While the heroes of the Triple Crown series struggle through mid-year slumps, some fresh faces are starting to assert themselves in the run-up to this fall's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
The latest is Soto, who remained undefeated in five career starts by winning a stretch battle with Dynever in Saturday's $600,000 West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer Park. Soto, with Ramon Dominguez up, finished the 9 furlongs in track-record time of 1:46.29.
Soto, a son of Dehere, is trained by Michael Dickinson. He won the Kentucky Jockey Club at Churchill Downs last fall but, fighting shin problems, had only one previous race this year -- a 6-furlong warm-up for the West Virginia Derby.
The race was a tough one, especially given Soto's lack of seasoning. He dueled early with pace-setting longshot Cat Singer before getting to the front, then was headed by Dynever before battling back on the rail to gain the win. Dynever was fourth in the Belmont Stakes in his last start.
North of the border, Wando raced from off the pace to capture Saturday's $500,000 Breeders' Stakes at Woodbine, nailing down the first Canadian Triple Crown championship since Peteski turned the trick in 1993.
Sent off as the prohibitive favorite, the chestnut son of Langfuhr raced behind the leaders in traffic until the field turned for home, then got the lead and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Shoal Water. Colorful Judgement was third.
The Breeders' Stakes not only requires horses to run 1 1/2 mile but also is run on the turf. Wando showed he could handle both the distance and the change of surface, finishing in 2:28.69.
"He kind of got ganged up on pretty good, but that's horse racing," said winning trainer Mike Keogh. "I probably would have done the same thing if I had been in anyone else's shoes."
Wando now has won eight of 11 starts with his only bad outing a 12th-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile at Arlington Park.
In other weekend races with potential implications for the Oct. 25 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Santa Anita:
$1 million Nextel Distaff
-- Reigning Horse of the Year Azeri ran her winning streak to 11 with a decisive, 3 1/4-length victory in Sunday's $300,000 Clement L. Hirsch Handicap at Del Mar. Leading throughout, Azeri was under a hold by jockey Mike Smith when she crossed the wire in 1:42.12. Got Koko was second and Tropical Blossom was third. Azeri, trained by Laura de Seroux, now has won 14 of her 15 lifetime starts and earned just under $3 million in purse money. The 4-year-old Jade Hunter filly won last year's Distaff at Arlington Park and is pointing toward a repeat. "She's an easy read, and she speaks very clearly to us, and I was confident she would do exactly what she did today," de Seroux said. "It's getting very emotional because of the profundity of how special she is, is increasing with each race. It was a good race for her because she really didn't have to look anybody in the eye. Nobody got there."
-- Bare Necessities raced behind the leaders through the backstretch in Saturday's $200,000 Gardenia Handicap at Ellis Park, then advanced between the leaders to take the lead in the stretch and won by 5 1/4 easy lengths. The 4-year-old daughter of Silver Deputy ran 9 furlongs in 1:50.09. Desert Gold was second and So Much More was third.
$2 million John Deere Turf
-- If Saturday's $500,000 Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap at Saratoga proved anything in his division, it might be that the best horses are, as advertised, running in Europe. After 1 1/2 mile, three longshots paraded under the wire with Whitmore's Conn racing from last to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Macaw and 60-1 shot Slew Valley third. The favorite, Denon, got the lead at the top of the stretch but faded to finish fourth. Balto Star, upset winner of the United Nations Handicap, led the field to the third turn, then dropped back to finish last. Whitmore's Conn, a 5-year-old son of Kris S., finished in 2:28.14 on turf rated "good." "He was very comfortable," said winning rider Jean-Luc Samyn. He seems like he really enjoys running like this (from off the pace)." Trainer Randy Schulhofer said Whitmore's Conn might run back in the Turf Classic on Sept. 27 at Belmont Park. "It looks like he stepped it up a notch this year," said Schulhofer, who won his first Grade I race.
--Stroll did anything but stroll down the stretch in last Monday's National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Handicap for 3-year-olds, blasting off to win by 4 lengths after pressing the early pace. Urban King was up for second and Saint Stephen was third. Stroll, a son of Pulpit, ran 9 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:49.34. Jerry Bailey rode for trainer Bill Mott. "I think this was incredibly impressive, knowing the horses that were in here. He was leveled off and going away from them in the stretch," said Mott. He said the Jamaica on Sept. 21 at Belmont Park will be the likely next target.
$1 million Sprint
A deluge soaked Saratoga Sunday, forcing cancellation of the third race and leaving a sloppy track for the $200,000 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap. The result was a huge upset as odds-on favorite Shake You Down was pressured on the lead, then faded to finish fourth. Beneficiary was Private Horde, who ran right by the leaders in the stretch to win in 1:09. Mountain General was second and Mike's Classic was third. "I was glad someone went with Shake You Down," said winning rider Jason Lumpkins. "I had him in a good spot. He responded when I asked him and he kind of shifted in when he got to Mike's Classic. I straightened him out and he took off." Shake You Down came into the race with a five-race winning streak.
