Weekend Preview: Road to Roses sprints on in Florida, California

With Mourinho well-ensconced among the Kentucky Derby favorites after an impressive win at Oaklawn Park, the “Road to the Roses” continues this weekend with races in Florida and California.

Gulfstream Park, a week out from the $16 million Pegasus World Cup, features four Sunshine Millions races. Aqueduct, Laurel Park, Oaklawn Park and Fair Grounds continue their wintertime runs, although the cold snap extending deep into the southern United Stakes impacts most of them.

On the international scene, 4-year-olds start their quest for the BMW Hong Kong Derby, England’s All-Weather Championship series continues to turn out quality contenders and Comicas and Winter Lightning were big winners on the second meeting of the Dubai World Cup Carnival.

Without further ado:

The Road to the Roses

Mourinho, a son of 2010 Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, went straight to the lead in Monday’s $150,000 Smarty Jones Stakes and never was tested, coasting home first by 3 1/4 lengths, ridden out by Hot Springs native Drayden Van Dyke. He covered 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.25 with Combatant second and Tap Daddy third. Navistar was scratched.

“We always hoped he’d pass the two turn test. He broke well and was able to make the early lead,” winning trainer Bob Baffert said by phone from California. “He looked like he had plenty left. We’re very encouraged. We’re excited. It’s that time of year when you start to get excited.”

Baffert said he hasn’t decided Mourinho’s next race but said the $500,000 Grade III Southwest Stakes on Feb. 19, the next step in the Arkansas Derby series, “may be a good spot. We’ll get him back to California and see what happens.”

Noting that long-time friend, rival and fellow Hall of Fame member D. Wayne Lukas handled Mourinho for him at Oaklawn, Baffert quipped, “Who would have thought 37 years ago that Trump would be president and D. Wayne Lukas would be my assistant trainer?”

Worth noting: Both Combatant and Tap Daddy are trained by Steve Asmussen — the same guy who sent out Principe Guilherme, Snapper Sinclair and Zing Zang to finish second, third and fourth in Saturday’s Grade III Le Comte at Fair Grounds. It’s no fun to lose but, if one must, having that much quality so close to the winners is some consolation.

This weekend:

Choo Choo, a Calumet Farm hombred son of English Channel, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $100,000 California Derby on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. The colt finished fourth in the Grade III Cecil B. Demille at Del Mar in November and third in the Eddie Logan at Santa Anita last month — both on the turf. Mugaritz steps up after winning two straight at Golden Gate. Intimidate won the King Glorious Stakes at Los Alamitos in his last start.

World of Trouble and He Hate Me are the oddsmaker’s features among 10 3-year-olds set for Saturday’s $125,000 Pasco Stakes, going 7 furlongs at Tampa Bay Downs. World of Trouble, a Florida-bred colt by Kantharos, makes his first start since finishing second in the Affirmed Division of the Florida Sire Stakes last September. He Hate Me, another bred in the Sunshine State, is by Algorithms. He is 2-for-2 but makes his first start since winning the Tremont Stakes at Belmont Park way back last June. Both have been working at Palm Meadows with He Hate Me looking a bit the more impressive.

Oaks Preps

Saturday’s $125,000 Dixie Belle, 6 furlongs at Oaklawn Park, has a cast of seven with Amy’s Challenge and Mia Mischief the heavy favorites. Amy’s Challenge, an Artie Schiller filly, was 2-for-2 as a 2-year-old at Canterbury Park in Minnesota but has been working at Oaklawn. Mia Mischief, an Into Mischief filly, had two wins and two seconds last year, all in Kentucky, and ships in from her current base in New Orleans.

Only six turned out for Saturday’s $125,000, 7-furlongs Gasparilla at Tampa Bay Downs. The 3-2 morning-line favorite is Almond Roca, a Speightstown filly trained by Graham Motion who won the Sandpiper Stakes over the same track last month. Posted at 2-1 on the line is Barrier Island, also by Speightstown but trained by Shug McGaughey. She got to the winner’s circle for the first time in her last outing at Gulfstream Park Dec. 17.

Sunday’s $100,000 Busanda is 9 furlongs at Aqueduct, with entries pending.

Elsewhere:

Gulfstream Park

With just one week to go before the $16 million Pegasus World Cup, Saturday is Sunshine Millions Day.

Six signed on for the $200,000 Classic. Among them we find Mr. Jordan, winner of the Millions Classic Preview Nov. 11 at Gulfstream Park west and later second in the Grade III Harlan’s Holiday, and Richard the Great, second in the Preview and third in the Harlan’s Holiday. Beyond them, not so great.

Eight turned out for the $150,000 Turf at 1 1/16 miles. Enterprising, fourth in last summer’s Grade I Arlington Million, returns for this after winning the Preview by 1 1/4 lengths over Galleon Mast, who also joins this bunch. So does the busy Charlie Mops, who was third in the Preview and also third in each of two subsequent starts. Our Way won this race last year but hasn’t won since. Manchurian High won two years ago but recently has been jumping over things in his races.

Ten are set for the $150,000 Filly & Mare Turf at the same distance and seven are entered for the $100,000 Sprint, which likely will feature the day’s best bet in international Group 1 warrior X Y Jet.

