Smashing wins by Thunder Snow, Almond Eye, Blue Point and others on Saturday's Dubai World Cup program point toward great racing while the steady string of upsets continued Saturday in Kentucky Derby preparations.
We've got it all and, with so much to cover, we waste no time getting into it.
Dubai World Cup
In 2017, Thunder Snow won the Group 2 UAE Derby on World Cup night. In 2018, he won the $12 million Group 1 World Cup itself -- the first to complete that double. And Saturday, he became the first two-time winner of the World Cup in this, its 24th running. The margin was only a desperate nose over a stubborn Gronkowski but Thunder Snow did have to overcome a wide draw and doubts remaining from a dull prep race.
Granted, the son of Helmet has had some ups and downs along the way, most memorably his refusal to run at all in the Kentucky Derby. Still, he later ran credibly during the summer in New York and returned to the United States last year to finish second in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and third in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Now, though, the 5-year-old seems to have hit his stride and captured the imagination of both his trainer, Saeed bin Suroor, and the owner, His Highness Sheik Mohammed bin Rashid Al Maktoum, master of Godolphin and Ruler of Dubai.
And that portends good things for the world of racing through the rest of 2019.
"He will come back to America," bin Suroor said after Saturday's win. "I will have to speak with His Highness but I would like it if he could run in America again. Maybe in New York, in Saratoga with the final plan being the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita."
That schedule could leave room for a stopover in Europe as well.
If any horse outshone Thunder Snow Saturday night, it was Almond Eye, the 4-year-old Japanese filly by Lord Canaloa. With Christophe Lemaire up, Almond Eye cruised through the 9-furlongs turf event, racing wide around the turn to get clear sailing, then effortlessly drawing off through the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths -- a margin that easily could have been bigger.
As a 3-year-old, Almond Eye swept the three Grade 1 races of the Japanese filly Triple Crown, then dominated a field of older male horses in the Japan Cup, winning as Lemaire pleased while smashing the course record. After that performance, her legion of fans began to sense yet another chance for Japanese racing to finally seize its greatest and most elusive prize, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
And trainer Sakae Kunieda isn't discouraging such talk.
"It was the result I thought we could get and I'm happy she proved us right," Kunieda said. "I was nervous. I've lost my voice. Almond Eye can continue my dreams, so next we'll go to Europe. Our dream is to take her to the Arc."
If that comes to pass, there Almond Eye could be eyeballing none other than Enable -- the European wonder mare who not only has won the past two runnings of the Arc but also bounced right out of the 2018 win to capture the Breeders' Cup Turf at Churchill Downs.
Kunieda also has floated the possibility Almond Eye could have a tune up at York in the north of England before the French showdown.
Almond Eye (JPN), picture Liesl King
Dubai Gold Cup
Cross Counter conquered the Group 1 Melbourne Cup for Godolphin and trainer Charlie Appleby last November. But he entered Saturday's $1.5 million Group 2 Dubai Gold Cup unraced since that triumph. No matter. With William Buick up, the 4-year-old Teofilo colt got the better of his stablemate, Ispolini, in the final 100 meters, winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Now he looks a risk to trainer John Gosden's hopes for a second sweep of the Weatherbys Hamilton Stayers' Million with Stradivarius.
"I'm delighted with the result," Appleby said of Cross Counter's first-up effort. "I just spoke to High Highness (Sheik Mohammed Bin Rashid Al Maktoum) and we said we'd let the dust settle before we come up with a plan but we cold maybe go for the Gold Cup (at Royal Ascot). But we'll sit back and enjoy today before deciding where we go."
Dubai Sheema Classic
Old Persian, another budding 4-year-old star for Godolphin, soundly whipped a top-shelf international field in the $6 million Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles on the turf. Cheval Grand, the 2017 Japan Cup winner, chased him down the stretch but settled for second. Two of Ireland's finest, Hunting Horn and Magic Wand, finished fifth and sixth.
