George Weaver’s only Oaklawn stakes history involves the Arkansas Derby, but that will change Saturday when the trainer sends out Point of Honor in the $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares at 1 1/16 miles.
Weaver has started only one horse at Oaklawn, with Christine’s Outlaw finishing third in the 2003 Arkansas Derby. Weaver, as an assistant to Todd Pletcher, was in Hot Springs for Arkansas Derby victories in 2000 (Graeme Hall) and 2001 (Balto Star).
Now, Weaver bids for an Apple Blossom victory with a 4-year-old chestnut daughter of an Arkansas Derby winner – 2007 champ Curlin.
“The ownership (Eclipse Thoroughbred Partners and Stetson Racing, LLC) had this race in mind for a long time,” Weaver said during training hours Friday morning. “It’s a marquee race for fillies and mares. There was some consideration for the La Troienne at Churchill, so it was a question about those two races. With things up in the air at Churchill, running here at Oaklawn was a no-brainer. The filly’s been training very well. There was absolutely no reason to leave her in the barn.”
A multiple stakes winner of $474,040, Point of Honor scored her biggest victory to date in the $250,000 Black-Eyed Susan (G2) last May at Pimlico. After finishing second in the $600,000 Alabama Stakes (G1) last August at Saratoga, Weaver decided to stop on Point of Honor and target a 2020 campaign. She finished second in her comeback, a 7-furlong handicap, March 7 at Tampa Bay Downs.
“I never ever wanted to run her one turn,” Weaver said. “I’ve been very purposeful about running her two turns. We wanted to get a race under our belt and there just weren’t that many options. We tried to get a race at Gulfstream and it didn’t go. The race at Tampa was basically something to get a race under our belt. She’s always acted like she would be a little susceptible at a shorter distance, one-turn distance. She kind of confirmed what I was thinking. She didn’t run that bad, but that’s not her forte. She’s bred, and acted, like a two-turn horse.”
Weaver said he believes Point of Honor’s best races could be in front of her, owing this to her breeding. Curlin is among the world’s leading sires, and many of his best offspring improve with age.
“There have been quite a few Curlins that have gotten better when they got older, most recently Vino Rosso,” Weaver said of the 2019 champion older dirt male at 4. “She’s done well. She’s training very well.”
Point of Honor (10-1 on the morning line) is scheduled to break from post 5 under Drayden Van Dyke.
On the Work Tab
Three projected starters for upcoming stakes events, including two recent arrivals from Southern California, breezed over a fast track Friday morning.
Eight Rings, in company, recorded a 5-furlong bullet out of the gate (:59) for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who is pointing the Grade 1 winner for the $100,000 Bachelor Stakes at 6 furlongs April 25. Eight Rings, unraced since a sixth-place finish in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) Nov. 1 at Santa Anita, breezed after the first surface renovation break under Martin Garcia, Baffert’s former go-to rider in Southern California who is riding regularly at Oaklawn for the first time this year.
Clockers had Eight Rings covering a half-mile in :46.60, 6 furlongs in 1:11.40 and galloping out 7 furlongs in 1:24.80. Eight Rings had a workmate in Hot Shot Kid, a 6-year-old multiple stakes winner for trainer Mac Robertson. Hot Shot Kid, Canterbury Park’s 2019 Horse of the Year, was credited with 6 furlongs out of the gate in 1:11.40.
“I heard we ended up working with a pretty good horse,” Jimmy Barnes, Baffert’s traveling assistant, said after Eight Rings returned to the barn. “He hasn’t run since the Breeders’ Cup and California, we had some wet weather, so (Baffert) wasn’t able to work him before he left, so then this was our scheduled breeze. It’s not uncommon to see us go to the gate off a layoff to make sure we’re ready.”
Eight Rings had been poised for an Eclipse Award as the country’s champion 2-year-old male after winning the $300,000 American Pharoah Stakes (G1) Sept. 27 at Santa Anita. The son of Empire Maker was purchased for $520,000 at the 2018 Keeneland September Yearling Sale.
Garcia, locked in a four-way battle for leading rider, has been getting on horses for Baffert since they began filtering in from Southern California. Garcia rode first-time starter Inshannity, another recent Southern California arrival for Baffert, to an April 10 debut victory.
