This weekend marks the start of the "semifinal" round leading to the Breeders' Cup World Championships.
Belmont Park has eight graded stakes spread over Saturday and Sunday and all of them point directly to the Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita on Nov. 2 and 3.
Santa Anita opens this week and has seven graded stakes, all likely to produce Breeders' Cup contenders. Since Oak Tree no longer is operating the fall meet, however, all the big Santa Anita stakes races have new names. What used to be the Oak Leaf is now the Chandelier, for example, and the old Lady's Secret is the new Zenyatta. Deal with it.
If that's not enough excitement, Keeneland kicks off its fall meet Oct. 5. Most of the top U.S. contenders not at Belmont or Santa Anita will be in the Bluegrass. Stop by. Try the burgoo.
Remington Park on Sunday has a quartet of open stakes races, headlined by the $400,000 Oklahoma Derby.
Internationally, things heat up in Japan with Sunday's Group 1 Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama. In Milan, Sunday brings the Group 1 Premio Vittorio Di Capua. And English racing refocuses back to Newmarket where Saturday's card includes three Group 1 events, two of them for the juveniles and one for filly and mare milers.
And one of those Newmarket races also kicks off the new Kentucky Derby points qualification system. At 1 mile. On the grass. In England. Go figure.
Here's how these vital races shape up:
Only Affirmed and John Henry have won the Santa Anita Handicap and the Jockey Club Gold Cup in the same year. Ron the Greek will try to join that list when he lines up against nine others in Saturday's $1 million renewal of the Grade I event. However, Ron the Greek, a 5-year-old son of Full Mandate, comes into the race off a second-place finish to Fort Larned in the Grade I Whitney at Saratoga. Not only is that rival back, but so are the third- and fourth-place horses from the Whitney, Flat Out and Hymn Book. Fast Falcon and Atigun, the third- and fourth-place finishers in the Travers, represent the 3-year-old crowd here. After the dead-heat winners in the Travers bombed last week in the Pennsylvania Derby, they might be hard to back. But Fast Falcon rallied nicely from far back into a slow pace at the Spa and trainer Nick Zito is way overdue to have some good luck with something. Anyone who runs well here should merit Breeders' Cup consideration.
Apropos of the Los Angeles setting, there's no shortage of soap opera story lines surrounding Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita -- the former Goodwood. First, there's trainer Bob Baffert's decision to replace Chantal Sutherland aboard his stable star, Game On Dude. Sutherland turned in four wins while riding the 5-year-old Awesome Again gelding nine times -- but also recorded dramatic second-place finishes in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and the recent Grade I Pacific Classic. In place of Sutherland, Rafael Bejarano will be gunning Game On Dude from post position No. 1. Baffert was on the other side of the soap opera plot with another contender, Richard's Kid. The 7-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid was sold after winning the Grade III Cougar III Handicap at Del Mar and moved from Baffert's barn to Doug O'Neill's care. So some egos are on the line. Argentine import Suggestive Boy will be making his first main-track start for trainer Ron McAnally. Rail Trip was fourth in the Pacific Classic behind Dullahan, Game On Dude and Richard's Kid -- but seems better on the all-weather tracks. His 3-for-3 record on the Santa Anita main track was compiled before the surface was switched back to real dirt.
Sunday's $400,000 Oklahoma Derby at Remington Park got a field of 10, several of whom could move up. Among them is Daddy Nose Best, the winner of the Grade III El Camino Real Derby and the Grade III Sunland Derby. He then finished 10th in the Kentucky Derby, ninth in the Preakness and detoured to the grass for a fourth-place finish in the Grade III American Derby at Arlington. In his last outing, he was third in the off-the-grass National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes at Saratoga. Willy Beamin had been whipping fellow New York-bred until he upset the Grade I Foxwood King's Bishop at the Spa in his last start, going 7 furlongs. He has won, however, at Sunday's 9-furlong distance. Prospective won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby in March and the Grade III Ohio Derby in July but finished eighth in the Grade II Jim Dandy last time out. Master Rick was third in this month's Grade II Super Derby. Speightcity was second in the Grade III Withers way back when the snow flew in New York but then was off until chugging home eighth in the Grade I Travers last month.
Reigning Breeders' Cup and Eclipse Award champion Royal Delta will hook up with her long-time rival, It's Tricky, for the fifth time as part of a seven-horse field for Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Beldame at Belmont Park. Royal Delta has won two of those matchups; It's Tricky, one. In their last meeting, It's Tricky stumbled badly at the gate, ruining her chances, and Royal Delta got a wide trip into the lane. Royal Delta finished second and It's Tricky third behind longshot Love and Pride. Barring any similar mishaps, this appears to be a two-horse race although the speedy Cash For Clunkers might need some catching if she rebounds from a poor showing in the Delaware Handicap two month ago -- a race won by Royal Delta.
