Dubai World Cup’s field runneth over

The purse for the Dubai World Cup, which has been the richest race in the world for years, has been increased from $6 million to $10 million this year. No wonder it’s attracted one of its best fields ever.

Double Eclipse Award winner Gio Ponti heads the international field of 14 for the 1 1/4-mile race over the new Meydan Racecourse’s synthetic Tapeta Footings surface. Two other American-based horses, Richard’s Kid and Furthest Land, are also scheduled to run in the race that will go postward Saturday at about 10:45 a.m.

HRTV will televise the entire eight-race World Cup program that is worth $26.25 million in purse money.

Gio Ponti, second to the unbeaten Zenyatta in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, won Eclipse Awards as top male turf horse and top older male for 2009 and is expected to be one of the World Cup favorites with regular rider Ramon Dominguez aboard.

Richard’s Kid won last summer’s $1 million Grade 1 Pacific Classic as a 24-1 outsider and was victorious in the Grade 2 San Antonio Handicap at Santa Anita in his final prep for the World Cup. He’ll be ridden by Garrett Gomez.

Furthest Land was 21-1 when he won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita on Nov. 7. He’ll go off at a generous price again Saturday under Julien Leparoux.

Other talented runners in the field include Goodwood Stakes winner Gitano Hernando, who goes into the race having won three consecutive, and Twice Over, who has not run since finishing third behind Zenyatta and Gio Ponti in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Let us know who you like.

Score a couple for the John Shirreffs stable

So I’m on vacation in Arizona, taking in some spring training baseball, and lo and behold John Shirreffs, the trainer whom I voted No. 1 in my Eclipse Award balloting earlier this year, enjoyed quite a weekend.

Funny, but I haven’t heard from any of the detractors who derided me for voting for Shirreffs over a guy like Steve Asmussen, who they pointed out had way more wins and started way more horses in 2009.

True on both accounts, but as I pointed out then and I repeat now — the number of starters you send out does not prove your worth as a trainer. It’s win percentage, and Shirreffs’ annual rate of about 20 percent is pretty darn good.

Now back to Saturday, when Shirreffs had his horse — Zenyatta — far more prepared to win a comeback race than Asmussen. Score one for Shirreffs. Then, to top it off, the third best distaffer in Shirreffs’ barn, Zardana, beat the filly, Rachel Alexandra, who was running in a prep for the Apple Blossom Handicap and the big showdown against Zenyatta.

Just because John Shirreffs does not start 2,000 horses a year and doesn’t have racing operations in other parts of the nation doesn’t mean he’s not one of the top trainers in the business.

Sometimes, you just have to look a little bit beyond the raw numbers.

First ladies of racing return to the track

As much as most of us want to see both Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra win their races today to set up their showdown in the $5 million Apple Blossom Invitational, let’s not get ahead of ourselves.

Neither horse is a lock today by any means.

Reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra goes into the New Orleans Ladies Stakes at the Fair Grounds off a six-month layoff. Sure, the 4-year-old daughter of Medaglia d’Oro is 1-5 on the morning line, but that doesn’t mean horses the likes of Zardana and Clear Sailing don’t have a shot.

At Santa Anita, the unbeaten Zenyatta (14-0) will face eight rivals as the 1-9 morning-line favorite and give up 12 to 19 pounds in the process. As great as the 6-year-old Street Cry mare is, she’s not a machine. She’s going in off an 18-week layoff and it’s not an easy task to give up that much weight when returning to the track. Striking Dancer, who just won the Grade 2 La Canada Stakes, and Floating Heart are two talented fillies who can’t be discounted.

Remember, Secretariat had his Onion and Prove Out. Cigar had his Dare And Go, and Spectacular Bid had his Coastal.

I’m hoping they both win, stay healthy and meet at Oaklawn Park on April 9, but it’s no sure thing. In horse racing, never take anything for granted. Especially when weight and layoffs are involved.

Big weekend of Derby preps upcoming

A big weekend of Kentucky Derby prep races nears, with the Rebel Stakes at Oaklawn Park the toughest of the three on paper. Also on tap are the San Felipe Stakes at Santa Anita and the Tampa Bay Derby at Tampa Bay Downs.

