Valentine's Day, Presidents' Day and important Kentucky Derby prep races in Louisiana and Arkansas mark the third weekend of February.
The Risen Star Stakes at Fair Grounds proved so popular it will be run in two divisions, each worth $400,000 with 50 Kentucky Derby points to the winner. The Southwest at Oaklawn Park carries only 10 points for the winner but boasts a $750,000 purse.
Laurel Park has a fitting Presidents' Day schedule honoring General George and Barbara Fritchie.
On the international front, the Dubai World Cup Carnival, as many expected, is producing contenders not only for the World Cup itself but for the new $20 million Saudi Cup. And in Hong Kong, empty stands will witness two nice Group 1 events on Sunday.
Speaking of empty, let's empty this week's notebook:
The Road to the Roses
Saturday's Risen Star at Fair Grounds in New Orleans is the first race of the season offering 50 Kentucky Derby points for the winner. Since that normally is enough to guarantee a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate, the Risen Star could fill two stalls on the first Saturday in May.
One division is headed by Anneau d'Or, runner-up in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The other is topped by Enforceable, winner of the local Grade III Lecomte Stakes.
"We're very happy with the split of the race," said David Carroll, assistant to Enforceable's trainer, Mark Casse. "It gives more horses and owners an opportunity to run and earn points for the Derby."
Enforceable should recognize some of the other 10 in his division. By luck of the draw, he once again will share the starting gae with the second-, third-, fifth- and sixth-place finishers from the Lecomte -- Silver State, Mr. Monomoy, Scabbard and Shashashakemeup. The others, including maiden winners and a few allowance also-rans, are first-time participants at the graded stakes level.
Anneau d'Or faces 11 rivals in the second division of the Risen Star. One to watch here -- again amid a highly aspirational cast -- is Liam's Lucky Charm. The Khozan colt was in the money in all three Florida Sire Series races last year, then won the Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay by 5 1/2 lengths while testing open company in his 3-year-old opener. Casse ships in Lynn's Map off a fifth in the Smarty Jones at Oaklawn Park Jan. 24.
Finnick the Fierce and Excession, who finished fourth and seventh, respectively, in the Lecomte, drew in here. Finnick the Fierce was second in the Grade III Kentucky Jockey Club last year and his Lecomte effort was compromised by a poor start from the inside gate.
The other big-time Derby prep of the long Presidents' Day weekend is on the Monday holiday itself -- the $750,000 Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn Park. With entries still pending at press time, the Oaklawn racing department identified nine "probable" runners, including the first three finishers from the $150,000 Smarty Jones on Jan. 24 -- Gold Street, Shoplifted and Silver Prospector, all trained by Steve Asmussen.
Also expected in the Southwest mix are American Butterfly, Answer In, Chase Tracker, Taishan, Villanous and Wells Bayou. The race offers Derby points on the 10-4-2-1 scale.
Friday's $100,000 John Battaglia Memorial on the all-weather track at Turfway Park is a lead-in for the $200,000 Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks on March 14 -- the former Spiral Stakes, Jim Beam Stakes, Galleryfurniture.com Stakes and Lane's End Stakes. Under that variety of names, the race has produced some stellar names including Prairie Bayou, Summer Squall, Hansel, Serena's Song and subsequent Kentucky Derby winners Lil E. Tee and Animal Kingdom. This year's Battaglia probably doesn't have one of those but it's nice to see the northern Kentucky track, now owned by Churchill Downs Inc., back on an upward spiral.
Trainer Bob Baffert sends Azul Coast north as the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $100,000 El Camino Real Derby on the Golden Gate all-weather track. The Super Saver colt won at first asking at Los Alamitos in December, then finished second in the Grade III Sham Stakes Jan. 4, 7 3/4 lengths behind stablemate Authentic. After that one, things look pretty wide open.
Dreams Untold showed little in his first start in November but the penny obviously dropped before his second effort Jan. 4 at Parx Racing. Maybe it was the ultimate equipment change. Or maybe he just liked the slop. Whatever, as a first-time gelding the Smarty Jones progeny won off by 14 1/4 lengths, earning a Beyer Speed Figure of 84 -- enough to make him the 5-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $100,000 Miracle Wood at Laurel Park. Off the last race, he's the best of three Triple Crown nominees in the nine-horse field.
