Most of the heavy artillery was on the firing line at tracks around the country during the weekend in final preps for the Breeders' Cup World Championships, now less than a month away.
And perhaps the biggest guns of all -- Bernardini and Lava Man -- both did what they needed to do in preparation for the marquee event of the Nov. 4 races at Churchill Downs -- the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Among the human competitors, trainer Todd Pletcher made the biggest bang. Four of his horses won graded stakes and another finished second, earning nearly $1.5 million in one day.
Bernardini was the clear favorite in a four-horse field in Saturday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and ran like it. The 3-year-old son of A.P. Indy, the winner of the Preakness and the Travers earlier this year, let Wanderin Boy set the pace until midway through the second of Belmont's sweeping turns. Then, jockey Javier Castellano gave Bernardni the word and he easily drew clear to win by 6 3/4 lengths, geared down.
Wanderin Boy finished second and Andromeda's Hero was third. Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes winner Dylan Thomas, apparently entered by trainer Thomas Albertrani as an experiment, quickly lost touch with the field and finished last, beaten some 33 lengths. The Gold Cup was Dylan Thomas's first start in the United States and his first on the main track and he likely is headed back to the turf.
Bernardini ran the 1 1/4 mile on a fast track in 2:01.02 and could have done better if he'd had to.
"That is exactly what I was hoping for," said winning trainer Tom Albertrani. "I was hoping to see him run as easy as he did in the Jim Dandy. I've got a fresh horse for the Breeders' Cup now. He does things so easily, I don't know if anyone can give him the kind of race where he has to fight."
The other top East Coast contender for the Classic, Invasor, missed the Gold Cup after suffering a fever earlier in the month and will be trained up to the Breeders' Cup.
As dominating as the regally bred Bernardini was out East, one-time claimer Lava Man was equally impressive out West. Running out front all the way, but with pressure from Preachinatthebar, the 5-year-old, Cal-bred son of Slew City Slew took charge when asked by jockey Corey Nakatani and son by a comfortable 2 1/4 lengths. Brother Derek was along for second with a good try and Giacomo was third, coming from last of seven.
The 1 1/8 mile took 1:48.15.
Lava Man has won seven straight races and seems to have run out of challenges in California.
"We're very proud and very excited to take on horses outside California again," said winning trainer Doug O'Neill, looking forward to the Breeders' Cup. "Nothing against the horses he's been running against here. But this is a new challenge and we've got to prove ourselves."
Nakatani said, he "watched Bernardini today and he was very impressive. It's going to be fun leading up to the Breeders' Cup. We're ready for him."
-- At Hoosier Park in Indiana, Star Dabbler and Cielo Gold dead-heated for the win in Saturday's $500,000 Indiana Derby. Star Dabbler set the pace and was just caught at the wire by Cielo Gold, who rallied from far back in the 10-horse field. The pair finished the 1 1/16 mile in 1:42.84. Star Dabbler is a Florida-bred son of Saint Ballado. He finished second to Henny Hughes in the King's Bishop at Saratoga in his last outing. Cielo Gold is a son of Conquistador Cielo. His last outing resulted in a fourth-place finish in the St. Louis Derby, won by Lawyer Ron.
Other weekend races with potential implications for the other races at the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 4 at Churchill Downs:
$3 million John Deere Turf
-- English Channel was the dominating winner of Saturday's $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park and looms as a top U.S. competitor for a race often targeted by the Europeans. Despite racing three wide while stablemate Icy Atlantic set a leisurely pace, English Channel easily blasted to the lead at the top of the stretch and easily won by 4 1/2 lengths over Freedonia. Royal Highness finished third. English Channel, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Smart Strike, ran the 1 1/2 mile in 2:28.69 with John Velazquez up for trainer Todd Pletcher.
$2 million TVG Sprint
-- Henny Hughes, second in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, passed up this year's Triple Crown and clearly has emerged as a top sprinter. After winning the Jersey Shore Breeders' Cup at Monmouth in June and the King's Bishop at Saratoga in August, the Hennessey colt did it again in Saturday's $400,000 Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont Park. After pushing Attila's Storm along early, jockey John Velazquez sent Henny Hughes to the lead at the top of the lane and he drew off, winning by 2 3/4 lengths over War Front. Attila's Storm held third. Last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint winner, Silver Train, was never in the mix and finished last of five. Kiaran McLaughlin trains Henny Hughes.
-- Kelly's Landing angled down to the rail in the stretch run of Saturday's $250,000 Phoenix Breeders' Cup at Keeneland and went on to post a mild upset, winning by 1 length over Areyoutalkintome. Level Playingfield was third and the favorite, Silver Wagon, finished fifth. Kelly's Landing, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Patton, finished the 6 furlongs over Keeneland's new all-weather track in 1:09.94 with Rafael Bejarano up for trainer Eddie Kenneally. "We've gotta think Breeders' Cup now," said Kenneally. "He's the track record holder at Churchill Downs for 6 furlongs, so I think we're going to take a good look at it now."
