It's last call Saturday for 3-year-olds still hoping to grab a spot in the Kentucky Derby starting gate.
The $1 million Arkansas Derby and the Grade III Lexington Stakes are the last of this year's "Road to the Kentucky Derby" events -- races that award points used to determine the maximum 20-horse field for the Run for the Roses. The final few spots still are up for grabs.
There's lots of other action, too, with many of last year's Breeders' Cup contenders back in action, trainer Wesley Ward on a winning rampage at Keeneland and more action from coast to coast.
On the international front, we offer some surprising results from Hong Kong and a preview of the return in Japan of the popular, all-white filly Sodashi. Randwick hosts four Australian Group 1 events.
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The Road to the Roses
Since last we met, Greatest Honour and Rebel's Romance have dropped out of the chase for the Kentucky Derby, giving added meaning to Saturday's final two qualifying races. Horses "on the bubble" stand to move up on the leaderboard -- unless a bunch of upsetters gain points.
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Arkansas Derby wraps up the "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series, awarding 100 points to the winner and 40, 20 and 10 to the next three finishers. Twenty points is looking like a tipping point to get into the Louisville classic so there's a lot at stake.
The morning-line favorites in a six-horse field are Bob Baffert's California shippers, Concert Tour and Hozier. They finished 1-2 in the March 13 Grade II Rebel going 1 1/16 miles on the same track. Saturday, they go an added sixteenth. Concert Tour, a Street Sense colt racing for Gary and Mary West, earned 50 points for the Rebel win and is comfortably ensconced in the 20-stall Churchill Downs starting gate. Hozier, by Pioneerof the Nile, was awarded 20 points and a few more couldn't hurt.
If Hozier squeezes into the field, Baffert would have three runners as he seeks a record seventh Kentucky Derby trophy. Medina Spirit currently is in the No. 9 spot on the leaderboard.
Also in the Arkansas Derby field are the horses who finished fourth, fifth and seventh in the Rebel and Last Samurai, whose last start was a fading fifth in the Grade III Southwest at Oaklawn Feb. 27. Even ignoring his imposing record at the Arkansas track over the past decade or so, it's easy to see why Baffert's two are the favorites.
Saturday at Keeneland, the $200,000 Grade III Stonestreet Lexington Stakes offers 20 points to the winner, with 8, 4 and 2 for the minor placings. With 20 points perhaps enough to get into the Kentucky Derby, the winner would have a shot even without any previous points earnings. But there are some in the Southwest looking for any points they can muster.
After last weekend's races, Proxy stood No. 22 on the list with 34 points but moved up to No. 20 with the decisions to take Greatest Honour out of training for a while and to keep UAE Derby winner Rebel's Romance for the Belmont Stakes. The Godolphin homebred Tapit colt would cement a place in the Churchill Downs starting gate with a win or a second-place finish.
Among others in the Lexington field: Hockey Dad goes into the race ranked No. 26 with 20 points for a third-place showing in the Jeff Ruby Steaks. Unbridled Honor was ranked No. 44 with the 5 points he earned finishing fourth in the Tampa Bay Derby. It's My House has 1 point, acquired while finishing fourth in the El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate all-weather and is No. 52 on the list. It's My House's owners coughed up a $6,000 supplemental entry fee to make him eligible to the Triple Crown races so they'll be rooting hard on Saturday. Were he to post an upset win, that 1 additional point could make a difference.
As always, for clarity about the Triple Crown trail and other major races around the country, turn to ace industry analyst Jude Feld at www.popejude.com. See if "The Pontiff" can repeat last weekend's upset pick in the Santa Anita Derby.
Concert Tour, picture Coady Photography
Friday's $300,000 Grade I Maker's Mark Mile at Keeneland is one of the iconic track's signature races and has a storied history. This year's edition is wide, wide open with nine candidates, all but one of them at single-digit odds on the morning line. The nominal favorite is French-bred Raging Bull who was third in this last year and second in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile in October. He hasn't raced since finishing 10th in the Breeders' Cup Mile. Opportunities for wagering profits abound.
