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Stakes races highlight Keeneland’s spring opening weekend

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LEXINGTON, Ky. (AP) Qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks are up for grabs this weekend as Keeneland begins its 16-day spring meet.

The historic, picturesque track opens Friday and will feature five of this month’s 16 stakes races worth $4.225 million on Saturday. The marquee events are the $1 million Grade 1 Toyota Blue Grass and $500,000 Grade 1 Central Bank Ashland for fillies, both of which offer 170 points toward next month’s Derby and Oaks at Churchill Downs. The winners get 100 points.

Zulu, one of three Blue Grass entrants trained by three-time race winner Todd Pletcher, has 20 Derby points and is the 5-2 morning line favorite in the 14-horse field for 3-year-olds.

Pletcher’s other horses are Donegal Moon, a 5-1 choice starting from the No. 2 post, and Cards of Stone.

Zulu arrived at Keeneland on Tuesday from South Florida and galloped a second time Thursday with Donegal Moon in preparation for the 1 1/8-mile race on dirt.

“He had a nice gallop around the track, a mile and an eighth, and went back and stood in the gate,” assistant Tristan Barry said of Zulu’s workout. “Did that very well.”

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Unbeaten Cathryn Sophia is even money leading a five-horse field in the 1 1/16 mile Central Bank Ashland. She has been impressive in both Grade 2 starts this year, winning the Davona Dale Stakes by seven lengths and the Forward Gal Stakes by 5 1/2.

Trainer John Servis is just as encouraged about Cathryn Sophia’s chances after Sunday’s workout.

“She worked super here and likes the track,” he said. “This will be her first time going two turns and should she get the job done, it would give her a lot of confidence going into the Kentucky Oaks. And me, too.”

Rachel’s Valentina, another Pletcher pupil, is the 3-1 second choice; she was second in last fall’s Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland. Also entered are Carina Mia (7-5), Weep No More (20-1) and Banree (20-1).

Another notable Grade 1 stakes race is the $300,000 Madison for fillies and mares, which features Breeders’ Cup winners StopchargingMaria and Wavell Avenue.

“That’s an ungodly race,” oddsmaker Mike Battaglia said of the 13-horse Madison field. “You love to see a race like that.”

Keeneland will race Wednesdays through Sundays through April 29.

Tiger Roll wins Grand National in photo finish

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AINTREE, England — Tiger Roll won the Grand National Steeplechase in a photo finish over Pleasant Company as Irish horses dominated the world’s most famous steeplechase at Aintree on Saturday.

A 4 1/2-mile (6,400-meter) race was won by a matter of inches in the closest finish to the Grand National since 2012, when Neptune Collonges won by a nose.

Tiger Roll, a 10-1 shot, was leading by as much as 10 lengths in the long run to the line, but only just held off the fast-finishing Pleasant Company (25-1) to win a first prize of 500,000 pounds ($710,000).

“I did have a big fear,” said jockey Davy Russell, who won the race for the first time at his 14th attempt. “It would have been heartbreaking.”

The first four horses home in the National were from Ireland, including Bless The Wings (40-1) and Anibale Fly (10-1).

It was the second National victory for both trainer Gordon Elliott, who also won with Silver Birch in 2007, and owner Michael O’Leary, who had 2016 winner Rule The World. O’Leary is chief executive of budget airline Ryanair.

“We bought the horse as a pint-sized hurdler,” O’Leary said, “but he’s got a heart of a lion.”

Russell grew up dreaming of winning the National. As a child, he erected Aintree-style fences in his garden and pretended to ride a horse over them.

“I’ve won this race thousands of times (in my head),” Russell said. “But not like this.”

David Mullins, the jockey of Pleasant Company, said he thought he was well-beaten after jumping the next-to-last fence.

“Davy was going so much better than me,” Mullins said.

That seemed to be the case as the horses made it past the elbow in the run to the line, but Pleasant Company closed in as Tiger Roll faded. It was too close to call as they crossed the line and the 171st edition of the race required a photo finish to separate them.

Total Recall went off as the 7-1 favorite but fell.

 

Baffert: McKinzie won’t run in Santa Anita Derby

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ARCADIA, Calif. (AP) McKinzie will miss the Santa Anita Derby on April 7 because of an unspecified problem.

Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert confirmed the colt won’t run in the West Coast’s major prep for the Kentucky Derby due to an issue in one of his hind legs. X-rays and scans haven’t confirmed what it is.

Baffert said Saturday in Dubai that McKinzie is “definitely out,” according to multiple media reports. He says he’s being “very cautious.”

The colt edged Bolt d’Oro in the San Felipe Stakes on March 10, but was disqualified and placed second for interference in the stretch.

McKinzie was 10th on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard with 40 points for owners Karl Watson, Mike Pegram and Paul Weitman. The colt won the Los Alamitos CashCall Futurity on Dec. 9 and the Sham Stakes on Jan. 6.

Baffert was in the Middle East to saddle West Coast and Mubtaahij to second- and third-place finishes in the $10 million Dubai World Cup.