The field for the May 4 Kentucky Derby finally is tentatively set as Omaha Beach, Improbable and Country House all qualified while finishing 1-2-3 in Saturday's Arkansas Derby, the highlight of a weekend filled with impressive Grade I performances.
Among the top-level winners were Delta Prince, Rushing Fall and Midnight Bisou. Quip and Bourbon Resolution promised better things to come in the Classic Division. But Whitmore fell short of landing his third straight Count Fleet Sprint victory in Arkansas.
On the international front, Winx went out like the champion she is, sweeping to her 33rd consecutive victory in Saturday's Group1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Royal Randwick. Tears of joy and relief mixed with smiles on the faces of her ownership group as the mighty mare prepares for a second career in the breeding shed.
And American Pharoah had his first winner as a sire -- with his first runner. Other youngsters impressed in Japan and Hong Kong. See the international section.
The Road to the Roses
Omaha Beach needed a top-three finish in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby just to qualify for the May 4 Kentucky Derby. But after winning in Arkansas, he may find himself the favorite in Louisville.
The War Front colt tracked the pace around the first turn over the sloppy Oaklawn Park oval. Jockey Mike Smith pushed the button early, sending Omaha Beach to the lead before the midway point on the backstretch, giving trainer Richard Mandella a moment of concern. That was premature, as Smith and Omaha Beach then controlled the race, hit the stretch in full stride and held off a late bid by Improbable to win by 1 length.
Country House went by some tiring rivals to finish third and he, Improbable and Omaha Beach all earned enough points to qualify for the Run for the Roses. None would have make the Louisville field without a top-three placing in Arkansas.
"He looked like he was well within himself," Mandella said of Omaha Beach, "and Mike just let him enjoy his job, just stride out and go where he went. My first thought was, 'Jeez, don't move too quick,' and then I thought, 'Don't be second-guessing Mike Smith,' one of the greatest of all times."
"We'd already ran in the slop at home, so that wasn't much of a concern. He's a very tractable horse. I don't think we need to pick a surface."
Mandella, 68, has never won the Kentucky Derby. Soul of the Matter finished fifth in 1994 -- his best showing from six starts. Improbable's trainer, Bob Baffert, has qualified three for this year's Run for the Roses, a race he's won five times, the last two with eventual Triple Crown winners American Pharoah and Justify.
Mandella said Baffert had been giving him tips on winning the Derby until Omaha Beach started showing signs of being good enough.
"Baffert, he quit helping me when I got a real shot," Mandella quipped Sunday morning.
Baffert said he was relieved Improbable made the cut.
"It's a wide-open Derby this year," Baffert said. "I just feel thankful. It could have been disastrous. Really had some anxious moments there. I think he ran a great race and he's going to improve off this. I've been bringing him along, getting him ready by running him and so he'll move forward off of it."
One of Baffert's most anxious moments came as Improbable, loaded first into the No. 1 stall, started acting up as the others entered the gate. Baffert said the addition of blinkers to Improbable's equipment is "probably why he acted up in the gate." Don't look for them when he walks onto the Churchill Downs track.
Country House's trainer, Bill Mott, said his colt came out of the race well and he will consult with the owners about plans. But, he said, "It was one of the goals, to get enough points to go to the Derby. Now, we've got to assess the situation and see if it makes sense to enter up."
Another who has a decision to make is Mike Smith, who not only rides Omaha Beach for Mandella but also Santa Anita Derby winner Roadster for Baffert. If Omaha Beach isn't the favorite at post time on May 4, Roadster probably will be.
"It's a lovely decision to have," said Smith, known as "Big Money Mike". "We're going to go back and see how everyone comes back and go from there. Evaluate the situation. Then my agent will make the decision. That's why I pay him."
Omaha Beach (red and white silks) rounds the first turn before taking the lead and winning Saturday's $1 million Arkansas Derby, qualifying for the Kentucky Derby, Oaklawn Park photo
Meanwhile, in Kentucky …
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Stonesteet Lexington Stakes at Keeneland just possibly could have an impact on the Kentucky Derby field despite the victory by 12-1 long shot Owendale.