Analyze It and Decorated Invader top a roster of nine plus a main-track-only for Saturday's $100,000 Danger's Hour at Aqueduct. Analyze It has suffered through an interrupted career that included a second in the Grade II Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park and a third in the 2018 Breeders' Cup Mile. But he has not competed since finishing eighth in the aforementioned Shadwell Turf Mile last October. Decorated Invader, a multiple graded stakes winner, was last seen finishing fifth in the Grade I Hollywood Derby in November at Del Mar.
Sunday's $100,000 Plenty of Grace Stakes for fillies and mares at Aqueduct has a competitive field of 10.
Filly & Mare Turf
Only five signed on for Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Coolmore Jenny Wiley at Keeneland but it promises to be quite the race nonetheless. Micheline, a 4-year-old Bernardini filly, is the 2-1 favorite off a victory in the Grade II Hillsborough at Tampa Bay Downs. She ended 2020 with a win in the tough Dueling Grounds Oaks at Kentucky Downs and a second, beaten less than 1 length, in the QE II Cup at Keeneland.
At first glance, Karak doesn't seem a logical pick in Saturday's $100,000 Giant's Causeway for fillies and mares at Keeneland and the morning-line odds reflect that. But it's worth noting the 4-year-old Karakontie filly exits a 10-month layoff for trainer Wesley Ward, who is good at that sort of thing and is enjoying a spectacular start at Keeneland. The more logical choices are Elle Z and Into Mystic, who come off a 1-2 finish in the Mardi Gras at Fair Grounds, or Jakarta, who just failed to last in the 1-mile Grade III Honey Fox at Gulfstream Park in her last start.
Speaking of Wesley Ward, he also has the solid favorite, Campanelle, among 13 entered for Friday's $100,000 TVG Limestone Turf Sprint for 3-year-old fillies at Keeneland. The Kodiac filly won at first asking almost a year ago at Gulfstream Park, then promptly shipped to Royal Ascot, where she won the Group 2 Queen Mary. In her next race in August, across the Channel, she won the Group 1 Darly Prix Morny. After she finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, fading late in the 1-mile test, Ward put her away for this 5 1/2 furlongs -- her 3-year-old debut.
Classic / Dirt Mile
Night Ops invades from Oaklawn Park for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland and has been rewarded with even-money favorite's status. He was third in two well-endowed stakes engagements at the Arkansas oval after a long layoff. Silver Dust might be back in a better spot after contesting the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile and a one-mile turf event at Fair Grounds in his last two starts -- neither of which went well for him. Any of the other three could play a role.
By My Standards had a tough go of things in his last two races of 2020, finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Classic and seventh in the Grade I Clark at Churchill Downs. He's been rested since and, with substantial class relief and trust in his previous achievement, he is the 5-2 favorite on the morning line for Saturday's $400,000 Oaklawn Mile. Among those achievements, he won last year's Grade II Oaklawn Handicap in his only previous appearance in Arkansas. Among the others are 2020 Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou, 2020 Grade II Pat Day Mile winner Rushie and Pioneer Spirit, an 8-year-old Malibu Moon gelding who was claimed out of his last start for $50,000. He was fourth in this last year and a close third the year before so why not?
Horologist is the morning-line pick among six in Saturday's $100,000 Top Flight Invitational at Aqueduct. The Gemologist mare won the Grade III Molly Pitcher at Monmouth Park and the Grade I Beldame at Belmont Park before finishing ninth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff and has not raced since. Lucky Strike and Mrs. Danvers also have serious claims.
