Arlington Park's International Festival of Racing highlights a weekend heavy on turf racing from coast to coast.
The Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park and the Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs provide graded opportunities for the dirt runners. And Saratoga's Alabama intensifies the competition among the 3-year-old fillies.
On the international front, France and Japan feature interested graded stakes. Snow Fairy may return in one of them.
And we're off!
On the grass:
Saturday's Grade I Arlington Million lives up to its role as the marquee event of the International Festival of Racing. Headlining a program including six stakes, half of them Grade I events, the Million attracted a field of 11 and is well balanced in all respects: Ability, internationality and betting interest. The lukewarm morning-line favorite is Boisterous, a 5-year-old Phipps Stable homebred who finished second in the Arlington Handicap a month ago. He finished fifth in the rival Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga last year and trainer Shug McGaughey has found an equally tough spot. Among his rivals is Rahystrada, who defeated Boisterous in the Arlington Handicap by a neck after setting a comfortable pace. A half-dozen others are listed at single-digit odds, including European invaders Asfare, Colombian, 2011 Secretariat Stakes winner Treasure Beach and Crackerjack King. Wigmore Hall, who was fourth in last year's Million, is posted at 12-1 after struggling at home this year. Colombian needs watching simply because he is trained by John Gosden and ridden by William Buick -- a red hot combination this year in England, Ireland and France. This is a tough one to figure out but should be rewarding for those who succeed. If the Brits have an inside line, note that the betting shop William Hill Friday had Crackerjack King the 4-1 favorite.
In the $500,000, Grade I Secretariat Stakes for 3-year-olds on the Million "undercard," Silver Max is a deserving 9-5 favorite. The Badge of Silver colt has won six straight starts, including the Arlington Classic in May and the Virginia Derby at Colonial Downs in his last outing. Christophe Clement brings Summer Front off two wins on the New York Circuit but will be stretching that War Front colt out from 1 mile to 1 1/4 miles. This race drew two from overseas. Daddy Long Legs has had only two bad races in his seven-start career and those came in his two previous U.S. efforts. However, those were both on the Churchill Downs dirt -- in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, where he beat one of his 12 rivals, and the Kentucky Derby, where he beat none of the 19 others. Trainer Aidan O'Brien obviously is hoping for better on the lush Arlington turf course. In from France is Bayir, an Aga Khan homebred who has won three of four while moving up the class ladder. The Aga Khan is no stranger to the Arlington winner's circle.
The brand-new, $400,000, as-yet ungraded American St. Leger at 1 11/16 miles on the grass proved an instant hit, drawing a field of 12. High on the list is Jakkalberry, an Italian-based stayer who finished third in the Dubai Sheema Classic in May before a detour to Ascot in England. The Gosden-Buick combo will handle German-bred Zuider Zee in this race. Locals are headed by Team Block's Ioya Bigtime, who won the Stars and Stripes Handicap over the Arlington grass in preparation for this.
Meanwhile, at Saratoga, the 1 1/2-mile, $600,000, Grade I Sword Dancer Invitational also drew a talented, well-matched field of nine, with Turbo Compressor, Point of Entry, Brilliant Speed, Center Divider and Al Khali all looking capable of making themselves noticed.
North of the border, Sunday's $250,000, Grade II Sky Classic Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on the turf attracted eight entrants. Among them is Scalo, who has been a force among German turfers and ventured to Italy last year to finish second in the Group 1 Gran Premio di Milan. The field also includes 2009 Queen's Plate winner Eye of the Leopard and the 2010 runner-up, Hotep.
And, 3-year-old turf milers will have a chance in Saturday's $100,000 Capital City at Penn National with 10 runners signed on.
Distaffers on the turf, or "Disturf":
Arlington always supports the Million with the classy, Grade I Beverly D. for fillies and mares, worth $750,000 and, like the Million, a "Win and You're In" event for the Breeders' Cup World Championships. A pair of U.S. runners, Aruna and Marketing Mix, are the morning-line favorites after mixing it up on the East Coast in recent months. But it would be foolish to discount Up, a battle-tested filly from Aidan O'Brien's deep operation. Up has only a single win but has been facing the toughest competition in England, Ireland and France. She was fourth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Gosden and Buick will start Joviality. German-based Kapitale has been racing in Deutschland and Italia. This also looks like a wide-open race on a challenging card.
Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Woodford Reserve Lake Placid Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga has six set to go. Among them are last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf winner, Stephanie's Kitten; Centre Court, winner of three straight races; and Darley Stables' Better Lucky. The others also have shown promise in a contentious mix.
Out west, Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Del Mar Oaks drew a field of 10 with Lady of Shamrock among the most likely. She has five wins in her last seven starts, including a victory in the Grade I American Oaks at Hollywood Park in her last outing. Eden's Moon won the Grade II San Clemente at Del Mar in her last start. Mary Fildes started her career at minor tracks in England and moved on to winter races in Dubai. She has only one career win, however, and that was in her first start at Bath. The others all have run well in graded stakes in Southern California.
Saturday's stakes also include the $100,000 Dauphin Miss for 3-year-old fillies going 1 mile on the Penn National turf.
If you blinked, you missed 'em. They were both on Wednesday, at Del Mar and Saratoga.
Shrug reached contention in the final sixteenth in the $85,000 Green Flash Handicap at Del Mar and won a four-way battle to the line by a nose over Lakerville. It was another neck back to Sirocco Strike in third and yet another head to the favorite, Koast, in fourth. Shrug, a 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro colt, ran the 5 furlongs on firm going in 56.00 seconds with Victor Espinoza up.
Bridgetown led all the way in the $100,000 Troy Stakes at Saratoga but was shadowed all the way by Perfect Officer. Only in the final yards did Bridgetown win a little edge and he won by 1/2 length, capturing the event for the second straight season. Wekiva Wachee finished third. Bridgetown, a 5-year-old son of Speightstown, ran the 5 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:01.52 under John Velazquez.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Philip H. Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park has some contenders still hoping to make a ruckus in the handicap division. Among them, Toby's Corner, the morning-line favorite among seven, won the Wood Memorial way back when -- in April -- at Aqueduct. He then struggled and just got back to the winner's circle in his last start after the Mountainview Handicap at Penn National. San Pablo won the Birdstone Stakes early in the Saratoga meeting and has only missed the trifecta once in 11 starts. Eldaafer, Gourmet Dinner, Ponzi Scheme and Small Town Talk all have one claim or another. The Iselin is 1 1/8 miles on the main track.
Grace Hall and Questing are the early favorites among seven entered for Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Alabama for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga. Grace Hall was third in the Kentucky Oaks as the favorite but bounced back in her last start to win the Grade II Delaware Oaks handily. She was second to My Miss Aurelia in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies and, should she win Saturday, those two would be high on the list for year-end honors in this division. So, too, would be Questing, who was fifth in the Breeders' Cup last November, then jumped up from the allowance ranks to win the Coaching Club American Oaks in her last start. Other in this tough field include In Lingerie, Via Villagio, Uptown Bertie, Zo Impressive and Sea Island. All have the credentials to make a showing here.
Awesome Gem is in for Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Longacres Mile at Emerald Downs. The 9-year-old Awesome Again gelding, trained by Craig Dollase, won the race last year after finishing second in the Cornhusker Handicap at Prairie Meadows. This year, Awesome Gem was third in the Cornhusker behind Fort Larned and Successful Dan. So he should be tough against 10 rivals on Sunday. Hudson Landing has run well in northern California and won the Mount Rainier Handicap at Emerald last time out. Taylor Said comes in off four straight stakes wins at Hastings. The suburban Seattle oval inherited the race from the late, lamented Longacres track which was swallowed up by Boeing.
Sunday's Group 1 Prix Jean Romanet at Deauville is set to feature the seasonal debut of the globe-trotting superstar Snow Fairy. Trainer Edward Dunlop has sent the 5-year-old Intikhab mare as far afield as Hong Kong and Dubai but she has not been seen on a course in the afternoon since shw won the QE II Cup in Kyoto last November for the second straight year. She was injured while training for a try at the 12-furlong Hong Kong Vase last December. The rest of the field for the Jean Romanet is no slouch either, including the likes of Izzy Top, Galikova, Giofra and Timepiece among others.
Saturday's card at Deauville also includes the Group 1 prix Morny, a 6-furlong sprint for 2-year-olds.
Three-year-olds and up will tackle 2,000 meters in the Sapporo Kinen over the Sapporo turf course Sunday. The race, worth just north of $1.6 million, was won last year by Tosen Jordan.