It was the first Group 1 win for the Dubawi colt. He proved his mettle however, with victories in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes at York -- the latter at the expense of Cross Counter.
"I have to give credit to the horse," said jockey William Buick. "He finds his own passage and, from 3 to 4, he's really improved and he has a big turn of foot now."
Coal Front backed up Grade III victories at Gulfstream Park and Oaklawn Park in his two previous outings with a terrific, come-from-behind win over Heavy Metal in the $1.5 million Group 2 Godolphin Mile. Coal Front, trained by Todd Pletcher and ridden by Dubai first-timer Jose Ortiz, now is poised to make some noise during the second half of the year in the sprint/dirt mile division.
"He has had some health issues, on and off, but always had a ton of talent," co-owner Sol Kumin said of Coal Front, a 5-year-old Stay Thirsty ridgling. The Godolphin Mile was just his ninth career start. "Todd has done a great job with him."
Dubai Golden Shaheen
X Y Jet, twice a runner-up in the $2 million Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen, finally broke through Saturday, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Matera Sky after a race-long battle with that rival. Imperial Hint was third.
The future may have more limit for X Y Jet, who now is 7 and has had repeated physical issues, including one that kept him out of the 2018 Golden Shaheen. "Defeat in the past has made this victory that much sweeter," said Brian Trump, representing the gelding's owners, Rockingham Ranch. "He's just such a special horse.
Al Quoz Sprint
Yet another of Godolphin's stars, Blue Point, overwhelmed a dozen rivals in the $2 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint at 6 furlongs on the turf. Making steady progress down the center of the course, the 5-year-old son of Shamardal won by 1 1/4 lengths over a pair of Peter Miller-trained Americans, Belvoir Bay and Stormy Liberal.
Blue Point was a gate scratch on World Cup night in 2018 but rebounded to win the Group 1 King's Stand at Royal Ascot and finish third in the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes at York.
Asked whether Blue Point would be pointed toward a Royal Ascot repeat, Appleby responded, "We all know it's a tough game. But if he turns up fit and well, he is going to be there to try and defend his crown in the King's Stand Stakes. I spoke to His Highness and we said that as long as he ran well here that would be the plan."
Blue Point, picture Liesl King
The UAE Derby
Plus Que Parfait's vicory in Saturday's $2.5 million Group 2 UAE Derby boosts him into the Kentucky Derby with positive momentum. See Kentucky Derby section, next.
The Road to the Roses
Another weekend, another round of upsets on the Road to the Kentucky Derby.
In Florida and in Dubai, favorites continued to tumble, leaving the field wide open for newcomers to surface in the coming weekend's big round of qualifying races.
Here's how things went with five weeks to go before the 145th Run for the Roses.
The Florida Derby
There wasn't a whole lot of action in the $1 million Grade I Xpressbet.com Florida Derby as Maximum Security jumped out to the lead, set a controlled pace and never faced a serious challenge, winning by 3 1/2 lengths at odds of nearly 5-1. Bodexpress, at 71-1, was second, another 3 1/4 lengths to the good of Code of Honor, the Fountain of Youth winner. The favorite, Hidden Scroll, never got going after being boxed in behind the winner in the first turn and faded to finish sixth.
Maximum Security, a New Year's Day colt who won't actually be 3 until 10 days after the Kentucky Derby, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.84 with Luis Saez riding for trainer Jason Servis. He remains undefeated but his three previous races, all at Gulfstream Park, were well short of Derby-prep caliber. The first was a claiming race in which he could have been -- but wasn't -- bought for $16,000.
Servis himself didn't seem totally sold on Maximum Security as a Kentucky Derby threat while reporting on Sunday morning he exited the Florida Derby safe and sound.
"Candidly, if you read between the lines, there had to be a reason why I ran him for $16,000," the trainer said. "Am I glad I didn't lose him? Hell, yeah. Is he training good and sound? Yes. But there was a reason why I ran him for $16,000."