Sprint / Filly & Mare Sprint
They tangle again in Saturday's $500,000 Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn Park -- reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Whitmore and C Z Rocket, the rival who reversed the order of finish of that race in the Hot Springs Stakes last month. Both are dedicated closers and susceptible to pace and traffic issues. The aforementioned Jude Feld (www.popejude.com) points out C Z Rocket picked up just 1 pound for the win, from 121 to 122 pounds, while the handicapper dropped an added 2 pounds on Whitmore -- from 121 to 123 for finishing second. If history is any judge, it might not matter. Whitmore has won this race four years in a row.
If you could toss out her 11th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint against older males, Frank's Rockett would enter Saturday's $250,000 Carousel for fillies and mares at Oaklawn Park with five straight wins. You can't do that but you certainly can put a line though that misadventure, which is what the oddsmaker did in making the 4-year-old Into Mischief filly the 7-5 favorite in a field of six. Another to consider is Edgeway, who has been training in California since a comeback win there Feb. 7.
Around the world, around the clock, and all the ships at sea:
Sodashi, the wildly popular, all-white Japanese filly, makes her 3-year-old debut Sunday in the Grade 1 Oka Sho or Japanese 1000 Guineas at Hanshin Racecourse.
The Kurofune filly won at first asking at Hakodate in July, captured hard-fought Grade 3 victories at Sapporo and Tokyo and then prevailed in a blanket finish in the Grade 1 Hanshin Juvenile Fillies, finishing the year with an unblemished record.
Satono Reinas, a Deep Impact filly, suffered her first defeat while second in the Juvenile Fillies and returns for another crack at her distinctively colored rival. Meikei Yell does return after finishing fourth at Hanshin.
Sodashi has been working for her eagerly awaited return mainly on the uphill gallop at the Ritto Training Center,
"She can be overly sensitive, so we brought her back to the training center early and gave her gate practice and a hard workout last week," said trainer Naosuke Sugai. "This week, I just plan to breeze her."
The Oka Sho is the first and shortest race in Japan's filly Triple Crown series, followed by the 2,400-meters Yushun Himba or Japanese Oaks in May and the 2,000-meters Shuka Sho (G1) in October.
It's another big weekend Down Under, this time with four Group 1 events at Royal Randwick.
Mugatoo is the solid favorite in a big field in The Star Doncaster Mile. The T J Smith Stakes at 1,200 meters features the likes of Bivouac, Nature Strip and Eduardo.
A full field is on tap for the Bentley Australian Derby at 2,400 meters and it looks a fair 'you pick 'em' event. And Anamoe rates atop a field of 10 2-year-olds in the Inglis Sires Stakes at 1,400 meters. By Street Boss, Anamoe finished second to Say Inside in the Golden Slipper in his last start.
Amazing Star found a seam between the leaders early in the stretch run in Monday's Group 2 Sprint Cup at Sha Tin Racecourse, went through and gradually worked to the lead with some 100 meters to go. He then gamely held on to defeat a closing Stronger by a short head -- at odds of 179-1. The much better-fancied Beauty Applause, Wishful Thinker and Wellington were third, fourth and fifth in the 1,200-meters dash.
The race is the local tuneup for the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize on FWD Champions Day April 25 but a stunned Ting didn't seem ready to consider that race, likely against Japan's top sprinter, Danon Smash, might be within Amazing Star's grasp.
"At this stage, I don't know," Ting said. "The horse’s fitness is everything. He suffers from back problems, so I don’t know. He is an amazing horse -- his name is Amazing Star."
The co-feature on the Easter Monday program, the Group 2 Chairman's Trophy at 1,600 meters, went to 12-1 long shot Mighty Giant, who faced only four rivals after the withdrawal of Ka Ying Star. Mighty Giant and Southern Legend ran 1-2 throughout the race and 1/2 length separated them at the end. The favorite, Waikuku, was not involved and finished last.
In accordance with the Hong Kong Jockey Club's rigid and transparent equine health protocols, Ka Ying Star's pre-race lameness diagnosis and Waikuku's deceleration though the stretch both will require stewards' attention before they can race again and call into question the local contingent for the Group 1 FWD Champions Mile April 25.