Despite disruptions caused by weather and the pandemic, some promising two-year-olds managed to provide a spark of hope for the future in weekend racing across North America.
Red Flag in California and No Cents in Maryland were high points among the juvenile males with Astute showing enough talent among the fillies out west for veteran rider Mike Smith to comment, "Wow!"
Weather forced cancellations and postponements from Woodbine in Canada to Gulfstream Park West in South Florida.
Golden Gate Fields has closed due to a rash of COVID-19 test positives in the stable area. The track said it will monitor test results during the weekend and resume racing "as soon as possible." Training will continue in the interim.
Zia Park in New Mexico is closed at least through the end of the month per Gov. Michelle Lujan Grisham's stay-at-home order. The governor's action shutters all non-essential businesses, including racing. Training will continue.
On the international front, Lucky Lilac got back to winning ways Sunday in Japan, Dubai Warrior oozed talent in winning the feature of three All-Weather Championships races in the British isles and Bahrain is preparing for a renewal of its big new international race on Friday.
Who says this is a slow time of year?
Before we move on to a look at prospects for 2021, here's an out-of-the-box thought: In his Sunday newsletter, Los Angeles Times racing guru John Cherwa lets Kentucky-based podcaster Louis Rabaut go out on a limb with the suggestion Swiss Skydiver, not Authentic, deserves Horse of the Year honors.
We're still voting for Authentic but, in the new political spirit of considering all sides of an argument, this one is worth a second look. Swiss Skydiver had a spectacular year and did defeat Authentic in their only head-to-head meeting in the Preakness, though the case would be stronger if she hadn't faded to finish seventh in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Check out the argument, and maybe sign up for Cherwa's comprehensive -- and free -- coverage of California racing, at www.latimes.com/sports/newsletter/2020-11-15/swiss-skydiver-eclipse-awards-horse-racing.
But even as we debate the best of 2020, the youngsters looking to be the best of 2021 and beyond continue to make their case. Here's this weekend's installment:
Red Flag surprised even trainer John Shirreffs with a dominating, 7 1/4-lengths victory in Sunday's $100,000 Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar. After racing widest in a line of four down the backstretch, the Tamarkuz colt emerged with the lead exiting the turn and simply kicked away from his rivals for the easy win. Uncle Boogie came from the clouds to finish second, getting by Ambivalent in the closing strides. The odds-on favorite, million-dollar yearling purchase Spielberg, continued to underwhelm for trainer Bob Baffert, finishing fourth.
Red Flag, with Victor Espinoza up, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.56, winning for the second time after finishing fifth in his career debut in September.
"I didn't really expect that kind of performance. I was hoping to get a placing," Shirreffs said. "This was a pleasant surprise. You always hope but you never know. He's gone from five and a half furlongs to seven, so it looks like he'll be able to go longer."
Espinoza agreed, saying, "He'll go farther, for sure. With the way he ran today, why not?"
At Laurel Park in Maryland, No Cents chased down the favorite, Dalton, in the final yards of Saturday's $100,000 James F. Lewis III Stakes and edged clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths over that rival. The early leader, Lugamo, finished third, another 2 1/4 lengths back. No Cents, a New Jersey-bred colt by Goldencents, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.16. Trevor McCarthy rode for trainer Cathal Lynch. He now has three straight wins after finishing second in his career debut.
Eagle Orb found a little extra in the stretch run in Saturday's $100,000 Notebook Stakes for New York-bred 2-year-olds at Aqueduct and got home first by 2 3/4 lengths over the favorite, Blue Gator. It was another 6 1/4 lengths to Market Alert in third. Eagle Orb, an Orb colt out of the Harlan's Holiday mare Lady on Holiday, ran 6 furlongs on a good track in 1:11.71 with Manny Franco riding. It was his second win from five starts.
