World Approval and Mind Your Biscuits probably stamped their passports for Dubai in weekend action as Kanthaka, Flameaway and A Different Style showed promise on the Kentucky Derby trail.
Among the established veterans, Heart to Heart and Unique Bella turned in exciting efforts promising good things for the rest of the year.
On the international front, Hartnell returned to action in Australia with a win and his trainer hints he might try again to upset the mighty Winx when she makes her belated seasonal debut next month.
And how about a competition pitting against one another no less than Aidan O'Brien, Christophe Soumillon, Arrogate and Lady Eli? See "News and Notes" below.
But first, see this:
The Road to the Roses
Kanthaka surprised the pundits in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Vicente at Santa Anita, rallying from next-last of six to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Nero was second and it was another 12 lengths back to All Out Blitz in third. The favorite, Ax Man, prompted the early pace and faded to finish fourth in his second career start. Kanthaka, a Jimmy Creed colt trained by Jerry Hollendorfer for West Point Thoroughbreds, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.62 with Flavien Pratt in the irons. Kanthaka found the winner's circle on his second try on Boxing Day last year and was making his 3-year-old debut.
Hollendorfer said, "We thought we had a good chance because we thought a lot of speed would be in there, which there was … We thought we might have a chance to close them down, especially the way he broke his maiden. He got in trouble, and then still won, so that was pretty impressive."
Hollendorfer said he hasn't selected Kanthaka's next race but Jeff Lifson of West Point said, "We're hoping that he can stretch out. We'll find that out but I have a feeling we'll try two turns and will see how it goes."
Trainer Bob Baffert said he plans to stretch out both Nero and Ax Man in their next starts. He said Nero's performance was encouraging and Ax Man had no chance after being caught in the speed duel.
At Tampa Bay Downs, Flameaway set a pressured pace in Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Sam F. Davis Stakes, briefly surrendered the advantage to the favorite, Catholic Boy, a furlong out but then found more, winning by 1/2 length over that rival. Vino Rosso was 3/4 length back of Catholic Boy in third. Flameaway, a Scat Daddy colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.44 with Jose Lezcano up for trainer Mark Casse, scoring his third stakes win and first on a fast dirt track.
Casse said before the race he wasn't sure what to make of Flameaway and was a bit leery of his chance on the main track. Afterward, he said, "He's a fighter. If you've ever watched him, you've seen that. The one thing about him, if he gets in a battle, he's going to win the battle." He said the colt might return to the Gulf Coast of Florida for the $400,000 Grade II Lambholm South Tampa Bay Derby on March 10.
Jonathan Thomas, the trainer of Catholic Boy, said he was proud of his horse's effort in his first race since winning the Grade II Remsen in December at Aqueduct.
A Different Style led from start to finish in Saturday's $150,000 Jimmy Winkfield at Aqueduct, winning by 3 lengths over Global Citizen. Glennwood, a 40-1 long shot, tossed in a strong late run to get show money while the favorite, Devine Entry, finished sixth. A Different Style, by The Factor, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:26.07 with Kendrick Carmouche aboard. He's won three of his last four for trainer John Servis, who said the $250,000 Grade III Bay Shore on April 7 "is certainly a possibility."
After weekend action, Catholic Boy's second-place points moved him into a tie with five others for No. 4 on the Road to the Kentucky Derby leaderboard. Flameaway would be in a six-way tie for No. 11 on the list -- EXCEPT THAT he currently is not nominated to the Triple Crown series.
Next weekend brings the first 50-points race in the Derby series, the Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds, plus the El Camino Real Derby at Golden Gate Fields, both on Saturday. On Sunday, Tokyo Racecourse hosts the last of three races on the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" which guarantees a spot in the Run for the Roses for the horse earning the most points in that series.
Flameaway edged into the Kentucky Derby picture with a victory in Saturday's Sam F. Davis Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, picture Tampa Bay Downs
Consolida, making her U.S. debut for trainer Patrick Gallagher, rallied from last of 10 to win Saturday's $50,000 California Oaks at Golden Gate Fields by 1 1/4 lengths from Tinabud. Divine Mercy was third and the favorite, Bornonvalentineday, got home seventh while fading through the stretch run. Consolida, an English-bred filly by Sir Percy, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:45.48 with Julien Couton up. She broke her maiden last October on an all-weather track in France but had been working over the Santa Anita dirt in preparation for Saturday's race. "In the mornings, she was acting like she knew what it was all about," Gallagher said. "Julien did a good job and it worked out good."
