Classic Empire jumped back to the top ranks of Kentucky Derby contention in weekend racing while Lady Aurelia earned a return ticket to England and Lady Eli suffered yet another tough loss.
Stellar Wind got her season off to a smashing start while Whitmore emerged as a potential sprint star.
Internationally, the All-Weather Championships in England continue to spread their impact, producing a potential Group 1 candidate for Hong Kong. And Al Ain took the Japanese 2,000 Guineas.
No additional guineas -- or lire or Euros -- required here. Simply read on:
The Road to the Roses
Classic Empire is back. Last year's juvenile champ and Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner rallied four-wide after a patient trip in the $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby and got by the embattled pair of Conquest Mo Money and Malagacy. Conquest Mo Money held on for second while Lookin at Lee was rolling late to take third, followed by Sonneteer, Malagacy and Untrapped. Classic Empire, a Pioneerof the Nile colt trained by Mark Casse, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.93 with Julien Leparoux in the irons. He finished third in the Grade III Holy Bull in his only previous start as a 3-year-old as a result of an interrupted training schedule. Before that, he was undefeated against top company save for a mishap at the start of the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga where he unseated Irad Ortiz Jr. That was his only start with any rider other than Leparoux.
Leparoux said Classic Empire felt "much better" Saturday than for the Holy Bull. "In the Holy Bull he was just not himself, I was laying third, but I didn't feel like I had too much horse at that time," Leparoux said. "So today I knew I was loaded. I just needed to get there."
Casse added, "He just has so much ability. I knew if we could get him here that he'd be tough. He's been a challenge, but the last month and a half have been good -- a lot of chapters to the book I'm writing." He said Classic Empire will head back to Churchill Downs. "That's home for him. We'll get him back there and come up with a game plan. I think the toughest deal is over, getting to this point. Now he won't have to do too much going into the Derby."
The last 2-year-old champion who went on to win the Arkansas Derby was American Pharoah, also a Pioneerof the Nile colt. He, of course, went on to win the Triple Crown.
Classic Empire winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, picture Breeders' Cup
Meanwhile, at Keeneland:
Senior Investment rallied from next-last of 10 to post the upset win in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Stonestreet Lexington at Keeneland, edging West Coast by a head and the favorite, No Dozing, by another neck. Senior Investment, with Channing Hill in the irons, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.05 and earned 10 points toward an unlikely spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate. The colt, who was sixth in the Grade II Louisiana Derby in his previous start, languishes at No. 30 on the Churchill Downs points list for the Run for the Roses. "I think Churchill ought to add more points to this race immediately," said winning trainer Kenny McPeek. "But that's the way the ball bounced. Preakness? Maybe. We'll see. We have a really good horse and we're going to have some fun."
With the 35-race "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series ended, Louisiana Derby winner Girvin sits atop the list with 150 points. Classic Empire is second, followed by Gormley, Irish War Cry, Thunder Snow, Always Dreaming, Gunnevera, Practical Joke and J Boys Echo.
The second 10 are State of Honor, Tapwrit, Malagacy, Hence, Fast and Accurate, McCraken, Battle of Midway, Patch, Battalion Runner and Cloud Computing.
There almost certainly will be defections from that list and the first five to move up to the 20-horse starting gate, in order, would be Untapped, Lookin At Lee, Sonneteer, Royal Mo and Local Hero.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Ever So Clever, starting from the outside post, had to swing to the middle of the track turning for home in Friday's $400,000 Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park but got the job done nonetheless. After passing pacesetter Chanel's Legacy, the Medaglia d'Oro filly edged clear, winning by 1 3/4 lengths. Chanel's Legacy held off Vexatious for second and the favorite, Banner Island, finished fifth. Ever So Clever, with Luis Contreras up, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.40. The Steve Asmussen trainee was fifth in two earlier stakes at Oaklawn, the Martha Washington and the Grade III Honeybee. The Fantasy was her first stakes win. Asmussen, asked about the Kentucky Oaks, said, "She's going to Churchill Monday and it's fun to have her there."
Lady Aurelia raced in mid-pack early in Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway Stakes at Keeneland, came very wide into the stretch to get by the leaders and got away to a 2 1/2-lengths win. Nobody's Fault was second, a neck in front of Ruby Notion. Lady Aurelia, a 3-year-old Scat Daddy filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:02.40 with John Velazquez up and is targeted for a return to the UK and Europe, where she showcased American bloodlines last year with victories in the Group 2 Queen Mary at Royal Ascot and the Group 1 Darley Prix Morny at Deauville. Trainer Wesley Ward said Lady Aurelia will train at Keeneland until she ships over for Royal Ascot. "Excited to get her back over to England, to Ascot, " he said. "Ultimate goal is the Breeders' Cup. That will be five-eighths on the turf at Del Mar. Should suit her perfect."
