From Azeri in the Distaff to War Emblem in the Classic, the 100 or so starters in Saturday's 19th running of the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships present handicappers with a complex set of challenges.
Some of them are coming off lengthy vacations. Others have traveled around the world. There are 3-year-olds against older horses; fillies against males. There's speed against patience. Some like it hard; others like it soft and so the weather will play a role (early line: cool but no precip).
Most of the eight races have such well-balanced fields that handicappers will be throwing out horses with winning streaks in graded stakes. And you know it's one of those years when, after hours of calculating, head-scratching and consultation with the Oracle, you figure out the exact right combination of factors -- only to see your certain winner stumble out of the gate or jump a shadow in the stretch.
Arlington Park has successfully set the stage by more than doubling its capacity while still retaining its unique beauty. Be sure to notice the purple and yellow color scheme of the paddock floral display.
There they are. You pick 'em.
In weekend racing:
Breeders' Cup Steeplechase
Flat Top led from start to finish in Saturday's $250,000 Breeders' Cup Steeplechase at Far Hills, N.J., winning by 3 lengths over Trest Touche. All Gong was third. The favorite, Zabenz, fell at the 13th of 14 fences but neither horse nor rider was injured. The 2 5/8-mile event was jogged and jumped in 5:19.44. Said winning rider Rob Massey, "I made sure he was sharply away. His jumping was effective today and he was just unbelievable." Flat Top, a 9-year-old son of Alleged, was the 1998 champion steeplechaser.
Gander worked his way to the lead as the field straightened out for the stretch run of Saturday's $250,000 Empire Classic Handicap -- the marquee event of New York Showcase Day. The 6-year-old gelding then opened up a daylight lead and held off Compelling World to win by ½ length. Lord OftheThunder was third. Gander ran the 9 furlongs in 1:48.95. Said winning rider Richard Migliore, "He had to carry a lot of weight (126 pounds), had a tough post (2) and still got the job done. It was a great effort from him. Class prevailed in the end." In his last previous start, Gander was second to Lido Palace in the Woodward. In other Showcase Day events:
--Quiet Ruler scored a big upset in the $150,000 Mohawk Handicap at 9 furlongs on the grass. After tracking very slow early fractions, the 4-year-old Woodman colt rallied three-wide into the stretch and outfinished the favorite, Whitmore's Conn, to win by 1 ¾ length at 45-1 odds. Chasin' Wimmin was third. "I couldn't believe he was that kind of price," said winning trainer Russ Mueller.
--Rhum was up late in the $150,000 Ticonderoga Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf to win by 1 ¾ lengths over the favorite, Shopping for Love. Dynamic Lisa was third. Rhum, a 5-year-old Go For Gin mare, was clocked in 1:53.40.
--Well Fancied beat Tom's Thunder to the wire by 1 length in the $125,000 Hudson Handicap, running 6 furlongs in 1:09.82. Vodka was third and Say Florida Sandy was fourth.
--Dat You Miz Blue won pretty much as jockey Jose Santos pleased in the $125,000 Iroquois Handicap for fillies and mares at 7 furlongs. The 5-year-old daughter of Cure the Blues led by 7 early in the stretch run and finished up 5 lengths ahead of Princess Dixie. Maddie May was third.
--Funny Cide, who could have gone to the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, instead won the $100,000 Sleepy Hollow Stakes for 2-year-olds. In the process, Santos taught the Distorted Humor colt how to rate behind horses...and almost got trapped for his trouble. He needed a bit of room on the rail in the upper stretch to get Funny Cide home a neck in front of Spite the Devil. Go Rocking Robin was third.
--Beautiful America came four-wide on the turn and moved powerfully in the stretch run to win the $100,000 Maid of the Mist Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Combanchera was second and Shesasmokin was third. Beautiful America, by Dixie Brass, also had Santos up.
On Sunday, Woodward winner Lido Palace won again, taking the allowance feature by ½ length over an onrushing Griffinite. Ground Storm was third. Lido Palace also was second in this year's Jockey Club Gold Cup, behind Evening Attire.
