But, after one of those 3-year-olds upset the 4-year-old Lawyer Ron in Sunday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, the focus shifted a bit. Now, several sophomores who ran well in California, Kentucky, Illinois and New York are lining up with a shot at Lawyer Ron in the year's climactic race.
And, Horse of the Year honors will be on the line.
Curlin was third in the Kentucky Derby, behind Street Sense and Hard Spun, who themselves squared off on Saturday in Kentucky, with Hard Spun turning the tables on Street Sense. Curlin then won the Preakness Stakes and missed by a head to the super filly, Rags to Riches, in the Belmont.
After a short break, he came back to run third -- to Any Given Saturday and Hard Spun, in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth -- site of The Oct. 26-27 Breeders' Cup World Championships.
Sunday, as the speed stopped early in the Gold Cup stretch run, it came down to Lawyer Ron, who opened up a substantial lead, and Curlin, who was ranging up outside the favorite. Curlin was not to be denied, winning by a neck in 2:01.2. Political Force was third.
"I think he is an outstanding horse," winning trainer Steve Asmussen said. "He proved it again today. The third in the Haskell and the third in the Kentucky Derby were against horses whose form has held up. We'll all meet in a month's time, probably to decide a lot of honors."
Lawyer Ron's trainer, Todd Pletcher, sees things the same way about the upcoming Classic.
"I think," said Pletcher, "that if Any Given Saturday, Curlin, Hard Spun and Street Sense all go to the Breeders' Cup, there is a chance for them to prove who is the best 3-year-old. Hopefully, Lawyer Ron will be there to say something as well."
The Gold Cup was only the highlight of some outstanding handicap racing throughout the weekend, also featuring the Kentucky Cup Classic, the Hawthorne Gold Cup and the Goodwood at Santa Anita.
With a short field and two overwhelming favorites, Saturday's $350,000 Kentucky Cup Classic was almost a match race, which makes it hard to extrapolate the results.
While Hard Spun reversed the order of finish of the Kentucky Derby, beating Street Sense by 1 1/4 lengths, he did it after being allowed to set a leisurely pace. And Street Sense got no pace help from the other two runners.
After 9 furlongs and fractions of 24.45, 48.18 and 1:11.46, the rivals finished just as they started, first and second. The final time was 1:48.48.
"Going in, we knew it was going to be a match race," said winning rider Mario Pino. "I got him to relax and I felt him crawling along early. At the three-eighths pole, he dropped his head down, going faster and faster to the wire."
Calvin Borel, aboard the Derby winner, said, "You can't go that slow and catch a horse like that. Don't worry. My horse will show up in four weeks … I ain't worried about it. In four weeks, he'll be a different horse."
Trainer Carl Nafzger said Street Sense was "right there and we got beat … It was up to him at the head of the lane to get by Hard Spun. I thought he could do it. But it was hard to get by anyone all day. He just outran us."
Winning trainer Larry Jones said Hard Spun is "definitely looking at the Classic."
Yet another Triple Crown survivor earned his way into the Classic with a "win and you're in" victory in Saturday's $520,000 Goodwood Stakes at Santa Anita. Tiago, who ran seventh in the Kentucky Derby and third in the Belmont, won a long stretch duel with Awesome Gem to take the Goodwood by a nose. Big Booster ran well late to take third and the favorite, Lewis Michael, hung in the stretch run, finishing fourth.
Tiago, a Kentucky-bred son of Pleasant Tap and a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:46.93 under Mike Smith.
"You ain't seen him get good yet!" Smith enthused. "Wait 'till he gets good. He had to win 'dirty' today. We had to push our way out going to the three-eighths pole. He just had to make his own room because I didn't want Awesome Gem to get the jump on us."
Asked about the Breeders' Cup Classic, winning trainer John Shirreffs said only, "Win and you're in." Awesome Gem, who was second to Student Council in the Pacific Classic last time out, and Lewis Michael also still could be contenders.
