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UPI Horse Racing Weekend Preview
17 Feb 2017 | By Robert Kieckhefer - UPI Racing Writer 
The Kentucky Derby trail winds through Arkansas, California and Japan this weekend, while Thursday's action in Dubai went into the books as a potential preview for the rapidly approaching World Cup night.

The Presidents Day weekend also features the prestigious 7-furlong sprints at Laurel Park in Maryland, The grassy Buena Vista for fillies and mares at Santa Anita and the Grade III Razorback Handicap at Oaklawn Park.

The Global Sprint Challenge gets off and running in Australia on Saturday and Sunday's February Stakes at Tokyo is one of only two top-level dirt races in Japan.

Speaking of top level, we're off:

The Road to the Roses

In Japan, they'll have to run through the Hyacinth to get the to the roses. Translation: Sunday's Hyacinth Stakes is the second of two Churchill Downs-approved races in Tokyo that earn points toward a possible start in the Kentucky Derby. The combined top points-earner from November's Cattleya Sho and Sunday's Hyacinth will be extended an invitation to start in the May 6 Run for the Roses. It's slightly more complicated but basically, that's it. The top two finishers from the Cattleya Sho, Mont Saint Legame and Caucus, are back to try to nail down a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate. A couple of new shooters, Epicharis and Foggy Night, will try to crash the party.

Caucus, a Japanese-bred colt by Street Sense, is owned by Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum. Wouldn't it be ironic of Sheik Mohammed, who has tried for many years to win the Kentucky Derby with a horse trained in Dubai -- or even in the United States -- should finally take the roses with a horse bred and trained in Japan? Yes, it would. But at this point, we suspect he'd take it gladly.

Meanwhile, the American "Road to the Roses" visits Arkansas on President's Day for the $500,000 Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. Uncontested, the runaway winner of the $150,000 Smarty Jones over the same course last month, is among at least 10 Arkansas-based horses expected for the Southwest, which will be drawn Friday.

International

Dubai

Opal Tiara rallied three-wide to take the lead 100 meters out in Thursday's Group 2 Balanchine at Meydan, then held off a late bid from Via Firenze to win by a neck. Muffri'Ha was third and the favorite, Very Special, gave it up in the lane to finish fifth of six. Opal Tiara, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred Thousand Words filly trained by Mick Channon and ridden by Oisin Murphy, ran 1,800 meters on the grass in 1:49.79. She finished second behind only Very Special in her first race during the Carnival, the Group 2 Cape Verdi. "We will sit down and think but the Dubai Turf could be a target for her on the Dubai World Cup card," Channon said.

Ertijaal blasted first out of the gate in the Group 3 Meydan Sprint down the grass straight and kicked away in the final 100 meters to win by a comfortable 2 3/4 lengths. Jungle Cat was best of the rest with Caspian Prince third and Sole Power sixth. Ertijaal, a 6-year-old Oasis Dream gelding, ran 1,000 meters in 55:93 seconds with Jim Crowley at the controls, making it 2-for-2 in Carnival efforts and setting a course record despite the ease of the victory. "He is like an airplane," Crowley said. "He is a very good sprinter and with his remarkably long stride, you just do not realize how quick you are going on him …The 1,200 meters of the Al Quoz Sprint should really suit him. I have ridden some good sprinters but he would be right up there among the best."

Championship hugged the rail, racing in fourth position until the field turned for home the Group 2 Zabeel Mile on the grass, found a nice seam just outside the lead and shot through, kicking away to win by 2 3/4 lengths from Noah from Goa. Cymric was third. Championship, a 6-year-old gelding by Exceed and Excel, got home in 1:35.20 under Colm O'Donoghue. He finished second in his 2017 Carnival debut and now has won two in a row and raced with a weight penalty after winning the Group 2 Al Fahidi Fort in his previous outing. "That was his best effort yet, especially under the penalty," O'Donoghue said. Ahmad bin Harmash "has trained him with these races in mind and tonight he was ultra-fit and very relaxed throughout the race."

Zarak, under Christophe Soumillon, dominated the Group 3 Dubai Millenium Stakes at 2,000 meters on the turf, winning well under wraps with Earnshaw 1 3/4 lengths adrift in second, followed by Promising Run and Sanshaawes. Zarak, a 4-year-old Dubawi colt making his first start in Dubai, raced in mid-pack, under cover, until the top of the lane. Soumillon then got room four-wide, shot through and the outcome was in no further doubt. Zarak finished in 2:03.74, never really asked for much effort. It was his first start since finishing third in the Group 2 Prix Dollar at Chantilly in October. He is owned by the Aga Khan and trained by Alain De Royer-Dupre. The trainer said Zarak wasn't yet fully fit for the race and his next outing remains to be decided. "To be fit for a Group 3 and to be fit for a Group 1 are not the same thing," he said. "He didn't blow after the race. He has a turn of foot and he has learned a lot here. It was good for him. We have many options. We will have to decide with the management, the owners and the jockey."


