The race is on to the Breeders' Cup Classic and, if weekend results are an indication, the race to the race will be a good one.
In addition to a pair of top early preps for the Classic, the weekend featured important leadups to the Breeders' Cup sprint races, several of the turf events and, of course, to the rest of the preps still to come between now and the World Championships at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 and 3.
And, not to forget the international scene, Nathaniel was everything he needed to be in Saturday's Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown in England. And he needed to be quite a bit, thanks to a stout late challenge.
Here's what happened:
The main weekend races were for the older horses. The survivors of the Triple Crown battles are still gearing up for the second half of their season and history shows quality 3-year-olds can do very well, indeed, in the Classic. The challenge they face was outlined in California and New York on Saturday.
Game On Dude and Richard's Kid provided trainer Bob Baffert an emphatic 1-2 punch in the $500,000, Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup. Game On Dude, with Chantal Sutherland in the irons, sat off a fast early pace, took over and coasted home first by 1 1/2 lengths as things slowed dramatically in the final furlongs. Richard's Kid, making a late move with Rafael Bejarano up, finished 6 1/4 lengths ahead of Kettle Korn in third. Game On Dude, a 5-year-old son of Awesome Again, got the 1 1/4 miles on the all-weather track in 2:04.19. "I could actually hear Rafael yell, 'I'm coming Chantal', at the quarter pole," Sutherland said. She added she made Game On Dude wait behind the early speed. "When he started getting a little pushy about it, I had to let him do his thing. Down the lane, I didn't want to hit him or push on him, but I was getting a little nervous." Baffert added, "They had to run 1-2. They're two really good horses." He said he will take Game On Dude to Del Mar and, if he seems to handle that track, will try the $1 million Pacific Classic on Aug. 26. Otherwise, he will rest him until fall and aim for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita. Richard's Kid, he said, will shoot for his third Pacific Classic win. He was victorious in the 2009 and 2010 runnings.
While the Gold Cup looked every inch the two-horse race, Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Suburban Handicap at Belmont looked very much wide open. And that's how it played out, with Mucho Macho Man rallying from a pace-pressing trip behind Trickmeister to take charge late and win by 2 1/2 lengths. Hymn Book was along for second after a stumbling start, Trickmeister held third and the favorite, To Honor and Serve, ran evenly and got home fourth. Stay Thirsty was fifth, followed by Buffum and Endorsement. Mucho Macho Man, a 4-year-old Macho Uno colt, ran the 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:46.58 -- just a little over a second more than the 38-year-old track-record time held by Secretariat. Mucho Macho Man finished third in last year's Kentucky Derby, sixth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont. Trainer Kathy Ritvo then gave him a long vacation. He returned in the winter to win three straight before finishing third in the Grade II Alysheba Stakes in his last outing. Mike Smith flew in from California to take the mount Saturday and noted the tough, competitive field. "I couldn't believe how easy he beat them," Smith said. "I mean, you put that bunch in the Breeders' Cup Classic, your favorite is going to come out of this race. He just ran them off their feet."
Prospective did what he needed to do in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Ohio Derby, tracking the pace before taking charge in the lane to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Politicallycorrect finished second, Z Rockstar was third and Defiant Flyer completed the order of finish. Prospective, a Malibu Moon colt who earlier this year accounted for the Tampa Bay Derby, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.84 with Jermaine Bridgmohan riding. He now has six wins and two seconds from 11 starts and trainer Mark Casse said he's likely headed for the Jim Dandy at Saratoga, which is shaping up as a Jim Dandy of a race. "Looking at the field, I had some concerns, especially about Wesley Ward's horse [Politicallycorrect]," Casse said. "He has a lot of class and I thought he'd maybe get an easy lead and it would be hard to catch him. Prospective is a fighter. Once he gets a clear path, he goes on."
My Adonis battled his way to the lead in Sunday's $100,000 Long Branch Stakes for 3-year-olds at Monmouth Park, opened a daylight lead in the stretch and held on at the end to win by a half length over Macho Macho. Window Boy finished third. My Adonis, a Pleasantly Perfect colt, ran the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.98. "The pace was so slow and the horse is so strong," winning jockey Elvis Trujillo said. "He was pulling really hard and I could barely hold him back. He got a little bit tired at the end, but by then he had won it." The Long Branch is the final local prep for the $1 million, Grade I Haskell on July 29. "The Haskell has always been a thought with this horse," winning trainer Kelly Breen said. "Obviously, we'll wait to see who's coming and how he's training before we make a decision on that."