Student Council, meanwhile, shipped to Chicago and an impressive, pace-stalking victory in Saturday's $500,000 Hawthorne Gold Cup. Jonesboro, who led the way, held on to finish second, 1 1/4 lengths behind the winner, while the favorite, A.P. Arrow, made a late run from the rear of the five-horse field to finish third. Student Council, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Kingmambo, ran the 1 1/4 miles in 2:05 on a fast track. Richard Migliore had the ride for trainer Steve Asmussen.
"I was just a good passenger," Migliore said. "He's a pushbutton horse, real professional and well prepared. The fractions were a little soft but he came home in 24 1/4 (seconds) and he ran to the wire. I thought his effort was real strong."
While Hawthorne's signature race has been a stepping stone to the Breeders' Cup Classic in recent years, Asmussen wasn't making any promises for Student Council. "Obviously, there's a team effort on this horse and that’s what we're looking for," he said, cryptically.
In other races with potential Breeders' Cup implications:
$3 million John Deere Turf
English Channel exploded up the rail at mid-stretch in Sunday's $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park and drew off to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Stream of Gold. Interpatation finished third. English Channel, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred son of Smart Strike, also won the Turf Classic last year, on his way to a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup. He has been a top grass performer for three straight years. Winning trainer Todd Pletcher said he was confident but hoped jockey John Velazquez would have running room. "Fortunately, things opened up for him enough on the rail. I thought that once he got clear, he is such a good horse, that I knew he had the ability to quicken."
$2 million Emirates Airline Distaff
Unbridled Belle won a desperate stretch battle over stablemate Indian Vale in Sunday's $600,000 Beldame Stakes at Belmont Park, winning by a head. Ginger Punch, the favorite, finished third. Unbridled Belle, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Broken Vow, finished the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.63. The top two are trained by Todd Pletcher and Ramon Dominguez rode the winner. "It's unfortunate that sometimes you have to run them together," Pletcher said. But it was the right thing for both fillies." He said he expects to take Unbridled Belle, Indian Vale and another from his barn, Octave, to the Distaff.
$2 million Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf
Lahudood was once thought a second-stringer among Shawell Stable's turf fillies after finishing seventh in the Beverly D. at Arlington this summer. But when Makderah was sidelined with an injury, Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid al Maktoum instructed that Lahudood be inserted instead into Saturday's $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont Park. "The boss didn't send her over here to be an allowance horse," trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said. Lahudood proved "the boss" right, getting through on the inside to win the Flower Bowl by 3/4 length over Rosinka at odds of 21-1. The favorite, Wait a While, faded in the late going and finished third. Lahudood, a 4-year-old, British-bred daughter of Singspiel out of the Arazi mare Rahayeb, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 1:59.05 with Alan Garcia up. "I don't know if she is Breeders' Cup nominated," McLaughlin said. "But it wouldn't be a problem if we had to supplement her." Wait a While's trainer, Todd Pletcher, said his filly still is a candidate for the Filly & Mare Turf.
Nashoba's Key relaxed behind odds-on favorite Citronnade in Saturday's $400,000 Yellow Ribbon Stakes at Santa Anita, came alongside the leader in the stretch and went by to win by 3/4 length. Black Mamba rallied to finish third, missing second by just a nose. Nashoba's Key, a 4-year-old, California-bred filly by Silver Hawk, ran the 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 1:59.73 under Joseph Talamo. Carla Gaines trains the filly. "I knew Citronnade was running easily," Talamo said. "But Nashoba has such a big kick. Once she gets going, she's like a big train." Gaines added, "She's very versatile. She can sit close to a slow pace or she can sit back off a fast pace." She said she is "leaning towards" the Filly & Mare Turf, "especially since she just won a Grade I race at a mile and a quarter on the grass. But you have to go race by race."
