Kentucky Derby previews run this weekend in New York, Arkansas and New Orleans while Florida and California continue a steady diet of top racing for the older horses.
Fourteen aspiring youngsters are entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds in the Big Easy. Eight, including one of the Derby's early favorites, Firenze Fire, are in for Saturday's $150,000 Jerome at Aqueduct, rescheduled from New Year's Day. Oaklawn Park's Derby prep series commences as California-based trainer Bob Baffert maks his annual raid on the Hot Springs spoils in Monday's $150,000 Smarty Jones.
Internationally, the Dubai World Cup Carnival pitches its tent at Meydan, looking forward to the World Cup itself on March 25. And the All-Weather Championships march on toward March on the British Isles.
For now, we'll march forward to the weekend, thus:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's LeComte Stakes at Fair Grounds, the start of the three-race series that winds up with the Louisiana Derby, will be very much a sorting-out affair, with several entrants who have shown promise. Principe Guilherme, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, is one of three in the field trained by Steve Asmussen. The Tapit colt is 2-for-2 in his young career, starting with a 6 1/2-lengths win at Churchill Downs in November. He returned to win a two-turn event at Fair Grounds by 11 3/4 lengths. Asmussen also fields Snapper Sinclair, a City Zip colt who will try to translate some impressive turf credentials to the main track.
Trainer Larry Jones also fields three in the LeComte, headlined by Kowboy Karma, who has been in the mix in some classy fields including the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park, where he was a close fourth behind Firenze Fire. The only filly entered for the LeComte, Wonder Gadot, is cross-entered in the Silverbulletday Stakes for fillies on the same card. The Medaglia d'Oro filly won the Grade II Demoiselle at Aqueduct Dec. 2.
Meanwhile, out east …
The aforementioned Firenze Fire won the Champagne over eventual Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Good Magic, and headlines a field of eight set for Saturday's $150,000 Jerome at Aqueduct. The race originally was scheduled for New Year's Day but Old Man Winter intervened. The race is the first in Aqueduct's series leading to the Grade I Wood Memorial.
Firenze Fire, trained by Jason Servis, won his first two starts, including the Grade III Sanford at Saratoga July 22. After finishing fourth in the Grade I Hopeful at the Spa, the Poseidon Warrior colt flashed Classic potential with a late-running victory in the Champagne, earning a 90 Beyer Speed Figure. He will look to rebound from a seventh-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Servis said Firenzie Fire's training "hasn't been ideal" because of weather-related interruptions.
The others have a lot more to prove in the Jerome. An interesting candidate is Coltandmississippi, a Todd Pletcher trainee who was scratched last weekend at Gulfstream Park when he drew the rail. Wouldn't you know he drew the rail again for the Jerome. The Pioneerof the Nile colt finished 10th in the Sapling at Monmouth in September, posted a romping win at Gulfstream Park West in October and then was fifth in the Smooth Air at Gulfstream Park last month.
The others? Even more to prove.
Gun Runner, likely to be named 2017 U.S. Horse of the Year later this month, schools in the Fair Grounds paddock 01/11 in preparation for the Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park 01/25, picture Fair Grounds
And in Arkansas …
Trainer Bob Baffert loves to send promising 3-year-olds to Oaklawn Park, especially when he has more than enough to fill the Derby preps in California. Thus, Mourinho heads for the Arkansas spa city to face seven rivals in Monday's $150,000 Smarty Jones. The Super Saver colt won at first asking, then finished second in both the Speakeasy Stakes at Santa Anita and the Grade III Bob Hope at Del Mar. He will stretch out to a mile for the first time.
Tap Daddy finished second behind only Flameaway in the Grade III Dixiana Bourbon at Keeneland in October, then won at Churchill Downs a month later. Bionic man and Hall of Famer Gary Stevens, who has relocated to Arkansas for the meet, is named to ride Lone Rock, a Majestic Warrior colt whose performance has been a bit in-and-out on the Kentucky-Indiana circuit. Combatant comes to the race off a second-place finish as the favorite in the Remington Springboard Mile. Trainer Todd Pletcher offers Navistar, fresh off a maiden win in Florida with John Velazquez in for the ride.
Saturday's $150,000 Silverbulletday Stakes at Fair Grounds is the big deal here and the big deal in the race is the Mark Casse-trained duo of Wonder Gadot and Heavenly Love. Both already have points toward a start in the Kentucky Oaks and Saturday's race offers 10 more.
Wonder Gadot, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, earned 10 Oaks points with a victory in the Demoiselle. She earlier finished third in the Grade I Natalma Stakes and won the Grade II Mazarine Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course before finishing sixth place in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. As noted above, she is cross-entered in the LeComte on the same card. Heavenly Love, a Malibu Moon filly, won at first asking at Kentucky Downs, then won the Grade I Alcibiades at Keeneland by 5 1/2 lengths before finishing 11th in the Breeders' Cup. Among the others, Blond Bomber is one to watch. The Fort Larned filly was 30-1 when she finished third in the Breeders' Cup with a late run.
On the international front:
United Arab Emirates
Thursday was opening night of the 2018 Dubai World Cup Carnival and no time was wasted in getting the fireworks lit.