A first-level allowance race Saturday at Tampa Bay Downs is notable for the presence of Gouverneur Morris. The Constitution colt makes his first start for trainer Todd Pletcher since finishing second in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall. He faces four rivals including Untitled, who won by 11 lengths in his first start in December, then finished fourth in the Grade III Swale Feb. 1.
Saturday's $50,000 Turf Paradise Derby got nine entries, all local. It's a nice race but unlikely to affect the Kentucky Derby picture.
Things are getting a little more complex on the Road to the Roses and the waters are getting deeper. For thoughts on which way to turn in those races and others, turn to analyst Jude Feld, winner of last weekend's NHC Celebrity Charity Challenge … www.popejude.com.
Kentucky Oaks preps
Last weekend saw 2019 male 2-year-old champion Storm the Court underwhelm in his 3-year-old debut but trainer Brad Cox is predicting a better outcome when the reigning juvenile filly champ, British Idom, returns to action Saturday at Fair Grounds.
British Idiom, an undefeated daughter of Flashback, faces six rivals, including the formidable Finite, in the $300,000 Grade II Rachel Alexandra while making her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies in November at Santa Anita. The race awards 50 Kentucky Oaks points to the winner -- plenty to get into the Churchill Downs starting gate.
"She's really trained well in the past four or five weeks, she's picked it up and each week she seems to be getting better and better. She's coming into this race every bit as good as she was when she went into Breeders' Cup," Cox said. "I'm really excited about how she's training and I think she'll run really well Saturday."
She might have to run really well to get the better of Finite, a Munnings filly who has scored three straight stakes wins -- the Rags to Riches and the Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs and the Silverbulletday at Fair Grounds. In the latter, she was all out to defeat Ursula and Tempers Rising and both of them return for another try, too.
British Idiom is the 8-5 morning-line favorite with Finite posted at 2-1 odds.
Friday's $75,000 Cincinnati Trophy at the rejuvenated Turfway Park, 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track, features Karak, a Wesley Ward-trained daughter of Karakonte whose record would be quite respectable were it not for a 15th-place finish in the Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot last June. She returned from that to win the Tyro Stakes at Monmouth Park and finished fourth in the Grade III Matron at Belmont. This will be her first start on anything other than turf but a long and satisfactory string of Turfway works says that shouldn't be a problem.
Ward also fields Anna's Fast, a Fast Anna filly who is 2-for-3 with a 16th-place finish in the Group 2 Queen Mary at Royal Ascot sandwiched betwixt the wins. Ward did not have a best-ever year at Her Majesty's garden party. Among the other 11, Rising Seas won her last two starts down the road at Churchill Downs.
Let's detour around the world, around the clock:
If anyone was wondering whether the new $20 million Saudi Cup, set for Feb. 29, would mesh with the $12 million Dubai World Cup, just four weeks later, the wait is over.
Capezzano shot out of the machine to take the early lead in Thursday's $200,000 Group 2 Firebreak Stakes and was never seriously challenged, crossing the finish line 7 lengths to the good of his closest competitor, Secret Ambition, in stakes-record time of 1:36.23. Matterhorn was a further 3/4 length back in third. Capezzano, a 6-year-old Bernardini colt bred by Darley and owned by Sultan Ali, was having his first run of the season. Last year, he won three straight starts at Meydan, including a 9 1/2-lengths victory over Thunder Snow in the Maktoum Challenge Round 3, before finishing 12th in the Dubai World Cup -- won, of course, by Thunder Snow.
Now, trainer Salem bin Ghadayer has bigger plans for Capezzano. "Always his first time out, he doesn't perform," the trainer said. "But we saved him this year since we heard about the Saudi race and for World Cup. We believe in this horse and his ability. We wanted to wait until this race. I know it's just two weeks until the Saudi Cup but we needed the race for his confidence and thank God he performed well … We will go to the Saudi race and then World Cup night."
Magic Lily, under a confident ride by William Buick, took the lead early in the stretch run in Thursday's $250,000 Group 2 Balanchine Sponsored by Gulf News and held on bravely to win by 1 1/4 lengths from Nisreen. Naamora was third. Magic Lily, a 5-year-old mare by New Approach, ran 1,800 meters on good turf in 1:47.65. The Godolphin homebred backed up her win last time out in the Group 2 Cape Verdi going a furlong shorter.