“It helps to have Martin here,” Barnes said. “It’s been a big help. He knows our horses so well. He knows how Bob wants them worked. You go out there with a lot of confidence.”
Eight Rings and Grade 2 winner Venetian Harbor for trainer Richard Baltas were among the Southern California-based horses flown Tuesday to Arkansas.
Venetian Harbor also breezed after the first break Friday morning, covering 5 furlongs in 1:00.80 in advance of the $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies May 1. Under Tyler Baze, Venetian Harbor galloped out 6 furlongs in 1:13 and 7 furlongs in 1:25.
“She worked phenomenal,” Baze said after getting on Venetian Harbor for the first time. “He (Baltas) said just cruise the five-eighths and make sure she gets something out of it – galloping out. She galloped out in 1:12 and change, 1:25, 1:38, something like that. She’s something special. Very nice filly.”
Aimee Dollase, who oversees Baltas’ Oaklawn string, termed the work “perfect,” adding Venetian Harbor will probably work a half-mile next week in preparation for the 1 1/16-mile Fantasy, which is also expected to attract, among others, 2-year-old filly champion British Idiom.
A daughter of Munnings, Venetian Harbor has won 2 of 3 starts overall. She broke her maiden by 10 ¾ lengths Dec. 29 at Santa Anita and was a 9 ¼-length winner of her last start, the $200,000 Las Virgenes Stakes (G2), Feb. 8 at Santa Anita.
Working after the second break Friday morning was multiple Oaklawn stakes winner Amy’s Challenge for trainer Mac Robertson. Amy’s Challenge, under Alex Canchari, covered a half-mile in :47 and galloped out 5 furlongs in :59 and 6 furlongs in 1:12.40.
“It was good,” Robertson said of the work.
Amy’s Challenge is pointing for the $125,000 Carousel Stakes for older female sprinters April 25. Also targeting the 6-furlong race is millionaire Grade 1 winner Bellafina for Southern California-based trainer Simon Callaghan. Bellafina, who also arrived Tuesday, galloped after the second break Friday morning under exercise rider Laura Moquett, the wife of trainer Ron Moquett of Hot Springs. Bellafina is stabled in Moquett’s barn.
Come Dancing, the 3-1 program favorite for Saturday’s $600,000 Apple Blossom Handicap (G1) for older fillies and mares, blew out 3 furlongs in :36 Friday morning for Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Six-time local riding champion Ricardo Santana Jr. rode four winners Thursday to regain the lead in the standings after the 47th day of the scheduled 57-day meeting. Santana won the fourth race aboard Tashkent ($41) for trainer John Henry Prather of Hot Springs, fifth race aboard Souixper Charger ($7.40) for trainer Dan Peitz, eighth race aboard Letruska ($8.60) for trainer Fausto Gutierrez and the ninth race aboard Aggressivity ($14.20) for Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen. Letruska, a star in Mexico who had been racing at Gulfstream Park, represented the first Oaklawn starter for Gutierrez. The four-bagger gave Santana 45 victories, two more than Joe Talamo. Defending champion David Cohen and Martin Garcia were tied for third with 41 after each rode one winner Thursday. Santana, Oaklawn’s leading rider in 2013-2018, was poised to surpass $3 million in purse earnings at the meet Friday. He entered the day with a meet-best $2,934,838. Talamo was second at $2,713,041. Santana set a single-season Oaklawn record for purse earnings last year ($4,317,757). … Apprentice jockey Charles Roberts rode his fourth winner of the meet in Thursday’s seventh race aboard Carlos Sixes ($12.40) for trainer Karl Broberg. … Ring Leader is pointing for the $400,000 Fantasy Stakes (G3) for 3-year-old fillies May 1, trainer Mac Robertson said after watching the daughter of Paynter work a half-mile in :47.60 Friday morning. Ring Leader won the $125,000 Dixie Belle Stakes Feb. 15. … Tom’s d’Etat, winner of last Saturday’s $150,000 Oaklawn Mile for older horses, returned to the track Thursday morning for trainer Al Stall, who is targeting stakes races at the upcoming Churchill Downs spring meet for his millionaire Grade 1 winner.