In the featured $250,000 Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1, Heavy Metal shot right to the front and never stopped, winning by nearly 5 lengths from the favorite and multiple international Group 1 winner Thunder Snow. Heavy Metal had a win under his belt three weeks ago while Thunder Snow was returning from a layoff. "We had a good draw and he broke well," said winning rider Mickael Barzalona. "So I was always going to go to the front and he enjoys those positive tactics." Salem bin Ghadayer trains Heavy Metal for Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed Al Maktoum, who was on hand to watch the victory. Thunder Snow's rider, Christophe Soumillon, said his mount is "a horse who needs to be 100 percent fit and he wasn't today. The big target is in the future."
Earlier on the card, Frankyfourfingers, who missed most of last year with an injury, confirmed he's back in fighting form with an emphatic victory in the $135,000 Longines Conquest Classic. A winner two weeks earlier at Jebel Ali, Frankiefourfingers led all the way and won easily at Meydan. "He beat Prince Bishop when winning the second leg of the Maktoum Challenge (in 2016), so his class is apparent," said winning rider Barzalona. "We were very disappointed when he was injured last year and missed most of the season but he is back to something like his best now and these two wins will have done wonders for his confidence."
Godolphin runners Benbatl and Emotionless finished 1-2 in the $175,000 Grade III Singspiel Stakes at 1,800 meters on the turf. The two appeared poised for a stretch duel until jockey Oisin Murphy lit the fuse on Benbatl, who quickly opened a lead and won by 2 1/4 lengths. Earnshaw was third and yet another Godolphin runner, Bay of Poets, finished sixth after enduring some traffic issues.
Ertijaal, another from Sheik Hamdan's string, won the 1,000 meters Longines Ladies La Grande Classique on the turf, defeating Final Venture by a neck.
Captain Joy, winner of the 2016 Sun Bets All-Weather Mile Championship, is in action Friday night at Dundalk, taking on five opponents in a Fast-Track Qualifier for this year's AWC finals. The 9-year-old has been lightly raced since the 2016 success and returned from a three-months break last time out to finish sixth in a mile handicap at Dundalk Dec. 8. He has won nine of 20 starts on all-weather surfaces. "Hopefully, tomorrow will be his last run before (finals day) Good Friday," said trainer Tracey Collins. "But, if he doesn't win, we will have to get one more run into him."
The opposition includes Glastonbury Song, who finished second in the mile handicap at Dundalk Dec. 8. Earlier last season, Glastonbury Song was two from two at Dundalk and, on turf, finished fourth behind Churchill in the Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh in May.
Meanwhile, back in the States …
Eight are set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Fort Lauderdale on the Gulfstream Park green course with Heart to Heart the even-money favorite on the morning line. The 7-year-old English Channel entire was fourth in this race last year but went on to a successful season including a victory in the Grade II Bernard Baruch at Saratoga. He returns from a rest after finishing 10th in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Also look to Shining Copper and All Included.
Filly & Mare Turf
Dream Dancing is the morning-line pick among eight in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Marshua's River at Gulfstream Park. The 4-year-old Tapit filly peaked last year with a victory in the Grade I Del Mar Oaks. She was 2-for-2 at Gulfstream last winter. Gianna's Dream, Ultra Brat and Abbreviate also are high on the morning-line.
Monday's $100,000 Grade III Megahertz Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita is 1 mile on the grass. Entries were pending at press time.
Terra Promessa, Streamline and Farrell are big names in Saturday's $125,000 Pippin Stakes at Oaklawn Park -- all looking at richer rewards down the road. Terra Promessa won this last year, then won the Grade III Bayakoa Stakes and finished second in the Grade I Apple Blossom, all over the Hot Springs oval. However, she has not raced since July. Farrell won last year's Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks but was 14th in the Kentucky Oaks and did not recover winning form until the Grade II Chilukki at Churchill Downs in November. Streamline, an Illinois-bred mare, won last year's Grade II Azeri at Oaklawn and finished third in both the Apple Blossom and the Grade I Troienne at Churchill Downs but has not been seen in the afternoon since that race last May. Gary Stevens rides. Ever So Clever has more recent form but steps up against these.
Majestic Heat is the 9-5 morning-line favorite in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II La Canada Stakes at 1 mile at Santa Anita. She comes off back-to-back wins in the Betty Grable Stakes at Del Mar and the Grade II Bayakoa at Los Alamitos. Also well regarded are Mopotism, who has not won since last February at Sunland Park, and Union Strike, who has not quite lived up to the promise shown when she won the Grade I Del Mar Debutante in 2016.
Around the ovals:
Saturday's Fair Grounds card, in addition to the 3-year-old fixtures, has early trials for some of the meet's biggest races including the Col. E.R. Bradley Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the grass, the Louisiana Stakes at the same distance on the main track and the Marie G. Krantz Memorial for fillies and mares on the grass at the same 1 1/16 miles.
Speaking of Fair Grounds, likely Horse of the Year Gun Runner is parked there, preparing for his final run in the Jan. 25 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park. The Breeders' Cup Classic winner schooled Thursday in the paddock.
Aqueduct's weekend programs, weather permitting, include a pair of $100,000 sprints at 7 furlongs. Saturday it's the $100,000 Say Florida Sandy. Monday, fillies and mares tackle the Interborough.