The rematch between Alpha and Golden Ticket in Saturday's $1 million, Grade II Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing also is one of the last few chances for 3-year-olds to run in their age group before thinking about taking on older horses in, say, the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Not to ignore the ladies, Parx's Saturday card includes the $1 million, Grade I Cotillion for 3-year-old fillies; Belmont Park Saturday has the $200,000, Grade II Gallant Bloom for filly and mare sprinters with a Breeders' Cup slot on the line; and Charles Town offers the $400,000 Charles Town Oaks at 7 furlongs.
Turf action calms down after several hectic weeks with the primary fixture being the $200,000, Grade III Kent Stakes for 3-year-olds over the Delaware Park green course.
International action also takes a well-deserved break although some potentially important races are on deck in Scotland and Germany.
Friday marks six weeks out to the first day of the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita so now would be a good time to start paying attention. Let's go:
Alpha is the 9-5 morning-line favorite for the Pennsylvania Derby off a record that shows four wins and a second for his last six races. The only poor showings for the Godolphin standard-bearer are his 12th in the Kentucky Derby and 11th in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Golden Ticket, by comparison, has been slow to develop for trainer Kenny McPeek but might be peaking at the right time. In his last three starts, he was fifth in the Coolmore Lexington over the Keeneland all-weather in April, then second in an optional claimer at Churchill Downs on Derby Day. He entered the Travers off a nearly four-month vacation. Alpha went to the post at Saratoga at 2.40-1; Golden Ticket at 33-1.
Others to watch in the eight-horse field -- Macho Macho always seems to run well and took down the Grade II West Virginia Derby in his last start; the regally bred Stephanoatsee took seven months off after finishing second in the Count Fleet, then immediately won an off-the-turf optional claimer at Delaware Park last month and could be poised to spring the upset for trainer H. Graham Motion; Csaba was second in the National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes on the Saratoga grass two starts back. But if the Travers is the measuring stick, this is Alpha vs. Golden Ticket.
"This should be a great grudge match between them," McPeek said this week. "Hopefully, this isn't the last time we get to run against each other."
It's only a four-filly field in Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Cotillion at Parx Racing and once again McLaughlin and Godolphin have the favorite in Questing. The Hard Spun filly sure looks like the real deal as she seeks her fourth straight win. The previous three include the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks and Grade I Alabama, both at Saratoga. The undefeated but lightly raced My Miss Aurelia is the 8-5 morning-line second favorite. The Smart Strike filly romped through four wins last year, culminating in an easy victory over a big field in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. She then had shin problems, however, and her only start this year was a "gimme" win in the Mandys Gold Stakes at Saratoga last month. The other two in Saturday's race aren't exactly patsies. Dixie Strike won the Prince of Wales at Fort Erie after finishing third in the Queen's Plate. Moment in Dixie has two wins and two seconds from four starts.
While Parx got the stars, Charles Town got a full field of 10, plus one also-eligible, for Saturday's $400,000 Charles Town Oaks. The marquee event on a card including five stakes will be run at 7 furlongs on the dirt. Ami's Dini has run well against top company all year without quite breaking through and finally may find the right spot. She finished sixth in the Test at Saratoga last time out and again faces many of the other also-rans from that race. Beautiful But Blue was third in the Test and has run well at Aqueduct and Belmont earlier in the year. This might be the most bettable stakes race of the weekend.
Awesome Feather ran her record to 10-for-10 Thursday, destroying a quartet of rivals in the $85,000 Nasty Storm Stakes at Belmont Park. At the wire, the Awesome of Course filly was about 12 lengths better than her nearest rival without much urging from jockey Jeffrey Sanchez. She finished the one-turn mile in 1:33 2/5. Awesome Feather, the 2010 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winner, missed much of last year with a tendon issue. She returned late in 2011 but was sidelined again after winning the Florida Sunshine Millions Distaff back in January. All being well, she likely is headed to the Ladies' Classic.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Kent Stakes at Delaware Park drew a big, well balanced field. Lucky Chappy has bounced around from northern California to Italy to Florida, Dubai and New York and has only two wins to show for 10 starts. Still, the Irish-bred High Chaparral colt is coming off a second in the Grade II Virginia Derby and a third in the Grade III Sarnac at the Spa so he has been limiting his travel and racing competitively against quality foes. Cozzetti won the Grade III American Derby at Arlington and then finished sixth in the Grade I Secretariat on Million Day. Corinthian's Jewel won the Restoration Stakes at Monmouth last month and faces several of the same rivals here. D. Wayne Lukas finally got Optimizer his second career win -- in his 15th start -- by dropping to the optional claiming ranks at Saratoga last time out and bounces right back to the graded stakes level with the English Channel colt. Excaper finished second in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and has been running okay in Canada.