Red Ruby came from off the pace in Saturday's $125,000 Martha Washington Stakes at Oaklawn Park, moved up on the turn and was along in the stretch run to win by 2 1/2 lengths over pacesetting Sassy Sienna. Cosmic Burst was third, followed by the favorite, Tyfosha and early leader Secret Passion. Red Ruby, a Tiznow filly, ran 1 mile on a sloppy track in 1:39.67 with Robby Albarado riding for trainer Kellyn Gorder. She broke her maiden at Churchill Downs in November and now is 2-for-3. "She's trained on an off track here in the last month and she handled that beautifully, so I wasn't concerned at all," Gorder said, adding the Martha Washington "was our plan all along. We had an option to go in an allowance race earlier in the meet and she was training too well, so I decided, 'Let's go to the stake.'" The victory was worth 10 points toward a Kentucky Oaks start and Gorder said the next step toward that possibility will be the $200,000 Grade III Honeybee on March 10.
C.S. Incharge outfinished the favorite, Daisy, in Saturday's $150,000 Suncoast Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, winning by 3/4 length. Mihrab also came with a late rush to take third by 1/2 length from pacesetting long shot So Refined. C.S. Incharge, a daughter of Take Charge Indy, got 1 mile and 40 yards on a fast track in 1:41.40 for jockey Joel Rosario. It was her second win from six starts. "She is a really nice horse," said winning trainer Dale Romans, pointing out C. S. Incharge, out of the Unbridled's Song mare C.S. Royce, is a half-sister to his 2016 Preakness runner-up, Cherry Wine, and his 2017 Grade III Regret Stakes winner, Sweeping Paddy. "We'll sit back and see what's next, but hopefully we'll make the Oaks with her."
In the Mood got in the mood in the final furlong of Friday's $50,000 Cincinnati Trophy Trophy Stakes over the Turfway Park all-weather course, rallying from well back on the turn to win by a head in the final jumps. Streetlady appeared to have the race in the bag at the top of the lane, leading by 4 1/2 lengths, but just failed to hold the advantage. Homemade Salsa finished third with a mild late bid and the favorite, Fairyland, faded from early contention to finish sixth. In the Mood, an Eskendereya filly, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.73. "She got off the bit early," said winning jockey John McKee. "Then at the three-eighths pole she kind of got into position and started getting to running. Then turning for home she just exploded. She acts like she can go longer." Winning owner-trainer Steve Sandy, who scored his first stakes win, said In the Mood is in the mix for the Grade III Bourbonette Oaks on March 17 -- a companion race to the Jeff Ruby Steaks for Derby contenders.
World Approval, making his first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Mile, did what he had to do in winning Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Tampa Bay Stakes. With John Velazquez aboard, the Eclipse Award-winner Northern Afleet gelding tracked the pace, took the lead in the lane and held off a late bid by Forge to win by 1/2 length. He finished the 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:40.66.
Velazquez noted the two-month layoff might have caught up with World Approval in the final yards. "Sometimes they need a race. But he's still a true champion and he put everybody away down the lane," the rider said. "I think when we passed a mile, it was getting a little long for him with the layoff and it hit him right in the head a little bit."
Trainer Mark Casse said he hoped to use the Tampa Bay Stakes as a prelude to the $6 million Dubai Turf on World Cup night at Meydan. "We're wanting a big race out of him that hopefully will lead us to Dubai," Casse said. “We've had real good luck using Tampa Bay Downs as a starting point."
Heart to Heart led from gate to wire in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Stakes, holding off Kurilov in deep stretch to win by a neck. Hi Happy was another 3/4 length back in third. Heart to Heart, a 7-year-old son of English Channel, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:47.64 with Julien Leparoux riding. It was his first win since the Grade II Bernard Baruch last summer at Saratoga. Winning trainer Brian Lynch exulted: "The elusive Grade I! Watching him come back in and blowing as hard as he blew after that race, he gave it his all to win the race. He's an absolute deserved horse to have a 'I' next to his name. It's nice to get it done here, because he's always loved this track."
Om blasted out to a big lead in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Thunder Road Stakes at Santa Anita and had enough left in the stretch to win by 1/2 length over Bowie's Hero. Next Shares was another head back in third and the favorite, Blackjackcat, beat only one rival in the six-horse field. Om, a 6-year-old son of Munnings, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.54 with Flavien Prat riding for trainer Dan Hendricks. Om is consistently in the money in graded stakes on the California circuit but rarely wins. The Thunder Road was, in fact, his first victory since the Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile over the same course Dec. 26, 2015.