Whitmore, the odds-on favorite, took his time getting going in Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Count Fleet Handicap at Oaklawn Park, then dusted eight rivals, charging down the stretch to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Apprehender rallied from far back to take second at a big price and Holy Boss, who contested the pace, settled for third, a head farther back. Chief Cicatriz, who got his start in New Mexico, made the early going and finished just another head back in fourth. Whitmore, a 4-year-old Pleasantly Perfect gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.35 with Ricardo Santana Jr. in the irons. He was sent sprinting after finishing 19th in last year's Kentucky Derby and since then is undefeated in four starts. "I think he's still learning this new game, but he likes it a lot. It's easy on him," said winning trainer Ron Moquette. "Someone asked me earlier, 'How did you teach him to sprint?' I said, 'That's not the training feat. The training feat was getting him to be third in the Arkansas Derby and second in the Rebel.' He's always wanted to do this." Moquette said he will look at the Grade II Churchill Downs on Derby Day as an early step toward the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Lord Simba pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Los Angeles Stakes at Santa Anita, took the lead passing the quarter pole and edged away to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Eastwood, Grazen Sky and the early leader, Kentuckian, completed the order of finish. Lord Simba, a 4-year-old colt by Discreet Cat, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.74. Martin Garcia had the mount for trainer Bob Baffert. He was fresh off his maiden win last month. "He's been training really well and I knew this race was coming up light with no heavy hitters so I didn't think I needed to wait for an allowance race," Baffert said. "With the way he was training we wanted to take a shot and it looks like it was the right choice."
Pink Lloyd stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Jacques Cartier on the Woodbine all-weather, edged to the lead when asked by jockey Eurico da Silva and held on to win by 3/4 length over Commute. Copperplate was third. Pink Lloyd, a 5-year-old Old Forester gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:08.62, less than 1/2 second off the track record.
Inside Straight, jumping way up in class, tracked the pace in Saturday's $750,000 Grade II Oaklawn Handicap, worked his way out of traffic and took charge in the stretch, drawing off to win by 2 lengths over Domain's Rap. The favorite, Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Midnight Storm, led most of the way but faded in the final sixteenth, finishing third. Inside Straight, a 4-year-old Super Saver gelding, got 9 furlongs in 1:48.40 with Geovanni Franco riding. He had been knocking heads with Domain's Rap and others on the local circuit throughout the Hot Springs season, most recently in optional claimers. "This horse has just been getting better and better, training better, working better," said trainer Robertino Diodoro. "He's a horse that just made the step to the next level, and he proved it today." Diodoro said he does not have firm plans for the New York-bred other than taking him to Belmont. "He's had kind of a rough campaign," the trainer added.
Cistron led all the way in Saturday's $150,000 Northern Spur Stakes for 3-year-olds at Oaklawn Park, turned back a challenge from the favorite, Warrior's Club, and went on to win by 1 length over that rival. Total Tap was another 1 length back in third. Cistron, a colt by The Factor, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.35 with Tyler Baze aboard. Trained by John Sadler, he was coming off a third-place finish in the Pasadena Stakes at Santa Anita and most of his previous experience was on the grass.
Watershed lagged early in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland, then hit passing gear in the stretch and drove by to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Eagle and the favorite, Birdsong, were second and third. Watershed, a 5-year-old son of Bernardini, ran 9 furlongs in 1:50.92 with Paco Lopez riding. Bred by Darley, owned by Godolphin and trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, the horse has been on the fringes in tough company and posted his first graded stakes win.
Stellar Wind, making her first start since finishing fourth behind Beholder, Songbird and Forever Unbridled in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, raced past pacesetting Terra Promessa in the stretch run of Saturday's $600,000 Grade I Apple Blossom Handicap at Oaklawn Park and worked her way clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. It was another 3 1/4 lengths back to Streamline in third. Stellar Wind, a 5-year-old Curlin mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.75 for jockey Victor Espinoza. Trained by John Sadler, she has missed the exacta only twice in 12 starts -- fourth in both the Breeders' Cup and the Kentucky Oaks. She was second in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Distaff. "I really do want her to run in the Breeders' Cup and get her a win," Espinoza said. "She's had a little bit of bad luck the last two times. The first time, she got carried a little wide and I just got beat at Keeneland. Last time, she missed the break and that was it. The race was over for her. Hopefully this will be her year." Sadler said he will look "around the country" for the right intervening races for Stellar Wind.
Filly & Mare Turf
Lady Eli suffered yet another tough beat in Saturday's $350,000 Grade I Coolmore Jenny Wiley, taking the lead in the stretch only to be caught and beaten by a head by Dickinson. Quidura was third, another 1 1/4 lengths back. Dickinson, a 5-year-old Medalia d'Oro mare, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.98 with Paco Lopez in the irons. Dickinson posted her third straight win and fifth from her last six starts. Bred by Darley and owned by Godolphin, she is trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, who tied a record with four wins on the day. Lopez said he was looking for room on the rail to make a move but couldn't get through. "When the other horse (Lady Eli) passed me, we got room and I still had a lot of filly," he said. "For Godolphin, it's a great day, and she's just a nice filly," McLaughlin said. "We had trouble -- and it still worked out. Just unbelievable to win four at Keeneland, especially ending on a Grade 1." Lady Eli's trainer, Chad Brown, noted it was his filly's first race of the year, "so hopefully, she'll move forward from it … She is a neck and two noses from being undefeated."