Anothertwistafate finished second in the Lexington, earning 8 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard and improving his total to 38, good for No. 23 on the leaderboard. Three higher points-earners would have to drop out of the 20-horse field to make room for Anothertwistafate. Sueno, who finished third Saturday, picked up 4 points for a total of 32 and stands No. 24, requiring four defections to make the big race.
Owendale raced well back in the Lexington, emerged from the pack in the stretch run and roared away to a 1 3/4-lengths victory. Knicks Go, second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile but a disappointment since, finished fourth. Neither he nor Owendale has enough points to qualify for the Kentucky Derby.
Owendale, an Into Mischief colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.14 under Florent Geroux. His only previous effort in the Road to the Kentucky Derby series resulted in an eighth-place finish in the Grade 2 Risen Star at Fair Grounds in his previous start for trainer Brad Cox. The Lexington win was his third from eight career starts.
The Road to the Kentucky Oaks
Lady Apple stalked the pace in Friday's $500,000 Grade III Fantasy at Oaklawn Park, squirted through a narrow opening between the rail and pacesetting favorite Motion Emotion and went on to win by 1 length over that rival. The victory was good for a guaranteed spot in the Kentucky Oaks starting gate for the Curlin filly, who finished the 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.88 with Ricardo Santana Jr. up.
Lady Apple took five tries to get to the winner's circle, finally doing the job Feb. 7 in her 3-year-old debut. The Steve Asmussen-trained filly has not lost since.
"Ricardo gave her a dream trip and the filly showed tremendous heart," Asmussen said. "She broke smoothly. He worked out the perfect trip for her. I think the only option was the fence and she showed a lot of heart to go through there."
Motion Emotion winds up at No. 9 on the Kentucky Oaks leaderboard, also qualified for a spot on the first Friday in May. Bellafina, the Santa Anita Oaks winner, is the heavy favorite for the Oaks.
Delta Prince dallied at the rear of the seven-horse field through much of Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland, got going around the turn and passed them all, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over 46-1 chance Clyde's Image. Qurbaan was third and well-fancied Raging Bull finished fourth. Delta Prince, a 6-year-old son of Street Cry, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:35.97 with Javier Castellano in the irons for trainer James Jerkens.
"I tried to take my time and let the race develop," Castellano said. "He picked it up a little bit at the top of the stretch. I like the way he finished. He finished really, really well."
Jerkens said Delta Prince is headed back to New York and likely will not progress to the Grade I Old Forester Turf Classic on Derby Day at Churchill Downs. "I'd like to take another shot at the (Grade I) Fourstardave at Saratoga, where he just got beat last year," the trainer said.
At Aqueduct on Sunday, Fifty Five was sent off at odds of 50 cents on the dollar and raced fifth through the early furlongs of the $100,000 Plenty of Grace Stakes for fillies and mares. But then the 5-year-old Get Stormy mare got storming, passed all four rivals and went on to win by 1 3/4 lengths. Conquest Hardcandy was second, 1/2 length in front of Coffee Crush. Fifty Five ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:36.10 for jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. It was her first start of the year and third straight win. She was second in the 2018 Plenty of Grace.
Filly & Mare Turf
Rushing Fall did what she does in Saturday's $350,000 Grade I Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes for fillies and mares at Keeneland -- win. The 4-year-old More Than Ready filly clearly loves the Keeneland grass and led all the way to win by 1 length over Rymska. Got Stormy finished third, a neck in front of Onthemoonagain, denying trainer Chad Brown a 1-2-3 finish in a Grade I. Rushing Fall finished the 1 1/16 miles over firm turf in 1:42.77 with Javier Casellano up.
Rushing Fall now has won seven of eight career starts and all four of her races at Keeneland. The list includes the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at 1 1/8 miles during the 2018 fall meeting. "She definitely loves the course," Brown said. "Big team effort. Just a great day."