"He opened up a bigger lead than you ever want to open up," Hendricks said of the early tactics. "But he (Prat) got him to relax great down the backside, and when they started to come to him at the quarter pole, you could tell he had a lot left, so I felt more comfortable then than I did at the half-mile pole." He said he's pointing Om toward the $400,000 Grade I Kilroe Mile on turf March 10.
Filly & Mare Turf
Elysea's World steered to the outside entering the stretch run in Saturday's $150,000 Grade II Suwanee River Stakes at Gulfstream Park, downshifted and got there just in time to win by a neck over Dream Awhile. Ultra Brat was third. Elysea's World, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred mare by Champs Elysees, ran 9 furlongs on firm going in 1:47.75 for jockey Javier Castellano. She was coming off a second-place finish in the Grade 3 Robert J. Frankel Stakes at Santa Anita but the win was her first since Dec. 29, 2016 and just the fourth of her 17-race career.
"You just hope for a dead heat," said Chad Brown, who trains both Elysea's World and Dream Awhile. "It's a tough situation right on the wire a nose apart with both horses running so well, but with Elysea's World being the older horse and being the bridesmaid so many times, it was a real breakthrough for her in her last year of racing to finally win that graded stake. The way Dream Awhile ran, you can't help but think she's going to have many graded stakes ahead of her in her young career."
Dona Bruja got an uncontested early lead in Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs, shook off a challenge and coasted home first by 4 lengths. The favorite, La Coronel, made some late gain to finish second, 1 length better than Truly Together. Dona Bruja, an 8-year-old, Argentine-bred mare by Storm Embrujado, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.92 under Jose Ortiz. It was her third win from five starts since leaving Argentina. She also finished a dead-heat second in last year's Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington Park.
"She has so much talent," said Dona Bruja's trainer, Ignacio Correas. "She's had a couple of unlucky trips but hopefully this will be her year." He added taking the early lead in the Endeavour "was Bruja's plan, not ours. I guess she does what she wants. I couldn't believe we were on the lead, but she broke sharp and she was fresh because she hadn't raced in four months. She's amazing and I'm the luckiest guy to have her in my barn."
Unique Bella had no problem handling a quartet of would-be rivals -- or the 1 1/16 miles -- in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Santa Maria at Santa Anita. With Mike Smith up for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, the 4-year-old Tapit filly wasted no time putting distance between herself and the rest of the field and needed virtually no encouragement to win by 9 lengths. Mopotism was second, followed 1 3/4 lengths later by Majestic Heat. Unique Bella finished in 1:43.45.
"I truly believe we haven't gotten to the bottom of it," Smith said of Unique Bella's ability. "There could even be more to her. I'm excited to see what the future holds for her. I really am."
Unique Bella now has seven wins and one second from nine starts. The sole flop was a seventh-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and, after she won the Grade I La Brea at 7 furlongs on Dec. 26, Hollendorfer expressed a firm desire to stretch the filly out to longer distances and said the $400,000 Grade I Santa Margarita on March 17, at 9 furlongs, is the next target. "There are other races around the same time. We'd look at the Apple Blossom but I'd like to stay home if we can," he said. The Grade I Apple Blossom, April 13 at Oaklawn Park, is run at 1 1/16 miles for a purse of $700,000.
Conquest Windycity set the pace in the featured allowance race Friday at Gulfstream Park and heavily favorite Mind Your Biscuits fell just a head short of catching him in the final yards. Conquest Windycity, with Jose Ortiz aboard, finished in a speedy 1:21.64. "They flew, they went the opening quarter in 23 and change, and then they really picked it up," said Mind Your Biscuits' trainer, Chad Summers. "We're going to come out of this race and we're going to be real good out of this race. I'm not really disappointed at all. There's bigger fish to fry overseas." Mind Your Biscuits is targeted for a return to the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, which he won last year after finishing second in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Sprint Stakes. Summer said there is a chance his horse will contest that race again before shipping to Meydan.
Elsewhere, around the ovals:
War Heroine led most of the way in Sunday's $100,000 Sweet Life Stakes for 3-year-old fillies down the hillside turf course. Surviving constant pressure, the Lonhro filly got home first by 1/2 length over Ms Bad Behavior. Out of The Flames was third. War Heroine, with Tyler Baze in the irons, finished the about 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:12.86.
