The Dubai World Cup Carnival kicks off its eight-week run-up to World Cup night with a noteworthy seven-race program Friday night at Meydan Racecourse.
The Meydan card includes several of the top horses from the 2021 Carnival coming off long layoffs and should turn up a few contenders for both the $20 million Group 1 Saudi Cup in Feburary and the Dubai World Cup itself the following month.
It's a slow weekend elsewhere, with only a scattering of graded stakes around North America and two interesting races for 3-year-olds at Tampa Bay Downs.
We also have news of the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Administration and a wrinkle in the ongoing Chicago Bears-Arlington Park saga, both in News and Notes.
Let's rock and/or roll.
The Road to the Roses
Cattin, a Neolithic colt trained by Ralph Nicks, assumes the favorite role in Saturday's $125,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs on the strength of a minor upset victory in the local Inaugural Stakes Dec. 4. Before that win, Cattin finished fourth and then third, well-beaten both times, in the Affirmed and In Reality Divisions of the Florida Sire Stakes at Gulfstream Park. He won at first asking in a $50,000 maiden claimer July 31 and gets Lasix for the first time.
None of the other six in the Pasco is especially scary although Provocateur bears a close look. The $600,000 yearling purchase, trained by Todd Pletcher, is by Into Mischief, out of the Cherokee Run mare Cayala. He got his first win Dec. 23 in his third start and also gets first Lasix.
The Pasco is run at 7 furlongs around one turn and is not included in Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series.
The Road to the Oaks
Saturday's $150,000 Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs has a field of seven 3-year-old fillies with the 1-2 finishers from the local Sandpiper Stakes and a Gulfstream Park invader topping the list.
The 2-1 morning-line favorite for the 7-furlongs Gasparilla is Outfoxed, a Valiant Minister filly trained by Bill Mott. She exits victories in the Susan's Girl and My Dear Girl divisions of the Florida Sire Stakes at Gulfstream Park, drawing off to with the latter by 9 1/4 lengths in her first trip around two turns.
Strategic Bird, by Noble Bird, is 2-for-2 for trainer Mark Casse after winning her debut at Gulfstream Park by 12 3/4 lengths and then battling all the way to win the Sandpiper by a neck over Devine Charger. Strategic Bird gets Lasix for the first time. Devine Charger, a Will Take Charge filly, started her career on the grass, picked things up when switching surfaces two starts back and turned in a career-best effort in the Sandpiper. She also returns here.
Goddess of Fire, a Mineshaft filly from the Todd Pletcher barn, also gets first Lasix after disappointing performances at Churchill Downs and Belmont Park late last season.
Gulfstream Park / Santa Anita
The warm-weather tracks on Saturday again share the remnants of the "Sunshine Millions" races for state-bred horses although the program is no longer branded and not a head-to-head competition.
The "Sunshine Millions" started in 2003 as a one-day battle between Florida-breds and Californina-breds with four races held at Gulfstream Park and four at Santa Anita. The concept struggled and has morphed over the years, currently lacking much in the way of marketing pizzaz.
Saturday, Santa Anita has the $150,000 Sunshine Millions Filly & Mare Turf Sprint, the $200,000 Unusual Heat Turf Classic, the $200,000 California Cup Derby, the $200,000 Leigh Ann Howard California Cup Oaks and the $150,000 Don Valpredo California Cup Sprint.
Gulfstream Park counters with the downsized $75,000 Sunshine Classic and the $75,000 Sunshine Sprint.
It's slim pickings again around the U.S. racing centers.
Oaklawn Park has the $150,000 Fifth Season Stakes on Saturday with 9-year-old Rated R Superstar making his 2022 debut.
Aqueduct on Saturday offers the $100,000 Interborough Stakes with fillies and mares going 7 furlongs. Sunday, it's the $100,000 Ladies Handicap at 9 furlongs.
Turfway Park's weekend feature is Saturday's $100,000 Likely Exchange Stakes with fillies and mares going 1 mile on the all-weather course.
Around the world, around the clock:
The World Cup Carnival opens its eight-week run Friday at Meydan Racecourse with some serious prospects for upcoming gold and glory on full display. The seven-race card features the $250,000 Group 2 Al Maktoum Challenge Round 1, a 1,600-meter event on the dirt that starts the progression toward the Saudi Cup in February and the Dubai World Cup the following month.
Salute the Soldier returns from a 10-months layoff. He was third in this last year, then went on to win Rounds 2 and 3 before finishing fifth in the World Cup for trainer Fawzi Abdulla Naas.
Up and coming trainer Bhupat Seemar saddles five in Round 1 and some of them have attracted significant interest. Kafoo, a 4-year-old by Curlin out of 2010 Eclipse Champion 3-year-old filly Blind Luck, is 2-for-2 and attracted William Buick to ride. Secret Ambition makes his first start since winning the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night last year. Avant Garde came from Gulfstream Park a year ago to finish third in the Godolphin Mile and makes his return in this.
Perennial UAE training champion Doug Watson has two starters, headed by Thegreatcollection, who finished second in Round 1 and 2 of the Maktoum Challenge in 2021 before tailing off to finish fourth in the final round and seventh in the World Cup. He reported third in his comeback effort Dec. 16 in the Dubai Creek Mile.
Godolphin is not represented in the field but one of its former hopefuls, Eastern Joy, a half-brother to Thunder Snow and Winter Lightning, comes off a second in the Dubai Creek Mile for new owners. Sheik Hamdan Bin Mohammed Al Maktoum fields Hypothetical, who was last seen running fourth in the World Cup.