Musical Romance was the marquee name in Saturday's $1.3 million, six-race "Summit of Speed" at Calder Race Course and she was equal to the star billing.
After stalking the pace and saving ground through most of the $400,000, Grade Princess Rooney Handicap, Musical Romance rallied to the lead inside the eighth pole and held off Nicole H to win by a hard-fought 1/2 length. Nakano finished third. Musical Romance, a 5-year-old daughter of Concorde's Tune, finished the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.92. Although she won last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and landed the divisional Eclipse Aware, Musical Romance finished second, beaten a neck, in last year's Princess Rooney. "That was a really painful loss, missing by a head last year," winning jockey Juan Leyva said. "It stuck with me all this time because I know she should have won … This was sweet redemption." Winning trainer Bill Kaplan said he didn't care about last year. Saturday's effort, he said, "was just a great race, and we were able to keep her on the road to the Breeders' Cup." He said he is looking at the Grade I Ballerina at Saratoga on Aug. 24 or the Grade II Presque Isle Masters Sept. 8.
Gantry took back early in the $400,000, Grade II Smile Sprint Handicap, moved to the front at the furlong pole and quickly shook clear, winning by 5 lengths over Indiano. Close It Out was a nose farther back at a big price. Gantry, a 5-year-old Pulpit gelding, got home in 1:10.52 under Richard Eramia. Trainer Ron Faucheux said he bought Gantry to run in the Thanksgiving Day Handicap at Fair Grounds and he won that race. After Saturday's effort, he said, "It looks like we're going to get to run him in the Breeders' Cup." The Smile is a "Win and You're In" event for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Faucheux said he will return Gantry to Louisiana and look for a single prep race before the November show.
Two races before Musical Romance's triumph, Another Romance posted a bit of an upset win in the $150,000, Grade III Azalea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. After settling last of nine early behind a hot pace, the Saint Anddan filly saved ground into the turn, eased out and was up in time to score by 1 3/4 lengths over Citizen Advocate. Redbud Road was third. Another Romance, with Luca Panici up, was clocked in 1:12.02. "With her, you have to see the right way to move her to get through," Panici said. "But when she gets going, she is a lot of horse." "That's her style," said winning trainer Kaplan. "That's the way she is and also what makes her so good."
Trinniberg scratched out of the Smile to run instead in the $150,000, Grade III Carry Back Stakes, restricted to 3-year-olds. He showed the way in that event -- right up until the end, when Fort Loudon came to get him, winning by a neck. It was another 13 3/4 lengths back to Angel of Distinction in third. Fort Loudon, an Awesome of Course colt, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:10.57 with Fernando Jara handling the reins for trainer Stanley Gold. "The only thing Stanley told me," Jara said, "was to make sure that I didn't let the other horse go by himself, and I didn't. And my horse ran great like I knew he would. I've got a great horse."
Arlington Park stole a bit of Calder's thunder in this division. While Calder had a pair of turf sprints on offer in the "Summit of Speed," Arlington's $100,000 Arlington Sprint drew the last two Breeders' Cup winners. However, it was former $5,000 claimer Saint Leon who stole the show -- literally. Under jockey E.T. Baird, the 7-year-old Stravinsky gelding, out of the Seattle Slew mare Ellejolet, went right to the lead while 2010 Breeders' Cup winner Chamberlain Bridge broke in the air and spotted the field 9 lengths. Last year's Breeders' Cup winner, Regally Ready, broke well but had no late kick so it was Chamberlain Bridge making the belated stretch move and coming up just a half length short of Saint Leon under the wire. Longhunter was third at a long price while Regally Ready was fourth and Birdie Beats Par beat no one. Saint Leon got the 5 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:03.18. Baird said he didn't know it was Chamberlain Bridge on his heels. "'I wasn't bothering to look back because you only go forward," the rider said. "He's a real nice horse and he has a lot of class. He's got a real good personality. He loves what he's doing." While the runner-up had the excuse of a bad start, Regally Ready had the excuse of making his first start back from Dubai. "He's kind of a slow starter," jockey Corey Nakatani said. "I know that will wake him up and he'll move forward."
Back at Calder, Tale of a Champion ran by quicker-starting rivals in the late going of the $100,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Tripski. Determinato finished third. Tale of a Champion, a 4-year-old Tale of the Cat colt out of the Seattle Slew mare If Angels Sang, ran the 5 furlongs on firm going in 55.61 seconds. "When I came on the turn," winning jockey Luis Saez said, "I started to ask him a little, and he responded perfectly. Honestly, I thought he won the race won pretty easy."