He said he will continue to train Maximum Security in South Florida while his owners, Gary and Mary West, decide on plans. The Wests also own Game Winner, who stands No. 10 on the Derby leaderboard after finishing second in his division of the Rebel at Oaklawn Park.
Code of Honor has plenty of points on the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard to get into the big race. Bourbon Honor, who finished fourth in the Florida Derby, has 31 points, which could put him on the bubble. Hidden Scroll won't make the field but could be a dangerous Preakness candidate.
The UAE Derby
Pending results of the four remaining big-points races, the point standings for the Kentucky Derby field are topped by Plus Que Parfait, who totally reversed his poor and declining winter form at Fair Grounds to post a dramatic victory in Saturday's $2.5 million Group 2 UAE Derby at Meydan Racecourse in Dubai.
Plus Que Parfait, a Point of Entry ridgling, came to the desert as the winner of only one of his six previous starts. He was sixth in the Grade III LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds in January, then 13th in the Grade II Risen Star Stakes over the same track in February. At that point, trainer Brendan Walsh, who earlier in his career worked for Godolphin in Dubai, decided a change of scenery couldn't hurt his horse.
In fact, it seemed to help. A lot. Plus Que Parfait, with Jose Ortiz getting his first-ever ride in Dubai, saved ground into the turn, shot through an opening between horses in the stretch run and carried on strongly to win by 3/4 length over fellow American import Gray Magician. Manguzi was third, another neck back. Plus Que Parfait added 100 points to the 4 he accrued by finishing second in the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club last fall. That puts him atop the list.
While there was no clear favorite in the UAE Derby, the field did include runners from Japan and Europe as well as several hot local contenders.
"This has been the plan for quite a while and his owners are based out here," Walsh said. "We said if things didn't work out to get to the Kentucky Derby (in U.S. races), then we would come here. He had a bad day the last time he ran but we didn't hold it against him and it has worked out. Brilliant."
Walsh said the colt will ship back to Kentucky and head for Churchill Downs, possibly with a stop at Keeneland.
Gray Magican was awarded 40 points in Dubai, making his total 41 and likely qualifying for Louisville. But trainer Peter Miller said it's "not likely" he will contest the Run for the Roses.
The only non-upset result of the weekend came in Japan, where Der Flug remained undefeated in winning the Fukuryu Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse by 1 1/2 lengths from Master Fencer. The race was the last of four in the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" and the 40 points earned by Der Flug put him atop that list.
However, the Behkabad colt is not nominated to the Kentucky Derby. If he is not added to the nominees list Monday for $6,000, Churchill Downs could elect to offer the Japanese spot in the Derby starting gate to Master Fencer, who has the most points of any currently nominated contender.
The April 6 schedule finds three races offering points on the 100-40-20-10 scale -- the $1 million Grade II Blue Grass at Keeneland, the $750,000 Grade II Wood Memorial at Aqueduct and the $1 million Grade I Santa Anita Derby.
At Chelmsford City in England, the Cardinal Handicap winds up the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" series with the winner likely to have first all on a spot in the Derby.
In other action:
While most of the racing world focused on the Dubai World Cup and Kentucky Derby doings, there were some meaningful races elsewhere around North America, particularly on the grass.
Ohio, a former $50,000 claimer, won the Grade I Kilroe Mile and Secret Spice the Grade I Beholder Mile, both at Santa Anita.
A rundown of the action:
Epical showed the way in Friday's $200,000 Grade II San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita, turned back a brief challenge and rolled through the stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Beach View was second, 1/2 length to the good of Marckie's Water. Epical, a 4-year-old Uncle Mo gelding, ran 1 1/2 miles starting on the downhill course in 2:24.60 with Tyler Baze riding. Epical finished second in the Grade II San Marcos in his previous start. Friday's effort was his first stakes win. "We had a few struggles along the way with this horse, but he's had the right trip in the last few races and it shows," said winning trainer Jim Cassidy.