The West Coast ladies have been battling amongst themselves for some time now and those wars continue in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Zenyatta, formerly the Lady's Secret. At the top of the list we find the first four finishers from the Grade I Clement Hirsch at Del Mar -- Include Me Out, Star Billing, Amani and Switch. Include Me Out, the likely favorite, would be riding a five-race winning skein were it not for a second behind Love Theway Youare in the Grade I Vanity at Hollywood Park. And Love Theway Youare also is in this field. The invaders include Joyful Victory, who was second in the Grade III Gardenia at Ellis Park last race, and Love and Pride, upset winner over It's Tricky and Royal Delta in the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Local gal Via Villagio returns to California after finishing second to Grace Hall in the Grade I Delaware Oaks and third in the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga. All in all, nine are entered for the 1 1/16-miles test.
Jemima's Pearl looks like the choice against seven rivals in Sunday's $250,000 Remington Park Oaks off third-place showings in the Grade III Monmouth Oaks and the Grade II Fantasy during the Oaklawn meet. Those efforts sandwiched a 10th place showing in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks. None of the others have graded stakes experience, though it's always wise to beware the locals.
Speed. That's the first word that pops to mind in looking at the past performances of the nine entrants for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park. With only a couple exceptions, these horses like the pedal to the metal and tend to run best when on the lead or pressing the pace. That's liable to make the one-turn, main-track mile a barnburner and a tough one to handicap. There's no shortage of familiar names: Shackleford, the 2011 Preakness winner who has been tough as nails since he was cut back to sprints; To Honor and Serve, a graded stakes winner at 1 mile and 11/8 miles; Tapizar and Jersey Town, fourth and fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile; and Pacific Ocean and Golddigger's Boy, the top two in the recent Grade III James Marvin at Saratoga. To Honor and Serve won his last start, the Grade I Woodword, coming from a pace-stalking position. But he had 9 furlongs behind a moderate early pace to accomplish that. Don't blink or you'll miss this heat.
Ten speedballs, including a two-horse entry, are entered for Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Vosburgh Invitational at Belmont Park. The firepower is impressive, including: Poseidon's Warrior and Justin Phillip, the first- and second-place finishers from the Grade I A.G. Vanderbilt at Saratoga; last year's Vanderbilt winner, Sean Avery; Grade II Jerome Stakes winner The Lumber Guy; Grade I King's Bishop runner-up Fort Loudon; and last year's Vosburgh show horse, Caixa Eletronica. While there's a lot of speed here, the entry of Sean Avery and The Lumber Guy are the only horses who normally charge to the lead so tactics should play a role, especially around the sweeping Belmont Park turn.
Nine are signed on for Sunday's $200,000 Remington Park Sprint Cup, including three from the omnipresent Steve Asmussen string. One of the others, Jake Mo, finished second in the Grade III Southwest Stakes at Oaklawn, then fourth in the Grade II Rebel Stakes before a poor showing in the Arkansas Derby sidelined him for three months. He has a pair of third-place showings at Louisiana Downs since his return. Delaunay has won five of his last seven starts. Okie Ride and Apprehender are local talent.
It has to be said: The two top weekend preps in this division are named for one of the sport's all-time best turf writers and one of the all-time best turf runners.
Only six signed on for Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont, and the form says the others have Point of Entry and possibly Little Mike to beat. Point of Entry, a 4-year-old Phipps Stable homebred by the late, great Dynaformer, has won four straight. The last two were the Grade I Man O' War at Belmont by 3 1/2 lengths and the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga, by 4. The 1 1/2 miles is right up his alley. Little Mike has won six of his last eight starts, including the Grade I Arlington Million in his last outing. The 5-year-old Spanish Steps gelding, a confirmed front-runner, has never gone beyond the 1 1/4 miles he negotiated in the Million so trainer Dale Romans and jockey Ramon Dominguez will be trying to ration his speed on the front end. With no other "need to lead" types in the field, that might be doable. A wild card is world traveler Treasure Beach. The 4-year-old Aidan O'Brien charge hasn't won since last year's Secretariat at Arlington. But he made a very good late move in this year's Million to finish a close sixth and the extra 2 furlongs won't trouble last year's Irish Derby winner a bit. The others are Finnegans Wake, Kindergarten Kid and Hailstone.
Sunday at Santa Anita it's the $150,000, Grade II John Henry Turf Championship, formerly the Clement L. Hirsch. A very contentious field of 10 will tackle 10 furlongs on the Arcadia green course. Bourbon Bay is back from a layoff that followed two graded stakes wins over the course this spring. Casino Host just won the Grade II Del Mar Handicap. Turbo Compressor accounted for the Colonial Turf Cup and the Grade I United Nations earlier this year.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont has a decidedly international flavor, with the nine participants showing running lines from as far afield as Singapore. Trainer David Simcock brought I'm a Dreamer from England to Arlington last month and walked off with a win in the Grade I Beverly D. Dream Peace raced in France, then journeyed to Canada and Kranji in Singapore before finishing second to Winter Memories in her last start in the Grade I Diana at Saratoga, finishing in front of Zagora. The latter also started in France and has been a consistent graded stakes performer in America. And let's not forget Nahrain, who finished a close second to Perfect Shirl as a 3-year-old in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. She finished a close third to Up at the Curragh in Ireland in her last previous start for trainer Roger Varian. And Halo Dolly is in from California for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer with wins in four of her last five starts, including the Grade II Yellow Ribbon at Del Mar in her last start. A few of the others are capable of springing an upset.