"What I liked about her this evening is she seems to be growing up," said Magic Lily's trainer, Charlie Appleby. "She only had four runs in her career before coming to Meydan … It wasn't our intention to win the Cape Verdi because the mile was a bit sharp for her and we were confident coming into today." Appleby said the filly could "fall into something like" the Group 1 Jebel Hatta on Super Saturday, March 7. "We have Barney Roy and a couple others and one other meeting to have a look at. We will appreciate this evening and look forward to the future with her."
Next Thursday's program at Meydan includes the Group 2 Zabeel Mile, the Group 3 Dubai Millennium Sakes (2,000 meters) and the Group 2 Meydan Sprint (1,000 meters) on the grass and the Group 3 UAE Oaks (1,900 meters) on the dirt.
The Hong Kong Jockey Club has extended its almost total ban on live attendance at the races in response to the coronavirus outbreak. The decision to admit only owners with a few guests and essential workers means hoofbeats will rattle through empty Sha Tin Racecourse stands Sunday in the Group 1 Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup and Group 1 Queen's Silver Jubileee Cup.
The Gold Cup features Exultant, who has emerged as the dominant force in Hong Kong racing, at least for mid- to stayer-distance races. He won this last year and comes off a victory in the Group 3 Centenary Vase Handicap at a less-than optimum 1,800 meters.
The main opposition is Glorious Dragon, a potential star in the making who refused to fold in the Centenary Vase, finishing second to Exultant. While that race promised much, Glorious Dragon's trainer, Tony Millard, is under no illusions about what he faces Sunday.
Exultant looks outstanding," Millard said Thursday. "Actually, he's not just an outstanding horse. He's a champion horse."
The Silver Jubilee Cup pits Beauty Generation and Beat the Clock against one another for the third time. Beat the Clock is on a roll with two straight Group 1 wins. Hot King Prawn also is in the mix for this.
Remember Black Caviar? You know, back before Winx stole the spotlight Down Under? Well, the undefeated wondermare-once-removed will return to Flemington Saturday to parade before he running of the Group 1 Black Caviar Lightning Stakes. The celebration will include trainer Peter Moody, jockey Luke Nolen and members of her ownership group.
The 1,000-meters Lightning doesn't have any Black Caviars or Winxes. The top-rated of seven entries are 7-year-old Redzel, who has not raced since finishing eighth in the Everest in October, and Nature Strip, a 5-year-old who reported fourth in the Everest and won the Group 1 VRC Classic in November before going to the sidelines..
Back in North America:
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Fair Grounds Stakes has a competitive field of 14 including the first three finishers from last month's Col Bradley over the course -- Dontblamerocket, Midnight Tea Time and Factor This. Last year's winner, Synchrony, returns. Tone Broke was good enough to go to Dubai a year ago, where he showed nothing in two starts, then won the second and third legs of the Canadian Triple Crown, then struggled in his two most recent starts.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $100,000 Albert M. Stall Memorial for fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles attracted 14 plus a couple also-eligibles. Quebec, Don't Tell Marge and Stave come from a tight 1-2-3 finish in the Jan. 18 Marie Kranz Memorial over the course. Zofelle has won all three of her U.S. starts for trainer Brendan Walsh since arriving from England.
Eleven signed on for Saturday's $100,000 Colonel Power at Fair Ground. With some of the potential players -- Chaos Theory and Blind Ambition as prime examples -- coming off substantial layoffs, it's a tough one to figure. We'll know after 5 1/2 furlongs. Bill Mott brings the consistent Mitchell Road from Florida and trainer Ignacio Correas III, looking for a replacement for retired Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Blue Prize, sends out Argentine import Irisa for her first U.S. engagement. Irisa is a daughter of Pure Prize, as is Blue Prize.
Eight are in for Sunday's $100,000 Sweet Life Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita. Shines Her Light was winless in five starts in Ireland last year but won at first asking for trainer John Sadler Feb. 1 over the course. Laura's Light has two wins and a second in the Grade III Jimmy Durante at Del Mar and looks to be the favorite here. Make it an all-light trifecta with Lighthouse despite a disappointing effort last time.