Focus Group returned to the races from a six-months break to win Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Pan American at Gulfstream Park in a nip-and-tuck finish with Melmich. Focus Group, with Irad Ortiz Jr. up, waited until the last quarter mile of the 1 1/2-miles event to get fully revved, then adanced inside rivals, hooked Melmich and won by a head bob. The early leader, Village King, finished third. Focus Group, a 5-year-old son of Kitten's Joy out of the Dynaformer mare Cocktail Hour, finished in 2:30.03.
Filly & Mare Turf
Santa Monica, starting from the outside gate in a field of nine, settled well back through the early furlongs of Friday's $100,000 Grade III Orchid Stakes at Gulfstream Park, picked things up on the turn for home and was just up in the final strides to win by a head from Ickymasho. Giant Zinger made the early pace and held on for show money. Santa Monica, a 6-year-old, British-bred mare by Mastercraftsman, went to the post as the odds-on favorite and finished the 1 3/8 miles on good turf in 2:16.07 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard. Despite consistently finishing in the money in graded stakes, the Chad Brown trainee was 10th in the 2018 Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare turf.
"I didn't have too many choices by the three-eighths pole," Ortiz said. "Nobody on the inside moved, so I had to keep her outside. I had to move early and wide, but I had the best horse in the race. Chad Brown's horses always come ready."
Elysea's World waited well back of the leaders in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Santa Ana Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita, came four-wide to challenge entering the stretch and outfinished Zaffinah for a 1/2-length victory. Lynne's Legacy was third. Elysea's World, a 6-year-old, Irish-bred mare by Champs Elysees, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf, starting on the hillside course, in 1:59.24 with Drayden Van Dyke in the irons. It was her second California start since transferring from Chad Brown's care to Richard Baltas' barn and her first win since a pair of scores at Monmouth Park last summer.
"This is the first time I've rode her, but I could tell she is a very classy filly," Van Dyke said of Elysea's World. "We had a very nice pace to chase, so I was bidding my time before I asked her to run. This race set up for us perfect on paper for me. She did the rest when we turned for home."
Ohio dueled for the lead in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita, put away the initial challenger and then had to hold off the late bid of the favorite, Catapult, to win by a nose. Desert Stone was third. Ohio, an 8-year-old, Brazilian-bred gelding by Elusive Quality, finished the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.71 with Reuben Fuentes in the irons.
Ohio was claimed for $50,000 last June at Santa Anita. Now, said trainer Michael McCarthy, "I'm thinking of taking him to Kentucky for Derby weekend." As Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee has been heard to proclaim, "It's an easy game."
Fuentes, who scored his first Grade I win, said, "It's great. It's the best feeling in the world."
Dr. Edgar took the lead in Friday's $100,000 Grade III Appleton Stakes at Gulfstream Park, repelled a long shot bid midway through and went on to win by 1/2 length. Hawkish fell just short with a late bid, finishing 2 lengths to the good of Doctor Mounty. Dr. Edgar, a 6-year-old Lookin' At Lucky gelding, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:34.65 with Julien Leparoux at the controls. Formerly raced in the claiming ranks in New York, the Appleton was Dr. Edgar's first foray into the stakes ranks.
"I was lucky," said Dr. Edgar's trainer, Barclay Tagg. "I was given the horse when Carl Domino retired. We'll play it by ear as we go along. He won the Appleton. It's a step up. If he can keep stepping up, we'll keep stepping up with him."
Seismic Wave raced last of seven through most of Saturday's $125,000 Cutler Bay Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park, kicked in gamely at the top of the stretch and was just up to win by a neck over Forever Mo. Art G Is Back finished third. Seismic Wave, a Tapit colt, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.49 with Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard. The Bill Mott trainee was coming off his first career win in his fourth start.