Other than that, we will note the arrival in the United States of a Japanese raider eyeing the Breeders' Cup Turf. This is important. With the French races on Arc weekend long a rival for top international horses and the British Champions Series finale now further encroaching on the Breeders' Cup, it's encouraging to see the growing list of foreign horses targeting November's races at Santa Anita. Trailblazer, trained by Yasutoshi Ikee, arrived at the Hollywood Park quarantine facility last Friday morning. The 5-year-old son of Zenno Rob Roy currently has a career record of 6 wins, 1 second and 2 thirds in 20 races. In this case, though, the identity of the trainer is almost as important as the record of his horse. Ikee also handles Orfevre, last year's Japanese Triple Crown winner and one of the top favorites for next month's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Trailblazer is ticketed for the Grade II Arroyo Seco Mile (formerly the Oak Tree Mile) at Santa Anita on Oct. 6 as a prep for the longer Breeders' Cup event. "I'm relieved to say that the horse is doing fine," said assistant trainer Kazushi Iwasawa.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Look for one or more Breeders' Cup contender to come out of Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont Park.
"Pretty much all of the top (female sprinters) besides Groupie Doll will be in Saturday's race," said Eric Fein, owner of C C's Pal, an 8-1 outsider on the morning line in the 10-horse field. "It's like a Breeders' Cup in September."
Which is as it should be for a race included in the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" program. Musical Romance and Turbulent Descent, the two favorites at 5-2 and 9-2, respectively, drew the two outside posts in the 10-horse field. Musical Romance comes off a win in the Grade I Ballerina at Saratoga and trainer Todd Pletcher said, "I think she may need another race to be really spot-on for the Breeders' Cup."
She already has won Grade I races at ages 2, 3 and 4. Musical Romance, the reigning Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award champion, comes to Belmont off a win in the Grade I Princess Rooney at her home track at Calder Race Course. Trainer Bill Kaplan said she did not venture north earlier because of transportation issues. Anyway, he added, "Now that she's a champion, we didn't need to run in the smaller stakes."
Wesley Ward is eager to see what Judy the Beauty can do off a close loss in the Prioress at Saratoga. Emma's Encore, who won the Prioress in the last jump, also is back.
Del Mar Futurity winner Rolling Fog has shin issues and will be shut down at least for a couple months, meaning he will miss the Breeders' Cup, according to trainer Bob Baffert.
In Scotland, Ayr's biggest flat race meeting of the year peaks on Saturday with the William Hill Gold Cup, run over 6 furlongs. A full field of 27 is expected for the charge. In England, Newmarket has the Group 2 Dubai Duty Free Mill Reef Stakes at 6 furlongs, also on Saturday.
The Group 1 Preis von Europa runs at 12 furlongs on Sunday at Cologne.
News and notes:
The National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association honorees at the organization's Oct. 31 annual awards dinner will be Kentucky Derby and Preakness-winning jockey Mario Gutierrez and his agent, Ivan Puhich; recently retired Churchill Downs track superintendent Raymond "Butch" Lehr; and two-time Eclipse Award recipient journalist Bill Mooney.
Gutierrez, 25, and Puhich, an agent since 1944, will receive the Mr. Fitz Award, named for the late Hall of Fame trainer Jim "Sunny Jim" Fitzsimmons, for typifying the spirit of racing. Gutierrez rose from the relative obscurity of Hastings Racecourse in Vancouver to sweep the opening two legs of the Triple Crown as the jockey of I'll Have Another. Lehr, an industry leader in safety programs and initiatives during his 30 years as track superintendent at Churchill Downs, will be honored with the Joe Palmer Award for meritorious service to racing. Palmer was a turf writer at the New York Herald Tribune. Mooney will accept the Walter Haight Award, named for the former Washington Post turf writer and columnist, for excellence in turf writing. Mooney is a two-time Eclipse Award winner, authored The Complete Encyclopedia of Horse Racing and co-authored "Keeneland's Ted Bassett: My Life" among his other distinguished accomplishments.
It's not all doom and gloom everywhere in horse racing. Del Mar is paying out an extra 10 percent on top of already record-breaking purse awards for the track's 2012 summer racing season. The additional payout totals $1,466,532. "This is just another indication of how successful the recently concluded season at Del Mar was," said Lou Raffetto Jr., president of the Thoroughbred Owners of California. "Good racing is good business," chimed in Mike Ernst, Del Mar Thoroughbred Club executive vice president for finance and chief financial officer.