Sunday's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park is not only a choice plum itself, with Grade I status and a $1 million purse, but also a key prep for the upcoming Travers -- the "Midsummer Derby" -- at Saratoga.
The same is true for Saturday's $600,000, Grade II Jim Dandy at the Spa, for trainers who would rather not travel to the Jersey shore while preparing for the Travers.
Both those races have outstanding supporting cards. Monmouth offers no fewer than a half dozen more six-figure purses on the Haskell program, four of them graded. Saratoga has the $600,000, Grade I Diana Stakes for turf-running fillies and mares on its Saturday program.
Older horses gunning for the Breeder's Cup Dirt Mile get a "Win and You're In" chance in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar. Sprinters are on display at Monmouth, Saratoga, Del Mar and Woodbine in Canada.
Grass specialists also are all over the map, from Deauville in France to York in the north of England to Canterbury Park in Minnesota.
You can't tell the players without a scorecard. Here's a start:
The Classic contenders
Bob Baffert has saddled the last two winners of the Haskell with Coil last year and Lookin At Lucky in 2010. Now he hopes for a "three peat" with Paynter, who nearly stole the Belmont Stakes in his last outing, surrendering to the now-retired Union Rags only in the final yards. Todd Pletcher will send out Gemologist for Sunday's Monmouth Park classic, hoping for an improvement from his last race, a 16th-place showing in the Kentucky Derby. Pletcher said he chose the Haskell over the Jim Dandy at Saratoga because of the Grade I status, as well as the purse differential. Dale Romans is prepping Dullahan, who was third in the Kentucky Derby after winning the Blue Grass at Saratoga. Stealcase, who was third in the Derby Trial while Paynter finished second, also is back for more in the Haskell under the care of Mark Casse. Handsome Mike and West Coast invader Nonios round out the field of six tough 3-year-olds.
Up north at Saratoga, Baffert is likely to have one of the favorites in the Jim Dandy in the form of Liaison. Although he could do no better than sixth in the Run for the Roses, the Indian Charlie colt since has been second in the Affirmed at Hollywood Park and third in the Swaps. Baffert said an outstanding recent workout convinced him to ship Liaison cross-country.
"Martin Garcia worked him and said he really felt great," Baffert said.
Alpha, making his first start since finishing 12th in the Run for the Roses, drew the alpha position in the tough, eight-horse field. He broke his maiden at first asking at Saratoga. Nick Zito, who uncharacteristically missed this year's Triple Crown battles, will send out Fast Falcon in the Jim Dandy, He was second in the recent Grade II Dwyer. Also entered are Prospective, 18th in the Kentucky Derby but more recently winner of the Grade III Ohio Derby; Teeth of the Dog, winner of the Easy Goer and Dwyer at Belmont; My Adonis, winner of the Long Branch at Monmouth last time out; Neck 'n Neck, fresh off a win in the Grade III Matt Winn at Churchill Downs; and Atigun, third in the Belmont Stakes in his last race.
On Friday at Saratoga, Street Life heads up an interesting field of eight for the $100,000 Curlin Stakes, restricted to non-winners of a graded stakes over 1 mile this year. Street Life came home fourth in the Belmont Stakes. Ever So Lucky, unlucky in the Triple Crown preps, will try to rebound in the 9-furlong event. Easter Gift goes for Zito. Morgan's Guerrilla was second in the Illinois Derby and third last time out in the Dwyer.
Speaking of Coil, he made his first start of 2012 Thursday at Del Mar in a 7-furlong optional claimer and prevailed by 1 length under strong handling by Rafael Bejarano. The field was a solid one, too, with Mensa Heat finishing second, Great Warrior third and Honour the Deputy fifth. Coil now has five wins from nine starts and has missed the trifecta only once -- that in last year's Travers.
