With the Kentucky Derby in "calm before the storm" mode, a battle of international titans in Hong Kong took center stage in weekend racing.
Churchill Downs, meanwhile, got Derby Week proceedings under way successfully with a new sprint for 3-year-olds.
Some of the aspirants to contention in the Classic Division mixed it up at Aqueduct as the Big A prepares to hand off the New York baton to Belmont Park. And there was a major upset on the turf at Santa Anita.
Diving right in:
The field is not yet quite set but Saturday's $2 million, Grade I Kentucky Derby looks like a classic shootout among horses who have earned their way into the race. American Pharoah is getting rave reviews and is the expected morning-line favorite for the Run for the Roses. But Dortmund, Carpe Diem, Frosted, International Star, Mubtaahij and Firing Line all have shown dominance running against other rivals.
American Pharoah worked 5 furlongs Sunday at Churchill Downs in 58 2/5 seconds, the fastest of 32 at that distance. Churchill Downs quoted clocker and bloodstock agent Gary Young about the colt's massive stride: "I've been doing this for 35 years and he might be the best horse I've ever seen. He's simply like Michael Jordan and stays in the air like he did in his rookie year. He stays in the air longer than any horse and you get the feeling that there's not one gear left but he may have two, three or four gears."
Trainer Bob Baffert, who watched the workout, added, "From here on out, we have to keep him happy." Baffert also trains Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund, who also will be among the favorites on Saturday.
Ten other likely starters worked in seven different venues on Saturday morning, with UAE Derby winner Mubtaahij at Arlington Park, a couple in Florida, a few more still in California and the others at locations around Louisville and Lexington. Only 20 can start in the Derby and there is a waiting list, headed by the Nick Zito-trained Frammento.
The pre-race unknowns are whether any of the top 20 points-earners drop out of the field and the weather. Rain on Saturday caused some training concerns but the long-range forecast is good, with little likelihood of precipitation during the remainder of the week and Derby Day itself forecast to be dry with the high in the upper 70s.
Blazing Speed got a dream trip in Sunday's HK$20 million, Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at Sha Tin in Hong Kong and jockey Neil Callan patiently exploited the ride for an impressive victory for the home team. But the race again proved its international mettle as an up-and-coming Japanese runner, Staphanos, put a nose in front of Australia's Royal Ascot-bound Criterion for second. And local runner Designs On Rome, fresh from a successful trip to Dubai, finished a good fourth. Blazing Speed, a 6-year-old Dylan Thomas gelding, settled nicely behind the first flight in the 2,000-meters race and, despite a slow pace, Callan didn't need to do anything until the field turned for home. Then, he moved his mount outside the front-runners and kicked him into gear. He quickly was gone, living up to his name with a blazing final 200 meters and winning by 2 lengths. Callan was celebrating at the wire 2:02.89 after the gate opened. A versatile sort, Blazing Speed has competed at the highest level in Hong Kong at distances ranging from 1,600 meters to 2,400 meters. He won two legs of the local Triple Crown last season. Callan said Sunday's breakthrough at the international Group 1 level was a case of everything going right. "He jumped great and I couldn't believe I landed in my position so early," the rider said. "After that, it was just matter of keeping him relaxed and waiting for the straight." And trainer Tony Cruz credited Callan with taking advantage of the opportunity he was presented. "I told Neil just to ride a very patient race," said Cruz, himself a six-time Hong Kong champion rider. "Just be patient. Wait for the straight. Be patient. He rode a perfect race." Cruz said he will "see what's left locally" in the dwindling Hong Kong season. "Then we'll program for elsewhere, as well," he added. Staphanos also is one to watch as he didn't get a chance to show his full ability Sunday. "He was traveling nicely until the final turn," said jockey Yuichi ***. "But the winner was just outside of him and I had no space to shift out. He showed a very powerful late kick when he got clear."
In the companion HK Group 2 Sprint Cup, Dundonnell rallied late to sweep by stablemate Gold-Fun and win by 1 1/4 lengths. Smart Volatility finished third in the 1,200 meters event, clocked in 1:08.37. Peniaphobia finished fourth in his return bout after running on the Dubai World Cup card. Lucky Nine was next-last of the 10 starters. Dundonnell, a 5-year-old gelding by First Defence out of the Danzig mare Family, started his career in England and Gold-Fun originally raced in Ireland. The latter is entered for both sprints at Royal Ascot in June and Richard Gibson, who trains both, said Dundonnell could make an appearance at that meeting, too. "The owner will make the decision," he said. "Both horses would be good enough to go."
Next Sunday's Sha Tin card features the Group 1 Champion Mile, with top-rated Able Friend slated to face off with Hong Kong Derby winner Luger.
Meanwhile, back in North America:
Effinex got by pacesetting Red Rifle in the final sixteenth to win Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Excelsior Stakes at Aqueduct by 1/2 length. The favorite, Wicked Strong, tracked the early pace but weakened late and finished third, another 2 1/4 lengths back. Micromanage could manage only a far-distant fourth-place showing. Effinex, a 4-year-old Mineshaft colt, ran 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 2:02.16 with Angel Arroyo up. Trainer Jimmy Jerkens, who handles both the winner and Wicked Strong, said Effinex benefitted from a rest after a strenuous campaign last year. Wicked Strong, he added, was up against it after having had just one start this winter in Florida. "You try to do what you can in the morning but there's only so much you can do," Jerkens said of Wicked Strong's effort. "He'll be back."