Number One Dude was the No. 1 finisher in Friday night's $75,000 Don C. McNeill Stakes for Oklahoma-breds at Remington Park, by 6 lengths as the odds-on favorite. The American Lion gelding ran 1 mile on a muddy track in 1:38.76 with Ezequiel Lara up. Eurochippygolfer was second, another 6 1/4 lengths in front of Winners Luck. Number One Dude improved to 3-for-3.
Poppy's Pride seized the lead right out of the gate in Saturday's $60,000 Juvenile Sprint Stakes for Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park West and did not relinquish it, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Gatsby. The Distractor was third. Poppy's Pride, a Khozan gelding, finished 6 1/2 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:17.32 with Jesus Rios in the irons.
Sunday's Frost King Stakes for Ontario-breds was postponed because of nasty weather in the Toronto area.
Red Flag wins Sunday's Bob Hope Stakes for 2-year-olds at Del Mar, Benoit Photo, courtesy of Del Mar Turf Club
Astute, a Speightstown filly coming off a maiden win on the grass at Santa Anita, dueled with odds-on favorite Private Mission through the early furlongs of Saturday's $100,000 Desi Arnaz Stakes at Del Mar, put that one away and kicked off to a 7 1/2-lengths victory. Queengol was along to finish second, a nose in front of Heels Up with Private Mission fourth. Astute, trained by Richard Mandella and ridden by Mike Smith, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:17.28.
"Wow! That's what I've got to say," Smith said. "I knew she was good. I just didn't know she was this good. She was good on the grass the other day but she's even better on the dirt."
Mandella said he "will think about" the $300,000 Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos Dec. 15 as a target for Astute.
Street Lute traveled the inside route to take early command in Saturday's $100,000 Smart Halo Stakes at Laurel Park and went on to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Out of Sorts came from last of eight to get place money with Be Sneaky 1 length farther back in third. Street Lute, a Street Magician filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.85 with Xavier Perez up. She now has three wins and a second from four starts.
Vacay bided her time in Sunday's $100,000 Key Cents Stakes for New York-bred fillies at Aqueduct, then came around rivals into the stretch, hit the afterburners and won off by 5 1/2 lengths. Rossa Veloce was second, 1 3/4 lengths better than Party at Page's. Vacay, a daughter of Not This time, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.69 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. Trainer Todd Pletcher said Vacay likely will winter at Aqueduct to take advantage of the state-bred program.
At Woodbine, Jill Marie overcame a tangled start in Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) South Ocean Stakes for Ontario-sired 2-year-old fillies, stalked the pace and surged through the stretch to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Dejas Too was best of the rest with Meet the Soprano third. Jill Marie, a daughter of Dynamic Sky, raced 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:16.57 with Steven Bahen in the irons.
Courtly led most of the way in Friday night's Slide Show Stakes for Oklahoma-bred fillies at Remington Park, gave up the advantage to Twilight Curfew and finished second, 1 1/2 lengths behind that one. It was all for naught as the stewards ruled Twilight Curfew's start was sufficiently unruly to disqualify her to last of seven, moving Courtly up to the winner's share. Ekati's Hit and Long Gone Okie also moved up to second and third. Courtly, a Pollard's Vision filly, got her first win in her sixth start. Twilight Curfew remains winless.
Shea D Summer went quickly to the lead in Saturday's $60,000 Juvenile Fillies Sprint for Florida-breds at Gulfstream Park West, shook clear late and won by 6 3/4 lengths. Briella contributed some early pace pressure and held on for second, 5 1/2 lengths in front of Sky Proposal. Shea D Summer, a daughter of Summer Front, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:17.09 for jockey Emisael Jaramillo.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Mrs. Revere Stakes for 3-year-old fillies came off the turf -- no problem for Princess Grace, who prompted the early pace, took over when asked by jockey Florent Geroux and won by 2 3/4 lengths. Pass the Plate was second, 1 1/2 lengths in front of How Ironic. Princess Grace, a Karakontie filly, got 1 1/16 miles on the fast main track in 1:44.00. She was second in the Grade III Pin Oak Valley View at Keeneland in her previous start and, before that, won her first two races.
