There's good news and bad news this weekend for trainer Bob Baffert's top two Kentucky prospects, Game Winner and Improbable: They'll have to overcome jet lag but they won't have to run against each other.
Oaklawn Park generously split the $1 million Grade II Rebel Stakes into two $750,000 divisions, one for each of the "Baffert Two" who were left without a race last weekend when Santa Anita canceled the San Felipe.
The Rebel is the only Kentucky Derby prep this weekend. But it's not the only big deal race at Oaklawn, where the stakes program -- rich and getting richer -- has two huge races for fillies and mares. Gulfstream Park and Aqueduct also contribute to the fun.
On the international front, Sunday is Derby Day in Hong Kong with a talented cast looking to use that race as a springboard to glory, as many others have in the recent past.
Superstar South African sire Dynasty is dead at 19.
But we move on.
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's $1 million Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., drew 19 entries after Santa Anita's suspension of activity and California horsemen said, "Thank you very much."
"We never dreamed the day would come they would close down Santa Anita, but we're getting through it," Baffert said as he prepared to ship reigning juvenile champ Game Winner and Improbable to Arkansas. "The main thing is that the 3-year-olds, they're doing well. I think it's very nice of them to want to split that race. That's the key thing."
The upside for Baffert is that Game Winner and Improbable, both undefeated, can remain that way come Sunday morning since they were drawn into separate divisions of the race. Game winner was installed as the 4-5 favorite in his division; Improbable as the 3-5 pick in his.
The original offer from Oaklawn was to split the race only if it got 20 or more horses but General Manager Wayne Smith the decision to bifurcate anyway was the right thing for both horsemen and fans.
"Knowing that some horsemen have very few options this late in the Triple Crown prep season, we felt the right thing to do was to follow through with the plan to split the Rebel," Smith said. "We also wanted to do it for the fans. We wouldn't even be in this position without the overwhelming support they've given us since the start of the season."
Game Winner, who captured the Breeders' Cup Juvenile en route to his champion season, gets a belated start as a 3-year-old in the second division of the Rebel. He is among four California refugees in the 10-horse field and two of the other three -- Omaha Beach and Gunmetal Gray -- have the credentials to compete, too. Our Braintrust invades from New York after finishing a close third in the Grade III Withers. Among the locals, Laughing Fox is one to watch if he can continue his steady improvement for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Improbable is among four displaced Californians in the nine-horse first division. He has not raced since winning the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 8. Like Game Winner, he has something to prove off the layoff. Also in from the West Coast is Galilean, an Uncle Mo colt who has three wins and a second from four starts -- all against fellow California-breds. Long Range Toddy, an unlucky third in the Grade III Southwest over the course, seems best positioned to defend the home court.
Baffert-trained horses have won the Rebel six times: Lookin At Lucky in 2010, The Factor in 2011, Secret Circle in 2012, Hoppertunity in 2014, American Pharoah in 2015 and Cupid in 2016. Of those, only Lookin At Lucky and American Pharoah went on to the Kentucky Derby with the former finishing sixth and the latter starting his Triple Crown run.
Baffert has not been invincible in the race. He sent out Solomini to a runner-up finish behind Magnum Moon in 2018; American Anthem to finish 10th, beating only one horse, in 2017; and in 2013, Den's Legacy to finish third and Super Ninety Nine to report fifth.
The only other weekend race with potential Triple Crown implications is Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park. And that's more likely to turn up Preakness candidates than Derby contenders. Seven are set, among them the first- and third-place finishers from the local Miracle Wood Stakes -- Always Mining and Tybalt.
Top Kentucky Derby prospect Game Winner arrives at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas for Saturday's Grade II Rebel Stakes, Oaklawn Park photo
Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park could be eyed as a spot for Black-Eyed Susan hopefuls more than for Kentucky Oaks candidates. Eight fillies signed on for the race.
In addition to splitting the Rebel and announcing the third massive purse increase of its season, Oaklawn has carded some very nice stakes for older horses on Saturday, one for the ladies and one for males.
The $350,000 Grade II Azeri at 1 1/16 miles for 4-year-olds and up, attracted only six but more than makes up for quantity with quality. The field includes Midnight Bisou, a four-time graded stakes winner last year; Eskimo Kisses, winner of last summer's Grade I Alabama at Saratoga; Elate, winner of the 2017 Alabama and Grade I Beldame; and Shamrock Rose, winner of the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint four months ago at Churchill Downs. Tappa Tappa Tappa and Summer's Indy round out the field.
Saturday's $350,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn is spotted in prime time between divisions of the Rebel. The 1 1/16-miles race for 4-year-olds and up has nine takers and, lacking a standout, could be a breakout race for the likes of locally based Heavy Roller. The 5-year-old Malibu Moon gelding has been burning up the track for trainer Joe Sharp, winning his most recent start over the course by 7 lengths with a Beyer Speed Figure of 99. He will contend with the likes of Rated R Superstar and Sonneteer, third and fourth in the recent Grade III Razorback Handicap, Dalmore and California shipper Giant Expectations.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park drew eight. Among them: Tequilita, winner of the Grade III Rampart Stakes in December; Teresa Z, making her first start since taking the Grade III Turnback the Alarm at Aqueduct in November; Mexican sensation Jala Jala, who was second behind Blamed in the Grade III Royal Delta Feb. 16; and a few others capable of upsetting.
Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct has six well-matched contestants, none of whom has had an impact yet at the highest levels.
On the international beat:
Sunday's Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin is the culmination of the local Four-Year-Old Classic Series and the race all local owners most want to win. The Derby also has produced many of Hong Kong's stars.
Top-rated Waikuku, trained by John Size, as well as a trio from the Frankie Lor stable, Furore, Dark Dream and Mission Tycoon, are prominent among 14 entries for the 2,000-meters tilt over the turf. Waikiku has run off four straight wins in Hong Kong but the Irish-bred gelding is drawn outside all 13 rivals -- not the best of gates with a short run to the first turn.
"The signs are good that this year's BMW Hong Kong Derby will live up to its billing as a race that produces the champions of the future," Andrew Harding, the Hong Kong Jockey Club's executive director of racing, said as the entries were announced. "Able Friend, Designs On Rome, Ambitious Dragon and Hong Kong's current brilliant standout Beauty Generation are just some of the stars that took the Derby route to the very top and it is looking likely that this year's crop will produce another worthy hero."
Harding could add to his list of past Derby winners who went on to further glory such names as Viva Pataca, Werther and Rapper Dragon. And this year's crop of potential heros has plenty of international flavor. Ka Ying Star won three of four races in the UK before coming to Hong Kong. Helene Leadingstar and Enrichment were winners in Australia. And Victory Harmony landed two Group 1 events in Brazil.
Sunday's Grade 2 Spring Stakes (Japanese 2000 Guineas Trial) at Nakayama is 1,800 meters over the turf with some promising sorts facing a make-it or break-it for the big time.
The Yoshida family doubtless has big hopes for Reversible Lane, a Heart's Cry colt who was last seen finishing third in the Begonia Sho at Tokyo Racecourse Nov. 25. Fantasist, by Lord Kanaloa, won his first three starts last season before finishing fourth in the Grade 1 Asahi Hi Futurity at Hanshin Dec. 16 and makes his first start as a 3-year-old. He again faces Screen Hero colt Kurino Gaudi, who was second in the Asahi Hi Futurity.
We note the presence of Unicorn Lion, an Irish-bred No Nay Never colt out of the High Chaparral mare Muravka.
On Saturday at Flemington, Racing Victoria kicks off a new event, the All-Star Mile with a total purse of AU$5 million or US$3.5 million. Fans voted for 10 of the starters and the other four were awarded slots by racing officials. Winx's owners passed on the event, opening the door to Happy Clapper, who has finished second to Winx in four of their nine meetings and, of course, has never beaten her.
But it's far from a one-horse affair. Godolphin filly Alizee enters off a victory in the Group 1 Futurity Stakes at Caulfield and has the services -- since she's not running -- of Winx's regular rider, Hugh Bowman. Group 1 Australian Guineas winner Mystic Journey drew a tough assignment from gate No.1 16 but Hartnell, a veteran of these wars, is more favorably placed in the No. 2 spot.
If nothing else, the race is a preview of a Winx-less future in Australia.
Thursday's program was the penultimate racing day of the season at Meydan Racecourse, with only World Cup night to go. Unsurprisingly, trainer Doug Watson sent out the winners of the two featured races.
Thegreatcollection, dropping in class, stalked the pace in the CNN Travel Handicap, took the lead on the turn and was long gone by the time he straightened for home, winning by 5 1/2 lengths. In two previous races, the 5-year-old Saint Anddan gelding had chased home Super Saturday's Group 1 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 3 winner Capezzano.
"Against the better horses at the Carnival, he struggles to keep pace with them early on," said Thegreatcollection's rider, Sam Hitchcott. "But this was much easier for him. He broke very well and carried me into contention without my asking him. Hopefully he can build on this now he has won again.”
In the co-featured CNN Business Handicap, Lytham St Annes used an inside draw and a good start to gain position, then powered clear in the stretch run, winning by 1 1/4 lengths from Beachcomber Bay. The 6-year-old gelding was having his seventh run of the season in the UAE and running back on 12 days rest.
"On turf last time, he ran much better and was bouncing after the race so we were happy to run him back relatively quickly," Watson said of Lytham St Annes. "He is very versatile with regards to surface, likes it here and at Jebel Ali and stays further, but we will try and keep him at 1,200 meters."
The South African breeding industry suffered an almost immeasurable loss Monday when Dynasty died of complications of colic. Wayne Kieswetter, the owner of Ridgemont Highlands, where the 19-year-old stood, told Racing Post Dynasty was "a cornerstone and pillar of our champion farm and, indeed, of the broader South African racing and breeding industry."
Dynasty, a son of Fort Wood and grandson of Sadler's Wells, was a four-time Group 1 winner, landing the Cape Derby, the South African Guineas, the Daily News 2,000, and the Durban July.
His progeny already are successful at stud, suggesting his name was prophetic. That group includes Summerhill Stud's Act of War, Drakenstein Stud's Futura, Bush Hill Stud's Irish Flame and Jackson, who stood alongside his sire at Ridgemont Highlands.