Two of the top prospects for the Kentucky Derby, Improbable and Game Winner, suffered their first-ever defeats Saturday in Arkansas but neither will lose much support after his narrow loss.
Midnight Bisou, America's Tale and Rated R Superstar were the weekend stars among the older set.
On the international front, Winx hasn't even wrapped up her stellar career yet but Aussie punters already are anointing her potential successor in the wake of Saturday's rich All-Star Mile.
And Furore held off the favorite to win the race every Hong Kong owner and trainer covets, the BMW Hong Kong Derby.
While we normally don't chronicle horses that jump over things or pull equipment behind them, we dutifully note that Al Boum Photo took Friday's Group 1 Magners Cheltenham Gold Cup, giving trainer Willie Mullins his first victory in the pre-eminent event in jump racing. Well done, all.
Now, back to the flat.
The Road to the Roses
Trainer Bob Baffert sent his top two Kentucky Derby contenders to Arkansas to contest Saturday's Rebel Stakes, split into two $750,000 divisions to accommodate California horses who were to have contested last weekend's canceled San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita.
Both were making their 3-year-old debut and neither could quite overcome the layoff and travel. But both gave it a jolly good go.
Long Range Toddy took the measure of odds-on favorite Improbable in the first division of Saturday's Rebel at Oaklawn Park, ranging up on the outside in the final sixteenth to win by a neck. Galilean ran gamely in his first start in open company to finish third, albeit 2 1/4 lengths farther in arrears. Long Range Toddy, a Take Charge Indy colt, ran 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:42.49 with Jon Court up for trainer Steve Asmussen.
Long Range Toddy edges Improbable in the first division of the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Oaklawn Park Photo
Long Range Toddy took full advantage of a conditioning edge and familiarity with his surroundings. He finished second in the Smarty Jones Stakes over the rack in January, then third in the Grade III Southwest in February. Improbable, by contrast, had not raced since winning the Grade I Los Alamitos Futurity Dec. 8 and was forced to ship from California to Arkansas during the week when Santa Anita canceled his scheduled start there.
Asmussen was full of praise for Court's ride.
"Jon worked him the other day and his comment was that he was push button," Asmussen said. "The horse was away well and got a good spot. They went about their business and he relaxed down the backstretch. You could tell coming into the stretch he was loaded. He waited until they all lined out, didn't waste any ground and wheeled him out late like he should and got rewarded for it."
In the second $750,000 division, Omaha Beach surged to the lead on the stretch turn with the odds-on favorite, Game Winner, in hot pursuit and the other eight steadily retreating. Game Winner made steady progress through the final furlong and was gaining slowly at the end but fell the shortest of noses short of remaining undefeated. It was a long way back to long shot Market King in third. Omaha Beach, a War Front colt, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.42 with "Big Money" Mike Smith riding.
Omaha Beach, like Game Winner, was shipped in from Santa Anita. Unlike his rival, however, Omaha Beach had been busy throughout the winter, racing four times in Southern California before finally winning for the first time in his last start at Santa Anita. He also had been pointed to the Rebel all along, according to trainer Richard Mandella. Game Winner, by contrast, had been idle since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, nailing down an Eclipse Award as the 2-year-old champion.
"Coming out of a maiden race, it's a big step up," Mandella said of Omaha Beach. "Game Winner ran really good. He hadn't run in a long time. He'll probably be tough next time. But mine just broke his maiden. He might be tougher, too."
Asked about returning for the Arkansas Derby, Mandella said, "We'll just see how things go and look at it next week."
Baffert was philosophical about the twin defeats.
"I would have liked to have won but I'm very happy with both horses, Baffert told Oaklawn publicity. "They both ran well off the layoff. Thank goodness for the Cella family (Oaklawn owners). We got to run both horses today. It was great racing."
Baffert said Improbable probably will return for the Grade I Arkansas Derby April 13 while Game Winner will have his final prep for Louisville in the Grade I Santa Anita Derby April 6.
Baffert actually had three disappointments Saturday at Oaklawn as San Vicente runner-up Dressman finished second as the odds-on favorite in a $100,000 allowance/optional claiming race. The winner, Last Judgment, is a Congrats colt trained by Todd Pletcher, who is uncharacteristically short on Derby prospects this year.
One to watch
Alwaysmining was always winning Saturday's $100,000 Private Terms Stakes at Laurel Park and may have earned enough cred to get a shot at one of the final Kentucky Derby preps. If not, watch for the Kelly Rubley trainee in the Preakness.
With Daniel Centeno along for the stroll, Alwaysmining jumped to an early lead, got a breather midway through the 1 1/16 miles and then reignited, drawing off to win by 6 3/4 lengths, ridden out in 1:42.65. Joevia and Tybalt filled out the trifecta.