$1.5 million Bessemer Trust Juvenile
--Sir Oscar, a son of Halo's Image, might as well have been King Oscar in Saturday's $75,000 Dr. Fager Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes at Calder Race Course. With Julio Garcia in the irons, Sir Oscar angled out at the top of the stretch and jetted away to win by 4 lengths. Kipper's Night was second and Baronage third. The 6 furlongs took 1:13.31. "Every day he keeps showing me what a good horse he is and gets better and better," said winning trainer Manny Azpurua. "I see no problem with him going the seven-eighths" in the next FSS event, the Aug. 30 Affirmed Division. Added Garcia, "This is a great horse. ... I only hit him one time. He was winning too easily."
--Dashboard Drummer came from near the rear of the field to win Saturday's $100,000 Sapling Stakes at Monmouth Park by 2 1/2 lengths over odds-on favorite Deputy Storm. Charming Jim was third. Dashboard Drummer, an Oklahoma-bred son of Alamocitos, ran 6 furlongs on a sloppy track in 1:10.84.
$1 million Juvenile Fillies
--French Village had no trouble as the favorite in Saturday's $75,000 Desert Vixen Division of the Florida Stallion Stakes, drawing off in the stretch to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Family Favorite. Prohibido Olividar was third. French Village is a Chestnut filly by Jules. She ran 6 furlongs under Cecilio Penalba in 1:12.46. "I feel good about the way she ran today in terms of her going seven-eighths in for her next race," said winning trainer Bill White. That race would be the Aug. 30 Susan's Girl Division. Added Penalba, "I had a lot left. I think she'll go further."
--Tizdubai stalked Dirty Diana to mid-stretch in Saturday's $150,000 Sorrento Stakes at Del Mar, then went past the favorite easily and went on to win by 4 lengths. Solar Fire was third. Tizbubai, under David Flores, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17. "She's bred to stretch out," winning trainer Eoin Harty said of the daughter of Cee's Tizzy. "I think that's going to be her forte. God willing, she'll still be around for the Oak Leaf (meeting at Santa Anita) and the Breeders' Cup."
--Slightlymorelikely, the odds-on favorite, led from the start in Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Ontario Debutante Stakes, winning by 6 3/4 lengths over Verybrightnshiney. Wild Glory was another 6 lengths back in third. Slightlymorelikely, a daughter of RIzzi, ran the 6 lengths in 1:11.39. She was claimed by trainer Norm McKnight and owner Ron Udit for $50,000 out of her last start and earned $81,750 for Sunday's effort.
In other weekend racing:
Sue's Good News, reserved in mid-pack through most of Saturday's $100,000 Singapore Plate for 3-year-old fillies, swung wide into the stretch and closed sharply to win by 1 1/4 length. Keeping the Gold was second and Meet Me At Midnite finished third. Sue's Good News, the 2-1 favorite, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.53. "When I got a chance to get her to the outside and gave her a chance to run, she responded real well," said winning rider Tim Doocy. Sue's Good News is a daughter of Woodman.
Finality, continuing a comeback from a torn tendon, stalked the pace in Friday's $100,000 West Point Handicap, then won by 1 length with a stretch move. Celtic Sky was second and Private Emblem third. Finality finished the 9-furlong event for state-breds in 1:50.21 over "good" turf. "I was lying in second as a passenger and just pushed the button," said winning rider John Velazquez. "He just took off."
Be Like Mike led through most of Saturday's $100,000 Governor's Handicap, beating M B Sea by 1 1/4 lengths. The favorite, Docent, got home third. With Jorge Chavez up, Be Like Mike finished in track-record time of 1:41.15.
Gimmeawink drew off in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Larry R. Riviello President's Cup for 3-year-olds, winning by 5 lengths over Valleyman. The favorite, Implicit, finished third, a nose farther back. Gimmeawink, a Kentucky-bred son of Elusive Quality, ran 1 mile and 70 yards in 1:41.53.
Bet On Joe had the most in the stretch in Saturday's $50,000 Prairie Meadows Sprint, drawing clear to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Classic Appeal. The favorite, Sand Ridge, had no late rally and finished third. Bet On Joe, a 5-year-old son of Unaccounted For, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.01. Trainer Hugh Robertson said Bet On Joe has overcome some serious medical problems. "He's a nice horse. He tries hard; runs his race very time if you can get him over there. He can do whatever you want him." Robertson said Bet On Joe will return to Arlington Park.
Vickie Vallencourt, with Rafael Bejarano up, went out to press the pace set by Don't Countess Out in Sunday's $50,000 Ellis Park Breeders' Cup, took over entering the stretch and then drew off for the victory. The winner was timed in 1:09.92 on a fast track. Meteor Miracle was second, with Don't Countess Out hanging on for third. Vickie Vallencourt now has five wins from 18 lifetime starts.
Crossing Point went quickly to the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Dave's Friend Stakes, then held on to win by 3/4 length over Take Achance On Me. Deer Run, the favorite, got home third. Crossing Point, with Mario Pino up, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.75. "It's going to have to be a fast horse who can catch up with him or pass him," said Pino.
Changeintheweather blew by the leaders in the stretch run of Saturday's $50,000 Gate Dancer Stakes, then just held off Jamelao to win by 1/2 length. Run to Victory was third. Changeintheweather, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Gone West, ran 9 furlongs in 1:50.92.
Crook stole off to the lead in the final sixteenth in Saturday's $50,000 Barksdale Handicap, winning by 3/4 length over One Eyed Joker. Dash for Daylight was third under the wire. Crook, a 6-year-old, Texas-bred son of Cold Hearted Man, ran the "about" 1 1/16 mile on firm turf in 1:41.68.