Trainer Michael Stidham on Princess Grace's first race on the dirt track: "We didn't necessarily have a great line how she would take to the dirt but her early works were on the dirt. We thought she handled it very well then so we were cautiously optimistic."
Duopoly had a monopoly on Sunday's $100,000 Winter Memories Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, leading all the way to a 3/4-length victory. High Opinion was gaining late to secure second with the favorite, Vigilante's Way, another 1/2 length back in third. Duopoly, a daughter of Animal Kingdom, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.80 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons. The Chad Brown trainee, making her fifth start at her fifth track, scored her third win.
"I just rode her with patience, relaxed and didn't try to fight her too much," Ortiz said. "Turning for home, I asked her, and she had plenty left."
Therapist rallied four-wide at the quarter pole in Saturday's $100,000 Artie Schiller Stakes, persisted down the lane and was up in the final strides to win by a neck over Valid Point. Delaware was third and Rinaldi fourth. Therapist, a 5-year-old Freud gelding, ran 1 mile on good turf in 1:37.16 with Javier Castellano in the irons. He has not missed a top-three finish in five starts this year.
"He's the perfect advertisement for the New York bred program," winning trainer Christophe Clement said of Therapost. "He's very consistent and can win at a high level against open company."
Gulfstream Park West
Saturday's Millions Preview program was disrupted by Tropical Storm Eta, which forced postponement of the turf races and left the main-track events running over a sloppy, sealed track. No wonder, given that Eta dumped so much rain on the peninsula that alligators and even a manatee were spotted in residents' yards. Yes, a manatee. The yard was flooded.
Perhaps the conditions were a factor in the 28-1 upset victory posted by Quenane in the $60,000 Millions Classic Preview. The 6-year-old Algorithms gelding led from gate to wire and won by 1 length from the favorite, Noble Drama. It was another 2 3/4 lengths to Debbie's Passion in third. Quenane, with Angel Arroyo aboard, 1 mile in 1:37.04.
Legal Deal stalked the pace in the $60,000 Millions Sprint Preview, rallied three-wide down the stretch and was up just in time to nip Jackson by a nose for the victory. With Verve was third. Legal Deal, a 3-year-old Khozan gelding, got 6 furlongs in 1:09.51 with Paco Lopez up.
Tiz Possible Dear opened a clear early lead in the $60,000 Millions Distaff Preview, maintained the advantage throughout and won by 2 1/2 lengths. The favorite, Sound Machine, was second with Ceci Valentina another 4 1/4 lengths back in third. Tiz Possible Dear, a 5-year-old Prospective mare, ran 7 furlongs in 1:23.32 for Lopez.
Welder scored his 25th career victory, a record 11th stakes win at Remington Park and his fourth in the $70,000 Silver Goblin Stakes in a highlight of Friday night's card. Owner Clayton Rash paid $6,400 for Welder as a yearling, Remington Park officials said, and Equibase reports the 7-year-old gelding has earned $1.172 million. While most of his races have been at Remington, Welder did finish third, beaten just 2 lengths, in the 2019 Hot Springs Stakes at Oaklawn Park -- a race won by the winner of last weekend's Breeders' Cup Sprint, Whitmore.
There wasn't much to the Silver Goblin. Jockey David Cabrera positioned Welder second, moved to the lead on the turn and roared home first by 5 1/2 lengths, needing no encouragement. Fly to the Bank and Quality Rocket filled the trifecta slots.
Going into Sunday's Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Hanshin Racecourse, Lucky Lilac had not won since taking last year's edition of the same race and trainer Mikio Matsunaga figured it was time for a change. So Christophe Lemaire took over riding duties from Mirco Demuro and that looked like just what the doctor ordered.
Lucky Lilac, a 5-year-old daughter of Orfevre, got a decent start from the No. 18 gate and raced wide and well back of the breakaway leader down the backstretch of the 2,100-meters race. She made up a lot of ground around the stretch turn and hit the front 300 meters out.