Super Molly, with Douglas Whyte up, captured Sunday's HK$2.3 million Sha Tin Trophy by 1 ½ lengths over Meridian Star. Super Molly raced in mid-pack until Whyte asked him for run and caught pace-setting Grand Delight and Dr More in the late going. Meridian Star also came along late to take the place and Grand Delight held third. "I've been having my worst spell ever in Hong Kong,"said winning trainer David Hayes."So I hope I have turned the corner." Super Molly could move along from this race to the Hong Kong Mile.
Bedanken and Mariensky both came wide from the back of the pack on the turn for home, then dueled down the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 Valley View Stakes before Bedanken put a nose in front under the wire. High Maintenance was third in the 1 1/16-mile turf test for 3-year-old fillies. The time over a yielding course was 1:44.25. "I was a little surprised that we were as far back as we were," said winning trainer Donnie K. Von Hemel. "In the middle of the turn, she was gaining momentum and I felt good that she was going to catch those horses." Bedanken, by Geri, now has won six of eight starts, including the Grade III Honeybee at Oaklawn Park. This was her first race outside the Arkansas-Louisiana-Oklahoma circuit.
Sunday, French Rivera went to the post at 19-1 odds in the $125,000 Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes for fillies and mares. She didn't run like it, though, opening up a big lead and easing home first, 5 ½ lengths in front of Don't Countess Out. Away was third as the favorite. Winning rider Donnie Meche said trainer Larry Robideaux Jr. told him French Rivera would run fast. "I'm glad he tightened the saddle," added Meche. "She was moving right along up the backside and I didn't want to interfere." French Riviera is a 3-year-old French Deputy filly.
Calder Race Course
Band Is Passing seized the lead at the top of the lane in Saturday's $100,000 Flying Pidgeon Handicap and marched home a 4 ¼-length winner over Link to Jimmy. Marquette was third. Band Is Passing, a son of Pass the Line, picked up his second straight stakes win at Calder. He ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.50. "I had a lot of horse and he won easy today," said jockey Cornelio Velasquez. Trainer Stan Ersoff said he gives his 6-year-old charge plenty of rest now. "He appreciates the rest and will always give you 100 percent," he said. "I feel a responsibility to a horse like that." Ersoff said he will give Band Is Passing a chance to win the Tropical Turf Handicap for the second straight year.
Heirloom Diamond came between rivals on the turn to take the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Blue Hen stakes, then held off all challengers to win by ½ length over Lets Just Do It. The favorite, Ladyecho, was another ½ length back in third. The 1 mile for 2-year-old fillies took 1:41.79 on a track labeled wet-fast. Heirloom Diamond, a daughter of Kentucky Derby winner Grindstone, was ridden by Jeremy Rose. The win was her second in five starts and first stakes victory.
Santa Anita Oak Tree
Only the Best opened up a 7-length lead in Saturday's $75,000 Sunny Slope Stakes for 2-year-olds, then got home first, 2 lengths ahead of Domestic Dispute. Roll Hennessey Roll was third. Only the Best, a Cal-bred son of Smokester, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.12. "Our plan wasn't to be on the lead," said winning rider Patrick Valenzuela. "But he broke so good that I just took advantage of the situation." Trainer Brian Lynch said he has no particular plans for Only the Best. "There are so many options for them at this age," he added.
Sunday, Puxa Saco edged clear in the lane to win the $75,000 Anoakia Stakes for 2-year-old fillies by 1 length over Forest Native. Ionia was third. Puxa Saco, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Dehere, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.97. "She likes a fight. She likes to be headed," said winning trainer Jenine Sahadi. "I think she lives for that. Now we'll go on to bigger and better things."