Firenze Fire is the standout in a field of nine entered for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III General George at Laurel Park. The 5-year-old son of Poseidon's Warrior finished second in both the Grade I Forego at Saratoga and the Grade I Vosburgh at Belmont last year before reporting fifth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He's won twice since that effort. Among the others, Wicked Trick has been burning up the ground on the New York circuit since he was claimed for $16,000 last August by Linda Rice, winning five straight. But Firenze Fire is a new level of competition for the 5-year-old Hat Trick gelding.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saguaro Road and Anna's Bandit are the early favorites for Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Barbara Fritchie at Laurel Park going 7 furlongs. Showing similar pace-stalking running styles, they drew the inside gates in a field of six so there should be some jockey tactics on display during the run down the backstretch. None of the other four is out of this by any means.
Hard Not to Love is hard not to like among the five entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Santa Monica at Santa Anita. The 4-year-old Hard Spun filly is 4-for-5 with the last win being a last-to-first victory by 2 3/4 lengths in the Grade I La Brea Stakes over the same 7 furlongs in December. Mother Mother was third in that heat, came back to win a listed stakes last month and will try again. Zusha and Lady Ninja have some claims, too.
Killybegs Captain is the lukewarm morning-line favorite in a field of nine for Saturday's $100,000 Pelican Stakes -- 6 furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs. The 6-year-old son of Mizzen Mast won this last year and has been competitive since in tougher company, albeit without winning much. He did take the Grade III De Francis Dash at Laurel in September.
Search in vain for a solid favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Wide Country at Laurel Park. Bella Aurora tops the morning line -- at odds of 3-1 -- but a case could be made for most, if not all, of the nine 3-year-old fillies.
It's 3-year-old fillies at Oaklawn Park, too, in Saturday's $125,000 Dixie Belle at 6 furlongs. Specially and Wasabi Girl caught the oddsmaker's eye among five entries. Specially, a Tapiture filly, is 2-for-3 and comes off a Fair Grounds win. Wasabi Girl, by Shanghai Bobby, took a record of two wins and two seconds to New Mexico for her last start Nov. 27, finishing third in the Zia Park Princess.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Mineshaft at Fair Grounds drew a fascinating field. In addition to the first three finishers in last month's Grade III Louisiana -- Silver Dust, Blended Citizen and Gun It -- the 1 1/16-miles event has: Hofburg, second in the 2018 Florida Derby and third in that year's Belmont; Captivating Moon, third in last year's Grade I Arlington Million on the grass; Cutting Humor, winner of last year's Grade III Sunland Park Derby; Winning Number, disqualified from victory in last year's Iowa Derby; and Pirate's Punch, an improving 4-year-old who won over the course last time out by 11 1/2 lengths with a 101 Beyer Speed Figure.
Someday Jones, Monongahela and Always Mining mix it up in Saturday's $100,000 John B. Campbell at Laurel Park going 1 1/16 miles. Those three have been heavy hitter on the local circuit and the other four seem to need a bit more to contend here.
Entries for Monday's $500,000 Grade III Razorback Handicap were pending at press time.
Golden Award, Restless Rider and Cookie Dough top a field of six for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Royal Delta at Gulfstream Park. Golden Award won the Grade III Turnback the Alarm at Aqueduct in her last trip to the track. Restless Rider makes her first start since finishing 12th in the Kentucky Oaks last May but posted seven exacta finishes before that, including a second in the 2018 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Cookie Dough was last seen finishing second in the Grade III Rampart at Gulfstream Park Dec. 14.
Entries for Monday's $200,000 Grade III Bayakoa at Oaklawn Park were not yet available at deadline.
News and Notes
Ben Walden Jr. has signed on as the Chief Operating Officer of the Royal Saint Lucia Turf Club and will oversee the organization's second-ever race meeting on Sunday. Walden, founder of Vinery Stud, has held a host of influential positions in the North American racing industry. He is the son of the legendary Ben Walden Sr. and brother of Elliott Walden, president of WinStar Farm and a member of the China Horse Club Advisory Board. The CHC has been the driving force behind the creation of an international racing program on the Caribbean island.
"Ben Walden comes to Saint Lucia with a wealth of knowledge and experience and we look forward to his contribution here,” said Teo Ah Khing, Chairman of the Royal Saint Lucia Turf Club and founder of the CHC. "This is an industry built on relationships and our Club is working diligently to be part of the local community as well as the international racing community. Ben is going to be integral to growing these relationships as well as mentoring the young Saint Lucians who are entering this new industry."
Cookie Dough, seen winning the My Dear Girl Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes, is among the favorites for Saturday's Grade III Royal Delta at Gulfstream Park, Photo by Leslie Martin, Courtesy Gulfstream Park