And in the day's stakes finale at Calder, Callmethesqueeze shot away from her rivals in the stretch run of the $100,000 Hollywood Wildcat Stakes for fillies and mares and won by 6 lengths over Brinca. Trip for A.J was a head farther back in third. Callmethesqueeze, a 4-year-old daughter of Awesome Again, ran the 7 1/2 furlongs on the green course in 1:27.95 with Jose Alvarez aboard. "When I started to really ride my horse, within a few jumps I was on top of everybody, and then I was history," Alvarez said. "She just ran away from them all."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Emma's Encore popped a huge upset in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Victory Ride Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park, rallying by pacesetter Jamaican Smoke in the lane to win by 2 3/4 lengths at odds of 39-1. Tu Endie Wei was third and the odds-on favorite, Agave Kiss, took down some serious bridge-jumper money by finishing next-last of six. The show payoffs were $61, $18.60 and $25.60. Emma's Encore, a daughter of Congrats, got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.89 with Junior Alvarado riding. Despite the long odds, Emma's Encore was not a no-hoper. After winning two straight in Florida and finishing eighth in the Gulfstream Park Oaks, she won her first start at Belmont in an optional claimer. Agave Kiss, meanwhile, came into the race undefeated after six starts, including the Miss Preakness. Trainer H. Allan Jerkens, 83, furthered his "giant killer" reputation with the win. Earlier in his Hall of Fame career, Jerkens was the king of the upsets, sending out, among others, Beau Purple to beat Kelso three times, Handsome Boy to win over Buckpasser and both Onion and Prove Out to beat Secretariat in a pair of graded stakes. He said he was "being optimistic when I picked this race," adding he now will think about the Grade I events at Saratoga. "It's so nice to win one," he added. "We hadn't been doing any good at all lately so this really helps a lot."
Man Stuff led from the early jumps in Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Sweet Briar Too Stakes at Woodbine, then held on to win by 1 length over the gaining favorite, Roxy Gap. Miss Inclined finished third. Man Stuff, a Belong to Me filly, ran 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:23.03 under Eurico Da Silva. It was her first stakes win. "She took the lead and she was running very relaxed," Da Silva said. "I did pull the trigger a little bit early. We had the advantage of the weight and she ran very strong."
Turbo Compressor led from the early going in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park, then kicked clear at the end when asked by jockey Joe Bravo and won by 1 1/4 lengths over Air Support. Al Khali finished third. The favorite, Slim Shadey, never fired and finished fifth. Turbo Compressor, a 4-year-old Halo's Image ridgling, ran the 1 3/8 miles over firm turf in 2:12.88. "He really flew home," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "He was able to lay down the fractions and that was just what we were looking for. He still came home in 22 (seconds) and change and that's hard to do at a mile and three eighths. This horse is versatile. He's won from 1 mile to a mile and three eighths, so we have a lot of options for him." He now has won half his 14 career starts and backed up his last race victory in the Colonial Cup. The United Nations is a "Win and You're In" qualifier for the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf Nov. 3 at Santa Anita.
Filly & Mare Turf
Marketing Mix was in the mix in the stretch run of Sunday's $300,000 (Canadian), Grade II Dance Smartly Stakes, then emerged from the pack at the end to win by 1 3/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. Moment of Majesty was second and last year's Queen's Plate winner, Inglorious, finished third. Marketing Mix, a 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro filly, ran the 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.02 with Julien Leparoux up. It was her seventh career win and fourth in a graded stakes. "We got stopped coming to the straight and she just picked it up very nicely on this turf," said Leparoux. "She wanted it, most importantly."
Quiet Oasis came from off the pace to win a three-way scramble to the wire in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Royal Heroine Stakes for fillies and mares. At the line, the 4-year-old, Irish-bred filly was a head in front of Megadream. Briecat, who led most of the way, settled for third, another neck in arrears. Quiet Oasis, by Oasis Dream, finished the 1 mile on firm going in 1:35.06 with Mario Gutierrez riding for trainer Ben Cecil. Her owner, J. Paul Reddam, said he "bought her from our trainer in England and she's stretched out like a pro. The other difference is that now she's able to relax more and settle. When she first got here, she was very, very keen and would kind of take herself out of the race. She's like a different race horse now and I would give full credit to Ben (Cecil) and his team."