Alwaysmining, a Maryland-bred Stay Thirsty gelding, has won five straight races, dating back to last October. He was nominated to the Rebel and to next Sunday's Sunland Derby in New Mexico but after staying home for this, now could do the same for the Federico Tessio on April 20, traditionally a Preakness tune up. "We'll see," Rubley said. "Every time we win, we get more excited, of course." The winner of the Sunland Derby gets 50 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings, normally enough to get into the race. The Tessio is not part of that program.
Long Range Toddy and Omaha Beach each earned 37.5 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby standings -- the tally Churchill Downs uses to determine the makeup of the field should more than the maximum 20 be entered for the Run for the Roses. Long Range Toddy moved into the No. 3 slot behind only War of Will and Code of Honor. Game Winner's 15 points leave him No. 6, just ahead of Omaha Beach. Improbable now has 25 points, good for No. 9 on the list, and Gunmetal Gray, who earned 3.5 points for finishing fourth Saturday in the Omaha Beach division, is No. 10.
Risen Star Stakes winner War of Will heads a field of 11 entered for Saturday's $1 million Grade II TwinSpires Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds. He will be in familiar company with the second-, third- and fourth-place finishers from the Risen Star all back for another try. Those are Country House, Roiland and Hog Creek Hustle. The winner here gets 100 points on the Road to the Kentucky Derby -- essentially a bypass to the starting gate.
Sunday, it's the $800,000 Grade III Sunland Derby at Sunland Park in New Mexico. Fifty points to the winner of this one. A field of 10 includes another of Baffert's still-hopefuls, Mucho Gusto. The Mucho Macho Man colt was second to Improbable in the Grade I Cash Call Futurity at Los Alamos Dec. 8 and returned to win the Grade III Robert B. Lewis Feb. 2. He certainly is not out of the Kentucky Derby picture but likely needs the 50 points to get into the starting gate.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Las Setas went to an early lead in Saturday's $100,000 Beyond the Wire Stakes at Laurel Park, extended the advantage down the stretch and won by 5 lengths as the favorite. Crafty's Dream was second, 1/2 length better than Our Super Freak. Las Setas, a daughter of the German-bred sire Seville, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.82 with Jevian Toledo up. It was her third straight win, all at Laurel.
"I don’t see any reason not to run right back in the race here," said Las Setas's trainer, Katy Voss, referring to the the $125,000 Weber City on April 20, a race in which a victory means an automatic berth in the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan May 17 at Pimlico Race Course.
On the international front:
With two consecutive wins under her girth, Mystic Journey already is being weighted with the mantle "the next Winx". Winx is set to retire next month, likely with 32 straight wins going out the door. Mystic Journey, a 3-year-old filly by Needs Further, has a string of six. It's the latest two that have captured the imagination.
First came the Group 1 Australian Guineas March 2, a race Mystic Journey needed to win to qualify for a wildcard spot in Saturday's AUS$5 million (US$3.54 million) All-Star Mile at Flemington, a race billed as the world's richest mile.
Rallying down the middle of the course, Mystic Journey not only won the race but, in the process, outfinished two of the finest in Godolphin's Down Under team -- Hartnell and the race favorite, Alizee. Happy Clapper, a frequent Winx victim, reportedly bled and finished eighth.
Even Mystic Journey's trainer, Adam Trinder, was caught up in the "next Winx" mystique.
"The Group 1 (Australian Guineas) was obviously a pinnacle a fortnight ago but to win the richest mile race in the world with her only two weeks later, she's a filly on an upward spiral and we don't know where the bottom of her is," Trinder said while interviewed trackside.
"We'll protect her, look after her and she might be able to take over the mantle of Winx."
Furore held off a late run by the favorite, Waikuku, to land Sunday's BMW Hong Kong Derby at Sha Tin Racecourse by 1 1/4 lengths -- a triumph for young local trainer Frankie Lor.
Lor, who was raised in the shadow of the Happy Valley Racecourse stands, is in just his second season training on his own after 34 years spent working his way up the labyrinthine Hong Kong system.
"I can't express my feelings," he said after Forore sealed the victory in the most prestigious race amongst locals. "To have one horse to even run in the Derby … Now I've won the Derby so it's a dream come true."
Furore, a New Zealand-bred gelding by Piero, slotted in behind the leading trio under ace jockey Hugh Bowman while the favorite, Waikuku, was slow to get going and raced near the back of the field through the long riverside backstretch. Jockey Joao Moreira finally got Waikuku going at the top of the lane but, by then, Furore was on the lead and the deal was done. Sunny Speed finished a third, just a short head behind Waikuku.
Lor said Furore now is headed toward Group 1 company April 28 on FWD Champions Day. But he said he has yet to decide between the QE II Cup at the Derby distance of 2,000 meters or the Champions Mile.
Either way, Bowman plans to be there. "I think back to when Werther won the Derby a few years ago and he went on to win the QE II at his next start," he said. "I don't know what Frankie's plans are but you'd think it would be a logical step forward. Until he goes there and does it, it's hard to know. He's certainly put the writing on the wall that he deserves his chance in open grade."