-- Bordonaro earned almost enough to pay his way into the Breeders' Cup Sprint with a quick, gate-to-wire victory in Saturday's $250,000 Ancient Title Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. With Patrick Valenzuela up for trainer William Spawr, Bordonaro opened up an immediate lead, wouldn't permit Thor's Echo to get by on the turn and drew clear again, winning by 1 length. Thor's Echo held second and Jungle Prince finished third. Bordonaro, a 5-year-old, California-bred son of Memo, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:07.93. He is not nominated to the Breeders' Cup. "It's a lot of money," said Spawr said of the supplemental fee. "Is it worth it? The timing isn't good. He'd have four weeks between races and we'd like six." Dennis O'Neill, assistant trainer for Thor's Echo, said, "We're definitely going to consider the Breeders' Cup."
$2 million Emirates Airline Distaff
-- Fleet Indian got to the lead in Saturday's $600,000 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park with a four-wide move entering the turn, opened up a clear advantage and then held off Balletto to win by a head. Round Pond was far back in third. Fleet Indian, a 5-year-old, New York-bred mare by Indian Charlie, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.69. Jose Santos was up for trainer Todd Pletcher. It was Fleet Indian's eighth straight race. "She has been so dominant," Pletcher said. "What we were hoping to find out today, which will help us in the Breeders' Cup, is that she can sit off horses and dig in. She showed that today." Balletto also is headed to the Distaff, said trainer Tom Albertrani.
-- Asi Siempre, moving from the turf to the new Polytrack surface, drew off in the stretch to win Sunday's $500,000 Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland by 2 1/4 lengths. Soul Search put in a late bid to take second and Prominade Gal was third. The 9 furlongs took 1:51.97. Pointing to owner Martin Schwartz, winning trainer Patrick Biancone said Asi Siempre will go on to the Distaff, "If my man here pays the check to get in." Julien Leparoux rode the 4-year-old daughter of El Prado. She has five wins from 15 starts, including her early career in Europe.
-- India got the lead on the backstretch in Saturday's $500,000 Fitz Dixon Cotillion Breeders' Cup for 3-year-old fillies at Philadelphia Park and held on gamely, winning by a comfortable 1 1/4 lengths over Amandatude. Baby Bird was third and the favorite, Miraculous Miss, finished fourth. India, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Hennessey, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.26 under Joe Bravo. Todd Pletcher trains the chestnut filly.
-- Baghdaria got the call as the field turned for home in Friday's $400,000 Indiana Breeders' Cup Oaks at Hoosier Park and responded perfectly, drawing clear quickly and winning off by 4 lengths. Cryptoquip was second and Southern Flu third. The favorite, Ermine, never challenged and finished sixth. Baghdaria, a Kentucky-bred filly by Royal Academy, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:43.64 for jockey Rafael Bejarano. Baghdaria won the Iowa Oaks at Prairie Meadows in June but then finished eighth, beaten half the length of the stretch, in the Coaching Club American Oaks at Belmont in her last start. "I'll get together with the owners and see what our next step is after this race," said winning trainer Tom Amoss.
$2 million NetJets Mile (turf)
-- Put a circle around Aragorn, the easiest kind of winner in Saturday's $250,000 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile Stakes at Santa Anita. With Corey Nakatani up, the 4-year-old, Irish-bred son of Giant's Causeway sat just off the early speed, came three-wide to take the lead on the far turn and won in a hand ride. Unchallenged, Aragorn finished in 1:32.87. Courtnall was second with a late bid and Lord Admiral finished third. "It was a workmanlike performance," said winning trainer Neil Drysdale. "It was a very nice prep."
-- Aussie Rules, fresh from Europe, was equally impressive in Saturday's $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. After laying well off the pace, the 3-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Danehill came five-wide into the lane and jetted off to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Remarkable News. Old Dodge, the pace-setter at 50-1 odds, held on for third and pumped up the trifecta payoff to $2,159.80. Aussie Rules, with Garrett Gomez getting the leg-up from Aidan O'Brien, ran the 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.23. "The horses he's been taking on in Europe have been good," said T.J. Comerfort, assistant to winning trainer Aidan O'Brien. "Today, he proved he's just as good." Asked about the Breeders' Cup, he said, "That's up to Aidan."