The other Group 2 on the program, the $180,000 Cape Verdi for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the turf, does have a strong Godolphin presence, including Soft Whisper. Last year's UAE 1,000 Guineas winner will try to get back on track after also-ran efforts in the Saudi Derby and the UAE Derby and a couple of late-season disappointments in England. Frankie Dettori has the mount.
There are seven races on the program, including one for Purebred Arabians. The Carnival continues weekly on Fridays until its conclusion on Super Saturday, March 5.
Al Zaraqaan had only two rivals to beat in Thursday's Betway Conditions Stakes but he did the job authoritatively enough that trainer Archie Watson and jockey Danny Tudhope now have him marked for the Winter Derby and the All-Weather Championships Betway Easter Classic.
Tudhope sent the 5-year-old Golden Horn gelding right to the lead in Thursday's race, turned into a headwind in the stretch but still pulled away to win by 3 3/4 lengths. Halimi was second, another 10 1/4 lengths ahead of Sir Chauvelin. Al Zaraqaan now is 4-for-4 on all-weather surfaces.
"That was a good performance from Al Zaraqaan, making his own running into a strong headwind in the straight and winning well," Watson said. "Danny was delighted with him. We will see how he comes out of the race but the Winter Derby Trial and Winter Derby itself would be nice options, I'm sure."
Tudhope added: "Al Zaraqaan has good form on the all-weather and has shown that again today."
Efforia is the overwhelming choice as Japan's Horse of the Year for 2021, proving that even the country's first Breeders' Cup victory can't trump success in the biggest local races. Efforia's 3-year-old season earned 277 votes for the Epiphaneia colt. Relegated to second in the voting by the nation's racing journalists was Loves Only You, who won the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf and two prestigious Group 1 races in Hong Kong and finished third, beaten a pair of necks by Mishriff and Chrono Genesis, in the Group 1 Longines Dubai Sheema Classic.
Loves Only You got 18 votes and Marche Lorraine, winner of the Breeders' Cup Distaff, got a single ballot.
Efforia's honor is both well deserved and a vote of confidence for the colt, the latest hope to end Japan's long, frustrating quest to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. He won four of his five starts in 2021, coming up just a nose shy of winning the Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby in his only loss. In his last two starts of the season, he defeated older rivals in the Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) and the Grade 1 Arima Kinen.
Hiroaki Akita, president and CEO of the Carrot Farm Company, owner of Efforia, said the colt won't be tackling the riches on offer in February and March in Saudi Arabia and Dubai. After some R&R, he said, Efforia will tackle the Grade 1 Osaka Hai at Hanshin April. 3.
"We have decided on a domestic campaign in the spring season, because some of the Arima Kinen winners weren't able to get a good result in Dubai and so on due to tiredness," Akita said.
Loves Only You was named top older female and Contrail, the 2020 Triple Crown winner, the top older male thanks to his victory in the Grade 1 Japan Cup. Both Loves Only You and Contrail are off to their breeding careers.
News and Notes
The Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority has turned to a veteran pro football lawyer, Lisa Lazarus, to head its somewhat problematic implementation of the federal takeover of much of American racing regulation.
Currently the head of the equine practice for a law firm, Lazarus previously held a business development role at the Fédération Equestre Internationale, the international governing body for equestrian sports. Earlier, she spent a decade working for the National Football League in labor relations and "partner development".
"I look forward to working with the impressive and diverse array of independent and industry experts at HISA to make racing safer and fairer for all," Lazarus said in a statement released by HISA. "As someone who has worked with the industry over the course of my career, and as a horse lover, I'm honored to be taking on this role."
With a July 1 deadline for takeover looming, HISA has compiled and published draft racetrack safety rules but has not been able to finalize medication draft rules or conclude an agreement with an enforcement entity. Leadership of the Association of Racing Commissioners International has complained the authority has been too slow in working with state commissions on details of function-sharing and costs.
The ARCI board last month urged the appointment of an executive director intimately familiar with the workings of state government.
"Failure to appoint someone who does not have this level of expertise jeopardizes a successful and timely implementation," ARCI Chair Robert Lopez said. "As the implementation is complicated and sensitive as to preserve millions of dollars in public funding for programs that will become the responsibility of the authority, somewho who clearly has experience with the ins and outs of state budgets, operations, public-private partnerships, and a familiarity of the U.S. and state governmental processes is absolutely necessary."
The National Horsemen's Benevolent and Protective Association also sued on constitutional grounds to block implementation of the law that created HISA.
On the Arlington Park front, one of the side notes to the Chicago Bears' Monday dismissal of their coach and general manager was the reassignment of the club's president and CEO Ted Phillips out of football operations. Phillips, the Bears said, will spend his time pursuing the acquisition and potential development of the now-shuttered Arlington International Racecourse. The sale is far from a done deal but Phillips said, "What's important now is that our focus for long-term development is exclusively on that property at Arlington Park."
If that laser focus on a potential new Bears stadium on the Arlington site is genuine, it could put a final stake through the heart of any hope for reviving racing there. The Bears' executive reshuffle could, on the other hand, be a polite way to move Phillips out of the football chain of command without outright dismissing him.
Efforia, seen winning the 2021 Arima Kinen, has been named Japan's 2021 Horse of the Year, photo courtesy of Japan Racing Association