Among the older horses, Friday's 1 1/2-mile, $100,000, Group III Cougar II Handicap at Del Mar might be a prep for the Breeders' Cup Marathon. Or, since Baffert has entered Richard's Kid, it might be a prep for almost anything. Baffert said after Richard's Kid won the Hollywood Gold Cup July 7 he would point the horse to the $1 million Pacific Classic -- a race he won in 2009 and 2010 before an extended stay in Dubai. In 2009, he finished second in this race, won the Pacific Classic and then went on to finish sixth in the Breeders' Cup Classic behind Zenyatta. Among the others, Dynamic Host has been running well, as befits a 6-year-old son of Dynaformer. Fly Lexis Fly, a 3-year-old making his first start up from Peru, is saddled by Neil Drysdale.
It's Baffert again in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II San Diego Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the Del Mar all-weather track. The silver-haired trainer has entered Prayer for Relief and Take Control in that event, which is Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In," too. The former hasn't won since the Super Derby 10 months ago but has been running competitively in big races. The latter, a 5-year-old son of A.P. Indy out of Azeri, won his first start last December, then laid up until late last month when he won again at Hollywood Park. It's a big step up but he sure has the breeding. This is a competitive heat though, including the likes of Rail Trip, Kettle Corn and Tres Borrachos among seven starters.
Group 1 racing takes a break while the Olympics get under way. That doesn't mean there's a dearth of interesting racing. Up north in York, Planteur tops the early entries for Saturday's Group 2 Sky Bet York Stakes. The 5-year-old won last year's Prix Ganay, defeating the likes of Sarafina, Cirrus des Aigles and Cape Blanco. He finished third in this year's Dubai World Cup in March and in the Group 1 Prix d'Ispahan at Longchamp in May before fading to get home seventh in the Group 1 Prince Of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot.
"As long as it's not firm ground and it's safe, he will take his chance," said trainer Marco Botti.
Sir Henry Cecil could be represented by the Khalid Abdulla homebred, Jet Away.
Immortal Verse, Golden Lilac and Elusive Kate are among seven distaffers possible for Sunday's Group 1 Prix Rothschild at Deauville. Immortal Verse has not run since finishing seventh in the Group 1 Mile Championship at Kyoto in Japan last Nov. 20 and trainer Robert Collet said he is not sure she will go in the Rothschild. Instead, he said, she may wait for the Prix Jacques le Marois -- a race in which she got the better of Goldikova a year ago. Golden Lilac defeated Cirrus des Aigles in the Prix d'Ispahan in May but then misfired over heavy going in the Falmouth. Elusive Kate appeared a bit short in her first start of the season.
The $200,000, Grade II Molly Pitcher for fillies and mares covers 1 1/16 miles on the Monmouth main track Sunday. Nine signed on for this event with Derwin's Star toting the high weight of 123 pounds after winning the Grade III Bed o' Roses Handicap at Belmont in her last outing. She will concede as much as seven pounds to a talented field that also includes Afleeting Lady, who was second to Royal Delta -- albeit a distant second -- in the Fleur de Lis Handicap last month. Catch a Thief, second in the Bed o'Roses, also is back. R Gypsy Gold steps up for Todd Pletcher's barn. Nefertini, which sounds like a Yuppi vodka drink, has usually been in the mix against lesser and has a winning stakes trip over the track, as does Successful Song. Withgreatpleasure raced well on the Shore last summer. Brushed by a Star won the Iowa Distaff, far from any shore, in her last start. Absinthe Minded could break through at any time for D. Wayne Lukas.
Sunday is "sprint day." Out west, Amazombie and The Factor are expected to slug it out with a few others in the $300,000, Grade I Bing Crosby Stakes at Del Mar. Trainer Bill Spawr said Amazombie, who finished second to Shackleford in the 7-furlong Churchill Downs Stakes on Derby Day will stick to 6-furlong events like the Crosby as he preps for the Breeders' Cup Sprint at Santa Anita in November.
"That race against Shackleford really knocked him out," Spawr said. "He was tired and he lost weight."