Back in the US of A:
Midnight Bisou found room between the leaders midway through the stretch run in Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Azeri Stakes at Oaklawn Park, drove through and ran on to win by 1 length over Elate. Shamrock Rose was third, completing a trifecta composed of all Grade I winners. Midnight Bisou, a 4-year-old daughter of Midnight Lute, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.72. Mike Smith had the mount for trainer Steve Asmussen as Midnight Bisou, winner of last year's Grade I Santa Anita Oaks and third in the Kentucky Oaks, ran her 2019 record to 2-for-2.
"It's all Midnight Bisou," Asmussen said. "She's a very special mare. She's been training incredibly well all winter … She's been spot on and looked beautiful. I thought she proved her quality today. Today's Azeri had four Grade I winners in it and for her to come out on top is very special."
Rated R Superstar won a three-horse charge to the wire in Saturday's $350,000 Essex Handicap at Oaklawn Park, with the photo finding the 6-year-old Kodiac Kowboy gelding a head in front of Snapper Sinclair. Giant Expectations was third. Rated R Superstar, with Walter De La Cruz in the irons, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.66, improving on his third-place finish last time out in the Grade III RazorbackHandicap. He was 79-1 in that race, 14-1 in the Essex.
"He had a good trip. We took a shot at it and it worked out," said trainer Cipriano Contreras. Asked about the upcoming Oaklawn Handicap, he said, "That's the plan."
At Laurel Park, Cordmaker came wide around the leaders in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Harrison E. Johnson Memorial, made up all the ground and won by 1 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Unbridled Juan. Bonus Points was only a head farther back in third. Cordmaker, a 4-year-old Curlin gelding, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.29 with Victor Carrasco in the irons.
Filly & Mare Sprint
America's Tale rallied to the lead in deep stretch in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Inside Information Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then edged away to a 1 1/4-length victory over the pacesetter, Razorback Lady. The favorite, Tequilita, was always in the mix and saved third. America's Tale, a 4-year-old Gio Ponti filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.08. Paco Lopez rode for trainer Bernie Flint. She posted three straight wins to wrap up 2018 and finished sixth in the Marie G. Krantz at Fair Grounds in her 2019 debut.
"I was a little concerned because she usually likes to run out front, and she wasn't out front in the beginning," America's Tale's owner, Naveed Chowhan told The Blood-Horse. "But Paco thought she would rather like the outside instead of being inside horses, and I think he was right."
Startwithsilver started a bit slowly in Saturday's $100,000 Correction Stakes at Aqueduct, then endured a wide trip into the stretch before rallying to outfinish Yorkiepoo Princess by a neck. Sounds Delicious led briefly and held on for third. Startwithsilver, a 6-year-old mare by Jump Start, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.19 with Junior Alvarado at the controls. It was her first stakes win although she did finish third in the 2018 Correction.
"I had to play it by ear," Alvarado said. "I didn't want to leave her with too much to do. At the same time, she's one of the only horses in the field that likes to run from behind, so I kind of had to sit early and hope for a fast pace."
Around the ovals:
Durkin's Call started last of four in Sunday's $100,000 Gander Stakes for 3-year-old New York-breds, rallied to the lead at the top of the lane and strolled off to win by 7 1/4 lengths. Kosciuszko was best of the rest with Pipes and a distanced Kadens Courage completing the order of finish. Durkin's Call, a Jump Start gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.90. He was making his first start for trained Bill Mott after a private purchase. Junior Alvarado had the ride.
Hyper Piper stalked the pace in Saturday's $60,000, off-the-turf Red Camelia Stakes for fillies and mares, came three-wide into the lane and dueled with Is Too for the final furlong before winning by a head. Tap Dance Star came with a late run to finish third, another head back. Hyper Piper, a 6-year-old Old Fashioned mare, ran 1 mile on a muddy, sealed track in 1:39.14 with Marcelino Pedroza up.
Anna's Bandit was up in the final strides to win a three-way photo in Saturday's $100,000 Conniver Stakes for Maryland-bred or sired fillies and mares. S W Briar Rose led and was just pipped on the line. Enchanted Ghost was a neck farther back in third. Anna's Bandit, a 5-year-old Great Notion mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.50 with Xavier Perez up.
Lewisfield led virtually gate to wire in Saturday's $100,000 Not For Love Stakes for Maryland-affiliated steeds, wining by 3 1/4 lengths over Rockinn On Bye. The odds-on favorite, Laki, was third, beaten another 1 3/4 lengths. Lewisfield, a 5-year-old gelding by Great Notion, got 6 furlongs in 1:08.68 with Arnaldo Bocachica in the irons.
Omaha Beach edges Game Winner in Division 2 of Saturday's Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park, Oaklawn Park photo