Danzon was way too good for 10 rivals in Saturday's $150,000 Kentucky Cup Distaff at Turfway Park. After settling near the back of the pack, the 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred Royal Academy filly began to make up ground midway down the backstretch, split rivals on the turn and easily outran Delicate Dynamite to the wire, winning by 5 lengths. Kettleoneup rallied from last to finish third. Danzon, with Julien Leparoux riding for trainer Patrick Biancone, covered the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.42. "We were cruising along and I asked her and she picked it up around the turn," Leparoux said. "She responded and won easily." Biancone said Danzon "is a filly that likes the soft going and, with all the dry weather, we haven't been able to run her on the turf. We have a lot of options for her. She's eligible for everything. We'll look at the E.P. Taylor (Oct. 21 at Woodbine) and the Filly & Mare Turf."
Dancing Edie got through along the rail at mid-stretch in Wednesday's $100,000 Senator Ken Maddy Handicap at Santa Anita and went on to win by 1/2 length over Lady Gamer. Strong Faith finished third. The 6 1/2 furlongs down the hillside turf course took 1:13 1/5. Dancing Edie, who ran eighth in last year's Filly & Mare Turf, will be pointed to either the E.P. Taylor or the Las Palmas on the same day at Santa Anita, winning trainer Craig Dollase said.
$2 million NetJets Mile (turf)
Trippi's Storm outfinished favorite After Market to win Saturday's $250,000 Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park by 1/2 length. Palace Episode finished third. Trippi's Storm, a 4-year-old, Florida-bred gelding by Trippi, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:32.36 with Javier Castellano in the irons. "We never really knew this horse's best distance," winning trainer Stanley Hough said. "Obviously, a mile suits him pretty well … We would have to consider the Breeders' Cup. Obviously, it will be very tough." After Market also remains a potential Breeders' Cup contender. "This will set him up nice for the Breeders' Cup," said his jockey, Alex Solis.
Classic Campaign was just up in the final yards to win Saturday's $150,000 Robert F. Carey Memorial Handicap at Hawthorne Race Course by a nose over Crested. Gold Hornet finished third. Classic Campaign, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Rahy, ran the 1 mile on firm turf in 1:33.95 under Richard Migliore. Bill Mott trains Classic Campaign for Kinsman Stable and George and Joan Steinbrenner.
$2 million TVG Sprint
Fabulous Strike battled to the lead in Sunday's $400,000 Vosburgh Stakes at Belmont Park, then shook loose in the stretch, drawing off to win by 5 3/4 lengths over Talent Search. The favorite, Discreet Cat, finished third in his first start since a drubbing in the Dubai World Cup last March. Fabulous Strike, a 4-year-old, Pennsylvania-bred gelding by Smart Strike, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.22 under Ramon Dominguez. Todd Beattie trains. "This horse is a running son of a gun," said Dominguez. I know Todd will have him in great shape going into the Sprint." Discreet Cat, however, may be headed to the new Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, said Godolphin Racing trainer Saeed bin Suroor. "I think the Mile would be better for him," Surror said. "Six furlongs is too short for him and his race."
Piratesonthelake moved to the leaders early in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Kentucky Cup Sprint at Turfway Park, then had all he could do to get home first in a ding-dong, three-way battle. At the wire, the Florida-bred Lake Austin gelding was just a nose better than Base Commander, with pace-setting Stormin Baghdad another neck back in third. Piratesonthelake, with Diego Sanchez up for trainer Jimmy DiVito, ran the 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.09. "We're on the fence about the Breeders' Cup," DiVito said. "It's a possibility but it's also a lot of money since he's not nominated."
Premium Wine uncorked a winning rally in the stretch run of Saturday's $250,000 Gallant Bob Handicap for 3-year-olds at Philadelphia Park, rolling by pace-setter Double Action in the final furlong to win by 1/2 length. Jacob's Run finished third and the favorite, Cherokee Country, finished fifth and pulled up lame after the wire. Premium Wine, a New York-bred colt by Prime Timber, got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.93 with Harry Vega in the irons for trainer Anthony Dutrow.