Dene Court led all the way to an easy 1 1/4-length win in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Ontario Damsel Stakes for province-foaled 3-year-old fillies. Part the Seas was second and Gravelly Bay finished third. Dene Court, with Patrick Husbands riding, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:35.14 and earned the Equibase chart note "toyed with them" for the ease of her win. She is a City Zip. "She's a very talented filly," Husbands said. "She's an aggressive filly and always wants to fight with the other horses, so I was a little bit scared of getting in a speed duel down the backside. I got her to relax and I didn't mind that she was so wide. She showed she was the class of the race today." Trainer Mark Cassse said Dene Court may slip south of the border to Saratoga later this summer.
Rule, making his first start since a misfire in the Hawthorne Gold Cup last October, duked it out for the lead in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Monmouth Cup, then edged clear at the end to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Flat Out. Sloan Ranger settled for third after contesting the lead. Rule, a 5-year-old son of Roman Ruler, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.71 with Joe Bravo up for trainer Todd Pletcher. "He came out of the gate with running on his mind," Bravo said. "I don't care how long the layoff, this horse was ready to go the minute the gates opened. He was doing it very easy. Todd had him ready to run and I just steered him around the track."
Bet Your Life survived a rough start in Friday's $87,000 Iowa Stallion Futurity, charged to the lead under Israel Ocampo and battled gamely to win by 1 length over the favorite, Senor Captain. Wild Ritzy was third. Bet Your Life, by Giacomo out of the Storm Boot mare Thigh High Boots, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:06.14.
The Drifter shot clear in the stretch drive in Saturday's $100,000 Texas Stallion Stakes at Lone Star Park, winning by 7 lengths. Gyrate was the best of the rest with Estrickator third. The Drifter, a Seeking a Home colt, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.78 under Cliff Berry for his second straight win.
Anytime Magic led all the way in Sunday's $50,000 Everett Nevin Alemeda County Stakes at Pleasanton, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over Native Treasure. K Court finished third. Anytime Magic, a Fusaichi Pegasus gelding, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:04.43 under David Lopez.
Broken Sword won at first asking -- and how! -- in Saturday's $50,000 Juan Gonzalez Memorial at Pleasanton. With Russell Baze up, the Kentucky-bred Broken Vow filly settled on the outside of a three-filly battle for the lead, quickly assumed command when asked and drew off to win by 11 lengths. Set'n On Ready finished second with Island Frolic third. Broken Sword was no secret. She went off the 1-2 favorite in the field of seven and got the 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:03.27 without being asked for her best. Jerry Hollendorfer trains the winner.
Significant Bling came three-wide around the pacesetters in Saturday's $50,000 Cleveland Kindergarten Stakes for Ohio-bred 2-year-olds at Thistledown and kicked clear, winning by 3 1/4 lengths as the odds-on favorite. The winner's entrymate, Blazing Bling, was second. The entry of Pyrite Green and Pyrite Mill finished third and fourth, leaving it to the fifth-place finisher, Zambito, to complete the trifecta and the sixth-place finisher, Potentially Ours, to fill out the superfecta payoff. Significant Bling, a Too Much Bling filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:05.88 for jockey Deshawn Parker. She has won both her starts.
Platinum Star broke in the air in Saturday's $100,000 filly division of the Texas Stallion Stakes at Lone Star Park, spotted the field a good 2 lengths and still managed to get up at the end and win by a neck over Falling Star. The favorite, Thibodaux, led early but faded badly to finish third. Platinum Star, a My Golden Song filly, got the 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:05.32 with Glen Murphy riding.
Marketway set a pressured pace in Sunday's $50,000 Boulevard Casino Stakes at Hastings Racecourse, then slowly edged ahead in the final sixteenth to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Ten Thirty. Lady Henrietta finished third. Marketway, a daughter of After Market out of the Go for Gin mare Just a Ginny, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.08 with Fernando Perez in the irons.
Elsewhere around the ovals:
Making his first start of the year, Nathaniel was put to the test in the final 100 yards of Saturday's Group 1 Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Sandown. After shooting to the lead entering the straightaway, the 4-year-old Galileo colt looked clear of the field. But Frankie Dettori, aboard Godolphin's hopeful, Farhh, had other ideas. Closing steadily, Farhh got to within a neck of the lead before William Buick found another gear on Nathaniel. The latter responded, edging forward to win by a half length. Twice Over was third and Cityscape finished fourth. The 1 1/4 miles on good to soft going took 2:06.94. Nathaniel was last previously seen Oct. 15 of last year, finishing fifth in the Champion Stakes at Ascot. That was his only truly disappointing race and he now has four wins and three seconds from eight career starts. Two of those seconds came behind Frankel and Treasure Beach.