Valedictorian set a pressured pace in Saturday's $100,000 Sand Springs Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park, finally holding off a bid by Proctor's Ledge to win by a head. Andina Del Sur was third. Valedictorian, a 5-year-old Temple City mare, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.92 under Tyler Gaffalione. It was her seventh straight in-the-money finish for trainer Kelly Breen.
Trenchtown Cat set a leisurely pace in Saturday's $125,000 Sanibel Island Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park and held on in the final strides to win by a neck over Vow To Recover. Seranitsa was third. Trenchtown Cat, a daughter of Discreet Cat, finished 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.11 with Irad Ortiz Jr. riding.
Law Abidin Citizen rallied to the lead four-wide in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III San Simeon Stakes down the Santa Anita hillside course and worked clear for a 1-length victory over Cistron. Mesut was third. Law Abidin Citizen, a 5-year-old Twirling Candy gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs down the hill in 1:11.21 with Tiago Periera riding.
Secret Spice stalked the pace in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita, circled three-wide into the stretch and quickly got clear to win by 2 1/4 lengths over the odds-on favorite, Marley's Freedom. Paradise Woods was third. Secret Spice, a 4-year-old Discreet Cat filly, went to the post at odds of better than 11-1 and finished the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:38.39. Geovanni Franco rode for trainer Richard Baltas.
Secret Spice, more frequently seen in the optional claiming ranks, scored her third win from 10 starts. She has missed a top-three finish only three times, however.
"Marley's Freedom is a great horse," said winning trainer Richard Baltas. "It was our day today and we'll take it. She put it all together today."
Marconi settled behind the leaders in Friday's $100,000 Skip Away Stakes at Gulfstream Park, came three-wide to challenge in the upper stretch and worked by to win by 1/2 length. Sir Anthony also found good late kick to finish second, a neck in front of Realm. Marconi, a 4-year-old Tapit colt, ran 1 3/16 miles on a fast track in 1:56.30 with Luis Saez in the irons. The colt was an early Triple Crown candidate in 2018, finishing fifth in the Fountain of Youth and eighth in the Blue Grass but the Skip Away was only his second career victory.
"I think he's heading in the right direction and as a 4-year-old he should start to really figure things out," said trainer Todd Pletcher, who handles Marconi, a $2 million yearling purchase, for the Coolmore partners in Ireland and Bridlewood Farm. "I was impressed by how he was training recently. It seems like he's kind of been coming around."
Prince Lucky continued a nice winning streak with an easy victory as the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile. The 4-year-old Corinthian gelding moved to the lead after the first quarter mile and quickly edged away from five rivals, winning by 4 3/4 lengths. Tale of Silence and Guy Caballero filled the trifecta slots. Prince Lucky, with John Velazquez up, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:35.21. He ended his 3-year-old campaign with a win in the Easy Goer at Belmont Park in June. After the long layoff, he came back to win the Grade III Hal's Hope at Gulfstream Feb. 23 by 6 lengths.
St. Joe Bay surged quickly to the front in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita, opened a comfortable lead under jockey Victor Espinoza and kept on gamely to win by 3 lengths. Dr. Dorr was best of the rest, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Kanthaka. St. Joe Bay, a 7-year-old gelding by Saint Anddan, covered 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.06 with Victor Espinoza scoring his first win after a long recuperation from and injury.
The San Carlos was St. Joe Bay's first start since a fifth-place finish behind Roy H in the Grade II Palos Verdes Jan. 19.
"We're really happy for Victor," said winning trainer John Sadler. "He's worked hard and it's been tough with the calendar. He was ready to go a month ago and he had to stop, so it's good for him to get back to the winner's circle."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Break Even led from the start in Saturday's $150,000 Purple Martin for 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn Park and extended the advantage to win by 4 1/2 lengths over Lady T N T. Tomlin was third. Break Even, a Country Day filly, ran 6 furlongs on a good track in 1:10.15 with Colby Hernandez in the irons.