Santa Anita

Saturday’s $100,000 Grade III Las Cienegas Stakes down the hillside turf course lured a well-matched cast of nine fillies and mares.

Aqueduct

A matched set of 9-furlongs races spreads across the two days — Saturday’s $100,000 Jazil with Doyouknowsomething as the 6-5 favorite and Sunday’s Ladies Handicap for fillies and mares.

Laurel Park

Saturday’s card at the Maryland oval inludes a pair of $100,000 sprints at 6 furlongs — the Fire Plug with Awesome Banner and Favorite Tale in the field and the distaffers-only What a Summer Stakes featuring Angel at War, undefeated in six previous outings.

Over the bounding waves:

Hong Kong

Nothinglikemore is the highest rated of the dozen set for Sunday’s Hong Kong Classic Mile at Sha Tin, first in the three-race series for 4-year-olds that culminates in the prestigious BMW Hong Kong Derby March 18. The Husson gelding is 1-for-2 this season, the loss being a late-running short-head second to Southern Legend in his most recent start after a bit of a hop out of the gate. Last season, he was 4-for-4. Joao Moreira rides for trainer John Size and a victory would mark him as one to help fill the vacuum left by a spate of recent top-tier retirements.

Zac Purton will handle the reins attached to Exultant, a winner in his last start going 2,000 meters. Trainer Tony Cruz is high on Exultant but said Thursday at Sha Tin, “I’m just doubtful about the mile, it might be a bit short for him.”

Ever-present trainer John Moore sends out four — Ruthven, Rivet, Good Standing and Grand Chancellor — but said they may not be as progressive as last year’s winner, Rapper Dragon. Of this crop, Moore said early in the week, “The main target for them is the Derby and they’ll be right on song when the time comes.”

Rivet, who worked well on Thursday, is of particular interest. The Fastnet Rock colt got off to a brilliant start as a 2-year-old in England, defeating Thunder Snow in the Champagne Stakes at Doncaster in 2016, then winning the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy. He has not won since and is 0-for-3 in Hong Kong.

United Arab Emirates

Comicas rallied sharply in the final 200 meters from well behind the leading trio to land Thursday night’s featured Group 3 Dubawi Stakes at Meydan. Muarrab held on for second after contesting the pace and 12-year-old Reynaldothewizard, seeking his fifth win in the event, settled for third with a late rally along the rail. Comicas, with William Buick up for Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby, scored by 1 1/4 lengths.

“He is a lovely, honest horse who handles this surface particularly well and the one thing we do know about him is he may be a bit outpaced early, but he is going to run home strongly,” Buick said. “That basically is what he has done here because they went very hard up front, as we expected, and it has panned out perfectly for him.”

While it’s still early innings, the result could be meaningful later in the season. Comicas was runner-up in last season’s Group 1 Golden Shaheen on World Cup night at Meydan and, back in form, the 5-year-old Distorted Humor gelding is a threat again.

And don’t count out Reynaldothewizard from bigger things. His trainer, Satish Seemar, commenting, “He’s not done,” said his veteran might move on to Super Saturday’s races with a shot at another Golden Shaheen run March 31.

Godolphin also landed the evening’s secondary feature, the UAE 1000 Guineas Trial, with Winter Lightning, a half-sibling to last year’s 3-year-old male sensation, Thunder Snow. Winter Lightning, with Patrick Cosgrave up, sat just off a contested early pace, then hooked up in a tight stretch duel with the Doug Watson-trained Rayaa before prevailing by a desperate nose. It was another 10 lengths back to Expressly in third.

Winter Lightning, a Shamardal filly, was having her first run of the season. She won her only previous start, at Newmarket in October, by 2 1/2 lengths. Rayaa, an American-bred filly by Tiz Wonderful, also won her only previous race, that coming Dec. 7 over the Meydan surface. Neither lost any luster as candidates for the $250,000 UAE 1000 Guineas on Feb. 8 or the $250,000 Group 3 UAE Oaks on March 1.

Winter Lightning’s full sister, Ihtimal, won both the UAE 1000 Guineas and UAE Oaks in 2014.

England

Corinthia Knight and Watersmeet joined the ranks of classy runners qualified for the All-Weather Championships finals on Good Friday, March 30, at Lingfield. Corinthia Knight won for the first time over 6 furlongs in Tuesday’s Matchbook Betting Podcast Conditions Race on Polytrack at Kempton Park and Watersmeet landed the Betway Live Casino Conditions race on Tapeta at Wolverhampton Monday night.

Corinthia Knight, fourth in the Qatar Juvenile Turf Sprint at Del Mar on the Breeders’ Cup card last Nov. 4, earned a guaranteed spot in the finals. “The aim all winter for Corinthia Knight has been the 32Red Three-Year-Old All-Weather Championships on Good Friday,” said trainer Archie Watson. “There is only on race we can run Corinthia Knight in before the final and that is another Fast-Track Qualifier at Newcastle on Feb. 21. All being well, we will go there.”

By taking the extended 2-miles Fast-Track Qualifier in course-record time of 3:31.92, Watersmeet gained a free pass to the Betway All-Weather Marathon Championship on Good Friday.

That’s it for now.

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