$2 million Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf
-- Honey Ryder put her nose in front at the wire in Saturday's $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational Stakes at Belmont Park, beating favorite Film Maker. Jade Queen was third and Angara was fourth. Argentina completed the order of finish. Honey Ryder, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Lasting Approval, ran the 1 1/4 mile on the firm inner turf in 2:02.47 with John Velazquez up for trainer Todd Pletcher. Honey Ryder, who runs well wherever Pletcher sends her, is named for the heroine in the first James Bond movie "Dr. No." Pletcher said he takes the blame for bad instruction to Velazquez when Honey Rider finished fourth in the Beverly D. at Arlington Park this summer. "She basically has one, small blemish on her record and, like I said, that was my fault," he said. "She's been awfully good all year." All three top finishers from the Flower Bowl may move along to the "Disturf."
$2 million Bessemer Trust Juvenile
-- Great Hunter rallied around the turn in Saturday's $500,000 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, survived some traffic and bumping and got home first, 1 3/4 lengths ahead of the previously undefeated favorite, Circular Quay. Street Sense was up for third, just a nose farther back. Great Hunter, a Pennsylvania-bred son of Aptitude, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.09 under Victor Espinoza. Circular Quay also had some traffic problems and was involved in the bumping with the winner early in the stretch run. Doug O'Neill trains the winner. "Unbelievable," said Espinoza. "It even shocked me, the way he ran. ... He's really something else." Great Hunter was second in the Best Pal, the Del Mar Futurity and the Hollywood Juvenile in his last three races. Mike McCarthy, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher for Circular Quay, said jockey Garrett Gomez "did a great job of getting him out from behind a wall of horses. When he came with his run, he just didn't have enough to win."
-- Sunday's $250,000 Norfolk Breeders' Cup Stakes at Santa Anita's Oak Tree meeting resulted in an upset as Stormello, at 11-1 odds, closed stoutly down the stretch to beat Principle Secret by a head. The favorite, Horse Greeley, bore out badly on the first turn and couldn't recover, finishing seventh. Stormello ran third behind Horse Greeley and Great Hunter in last month's Del Mar Futurity. "When I got off him after that race," said winning rider Kent Desormeaux, "I told (co-owner and trainer William Currin) he was going a lot faster under the wire than he was at the start of the race. I knew he would love two turns." The top two and Horse Greeley all are expected to move along to the Breeders' Cup. Victor Espinoza, up on Horse Greeley, said his mount "got out with me" when he tried to take hold of him going into the first turn. "It was his first time around two turns and he's learning," Espinoza said.
$2 million Juvenile Fillies
-- Bel Air Beauty came into Friday's $400,000 Alcibiades Stakes at Keeneland winless and left with aspirations of a championship. After settling in mid-pack early, the Kentucky-bred Smart Strike filly angled out turning for home and won by 3/4 length over Untouched Talent. Her Majesty was third and Cotton Blossom fourth. Bel Air Beauty, with Fernando Jara up, ran the 1 1/16 mile in 1:45.32. "We would love to take her to the Breeders' Cup if she's good the next three or four weeks," said winning trainer Frankie Brothers.
In other weekend racing:
Strike Softly stalked the pace in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Carotene Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, hooked the leaders at the top of the stretch and drew off to win by 2 lengths over The Niagara Queen. The favorite, Essential Edge, got home third. Strike Softly, an Ontario-foaled daughter of Smart Strike, ran the 9 furlongs on "good" turf in 1:50.46 with Todd Kabel aboard for trainer Mark Frostad.
Going Wild stalked early pace in Saturday's $100,000 Michael G. Schaefer Mile Stakes, got to the front with a furlong to go and drew off to win by 2 1/2 lengths over Sampson's Son. M B Sea came from last of 11 to finish third. Going Wild, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred colt by Golden Missile, raced the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.45 with Corey Lanerie up for trainer D. Wayne Lukas.
Diabolical pressed the early pace in Saturday's $100,000 Gallant Bob Handicap for 3-year-olds, took the lead turning for home and got clear in the stretch to win by 1 1/2 lengths. The favorite, Fabulous Strike, led early and held on to finished second. Wildeyed Dreamer was a distant third and Herecomeshollywood completed the order of finish. Diabolical is a Kentucky-bred colt by Artax. He finished the 6 furlongs in 1:08.40 with Mario Pino in the irons.
Ah Day came from a pace-pressing spot to win Saturday's $100,000 Sonny Hine Stakes for 3-year-olds by 2 1/4 lengths over Lemons of Love. Nine Best was third. Ah Day, with Steve Hamilton up, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.64 over a sloppy, sealed track. The Malibu Moon gelding is trained by King Leatherbury.
Golden Gate Fields
Bonfante took back behind the leaders in Saturday's $75,000 Fort Mason Stakes for Cal-breds, came between rivals into the stretch and got clear, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over Mr. Ching. Slew's Prince finished third. Bonfante, a 5-year-old son of Fruition, ran 5 furlongs on "good" turf in 57.31 seconds under Russell Baze.