It appears the Rebel will draw such highly regarded Derby contenders as Lookin At Lucky, Super Saver, Dublin and Noble’s Promise. The San Felipe likely will include Caracortado, Dave in Dixie, Sidney’s Candy and American Lion.

All three Derby preps will be run Saturday.

Here’s the latest Derby top 10 I turned in to the Paulick Report late Monday afternoon:

1. Lookin At Lucky — Rebel most likely will lead to start in Arkansas Derby on April 10
2. Eskendereya — He’ll go next in either Florida Derby (March 20) or Wood (April 3)
3. Super Saver — Will make 2010 debut in Rebel Stakes with Dominguez in saddle
4. Caracortado — Stiffest test to date for unbeaten Cal-bred gelding comes Saturday
5. Dublin — Loved the way he closed in Southwest Stakes; Lukas doesn’t hurt cause
6. Rule — Florida Derby at Gulfstream is Roman Ruler colt’s probable next start
7. Conveyance — Baffert is pointing this guy to the $800,000 Sunland Derby on March 28
8. Dave in Dixie — Stretch runner is one of Sadler’s two major Derby contenders
9. Discreetly Mine — Risen Star winner ticketed for Louisiana Derby on March 27
10. Buddy’s Saint — Deserves another shot; will go next in Wood Memorial at Aqueduct

Sidney’s Candy, trainer John Sadler’s other Derby contender, will be trying two turns for the first time in the 1 1/16-mile San Felipe. … Bob Baffert hasn’t given up on The Program, third in the Sham last Saturday. He believes the colt will be better on dirt. He might be right. Remember I Want Revenge?

Don’t despair race fans, things might be looking up

As the Great Race Place prepares to run its signature race, the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap, for the 73rd time today, all may not be lost on the local front that is California horse racing.

Consider:

* Upon returning home from a trip to California in which he managed to alienate the California Horse Racing Board, confound horsemen and perhaps shock the media with his announcement that he would not soon be replacing a Santa Anita track that on occasion resembles a lake more than a racing surface, Frank Stronach sent signals to the powers that be that he will indeed be replacing the track, for officials to continue searching for a suitable replacement. It appears Stronach might be doing a little posturing, seeking some concessions and perhaps financial help in laying down the new surface. He knows Santa Anita needs a new surface, and sooner rather than later. Now when that happens is anybody’s guess, but Stronach believes the new track can be laid down in eight weeks and it’s still a good bet that Santa Anita will have a new traditional dirt surface by the beginning of the Oak Tree meet.

* A weather forecast that called for a 70 percent chance of rain beginning early this morning and potentially causing the sixth cancellation of the meet and the first postponement of the Big ‘Cap, has suddenly turned in Santa Anita’s favor. The chance of rain has been reduced to 60 percent and a storm that was originally supposed to drop as much as two inches of rain on the Southland now is expected to yield about a half-inch, an amount even Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface can handle. For one of the few times this meet, track president Ron Charles may be able to smile today.

* There are two schools of thought regarding when California horse racing began its decline. Trainer Mel Stute believes the formation of the Thoroughbred Owners of California signaled the beginning of the demise, while another veteran horseman, Bruce Headley, says the additon of wood products to the state’s tracks beginning in the ’70s was the start of the downturn. Headley said he’s been witness to three eras — the traditional sandy loam tracks, the wood product tracks and the synthetic surfaces. He says his barn hasn’t suffered any fatalities since the synthetics were mandated by the CHRB, but injuries are much more plentiful. He cited Surf Cat, who was one of the soundest horses he’s ever trained yet suffered a career-ending shoulder injury during the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Santa Anita.

* Anybody who doesn’t think Alex Solis can still ride should check out a replay of Thursday’s third race at Santa Anita when Solis guided the Howard Zucker-trained Worth a Punt to a nose victory over Siete Machos in the starter allowance event. Sixth early on in the eight-horse field comprised of 3-year-olds, Solis saved ground with Worth a Punt around the turf, angled out in the stretch and closed resolutely to score his 12th victory of the meet. He raised that total to 13 on Friday when he won the seventh race for trainer Dan Hendricks. Hopefully, Solis will get the honor this year that he’s deserved for years by being voted into the Hall of Fame.