Brown said he knew Rymska would make it tight between his top two. "She's fit, she's sharp right now. I knew it would be close. She's a top filly herself, but there can only be one winner. All three ran well and they'll probably go their separate ways now."
Ginger Nut posted a mild upset win in Friday's $100,000 Limestone Turf Sprint for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland with a pair of Royal Ascot veterans trained by Wesley Ward filling out the trifecta slots. Ginger Nut, a Sir Prancelot filly who also has raced in England, rallied sharply from the back of the field in the 5 1/2-furlongs dash and finished 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Stillwater Cove. Chelsea Cloisters barely survived the late bid of Beechwood Ella to finish third. Ginger Nut, with Joel Rosario up for trainer Juan Leyva, finished in 1:03.53.
"She broke nice and they got away from her a little bit," Rosario said. "I wanted to take my time to let her come with a late run like Juan told me to do."
Ginger Nut tallied six straight top-three finishes for trainer Richard Hannon in England last summer. She started 2019 at Gulfstream Park under the care of John Sadler with a fourth-place finish in the Melody of Colors Stakes Feb. 23. Stillwater Cove, a Quality Road filly, showed little in the Group 3 Albany Stakes at the 2018 Royal meeting. Chelsea Cloisters also flopped in the Group 2 Queen Mary at Ascot but rebounded to finish second in the Group Prix du Bois at Deauville in July and was second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint last fall.
Juan Leyva, assistant to trainer John Sadler, reported Saturday morning Ginger Nut "looks good … and will ship back to California Tuesday with plans to be determined."
Saturday at Keeneland, Morticia raced behind a pair of long shot leaders through the early furlongs of the $100,000 Giant's Causeway Stakes for fillies and mares, took the lead mid-stretch and held off a late rally by Excessivespending to win by a neck. Surrender Now threatened at the top of the lane but faded to finish third, 3/4 length farther in arrears. Morticia, a 5-year-old mare by Twirling Candy, finished 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:03.18 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. She was third in this race last year and third again in the Buffalo Trace Franklin County during the fall meeting.
Trainer Rusty Arnold admitted Morticia is "a little difficult" but Ortiz said, "She broke out of there and she relaxed so well. She relaxed behind some horses, and I didn't rush her. And when I tipped her out in the stretch, she responded really well."
At Aqueduct, Regally Irish was up in the final jumps to snatch victory from pacesetting Skole in Saturday's $100,000 Bridgetown Stakes for 3-year-old. Mount Travers was third, 2 lengths farther back. Regally Irish, a Regal Ransom colt, ran 6 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:10.28 with Rajiv Maragh in the irons. It was his third win from seven starts for trainer Graham Motion. Assistant trainer Adrian Rolls said the colt's next race has yet to be decided.
Midnight Bisou rallied from well back in Sunday's $750,000 Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park, then hooked up in a stretch-long duel with Escape Clause before escaping with the victory by a nose on the wire. Elate was third, 2 3/4 lengths farther back, as Midnight Bisou, a 4-year-old daughter of Midnight Lute, finished the 1 1/16 miles on a track rated good in 1:43.88 with Mike Smith notching his second Grade I of the Hot Springs weekend.
"Man, that was great," Smith said. "Escape Clause ran huge but, you know, the great ones seem to pull it off no matter what. I'm really happy with the way she ran today but she had to run. Sometimes you have to do that. I set back with Elate and waited to make my move. She ran huge, she had to fight for it, but she ran big. Escape Clause ran really well."
Winning trainer Steve Asmussen called Midnight Bisou "an unbelievable filly … how much confidence she has this year."
In her 3-year-old season, Midnight Bisou won the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks and was second or third in five other Grade I's. She now is 3-for-3 this year.
At Aqueduct on Saturday, Another Broad rallied from last of six to take the $200,000 Top Flight Invitational by 1 1/4 lengths over Forever Liesl. The favorite, My Miss Lilly, was a further 3/4 length back in third. Another Broad, a 4-year-old Include filly, ran 9 furlongs on a muddy track in 1:52.99 with Manny Franco in the irons. It was her first stakes win and followed a fourth place in the Grade III Royal Delta at Gulfstream Park.