East Coast action includes the $200,000, Grade II Amsterdam Stakes for 3-year-olds at 6 furlongs at Saratoga, with Fort Loudon riding a three-race winning streak after he bailed out on the Triple Crown following a sixth-place showing in the Florida Derby. Baffert has Gun Boat in from California after a confidence-building win in a Hollywood allowance. Currency Swap was second in the Grade II Woody Stephens in his last start. On the Haskell undercard is the $100,000 Teddy Drone at 6 furlongs. Nine, featuring Royal Currier and Travelin Man, are on board for the Teddy Drone.
On Saturday, Woodbine has the $150,000 (Canadian) Duchess Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 7 furlongs on the all-weather track. Eight entered for that test.
On the lawn
The grass is greenest for the fillies and mares in Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Diana at Saratoga. A field of six was drawn for the 9-furlong Diana over the inner turf course, with Tapitsfly starting from the rail and Winter Memories and Hungry Island in the outside post positions. Those three finished 1-2-3, in that order, in the Grade I Longines Just a Game Stakes at Belmont June 9. This time around, they'll have to contend with Zagora, who won last year's running of the Diana and three of her four starts this year. A couple immigrants add spice to the tasty lineup. French-based Dream Peace makes her first start since finishing eighth in the Group 1 Singapore Airlines Cup at Kranji on May 20 for trainer Robert Collet, who also has business at home this weekend in the Prix Rothschild. Law of the Range makes her first start after running against lesser competition in England and Ireland.
At Monmouth Sunday, it's the $150,000, Grade III Oceanport at 1 1/16 miles and the $150,000, Grade III Taylor Made Matchmaker for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 miles. Get Serious and Roman Tiger are among the eight entered for the Oceanport and eight also go in the Matchmaker.
Penn National has four big-money turf events at a variety of distances spread between Friday and Saturday with the $200,000 Governor's Cup at 5 furlongs topping the proceedings Saturday. The latter, a 5-furlong turf tussle, got 10 takers with Ben's Cat and Varsity among the early favorites.
The $150,000 (Canadian), Grade III Royal North Stakes finds fillies and mares going 6 furlongs on the Woodbine turf Sunday. The companion $250,000 (Canadian) Wonder Where Stakes at 10 furlongs on the grass is restricted to Canadian-bred steeds.
And Canterbury Park in Shakopee, Minn., gets into the action with Saturday's $150,000 Mystic Lake Derby at 1 mile on the grass. The race is the first fruit of an $83.5 million cooperative marketing and purse enhancement deal between Canterbury Park and the Shakopee Mdewakanton Sioux Community which owns and operates the nearby Mystic Lake Casino Hotel. Mystic Lake put up two-thirds of the Derby's purse and the added money did the job. The race attracted some out-of-town attention in the form of Hammers Terror, who was third in the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland; Delegation, unbeaten in two starts at Woodbine; Kentucky-based Rushaway Stakes runner-up Gung Ho; and North of Never, fourth in the Arlington Classic.
Juveniles of both genders
The Rio Grande Senor and Senorita Futurities each offer $200,000 Sunday at Ruidoso Downs high up in southern New Mexico. The 5 1/2-furlong events are restricted to horses bred in the Land of Enchantment and green chili stew.
Woodbine has the $150,000 (Canadian) Vandal Stakes for Ontario-foaled 2-year-olds at 6 furlongs Saturday.
Two-year-olds produced by Florida stallions get their chance Saturday at Calder in the $75,000 Desert Vixen and Dr. Fager, both at 6 furlongs, as the Florida Stallion Stakes series gets fired up.
And Louisiana-bred juveniles run for $100,000 purses in each of the two divisions of the D.S. "Shine" Young Memorial Futurity Saturday at Evangeline Downs.
Already in the books is a remarkable performance Wednesday at Saratoga, as Teen Pauline broke the 5-furlong track record by running a 56.53 time in a maiden special weight for 2-year-old fillies. It was the first start for the Steve Asmussen trainee.
"She's special. She really is," the trainer said. "I thought she was spot-on and the timing would be perfect for her. We just want this to be the first step in a very successful career."
The Stonestreet Stables filly is by Tapit out of the Carson City mare Effectual.