* Here’s our selections for today’s four graded stakes races at Santa Anita:
Sham — I like Nextdoorneighbor. Trainer Mike Machowsky believes the Lido Palace colt could be better than his unbeaten stablemate, Caracortado, and he’s got the numbers to win the Grade 3 event.
Santa Anita Oaks — Blind Luck won her last start by a nose in the one-mile Las Virgenes on talent alone. She’s not a one-mile filly. She’ll be better at today’s distance of 1 1/16 miles and even stronger in the 1 1/8-mile Kentucky Oaks on April 30 if she enters the starting gate.
Kilroe Mile — OK, I admit I’d like to see Fluke, the Grade 1 Citation Handicap winner at Hollywood Park on Nov. 27, win this one for trainer Humberto Ascanio, the late Bobby Frankel’s former assistant who’s lost most of his good horses to other trainers since Frankel’s death. Fluke is certainly capable of winning in this spot because he’s been first or second in four of his six grass races at the distance and is one for two over the Santa Anita lawn.
Santa Anita Handicap — The John Shirreffs Tour de Force continues as Neko Bay, coming off a victory in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Handicap on Jan. 9, finds the winner’s circle to give both Shirreffs and jockey Mike Smith their first taste of Big ‘Cap success. Shirreffs’ other entrant, Mast Track, is also dangerous if he gets out on the lead by himself. But let’s face it, nine of the 14 starters could win here in one of the most wide-open Big ‘Caps ever.

I leave you with a stretch replay of my favorite all-time Big ‘Cap, when Vigors came charging home from last to win the 1978 edition. I’ve never seen a horse who could accelerate as quickly as “the big white horse,” as track announcer Dave Johnson calls him, until Zenyatta hit the scene:

Rachel may face six rivals in comeback race

There will undoubtedly be many horsemen with talented fillies and mares who will try to steer clear of reigning Horse of the Year Rachel Alexandra and two-time Eclipse Award winner Zenyatta this year.

There are many lucrative filly and mare races thoughout the country that will not include either of the Big Two, making it possible to enjoy a nice payday without even stepping foot in the same state as Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.

But one Louisiana-based trainer, Glenn Delahoussaye, said Monday he’s not afraid to take on Rachel Alexandra in the March 13 New Orleans Ladies Stakes at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans with Clear Sailing, 3 for 3 this year.

The Ladies Stakes is scheduled to be Rachel Alexandra’s 2010 debut following an 8-0 2009 campaign. There are at least five other trainers who plan to run in the race, including Zenyatta’s trainer, John Shirreffs, who is hoping to enter Zardana.

Clear Sailing, a 4-year-old Empire Maker filly, is coming off a victory in the $60,000 Pelleteri Stakes at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 13.

“I don’t think there’s any trainer in the world who’s insane enough to say he’s looking forward to running his horse against Rachel Alexandra,” Delahoussaye said. “But for me this race is not about whether it’s ‘Rachel’ or ‘not Rachel’ in there against our horse. The New Orleans Ladies fits the progression about where I wanted to be at this point in time when I set up the whole progression plan for our filly a long time ago when I was keeping that Kentucky Derby week goal in mind.”

Clear Sailing’s owners, Keith and Ginger Myers, have a dream of winning a stakes race at Churchill Downs the week of the Kentucky Derby. According to Delahoussaye, running in the New Orleans Ladies would keep Clear Sailing on a schedule that would point her to the Grade 2 La Troienne Stakes on Kentucky Oaks day.

“The way I see it, right now we’ve got two options,” Delahoussaye said. “She’s already nominated to the (Grade III) Azeri at Oaklawn (March 6) and also the New Orleans Ladies, but the New Orleans Ladies fits our schedule a little better. Right now we’re trying to keep our filly’s races at least a month apart … The New Orleans Ladies would keep us on a schedule for (the La Troienne Stakes). That’s our long-term goal.”

Other distaffers listed as probable for the New Orleans Ladies, a 1 1/16-mile dirt race, include Double Expresso, winner of a six-furlong stake at the Fair Grounds on Feb. 20; Unforgotten, runner-up in the Fair Grounds’ $100,000 Daily Racing Form Distaff on Dec. 19; Fighter Wing, second to Clear Sailing in the Pelleteri; and the Steve Asmussen-trained Pleasantly Blessed, second in a $50,000 stakes race at Sam Houston Park on Jan. 30.