Quip seized the lead from a pair of embattled longshots in the stretch run of Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Oaklawn Handicap, then just did withstand a blistering late run by Lone Sailor to win by a neck. The two early frontrunners, Pioneer Spirit and Rembering Rita, were another two necks back in third and fourth. Quip, a 4-year-old colt by Distorted Humor, finished 1 1/8 miles on a sloppy track in 1:50.21 with Jose Ortiz riding.
Quip, racing for China Horse Club, WinStar Farm and SF Racing, won the Tampa Bay Derby last year, finished second in the Arkansas Derby and then missed the Kentucky Derby. He came back to finish eighth in the Preakness, then was idle until finishing third in the Hal's Hope at Gulfstream Park in February.
"We were expecting to be close," said Quip's trainer, Rodolphe Brisset. "He looked like on the backside, the horse was not really taking us anywhere, but he was keeping position. He had to make an early move and was very wide on the turn, but the horse ran his usual race. He's been taking us on a fun ride. It's very sweet. This horse is special."
At Keeneland, Bourbon Resolution dug in resolutely through the stretch run to land Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Ben Ali by 4 1/2 lengths over fellow long shot Nun the Less. Third Day, a lightly raced son of Bernardini, ran well to finish third. Bourbon Resolution, a 4-year-old son of New Year's Day, took the overland route on both turns, reached the lead at the top of the stretch and quickly cleared. Chris Landeros rode for trainer Ian Wilkes, finishing 1 1/8 miles in 1:50.82. It was his third win from his last four starts and first stakes win of any kind.
"He's developed a lot. He's bigger, stronger," Wilkes said of Bourbon Resolution. "We were forced to give him some time, and now he's a more mature horse."
Asked if the colt could become a force in the Classic division, which lacks established stars, Wilkes said, "I don't see why not. He's only getting better, and I finally figured him out. He's got a high cruising speed. I was probably a detriment to him trying to rate him. Today, I just told Chris, 'Let him run. Let him find his way.'"
Mitole foiled Whitmore's bid for a third win in the Count Fleet Sprint Handicap, winning Saturday's $500,000 Grade III renewal at Oaklawn Park by 2 3/4 lengths, leading most of the way. Whitmore gave futile chase, finishing second, 7 lengths ahead of Bourbon Cowboy. Mitole, a 4-year-old colt by Eskendereya, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:09.36 under Ricardo Santana Jr.
Mitole came into the race as the winner of four straight and five of his last six -- a stretch dating back to last spring at Oaklawn. He was stepping up to graded stakes company for the first time but went to the post as the odd-on favorite. Whitmore, a 6-year-old Pleasantly Perfect gelding, won the Count Fleet in 2017 and 2018 and was 7-for-10 at the Hot Springs oval, plus a third-place finish in the 2016 Arkansas Derby.
"To win his first graded stakes is special," trainer Steve Asmussen said of Mitole's effort. "He's an elite-caliber horse. He handles the wet track extremely well … He broke well and was fast to the wire. Very grateful to have him in our barn."
Whitmore's trainer, Ron Moquett, said, "Today was their day. The short field, lone speed, that's not his deal. Twenty two (seconds) and change opening quarter. I'm proud of my horse."
Fight On seized the lead in the lane in Sunday's $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes at Oaklawn Park, then battled to the wire before claiming a nose victory over Casino Star. Gato Guapo was another 4 1/2 lengths back in third. Fight On, a 4-year-old Into Mischief colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a good track in 1:44.63 with Tyler Baze up.
In other action:
Yes, there were two Misdirection Stakes during the weekend and both were turf sprints. To wit:
Painting Corners led all the way to a 1 1/2-lengths victory in Saturday's $100,000 Mizdirection Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita. Poster Girl rallied for second, 1 1/4 lengths ahead of Go On Mary. The race originally was set for 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside course but was switched to 5 furlongs over the main turf oval. Painting Corners, a 5-year-old Pleasant Strike mare, finished in 56.30 seconds with Joe Talamo riding.