Two years ago, Steady Ruckus took the lead in the Bunty Lawless Stakes and cruised on home to victory. In Saturday's $125,000 renewal, the 6-year-old son of Bold Ruckus went to the other extreme, breaking slowly from the No. 11 spot, then working through the field to win by a neck over Devil Valentine. Inish Gloria was home third, completing a $1,201.10 triactor. Jockey Jim McAleney said Steady Ruckus ran well in traffic. "I was a little worried the last sixteenth of a mile because Devil Valentine was running a huge race and Steady Ruckus didn't see him," McAleney said. "But he ran his guts out and hung on."
Sunday, Miss Crissy was forced back early in the $150,000 Fanfruluche Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, then forced to the inside to find running room. Despite it all, the daughter of Bold n' Flashy got home ½ length in front, with Buffalo Jump second and Elusive Thought third. The 6 furlongs went in 1:11.92. "I got in a little tight," said winning rider Steven Bahen, "and she actually relaxed a little bit. She's got a lot of heart, this filly." Trainer Emile Allain said the Ontario-bred probably will be put away now to await her sophomore campaign.
Halo Tyra pressed pace-setting, even-money favorite A B Noodle most of the way around in Saturday's $60,000 Palo Alto Handicap, bid for the lead in deep stretch and got home first by 1 length. Ponche de Leona was third in the 1-mile event for 3-year-old fillies, run in 1:35.13. "I was surprised when we started taking ground off A B Noodle," said winning jockey Russell Baze. "It was like, 'Oh, she's not invincible.'"
Sunday, Bullish Miss led all the way to win the $60,000 Charles H. Russell Handicap for fillies and mares by 1 length over Onslaught. Gifted Daughter was third. Bullish Miss, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Holy Bull, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.10. "She's a pretty nice filly and I think she can run and win anywhere," said winning trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. "I'm not sure what we'll do with her now."
Outstander jumped to the early lead in Saturday's $50,000 Lite The Fuse Stakes and held on for the victory. Sassy Hound, the favorite, was second narrowly over Deer Run. Outstander, a 3-year-old running against older horses, finished the 6 furlongs in 1:09. Trainer Rodney Jerkins said he will nominate Outstander to the De Francis Dash. "You never know until you try that kind," he said, adding a Mountaineer Park stakes event restricted to 3-year-olds would be a backup.
Oak Hall shook clear in the stretch run of Saturday's $60,000 Shiskabob, winning off by 4 lengths over White Star. One Brick Shy was third. The 1 1/16 mile event, taken off the turf, went in 1:46.25 on a sloppy main track. Said winning trainer Keith Bourgeois: "If it ain't broke, don't fix it. Just keep him happy. He is a gift from God."
In the companion $60,000 Louisiana Breeders' Derby, Walk in the Snow strolled through the slop to a 7-length romping win over Crescent Chief. Rapide was third. Walk in the Snow went to the post at odds of 1-5 -- a significant switch from Super Derby runner-up effort at 30-1. "He just stomped on them," said winning jockey Kirk LeBlanc. "He handed it (slop) better than any horse I've ridden."
Sunday, Mrs. Mac won the $60,000 Walmac Farm Matchmaker by 2 lengths over Wild Squaw. Autobesarah was third. Mrs. Mac, who also won the race last year, ran the 1 1/16 on a muddy track in 1:47.56. The race came off the turf.
In Sunday's $60,000 Louisiana Breeders' Oaks, Sunny Scarletturned back Highhopesemilyluck to win by 1 ¼ length. Sunny Scarlet was clocked in 1:47.21.
News and notes
Churchill Downs will give up the 2005 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships because the scheduled date conflicts with a Future Farmers of America convention in Louisville. Belmont Park has been named as the alternate site for 2005 and the event will return to the twin spires the following year. Next year's races will be at Santa Anita with Lone Star Park on tap for 2004....Julie Krone is back in the irons, or will be at some unspecified time in the near future. The all-time winningest female rider retired in April 1999 but announced last week she is ready to return. "It's weird to say I'm coming back without having an exact date," she told Santa Anita press staff. "But that's the nature of the game."