$1 million Filly & Mare Sprint
Speechifying led from gate to wire in Saturday's $250,000 My Juliet Stakes at Philadelphia Park, holding on at the end to beat odds-on favorite Miraculous Miss by a nose. S W Aly'svalentine finished third. Speechifying, a 4-year-old, Pennsylvania-bred filly by Activist, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.83. Russell Baze had the mount for trainer Philip Aristone.
$2 million Bessemer Trust Juvenile
Dixie Chatter bobbled at the start in Sunday's $250,000 Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita, but recovered in time to gain the lead at mid-stretch and go on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over the favorite, Salute the Sarge. Shore Do was third. Dixie Chatter, a Kentucky-bred son of Dixie Union, ran the 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.64 under Richard Migliore. Asked about the Breeders' Cup, trainer Richard Mandella said, "It's on to the Breeders' Cup if all goes well." Eric Guillot, trainer of Salute the Sarge, said he would be "stupid not to try it on a dirt track. He's bred for a dirt track and he's a big, heavy horse. Everyone says big, heavy horses don't like synthetic tracks. He might be hating the track all along and be that good."
Texas Fever pressed the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile at Turfway Park, got a clear advantage midway down the stretch and then barely held on to prevail by a neck over the favorite, Chitoz. Blackberry Road finished third. Texas Fever, a Kentucky-bred son of Victory Gallop from the Forty Niner mare Fortyniner Fever, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.95 for jockey Julien Leparoux. "Breeders' Cup hasn't been in our minds," winning trainer Mike Stidham said. "But after a nice win like that, you have to think about it. He has a nice record and the pedigree."
Sok Sok rallied from mid-pack as the field entered the stretch run in Saturday's $100,000 Fitz Dixon Jr. Memorial Juvenile at Presque Isle Downs, then was all-out to get home first, beating Dixie Mon by a head. Little Nick finished third. Sok Sok, a Florida-bred colt by Trippi, ran the 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:17.67. Miguel Mena rode for trainer Steve Asmussen.
$1 million Juvenile Turf
The Leopard sprang out of the gate in Saturday's $75,000 Pilgrim Stakes at Belmont Park and was never caught, winning by 2 3/4 lengths. He Ain't Easy, the longest shot on the mutuel board, ran second all the way and Grasberg finished third. The Leopard, a Kentucky-bred colt by Storm Cat out of the Mr. Prospector mare Moon Safari, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.61 with John Velazquez up for trainer Todd Pletcher.
$2 million Grey Goose Juvenile Fillies
Cry and Catch Me battled for the lead through much of Saturday's $250,000 Oak Leaf Stakes at Santa Anita, finally opened up a little space in the stretch and just held on to win by a nose over Izarra. Runforthemoneybaby rallied to take third. Cry and Catch Me, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Street Cry, ran the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:42.91 under Mike Smith. Winning trainer Bob Baffert said he's thinking about the Breeders' Cup. "It looks like she can go two turns now," he said. "But you never know until they do it, you know? I just wanted her to jump out there. She's fit and she was ready." Smith said Cry and Catch Me "showed a lot of heart and I stayed after her to keep her focused. Down the road, I think she'll be better off with a target."
Officer Cherrie rated behind the early pace in Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Mazarine Breeders' Cup at Woodbine, came three-wide around the leaders into the stretch and got clear to win by 1 length. Victory Romance was second after leading most of the way and Born to Be finished third. Officer Cherrie, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Officer out of the Sheikh Albadou mared Madamascus, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:46.49 with Patrick Husbands up for trainer Mark Casse. Officer Cherrie now has won three straight, including the Ontario Debutante on Aug. 18. "My horse is a decent filly and you'll probably hear a lot about her in the future," Casse said.