At the other edge of the country, Eyeinthesky also led all the way to victory in Sunday's $100,000 Mizdirection Stakes for 3-year-old fillies on the Aqueduct turf. Fashion Faux Pas was second, 3/4 length back and 1 1/4 lengths in front of Mae No Never. Eyeinthesky, with Manny Franco up, ran 6 furlongs on good turf in 1:09.92.
Mizdirection, a daughter of Mizzen Mast, won the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint in 2012 and 2013, both times at Santa Anita. Most of her career was in California. She finished fifth in her lone New York appearance, the Grade I Just a Game, but that was at Belmont Park, not the Big A.
Campaign dallied last of five through most of Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Tokyo City Cup, a 12-furlongs marathon over the Santa Anita dirt. When prompted by jockey Rafael Bejarano, the 4-year-old Curlin colt picked them up willingly while four wide and got to the front at the sixteenth pole. He went on to win by 3 1/4 lengths from Beach View with the early leader, Acker, another 2 3/4 lengths back in third. Campaign, out of the Dynaformer mare Arania, finished in 2:34.73 on a fast track.
Diamond Dust waited patiently behind the early leader in Saturday's $75,000 Howard B. Noonan Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-olds, blasted past that one and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Celtic Line was second, 2 lengths better than the pacesetter, Ohio Player. Diamond Dust, a Paynter gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.37 with Gerardo Corrales in the irons.
Midnight Fantasy asserted herself midway through Saturday's $75,000 Austinown Filly Sprint for Ohio-bred 3-year-old fillies, drawing clear to win by 5 lengths over Thunderous Gem. Into Trouble was making up ground but settled for third, a nose shy of place money. Midnight Fantasy, a Midnight Lute filly, reported in 1:10.35 with Erik Barbaran up.
On the international front:
Winx drew the outside gate for Saturday's Group 1 Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick, the final start of a career that has put her firmly in the pantheon of the best-ever. No problem for jockey Hugh Bowman. Dropping Winx in behind most of the field, he let the 8-year-old Street Cry mare settle, got her going 600 meters out and swept by a stubborn Kluger in the final 100 meters to win by 1 1/2 lengths -- her 33rd straight and final victory. Familiar foes Hartnell and Happy Clapper finished third and fourth.
Breeding plans have not been announced but, wherever she goes, Winx carries consecutive-wins streaks in most of Australia's top races, including a remarkable quartet of Cox Plates.
"What a journey it's been," said regular rider Hugh Bowman, such a critical piece of the Winx entourage that she was scratched last season when Bowman was unable to take the mount because of a suspension. "It's hard to believe it's the end, actually."
Throughout her career, her owner syndicate and trainer Chris Waller resisted temptation and blandishments to take Winx abroad -- specifically, to Royal Ascot. As she wrapped up her all-Australia career, Waller said that decision was a key to her legacy.
"Her longevity is what sets her apart," he said. "She may not have lasted this long if she had gone overseas."
While Waller was shedding a nostalgic tear for Winx, he was celebrating the victory one race earlier in the Grade I Heineken 3 Australian Oaks of Veery Elleegant, a New Zealand-bred filly by Zed, who now has three straight wins. With Chris Waller up, Veery Elleegant went to the post as a solid favorite and won by nearly 2 lengths from Scarlet Dream.
Saturnalia was just up at the wire to win Sunday's first leg of the Japanese Triple Crown, the Grade 1 Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2000 Guineas at Nakayama Racecourse. The Lord Kanaloa colt remains undefeated in four starts and likely will be the favorite for the Grade 1 Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby May 26.
With Christophe Lemaire up, Saturnalia raced well off the pace and swung wide turning for home. With a bit of late encouragement, he put a head in front of Velox at the wire with Danon Kingly a nose farther behind. Admire Mars, the 2018 Japanese juvenile champion, was a further 2 lengths back in fourth.
Saturnalia finished the 2,000 meters in 1:58.1 over firm turf.
