Week of April 8, 2013
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

While the Derby prep races may have dominated the weekend headlines, the Oaks-bound fillies most impressed some racing fans.

A pair of unbeaten 3-year-olds—Verrazano and Vyjack—met in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial, and it was the Todd Pletcher-trained Verrazano who came out on top, although not in the most stylish fashion. The race began ugly, with plenty of bumping and Freedom Child in the outside post still being held by the assistant starter when the gates open; ultimately, he was declared a non-starter and those who wagered on him had their bets refunded. From the rail, 77-1 longshot Chrisandthecapper went to the early lead, setting pedestrian fractions ahead of Verrazano and Elnaawi. Rounding the final turn, Verrazano cruised past Chrisandthecapper, but could not easily put away Vyjack who had pulled up alongside him. Ultimately, the 4-5 favorite persevered, but only by less than a length to the fast-closing Normandy Invasion who finished a neck ahead of Vyjack. The top three finishers are now headed to Churchill Downs, although who will ride two of them is not yet clear: John Velazquez will need to choose between Verrazano and Florida Derby winner Orb, while Javier Castellano may stick with Louisiana Derby winner Revolutionary rather than ride Normandy Invasion. Note: on Sunday, John Velazquez took a spill in the 7th race at Aqueduct and reportedly suffered a “fractured rib and chipped radius bone” in his right wrist. How the injury may affect his Derby aspirations is unknown at this time, but he is expected to miss his mount on Wise Dan in this coming Friday’s Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile at Keeneland.

On the West Coast, a trio of Bob Baffert trainees, led by favored Flashback, went postward in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby, but it was Doug O’Neill’s Goldencents who, after battling Super Ninety Nine early on, took control and beat the favorite by 1-1/4 lengths. Super Ninety Nine finished third, a distant 8-1/2 lengths back. For O’Neill, he celebrates back-to-back Santa Anita victories—last year, his Santa Anita Derby winner I’ll Have Another went on to capture the first two legs of the Triple Crown with a relative unknown jockey, Mario Gutierrez. This year, jockey Kevin Krigger got the job done, winning his first Grade 1 race, and now appears headed to Louisville. Perhaps as fate would have it, one of Goldencents’ owners is University of Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino.

UPDATE: It was announced late Sunday that Flashback is off the Derby trail with an injury.

While all of the national media’s attention was focused on these two races, the three prep races for the Kentucky Oaks offered spectacular performances, including two by Juddmonte Farms-owned fillies. In the Grade 2 Gazelle Stakes at Aqueduct, the First Defence filly Close Hatches successfully stretched out to 1-1/8 miles in only her third start, winning in wire-to-wire fashion. Beautifully-bred, her third dam is a half-sister to Kentucky Oaks winner Blush with Pride, second dam to Kentucky Oaks and Belmont Stakes winner Rags to Riches. Close Hatches’ winning time (1:50.53) was just a tick above the final time posted by Verrazano in the Wood Memorial (1:50.27)—a very impressive achievement considering her relative inexperience. The highly-regarded Princess of Sylmar who had won the Busanda and Busher Stakes earlier this year at Aqueduct by a combined 14 lengths finished second; Sagamore Farm’s Walkwithapurpose held on for third.

In Keeneland’s Grade 1 Ashland, Juddmonte trainer Bill Mott made the unusual decision to run back Emollient just one week after her crushing 30-length defeat to Dreaming of Julia in the Grade 2 Gulfstream Park Oaks. Obviously, the Hall of Fame trainer knew exactly what he was doing, as the Empire Maker filly—who had never run on synthetic or even turf before—went to the lead and never looked back, crushing a field of 12 rivals by 9 lengths. Grade 3-placed turfster Tuttipaesi ran on late for second, reversing form against third-place finisher Kitten’s Point who had beaten her stablemate in the Herecomesthebride Stakes.

Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Filly champion Beholder solidified her Oaks position, winning the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks in impressive wire-to-wire fashion. The only surprise was Grade 1 Las Virgenes runner-up Fiftyshadesofhay’s inability to hang on to second, as 16-1 longshot Iotapa slipped past her late. Beholder has yet to attempt the Kentucky Oaks’ 9-furlong distance—and the fact that her half-brother Into Mischief excelled at 7-furlongs doesn’t bode well for her being up to the task. Regardless, based on the performances we’ve seen this spring, the Kentucky Oaks is shaping up to be an extremely competitive race with far more impressive runners than we’ve seen with the 3-year-old males this year.

The good form line from the Las Virgenes was further validated when third-place finisher Scarlet Strike switched back to turf and won the 9-furlong Grade 3 Providencia Stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday. A half-sister to Grade 1 King’s Bishop victor Visionaire, Scarlet Strike has never run out of the money in 10 starts, including three Grade 1 events. It remains to be see if her future is on turf, dirt or synthetic—or a mixture of all three.

The other graded turf stakes last week was the Grade 3 Transylvania Stakes on Friday’s opening day at Keeneland. Yet another 3-year-old trainee of Todd Pletcher, Jack Milton got his first stakes win, outlasting Ontario-bred Up With the Birds, a Stormy Atlantic colt being aimed for the Queen’s Plate. Front-running Redwood Kitten gave way in the stretch, but held on for third.

In addition to the 7-furlong Grade 3 Bay Shore Stakes for 3-year-old males—won by Nick Zito-trained Declan’s Warrior—there were two graded sprints for older males this weekend. In the Grade 2 Potrero Grande Stakes at Santa Anita, Grade 1 Malibu Stakes victor Jimmy Creed made a successful 2013 debut for Richard Mandella. After battling (and outlasting) Comma to the Top early on, he easily held off last year’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint runner-up Unbridled’s Note; Apriority came in third. According to Mandella, the Grade 1 Metropolitan Mile on May 27 may be Jimmy Creed’s next goal. Meanwhile, at Aqueduct on Saturday, lightly-regarded Swagger Jack upset California invader Sahara Sky and post-time favorite Discreet Dancer in the Grade 1 Carter Handicap. Quick early fractions set it up perfectly for the late-closing Swagger Jack, although Sahara Sky was moving extremely well late to get second. Third-place finisher Discreet Dancer was just a neck in front of Fort Loudon. It’s quite possible we’ll see the top three finishers in the Met Mile as well.

The weekend’s only event exclusively for older mares, the Grade 2 Ruffian Handicap at Aqueduct was won by veteran 5-year-old mare Withgreatpleasure, her first graded stakes victory in 31 lifetime starts.

Keep up with all the racing commentary and news at Raceday 360 Wire!

Last Week’s Races

2013 Ruffian Handicap Replay
Withgreatpleasure kicks off the new rendition of the Ruffian with a bang

Video courtesy of NYRA

2013 Gazelle Stake Replay
Close Hatches takes them all the way.

Video courtesy of NYRA

2013 Bay Shore Stakes Replay
Declan’s Warrior runs down Clearly Now.

Video courtesy of NYRA

2013 Carter Handicap Replay
Swagger Jack holds on.

Video courtesy of NYRA

2013 Wood Memorial Replay
Verrazano, your likely Kentucky Derby favorite.

Video courtesy of NYRA

2013 Ashland Stakes Replay
Emollient wires the field after running last week.

Video courtesy of Keeneland

Download Brisnet.com Results Charts
2013 Ashland Stakes Chart
2013 Bay Shore Stakes Chart
2013 Carter Handicap Chart
2013 Gazelle Stakes Chart
2013 Ruffian Handicap Chart
2013 Santa Anita Derby Chart
2013 Santa Anita Oaks Chart
2013 Potrero Grande Stakes Chart
2013 Providencia Stakes Chart
2013 Wood Memorial Chart

Check probable starters at Horse Racing Nation’s Stakes Tracker

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Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet