick Kwok Ho Chuen, said of the Japan trip. "Right now, it's 50-50. If he runs well Sunday, the odds might go up. We'll see."
Trainer John Moore said he is eager to take on Almond Eye, arguing, "This is what everyone wants to see," Moore said. "The word's best, competing against each other."
Beauty Generation will be the solid favorite for the Champions Mile and Australian visitor Santa Ana Lane likely also will be well backed in the Grouip 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize at 1,200 meters. Santa Ana Lane, a 6-year-old Lope De Vega gelding, already has accounted for five Group 1 races in Australia, including a 3 1/2-length score in his last outing, the T.J. Smith Stakes at Randwick.
Santa Ana will start on the outside in a field of 10 but Sam Freedman, son of trainer Anthony Freedman, said that's not a serious concern for the confirmed late-running horse. "Better 10 than 1," Freedman said. "It'll let him get into a nice rhythm and space to breathe. The draw doesn't really matter given his racing style and the relatively small field."
The Australian runner faces some formidable adversaries, including Mr Stunning, winner of the Grade I Longines Hong Kong Sprint last December, and fellow Aussie Viddora, who exits a fourth-place showing in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai March 30. Mr Stunning was reported Friday morning with a foot issue and his start was pending a veterinary check.
The third Group 1 event, the FWD QE II Cup, is the most competitive. Thirteen are entered, with wide-ranging credentials, for the 2,000 meters.
Trainer Tony Cruz has the two highest-rated horses in the QE II in Exultant, last-out winner of the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup, and Time Warp, the winner of last season's Gold Cup, that in track-record time.
Also entered in the QE II are Glorious Forever and Japan-based Deirdre, the 1-2 finishers in the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Cup (G1) in December. Lys Gracieux, second in the Grade 1 Longines Hong Kong Vase in December at 2,400 meters, also returns to from Japan to Sha Tin.
Furore won the BMW Hong Kong Derby in his last start and Derby winners have done well in past editions of the QE II. Eminent was fourth in the 2017 Investec Derby at Epsom and a good second in his most recent start, the Group 1 Ranvet Stakes at Randhill in Australia.
Sunday's Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Spring) at Kyoto Racecourse is one of two events annually honoring the Japanese emperor. This edition comes at an auspicious time as the current Emperor, Akihito, is expected to relinquish the throne April 31, handing over to his eldest son, Naruhito, moving the nation from the Heisei Era to the Reiwa Era.
Likely to be prominent in the race itself are the first two finishers from last fall's Grade 1 Kikuka Sho or Japanese St Leger -- Fierement and Etario.
Fierement, a 4-year-old Deep Impact colt, was unraced at 2 and improved to three wins and a second with the Kikuka Sho victory. He started the current season with a runner-up showing behind Sciacchetra in the Grade 2 American Jockey Club Cup in January at Hanshin. He has been idle since, recovering from what trainer Takahisa Tezuka described as "a slight fever."
Etario has a bad case of second-it is. The Stay Gold colt has finished second in seven of his lifetime starts and trainer Yasuo Tomomichi said he plans to change his blinkers to "a lighter type" for the Tenno Sho in hopes of getting him to the winner's enclosure.
The Tenno Sho field also includes Nikkei Sho winner Meisho Tekkon; Glory Vase, fifth in the Kikuka Sho but a winner in his only previous 2019 start; and Clincher, second in the 2017 Kikuka Sho but still seeking a Grade 1 win in his seventh try at the top level.
The race is run right-handed at 3,200 meters (about 2 miles), passing the Kyoto grandstand twice. Traditionally, the crowd greets the first passage of the field with an enthusiastic wave of applause -- an iconic moment in Japanese racing.
News and Notes
Royal Delta and jockey Craig Perret have been voted into the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, joining two other horses and a dozen humans chosen by committees.
Royal Delta, a daughter of Empire Marker from the A.P. Indy mare Delta Princess, was trained by Bill Mott for Besilu Stables. She won three Eclipse Awards thanks to wins in nine graded stakes, six of them Grade I affairs. Her record of 12-5-1 from 22 starts with earnings of $4.8 million would be even better but for two unsuccessful trips to the Dubai World Cup.
Perret, 68, was North America’s leading apprentice jockey by earnings in 1967 and won the 1990 Eclipse Award for Outstanding Jockey. The New Orleans native won 4,415 races in a career that extended from 1967 through 2005. He won the Belmont Stakes in 1987 with Bet Twice, denying Alysheba the Triple Crown. Three years later, Perret won the Kentucky Derby with Unbridled. He won four Breeders’ Cup races, including two editions of the Sprint, as well as two runnings of both the Travers Stakes and Queen’s Plate, among others.
Perret and Royal Delta were elected by a panel of racing journalists and other experts. My Juliet and Waya were selected by the museum's Historic Review Committee. Selected by the museum's Pillars of the Turf Committee were James E. "Ted" Bassett III, Christopher T. Chenery, Richard L. "Dick" Duchossois, William S. Farish, John Hettinger, James R. Keene, Frank E. "Jimmy" Kilroe, Gladys Mills Phipps, Ogden Phipps, Helen Hay Whitney, Marylou Whitney, and Warren Wright Sr.