American Patriot rallied three wide into the lane in Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland and edged by Heart to Heart, winning by a neck. Conquest Panthera was third, a neck to the good of Ballagh Rocks, and the favorite, Bolo, faded to finish ninth. American Patriot, a War Front colt, got home in 1:34.70 over firm turf with Javier Castellano aboard. The colt was third in last year's Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington, then warmed up for the Maker's with a victory in a Gulfstream Park allowance event in February. Trainer Todd Pletcher notched his record 51st stakes win at Keeneland. "That was really cool," the always-cool trainer admitted. "We always felt like he had a lot of potential. He was unlucky to not win a Grade 1 last year. He's trained exceptionally well all winter. He has run well at Keeneland before so we knew he would like the turf course."
La Coronel shook clear in the stretch to lead four other Florida invaders across the line in Thursday's $125,000 Appalachian Stakes presented by the Japan Racing Association at Keeneland. Morticia, Proctor's Ledge, Dream Dancing and Bellavais all were in close attendance. Three whose last races were at Santa Anita filled the next three spots in the order of finish in the 1-mile event for 3-year-old fillies, run over firm turf. La Coronel, a Colonel John filly, finished in 1:37.12 with Florent Geroux at the controls for trainer Mark Casse, who had a good weekend. She won the Grade III JPMorgan Chase Jessamine Stakes over the course last fall, finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, then had double knee surgery. She returned to finish second in the Grade III Florida Oaks. "For her to come back and do what she just did … it took a lot of people and a lot of hard work," Casse said. "We’re really proud of her.”
Light In Paris came from off the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Plenty of Grace Stakes at Aqueduct, took the lead with a three-wide move in upper stretch and kicked clear to score by 2 3/4 lengths. Bishop's Pond made the early going and finished second, a neck in front of My Sweet Girl. The favorite, Bar of Gold, was only another head back in fourth. Light In Paris, a 5-year-old Irish-bred mare by Aussie Rules, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.10. "I got lucky," said winning rider Manny Franco. "I went low and the space opened," Franco said. "I had a lot of horse and she was there for me. Sometimes it [a hole] closes, but when you have the horse, you go for it."
Convey, the 11/10 favourite, drew off late under jockey Ryan Moore to win the most valuable race on All-Weather Championships Finals Day, the 200,000 pounds sterling Betway Easter Classic over 10 furlongs on Polytrack at Lingfield Park. The victory may have earned the 5-year-old Dansili gelding a trip to Hong Kong, the home of his owner, Robert Ng. Convey captured the day's marquee event by 1 3/4 lengths from Absolute Blast, finishing in 2:02.16. Sir Michael Stoute trains the winner.
"Convey has always been a horse with a lot of talent and he has improved for being gelded over the winter," said Ng's racing manager, Rupert Pritchard-Gordon. "We will see what Sir Michael and Robert Ng want to do with him now. The horse has been invited to the (Group 1) Champions Mile on turf in Hong Kong on May 7 and there is a good chance he will go there. If he doesn't go there, I am sure there will be plenty of races for him here, but Mr. Ng never comes to see his horses race in Europe and, when you get an invite for a race like that, it is quite tempting to give it a go."
Other results from Championship Day:
Second Thought captured the 3-year-old Championship at 6 furlongs by 1/2 length from Visionary; Sovereign Debt was a winner by a neck over Nimr in the Mile Championship; Kimberella bested Gracious John by 1/2 length in the Sprint Championship; Realtra took the Fillies & Mares Championship at 7 furlongs by a neck over Muffri' Ha; and Winning Story took the Marathon Championhip, defeating Watersmeet by 1 3/4 lengths.
Al Ain found a little more in the final 100 meters of Sunday's Group 1 Satsuki Sho, or Japanese 2,000 Guineas, and put a neck in front of Persian Knight under the wire for a 22-1 upset victory. Danburite was third and Fan Dii Na, the favorite in an mostly untested field, got home seventh. Al Ain, a Deep Impact colt, registered his third win from four career starts. With Kohei Matsuyama in the irons, Al Ain covered 2,000 meters on firm turf in 1:57.8, a stakes record, before a crowd of 56,067 at Nakayama Racecourse
"I can't believe we won," Matsuyama said. "I was runner-up in two Group 1 races last year so it feels just great to be a winner. He ran a strong race last time so I was quite confident today. He wasn't responding well in the last two corners but stretched really well in the straight. He's easy to ride so I think he'll have no problem with the extra distance in the Derby."