For an instant, it looked like Lemaire had moved too early as Salacia and Loves Only You, the latter with Demuro riding, came charging outside Lucky Lilac. Lemaire's timing was rewarded as she held onto win by a pair of necks in stakes-record time of 2:10.1.
"We took the front early in the stretch," admitted Lemaire, who rode Lucky Lilac for the first time. "But she held on well until the end. She's a strong horse. She has been racing at the top level since her 2-year-old season and I had confidence in her."
"The outside draw was a concern but we were able to race smoothly and advance our position from the third corner. She was very composed and gave her usual turn of speed," the rider added.
If Lemaire's internal clock proved precisely accurate, so did Matsunaga's judgment. Before the race, he had proclaimed: "This time we're really looking for good results so I want a jockey that can bring out her best. The change in riders does not suggest at all that her performances before were lacking. She's not bad at Hanshin. She runs solidly. But I do want to have a fast track so she can give us her best."
Ireland / England
Ireland has only one Fast-Track Qualifier race on the 2020-21 All-Weather Championships schedule and -- wouldn't you know it? -- an English raider landed the spoils.
Ummalnar, a 5-year-old daughter of Shamardal, making just her eighth start for trainer William Haggas, took the early lead in Friday's Irish Stallion Farms EBF Cooley Fillies & Mares Stakes at Dundalk, showed the way for her 13 rivals and kicked away to win by 6 lengths. Surrounding, a two-time winner of the event, finished second.
The victory in the 1 mile over Polytrack provides Ummalnar with a guaranteed start in the Ladbrokes Fillies & Mares' Championship over 7 furlongs at Lingfield Park on Finals Day, Good Friday, April 2.
"I thought I was going steady," said winning rider Chris Hayes. "I was going down the back and gave her a kick just before turning because I thought I was getting it handy enough but, looking at the replay, everything was flat to the boards. When I asked her to quicken, she flicked leads for me just after the two-pole and was home and hosed. It took me half the back straight to pull her up."
On Saturday at Lingfield Park, Dubai Warrior and Good Effort earned spots in the Betway Easter Classic and the Betway Sprint Championship on finals day with victories in the 10-furlongs Churchill Stakes and the 6-furlongs Golden Rose Stakes, respectively.
Dubai Warrior, trained by John Gosden, challenged for the lead on the turn for home in the Churchill and won easily, by 3 1/2 lengths over Sinjaari. He is undefeated at 10 furlongs at Lingfield -- a record that includes the Grade III Betway Winter Derby.
"Dubai Warrior has always been a big boy and, as you saw today," said winning rider Robert Havlin. "He is still a bit big. He is not one we bully at home, so he will come on for the run."
Good Effort produced just that in the Golden Rose, showing the way under Ray Dawson. After building a big cushion entering the straight, he coasted home first by 1 1/2 lengths from Lampang. On the Warpath was third. It was his fifth straight win on the all-weather and his connections said to look for him back at Lingfield on Finals Day.
With pandemic-related uncertainty persisting about foreign competition, local trainers are eyeing the prospects for some of their runners in the Longines Hong Kong International Races, set for Dec. 13. To be sure, there's plenty of international talent on the list of nominees and we'll all hope to see it on the course. But …
Accordingly, Buddies' victory in Saturday's Panasonic Cup at Sha Tin Racecourse has trainer Tony Cruz thinking about the Grade I Longines Hong Kong Mile as a next step. "Looks like I have to," Cruz said. "We might as well give it a go. What's there to lose? Otherwise there's no race for us," Cruz said.
Jockey Matthew Chadwick guided the So You Think gelding to his seventh win in the Panasonic, leading the way and finishing 1 length ahead of late-running Lucky Express.
"The Hong Kong Mile will be a completely different ball game with some strong front-runners in there as well, so it'll be very interesting," Chadwick said. "I haven't got a ride yet in the mile so if I was offered it, I wouldn't be turning it down."