"I rode him for the first time in the race but I had confidence in him," Lemaire said. "He seemed a bit nervous and drifted towards the inside when we took command before the
Lemaire said going into the Satsuki Sho, Saturnalia "was not 100 percent as it was his first start this year. But he should be in top condition going into the Japanese Derby."
The colt's sire is quickly making a name for himself in Japan with Saturnalia joining in his progeny roster the likes of last year's filly Triple Crown winner and Japan Cup winner Almond Eye. Saturnalia was produced by dual Oaks winner Cesario.
It's all over in the UAE. The 2018-19 season wrapped up Friday night at Meydan with Ajwad winning the Nad Al Sheba Classic presented by Longines V.H.P. Collection at 2,000 meters on the turf and Thegreatcollection taking the Meydan Mile Sponsored by Azizi Riveria.
Ajwad, a son of Rock of Gibraltar with Bernardo Pinheiro up, led from the start and held off Majestic Mambo to win by a neck. Two starts back, Ajwad two starts earlier finished fifth behind Blue Point in the Group 3 Nad Al Sheba Turf Sprint. "This is a very good horse and a tough one," said winning trainer Rashed Bouresly.
The Meydan Mile was a tossup until well into the stretch run when Thegreatcollection, under Adrie de Vries, found a seam, burst through and went on to win by 2 1/4 lengths over stablemate Galvanize. Thegreatcollection is a 5-year-old Saint Anddan gelding.
Tune in again next season when the Dubai World Cup celebrates its 25th running and coincides with the Dubai 2020 Expo. Expect an even greater show than usual.
Magical, making her first start since finishing a gallant second behind Enable in the Breeders' Cup Turf, rallied by Irish St Leger winner Flag Of Honour to win Saturday's Alleged Stakes at Naas by 4 1/2 lengths under Ryan Moore. The race was a tough ask off the layoff as Irish Derby winner finished third.
"You'd have to be delighted with that performance," trainer Aidan O'Brien told Racing Post. "It was a lovely way to start her season and Ryan said she did everything easily … We've never been as happy with her at this stage of the season as we are this year."
O'Brien mentioned the Prix Ganay or the Mooresbridge Stakes as targets for the 4-year-old Galileo filly with the Tattersalls Gold Cup on the farther horizon.
American Pharoah wasted no time getting on the board as a sire. The 2015 U.S. Triple Crown winner's first runner, Monarch of Egypt, took the lead 2 furlongs from home in Saturday's first race at Naas and steadily pulled away to win by a convincing 2 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite.
The colt was expected to win. Besides the sire influence, he was produced by Up, a Galileo mare who was a multiple graded stakes winner and finished seventh in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. More, Ryan Moore had the mount for trainer Aidan O'Brien.
Stay tuned for more.
Speaking of impressive debuts, trainer John Moore said he bought Aethero, a Sebring gelding, at the Inglis Australian Easter Yearling Sale because, "as I said to everybody, he just caught my eye as being like Able Friend."
Wow. Moore, of course, trained Able Friend to four Group 1 wins and the top of the world's turf miler standings. So that's some eye-catching.
But the youngster got things off to a good start Sunday at Sha Tin, easily defeating six unraced rivals despite, in Moore's words, "not 100 percent today but he's so talented that he didn't need to be." Zac Purton rode Aethero, scoring his 100th win on the season -- ever closer to his third jockey championship.
"It's a good mark to hit, and on a horse like that as well. It's nice," Purton said.
News and Notes
Breeders' Cup has added eight more races to the international "Challenge" series -- races that offer the winner a guaranteed spot and travel allowances for a corresponding race in the Breeders' Cup World Championships. Noteworthy among them are the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and the Juddmonte International at York.
Enable won last year's Arc and journeyed to Churchill Downs the following month to bag the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf and Breeders' Cup officials would like nothing better than for that to set up as a repeat this year. The Juddmonte International, which is run on the turf, becomes the first European "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Classic, run on the dirt.
The full list is available at www.breederscup.com.