Doctor Chit led all the way to a 3 1/4-length victory over Sportswriter in Thursday's $85,000 Western Larla Stakes for 3-year-olds. Saint of Saints finished third. Doctor Chit, a War Front colt, got the 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.90 with Javier Castellano up.
Fiddlers Afleet didn't fiddle around in the stretch run of Friday's $85,000 Chasin' Wimmin' Stakes for New York-breds, drawing clear with a fleet move that left the 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding 7 1/4 lengths ahead at the wire. Uncle T Seven was the best of the rest with Be Bullish third. Fiddlers Afleet got home in 1:09.72 with David Cohen riding.
La Cloche made sure it wasn't close in Sunday's $90,000 Voodoo Dancer Stakes for fillies and mares, kicking clear at the end to win by 3 1/4 lengths over Wallis. Kiss in the Forest was third after leading briefly. La Cloche, a 5-year-old Ghostzapper mare, ran the mile on good turf in 1:35.12 with Junior Alvarado in the irons.
Roman Treasure was quickly in front in Sunday's $85,000 Chaldea Stakes for fillies and mares and got home first by 2 lengths over the odds-on favorite, Risky Rachel. Tamarind Hall finished third. Roman Treasure, a 4-year-old Roman Ruler filly, traveled 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.84 with Ramon Dominguez up.
Trois Aureole rallied three-wide around the early leaders to gain the advantage in Sunday's $68,000 Le Cle Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Long Face. Lady Ten was third. Trois Aureole, a daughter of English Channel, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:37.25 for jockey Joe Talamo.
Royal Currier tracked the early pace in Sunday's $75,000 Mr. Prospector Stakes, joined a scrap for advantage in the lane and emerged victorious by 1/2 length over Raging Six. Justin Philip finished third. Royal Currier, a 4-year-old Red Bullet gelding, ran the 6 furlongs in 1:09.38 with Joe Bravo up.
Beware the Devil shook clear of his half dozen rivals in the stretch run in Saturday's $99,598 Iowa Stallion Stakes for 3-year-olds, winning off by 5 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Rudy's Edge. A Little Edge completed the trifecta. Beware the Devil, a Devil His Due gelding, ran the 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.77 for jockey Alex Birzer.
Presque Isle Downs
Sky Willow stalked the pace in Friday's $75,000 Northern Fling Stakes for Pennsylvania-bred fillies and mares, split rivals while making her bid and drew clear to score by 2 1/4 lengths over the pacesetter, Weeper. The favorite, Lenape Rim, was third with a belated bid. Sky Willow, a 4-year-old Empire Maker filly, ran the mile on the all-weather track in 1:37.92 with Mario Pino in the irons.
Motion to Appeal set a contested pace in Friday's $75,000 Leematt Stakes for state-breds and was all out to survive by a half length over Ryan's Gift at the wire. The favorite, Gondwanan, made a late run but settled for third. Motion to Appeal, a 4-year-old Bellamy Road gelding, ran the mile in 1:37.49 for jockey Dennis Carr.
Eyes Super Freaky jumped out to a big lead in the stretch run of Friday's $75,000 Daniel Stearns Cleveland Gold Cup for Ohio-bred 3-year-olds and the favorite, License to Bling, could only give futile chase, finishing second by 5 1/2 lengths. Uncle Virgil finished third. Eyes Super Freaky, a Silver Wagon gelding, ran the 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:52.08 with Luis Gonzalez up.
Evelyn's Dancer led from the gitgo in Saturday's $50,000 Supernaturel Handicap for 3-year-old fillies and won by 1 1/2 lengths. Our Eleanor made up ground in the stretch to finish second and Madeira Park took third. Evelyn's Dancer, a Songandaprayer filly, got the Supernaturel's 1 1/16 mile in 1:44.86 with Fernando Perez riding.
Class Included got to the lead early in the stretch run in Sunday's $50,000 Boeing Handicap and it was class dismissed for her six rivals. With Juan Gutierrez handling the reins, Class Included scored by 2 1/2 lengths over Sweet Nellie Brown. Carrabelle Harbor finished third. Class Included, a 4-year-old daughter of Include, ran the 1 mile on a fast track in 1:34.48.