Sky Mom dueled for the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Kentucky Cup Juvenile Fillies at Turfway Park, took a clear lead at mid-stretch and then held on to beat a late-running Mims Eppi by 3/4 length. Kadira finished third. Sky Mom, a Kentucky-bred daughter of Maria's Mon from the Sky Classic mare Swiftly Classic, covered the 1 mile on the all-weather track in 1:38.11 under Terry Thompson. "I was running the last part with her," said winning owner Heather Stark. Thompson was more confident. "I let her go and knew the wire would come up in time," he said.
Smarty Deb, taking on males as the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $100,000 Gottstein Futurity at Emerald Downs, took charge in the stretch to win by 3 easy lengths. Gallon was second and Margo's Gift finished third. Smarty Deb, a Kentucky-bred filly by Smart Strike, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.4 under Ricky Frazier.
In other weekend racing:
With international contestants absent due to an outbreak of equine flu, Aston Machan swept to a 3-length victory in Sunday's $1.6 million Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama Race Course in Japan -- the next-to-the-last leg of the Global Sprint Challenge. Leading most of the way, Aston Machan, a 3-year-old daughter of Admire Cozzene, finished in 1:09.4 over soft turf. The series concludes with the Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin Dec. 9.
At Ascot, in England, Listen won Saturday's Meon Valley Stud Fillies Mile, rallying over the soft ground and beating the favorite, Proviso, by 1 length. Trained by Aidan O'Brien for a group headed by Susan Magnier and Michael Tabor, the Sadler's Wells filly is likely to remain in the British Isles for next year's Classics.
Hawthorne Race Course
Jennie R. led from the start in Saturday's $100,000 Indian Maid Handicap for fillies and mares, survived a challenge in the turn and drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths, ridden out. Barbette was second with Glitter Star third. Jennie R., a 6-year-old, Kentucky-bred mare by Awesome Again, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.46.
Both Jennie R. and Classic Campaign are out of Red Ransom mares.
Artie Hot rallied from last to win Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Ontario Derby by 4 1/4 lengths over Alezzandro. Mike Fox finished third. Artie Hot, a Kentucky-bred gelding by Black Minnalousche, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:51.19. Eurico Da Silva rode for trainer Nicholas Gonzalez.
Also, the Ontario Racing Commission has reversed the disqualification of Sealy Hill from victory in the July 1 Bison City Stakes. The 3-year-old Point Given filly had been placed third by the stewards, moving Street Sounds up to the win. With the commission decision, Sealy Hill becomes the first winner of the Canadian Triple Crown for Fillies, comprising the Labatt Woodbine Oaks, the Wonder Where Stakes and the Bison City.
Barcola had no problem winning Saturday's $100,000 Kelso Stakes as the heavy favorite, drawing off to score by 6 1/4 lengths, ridden out. Taming the Tiger finished second with Smart Growth third. Better Than Bonds was fourth in a fade job. Barcola, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred colt by Old Trieste, ran the 1 3/16 miles on a fast track in 1:56.56 under Kendrick Carmouche.
Presque Isle Downs
Rasta Farian stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000 H.B.P.A Stakes for fillies and mares, opened up a lead in the stretch and survived the late run of Victory Pool to win by 1/2 length. Plaid was third. Rasta Farian, a 4-year-old, Kentucky-bred daughter of Holy Bull, got the 1 mile and 70 yards on the all-weather track in 1:42.12 with Corey Lanerie aboard for trainer Michael Matz.
Namaste's Wish rallied from a pace-stalking position to win Sunday's $75,000 Miss Grillo Stakes for 2-year-old fillies by 3/4 length over See Chanter. Remarkable Remy finished third. Namaste's Wish, a Kentucky-bred filly by Pulpit, got the 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.49 under Kent Desormeaux.
Unusual Suspect rallied through the stretch in Saturday's $75,000 Bay Meadows Derby and was just along in time to win by a head over Ten a Penny. Zoning In, the early leader, held on for third. Unusual Suspect, a California-bred colt by Unusual Heat, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:44.59 under Kyle Kaenel.