The Kentucky Derby takes on a particularly international flavor this weekend with a Godolphin horse already victorious in the UAE 2000 Guineas in Dubai and owners from China, Japan and Korea contesting American Derby preps.
Elsewhere, Tampa Bay Downs, Gulfstream Park and Santa Anita have important turf fixtures. Oaklawn Park features a nice sprint in the King Cotton.
Cotton to this:
The Road to the Roses
Sheik Mohammed, the ruler of Dubai and driving force behind Godolphin's worldwide racing operation, seems to have another potential candidate for the Kentucky Derby -- one of his very few unmet targets.
And weekend action could drive even more international involvement in America's most storied race with Japanese, Chinese and Korean connections contesting some big races.
Estihdaaf, an American-bred colt, took full advantage of his inside post position to win Thursday's Group 3 UAE 2000 Guineas at Meydan by 5 1/2 lengths over the favorite, previously undefeated Walking Thunder. Estihdaaf, with Christophe Soumillon riding for trainer Saeed bin Suroor, was away a step slowly but quickly filled the gap along the rail, then never relinquished the lead, finishing 1 mile on a fast track in 1:39.87.
Walking Thunder was wide the whole way, got nearly to even terms with the winner turning for home but had no answer in the final 250 meters. Red Cactus found a burst of late speed to finish third.
Estihdaaf, by Arch out of the Ghostzapper mare Enrichment, made three starts on the turf in England as a 2-year-old, finishing third, second and then first. He was switched to the dirt at Meydan in his second Dubai start this season, finishing a close second going 1 1/16 miles.
"If he was more forward, I knew he would improve from last time," bin Suroor said. "I was confident he could run the mile and I knew the dirt would suit him because of his breeding. I told Christophe to be handy with him like he was in the morning and it went well."
The trainer said Estihdaaf could have one more run on Super Saturday March 9 before the Group 2 UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup night three weeks later. "We will see how he comes out after the race and Sheik Mohammed will make a decision," he said.
Sheikh Mohammed has had multiple disappointments in the Kentucky Derby, most recently Thunder Snow, who won the UAE Derby in 2017, then was pulled up shortly after the start in the Run for the Roses when he jumped, bucked and refused to run.
The winner of the UAE Derby earns 100 points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" program, guaranteeing a spot in the Louisville starting gate.
Several other Kentucky Derby preps run during the weekend in the United States:
Saturday's $ $250,000 Grade II Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay Downs drew 10 3-year-olds, including Knicks Go, winner of the Grade I Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last Oct. 6. Knicks Go, a Paynter colt, followed that with a second-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile before finishing 11th as the favorite in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club in the slop at Churchill Downs. Knicks Go is owned by the KRA Stud Farm -- the "K" standing for Korea, which has upped its international racing profile significantly in the past few years.
Two other stakes winners are in the Sam F. Davis field and one of them, Five Star General, also has international connections in the owning partnership of China Horse Club and WinStar Farm. He won the Central Park Stakes at Aqueduct in November. Well Defined defeated fellow Florida-breds in the In Reality Division of the Florida Sire Stakes last fall.
Friday night's $75,000 John Battaglia Memorial at Turfway Park is 1 1/16 miles and the big local prep for the Jeff Ruby Steaks over the same course March 9. A field of 12 is spiced up by The Mackem Bullet, an Irish-bred Society Rock filly who finished second last year in the Group 1 Cheveley Park Stakes on the Newmarket turf. Owned by Japanese kingpin Katsumi Yoshida, she was turned over to trainer Wesley Ward, finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and then won an allowance race on the Turfway all-weather by 10 1/2 lengths on New Year's Eve, earning the Equibase chart footnote, "Tons the best".
Saturday's $150,000 Jimmy Winkfield Stakes at Aqueduct and Sunday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita are run at 7 furlongs. With just 12 weeks to go before the testing 1 1/4 miles of the Kentucky Derby, most real contenders are stretching out beyond this one-turn distance. Nonetheless, he favorite in the Winkfield is Haikal, owned by Sheik Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum, deputy ruler of Dubai.
Pool 2 of the Kentucky Derby Future Wager also runs this weekend at a track, OTB or ADW near you. As always, there are 24 betting interests including "All Other 3-year-olds," which is oddsmaker Mike Battaglia's 5-2 morning-line favorite again this week. Among the individual interests, 2018 juvenile champ Game Winner and Improbable are the next on the line. Both are trained by Bob Baffert. Remember, if your horse doesn't run, you lose.
On the road to the Kentucky Oaks:
Bellafina is the 2-5 morning-line favorite among five for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Las Virgenes at Santa Anita. She was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies but comes off a win in the Grade II Santa Ynez. Bob Baffert fields Mother Mother, second in the Santa Ynez.
Saturday's $150,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs is pretty much a "you pick 'em" event with nine candidates going 1 mile and 40 yards.
Thirteen are entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Marcos at 1 1/4 miles on the Santa Anita greensward. The oddsmaker likes most of them with Chicago Style the tepid morning-line favorite at 3-1.
A well-matched field of six is set for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Thunder Road at Santa Anita. The early favorites are Brazilian-bred Ohio and Irish-bred River Boyne. Five of the six are foreign-bred.
There's no clear favorite among the 13 entered for Saturday's $100,000 El Prado Stakes at Gulfstream Park, a 7 1/2-furlongs tussle. Do be careful of the outside post positions in a race with a short run to the first turn. With spring training just around the corner, also note that Mr. Cub is in this lineup.
Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour at Tampa Bay Downs attracted a contentious field of 11. The morning-line pick at 5-2 is Rymska, a French-bred filly trained by Chad Brown who makes her 5-year-old debut. She's cross-entered at Gulfstream Park, where she would be the overwhelming favorite. Don't overlook Hawksmoor, even though she hasn't won for more than a year and a half.
Filly & Mare Turf
As noted above, Rymska is the odds-on morning-line favorite among eight candidates for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Suwannee River at Gulfstream Park. The Le Havre has been more at home going shorter than this 9 furlongs but has the class edge.
Heartwood returns to Oaklawn Park for the first time since his second career start nearly two years ago and has been installed as the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $100,000 King Cotton. The Tapit 5-year-old, who improved dramatically toward the end of 2018, drew gate No. 5 in a field that also includes Hot Springs regular Wilbo.