Cinco Charlie led all the way to a 1 1/2-lengths victory in Saturday's initial running of the $100,000 William Walker Stakes at Churchill Downs. The 6-furlongs sprint, named in honor of a 19th Century African-American jockey, replaced the Derby Trial on the meet-opening program under the twin spires. It drew several horses whose distance limitations precluded Kentucky Derby consideration. Cinco Charlie, an Indian Charlie colt, set a brisk pace, then finished in 1:10.86 over a good, sealed track with Ricardo Santana Jr. riding. Senor Grits made up ground late to finish second and the odd-son favorite, Blofeld, finished third in his first start in nearly six months. Cinco Charlie now has won four of his last five starts but finished second in the 1 1/16-miles Mine That Bird Derby in New Mexico. Scott Blasi, assistant to winning trainer Steve Asmussen, said, "He's a professional race horse. He's a pleasure. He ran his race today, just like he always does." He said Cinco Charlie may go next in the 7-furlongs, Grade II Woody Stephens on Belmont Stakes day.
Calgary Cat saved ground in Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian), Grade III Wilshire Stakes at Woodbine while working forward from the back of the pack, then pounced late to defeat pacesetting Parise by 1/2 length. Puntrooskie finished 4 lengths farther back in third. Calgary Cat, a 5-year-old Cowtown Cat gelding named Canada's top sprinter of 2014, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather course in 1:08.98 with Eurico da Silva in the irons. "I think he's a better horse this year," da Silva said. "Once he got clear on the outside, I knew it was over."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Irish Jasper came from last of five to win Sunday's $100,000 Belle Harbor Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct by 1 length over Perchance with early leader Lakeside Sunset third. Paulassilverlining finished fourth and her rider's claim of foul for stretch interference against the top two was disallowed. Irish Jasper, a daughter of First Defence, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.85 with Kendrick Carmouche up. After starting her career in the claiming ranks, Irish Jasper wintered in Florida where she won the Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay before coming up short around two turns. She lost all chance with a bad start at Pimlico on the way back to New York. "She came out of the race really good," said owner and trainer Derek Ryan. "I was confident she'd run a good race (Sunday)."
Si Sage stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Last Tycoon Stakes at Santa Anita, led the field into the stretch and kicked away to win by 3 1/4 lengths at odds of 42-1. Ganesh was best of the rest with Abbey Vale third. Si Sage, a 5-year-old, French-bred son of Sageburg, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm going in 2:02.08 with Elvis Trujillo up. Si Sage had not won since taking an allowance event at Chantilly in France in March of 2013 although he had been second and third in graded stakes in California. He finished a good sixth in the Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji last spring. Trainer Darrell Vienna added blinkers for Saturday's run. "Frankly, I was hoping they would make the difference for him." Asked what the victory proved to him, Vienna added, "It proved that finally he can win a race for us." As Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee has been heard to mutter, "It's an easy game."
Filly & Mare Turf
As promised, Friday's $150,000, Grade III Bewitch Stakes at Keeneland was a wide-open scramble. Kitten's Point rallied four-wide late to get home first by 1/2 length over Cay Dancer, who in turn was 1 1/2 lengths better than 40-1 long shot Maria Maria. Courtesan, also dispatched at 40-1 odds, finished fourth and the favorite, White Rose, was sixth after getting an extremely wide trip around the big field. Kitten's Point, a 5-year-old Kitten's Joy mare, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:30.28 with Edgar Prado up. She finished third in the Grade III Orchid at Gulfstream Park before heading north. "I rode her before going a mile, a mile and a sixteenth, mile and an eighth," Prado said. "I think she's a very nice filly, and she can adjust to any distance."
Rerun rallied gamely on the outside of rivals in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Miami Mile at Gulfstream Park and went on to post the 20-1 upset by 1/2 length over the favorite, Grand Tito. Shatak came from last of nine to get show money. Rerun, a 6-year-old Grand Reward gelding, finished in 1:37.55 over firm going with Jose Caraballo at the controls. "I told the jockey to sit as long as possible before he made his run," said winning trainer Chad Stewart. "A couple times, the horse made his move a little early and he'd kind of be right there and hang a little bit. The jockey rode him perfectly."
G. G. Ryder got by pacesetter Summer Hit in the final yards of Saturday's $100,000, Grade III San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate Fields, winning by 1/2 length. Are You Kidding Me was 3/4 lengths farther back in third and the favorite, Edge of Reality, was a dull sixth. G.G. Ryder, a 4-year-old colt by Chhaya Dance, finished in 1:37.87 over soft turf. Ricardo Gonzalez rode the winner. "He's a nice horse," Gonzalez said. "All you have to do is get him in the right spot and he'll come through for you."
Blingismything, bouncing back on two weeks' rest, rallied late to capture Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Wilshire Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita in a dramatic charge to the wire. The winner prevailed by a nose over Smoove It with Birdlover a head farther back, Indecise a nose behind that one and Sky Treasure only 1/2 length farther back. Blingismything, a 5-year-old Arch mare, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:37.16 with Tyler Baze up. She finished third in the Grade III Las Cienegas down the hillside turf course on April 11.
Baffle Me had too much punch in the lane for her rivals in Saturday's $75,000 Powder Break Stakes for fillies and mares at Gulfstream Park, winning off by 2 1/2 lengths from E B Ryder. Big N Toasty finished third. Baffle Me, a 6-year-old mare by First Samurai, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:40.67.
Tensas Harbor rallied from far back to win Friday's $60,000, off-the-turf Matron Stakes for fillies and mares at Evangeline Downs by 1 length over Hot Tempo. Synapse finished third. Tensas Harbor, a 5-year-old Private Vow mare, finished in 1:37.88 over a sloppy main track with Diego Saenz in the irons.
Friday's $200,000, Grade III Texas Mile at Lone Star Park, along with all but one race on the rest of the card, was canceled because of heavy rain and strong thunderstorms. It was the third cancellation of the young season at the Dallas-Fort Worth area track. The Texas Mile was rescheduled for May 1.