Championship wins Thursday's Zabeel Mile at Meyan in Dubai, picture Andrew Watkins and Dubai Racing Club

Australia


Saturday's Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes at Flemington lacks some of the star power of previous years, missing not only its renowned namesake but the likes of previous winners Chautauqua, Lankan Rupee, Takeover Target and Fastnet Rock. Still, it's a prestigious Group 1 event and the first leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, which maybe someone will win someday. And the field makes up in competitiveness what it might lack in a glamorous favorite. Terravista, who finished second to Chautauqua in this race last year, is a likely contender again this time around. He returns for the first time since bottoming out with a 10th-place finish in the Grade I Winterbottom at Ascot back in November. The opposite is true of Speith, who jumped up to finish a mild surprise second behind Malaguerra in the Group 1 Darley Classic at Flemington on Nov. 5; Heatherly, second in the Group 1 Moir Stakes at Moonee Valley in September in his last outing at a nice price; and a pair of nice 3-year-olds, Flying Artie and Star Turn.

Japan

Sunday's Group 1 February Stakes at Tokyo Racecourse, a 1,600-meters affair on the dirt, poses enough of a handicapping challenge that the Japan Racing Association web site refers to it as "beguiling, befuddling mix." No argument here, although we'll give a second look to the first three finishers from last year -- Moanin, Nonkono Yume and Asuka Roman. Two-time winner Copano Rickey is back but finished seventh last year. Sound True, who won last fall's Group 1 Champions Cup, also will contest this one. Also note that Denim and Ruby resurfaces here. The runner-up to Gentildonna in the 2013 Japan Cup finished second to Lovely Day in the Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen in June of 2015, then was out of action until this past December, finishing well back in the Grade II Kinko Sho and the Grade I Arima Kinen. This will be the Deep Impact mare's first race on the dirt and the first time as short as 1,600 meters since her first start.

France

Saturday's Prix Saonois at Cagnes-sur-Mer is a 1-mile Polytrack event that also serves as a Fast-Track Qualifier for the All-Weather Championship Finals Day at Lingfield Park in England. Qurbaan, owned by Sheik Hamdan al Maktoum and trained by Francois Rohaut, is undefeated in four Polytrack outings and took the Prix Luthier at Deauville by a narrow margin over English raider Sovereign Debt in December. Rohaut also will saddle Cersei, who stretches out to a mile after winning at 6 1/2 furlongs at Deauville. "Qurbaan is perfect," Rohaut said in preparation for Saturday's contest. "Unfortunately, we did not see much of his win at Deauville because there was so much fog. But he broke the track record and the jockey said he was fantastic." He said Qurbaan needs to win Saturday to qualify for Lingfield.

Back in the States:

Laurel Park

By the Moon and High Ridge Road are the morning-line favorites among eight set to contest Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Barbara Fritchie for fillies and mares, going 7 furlongs. By the Moon, a 5-year-old Indian Charlie mare, finished fifth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint last fall, then was second in the Thirty Eight Go Go Stakes at Laurel on New Year's Eve. She makes her 2017 debut. High Ridge Road won the Thirty Eight Go Go by 1/2 length over By the Moon after finishing second, beaten only a nose, in December's Grade III Go For Wand Stakes at Aqueduct. Among the others, Rowd E Allie has won three straight at Parx, Sweet On Smokey comes off a win in last month's local What A Summer Stakes, Takrees won the Interborough Stakes at the Big A in her last start, Wonder Gal exits a win in Aqueduct's Ladies Handicap and the ever-popular Clothes Fall Off was second in this event last year.

Ten signed on for the companion General George, a $250,000 Grade III event at the same 7 furlongs. Stallwalkin' Dude, who has hit the board in seven straight stakes races, is the morning-line favorite. Also fancied are Page McKenney, who has posed 25 straight top three finishes, which must be somewhere near a record, albeit at a slightly lesser level. Imperial Hint won the Fire Plug stakes going 6 furlongs at Laurel in his last outing.

Santa Anita

Illuminant heads a field of 11 for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Buena Vista on the grass. The 5-year-old Quality Road mare won the Grade I Gamely Stakes over the course in her last start, going a furlong longer than Saturday's 1 mile. However, that race was way back in May of last year. Also in the mix is Prize Exhibit, a 5-year-old Showcasing mare who jumped up last month to win the Grade III Megahertz Stakes. She finished sixth in last year's Buena Vista. Pretty Girl showed a little promise late last year after shipping up from South America.

Oaklawn Park

Gun Runner clocked a 59 4/5-seconds bullet work in his final prep for Monday's $500,000 Grade III Razorback Handicap. The winner of last fall's Grade I Clark Handicap is the likely favorite for the prep race for the $750,000 Grade I Oaklawn Handicap on Easter weekend. Blue Tone is in from California for the Razorback after a front-running victory in the off-the-turf San Gabriel Stakes at waterlogged Santa Anita.

Aqueduct

The Big A has a stakes race each day of the holiday weekend. Saturday's is the $100,000 Broadway Stakes for fillies and mares at 6 furlongs. Sunday finds state-bred 3-year-old fillies going 6 furlongs. And on President's Day itself, 3-year-olds race at 6 furlongs on the inner track.

Tampa Bay Downs


Saturday's feature is the $100,000 Pelican Stakes with eight 4-year-olds and up going 6 furlongs. It's a very well-balanced field. The companion race is the $50,000 Minaret for fillies and mares at the same distance with You Bought Her the morning-line pick in a field of nine.
 
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