Chief Cicatriz ran to his notices in Saturday's $75,000 Phoenix Gold Cup. After tracking the pace briefly, the 5-year-old Munnings gelding took over and drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths. Leadem in Ken was second, 1 3/4 lengths to the good of Aristocratic. Chief Cicatriz, with Andrew Ramgeet up, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:07.95. He won this race last year before visiting Hot Springs, Ark., where he posted a fourth-place finish in the Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap.
Battle Station held a narrow lead in the stretch run in Sunday's $100,000 Rego Park Stakes for New York-bred 3-year-olds, was briefly headed but came back gamely to win by a neck over the favorite, Morning Breez. New York Hero was third, 2 1/4 lengths behind Morning Breez. Battle Station, a Warrior's Reward gelding out of the Unbridled mare Uriel, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:12.30 with Martin Garcia riding for trainer Wesley Ward.
Holiday Disguise slipped by the dueling leaders in the lane and went on to win Thursday's $100,000 Biogio's Rose Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares by 3 1/4 lengths. The early combattants, Frost Wise and No Hayne No, were a well-spaced-out second and third. Holiday Disguise, a 4-year-old Harlan's Holiday filly, ran 1 mile on a good track in 1:41.06 with Junior Alvarado in the irons.
Concord Fast was along in the final yards of Saturday's $75,000 Budweiser Handicap, edging by pacesetting favorite Mt Veeder to win by 1 length. It was another 7 lengths back to Keller's Gold in third. Concord Fast, a 5-year-old Concord Point gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.15 with Ry Eikleberry in the irons.
K P Wildcat rallied from mid-pack to take Saturday's $75,000 El Diario Handicap for fillies and mares by 1 length over Kel Paso. Babes Cylver Slew showed good late foot to get show money. K P Wildcat, a 5-year-old Include mare, got 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.40 with Roimes Chirinos up.
Saturday night was Louisiana Premier Night, with the races restricted to state-bred steeds.
Mobile Bay, the odds-on favorite, won the featured $170,000 Championship but he was under heavy pressure at the end from Underpressure and the final margin was a nose. Social Misfit was another 5 1/2 lengths up the track in third. Mobile Bay, a 6-year-old son of Lone Star Special, ran 1 1/16 miles on a sloppy track in 1:46.49.
The $145,000 Distaff went to Pacific Pink, who rallied late to win by 2 lengths from Hyper Piper with the favorite, Mr. Al's Gal, 5 lengths back of that one in third. Pacific Pink, a 6-year-old Private Vow mare, finished 1 mile in 1:41.22 in the slop.
Remember Daisy used a pace-stalking trip to win the $120,000 Starlet for 3-year-old fillies by 3 1/2 lengths over Sarah's Holy Belle. Gladyousawme prompted the pace in the $120,000 Prince for 3-year-olds and got by Ready Prospector late to win by 3/4 length.
Monte Man outfinished Sea Vow in the $120,000 Sprint, winning by a neck over that rival. And Ours to Run ran by the favorite, My Miss Chiff, in the final yards to take the $120,000 Matron by 3/4 length.
Across the waters
Hartnell came back from summertime layoff to win Saturday's Group 2 C.F. Orr Stakes in a blanket finish, barely beating Single Gaze and Brave Smash in a traffic-filled heat. Now, his trainer thinks that effort might put Hartnell in a position to finally defeat the mighty mare Winx after seven times finishing behind her in the past.
Hartnell, a 7-year-old by Authorized who runs for Godolphin, was having his first run since finishing 20th of 23 in the Melbourne Cup Nov. 7. Winx, meanwhile, has not raced since winning the Cox Plate for the third straight time in October and her return has been delayed because her regular pilot, Hugh Bowman, is serving a suspension.
With Winx slated to return without a prep race in the Group 1 Chipping Norton Stakes at Randwick March 3, Hartnell's trainer, James Cummings, said his veteran might hold an edge over the 6-year-old mare if he also were to contest the Chipping Norton.
"We would have the fit horse on the scene," Cummings speculated. "I won't lock in any plans today," he added. "But I know where my preference lies."
News and notes:
The Dubai Racing Club has announced four finalists for it's "People's Choice Award" to be presented two days prior to this year's $10 million Dubai World Cup.
Christophe Soumillon is nominated for breaking the European winners' record of 300 in one calendar year; Lady Eli, for her remarkable comeback from life-threatening laminitis to win an Eclipse Award; Arrogate for his nearly unbelievable last-to-first win in the 2017 Dubai World Cup; and Aidan O'Brien for his record 28 Group 1 or Grade I wins in 2017.
Voting is at http://www.hhracingawards.com/vote. Go for it.