Locally based City to City and invader Marketing Mix headline Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Rodeo Drive Stakes, formerly the Yellow Ribbon, at Santa Anita. Marketing Mix has the better resume, coming off a head loss to I'm a Dreamer in the Grade I Beverly D. She does have graded stakes wins at Arlington, Churchill Downs and Woobine. She has won four of her last six starts for trainer Tom Proctor. City to City comes off a loss to Halo Dolly in the "new" Yellow Ribbon. Before that, she won the Grade II John C. Mabee at Del Mar. Also among the 12 in this 10-furlong turf contest are Vivo Per Lei, who finished third in the Yellow Ribbon as a 20-1 longshot, and Cambina and Camelia Rose, fourth and fifth in the same race. Let's Go Cheyenne is a committed front-runner who has shown she will take some catching if no one goes with her.
Another to watch is the Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Flaming Page Stakes at Woodbine at 1 1/2 miles over the grass.
Thirteen are entered for a cavalry charge down Santa Anita's hillside turf course in Friday's $100,000, Grade III Eddie D Staks, formerly the Morvich. The 7-2 morning-line favorite is Comma to the Top and Unbridled's Note, starting from the No. 13 gate, is next-favorite at 4-1.
Sunday's $125,000 Remington Green at 1 1/16 miles over the Oklahoma grass drew a field of 10, many with stakes experience but none shouting, "I'm the one." It should be a good betting race.
He's trained by Bob Baffert and co-owned by Jill Baffert and celebrity skier Bode Miller. He's also undefeated in two starts. So Carving is likely to go favored in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I FrontRunner (formerly the Norfolk) at Santa Anita. But this is a competitive heat, with several of the other 10 having shown ability. Know More has had only two starts but they were doozies -- a victory in the Grade II Best Pal and a close second to the now-sidelined Baffert headliner Rolling Fog in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity. Dry Summer (no kidding!) comes off two straight wins, including the $100,000 Oak Tree Juvenile Turf at Del Mar. Power Broker was a tight second behind Dry Summer in the Oak Tree. This is the first U.S. race to offer points toward a position in the starting gate for the 2013 Kentucky Derby. The first four finishers earn consideration.
Trainer Todd Pletcher's string rode roughshod over the competition in 2-year-old races at Saratoga and he is poised to continue that streak in Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park. But all of these guys have something yet to prove. Pletcher will saddle two of the seven entrants, Drum Roll and Overanalyze. The former finished fourth in the Grade II Saratoga Special and third in the Grade III Sapling earlier this month at Monmouth Park. The latter got home fourth in the Grade II Three Chimneys Hopeful at Saratoga. Special Jo was second in the Sapling. Handsome Jack was second in the Sanford.
Other juvenile races to watch include Saturday's $65,000 Birdonthewire at 6 furlongs at Calder, Saturday's $200,000 New York Breeders' Futurity for state-breds at 6 furlongs at Finger Lakes and Saturday's $100,000 Fitz Dixon Jr. Memorial at 6 1/2 furlongs at Presque Isle Downs.
Two stand out among the 11 2-year-old fillies entered in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita -- Executiveprivilege and Beholder. The race formerly was known as the Oak Leaf. Executive Privilege, a First Samurai filly trained by Baffert, is undefeated in four starts, including three stakes. But in her last outing, the Grade I Del Mar Debutante, she had all she could do to catch the pacesetting Beholder and win by a nose under the wire. That was at 7 furlongs and both are being asked to stretch out to 1 1/16 miles this time. That's always a question mark and reason to look closely at the other nine. Renee's Queen finished behind Executiveprivilege twice, then switched to the grass to break her maiden in the $100,000 Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar. Salamera won her first two starts at Calder, then hauled up to Saratoga to finish second Grade II Adirondack in her last race. Miss Empire has run well behind the top two and Contessa's Moment makes her first start for trainer Paul Aguirre after winning the restricted Iowa Sorority at Prairie Meadows, continuing a new tradition of Iowa horses moving to Southern California. The rest need to show a bit more.
Back at Belmont, Pletcher has two more in Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Matron, including the heavy, odds-on favorite, Kauai Katie. That Malibu Moon filly broke her maiden at first asking at the Spa, then jumped up to win the Grade II Adirondack by 2 3/4 lengths without much urging. Doubled comes off a win in the Sorority Stakes at Monmouth. Baby J was third in the Grade III Schuylerville at Saratoga. Sweet Shirley Mae was a respectable second to So Many Ways in the Grade I Spinaway at the Spa and Seasoned Warrior was fourth in that heat.
Meanwhile, So Many Ways will not take her undefeated record to the Breeders' Cup, owner Maggi Moss announced this week. The Sightseeing filly won at first asking at Parx Racing June 9, then skyrocketed up the class ladder, winning the Grade III Schuylerville and then the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga. Moss said she considered the Breeders' Cup for So Many ways but, "after great deliberation, I have weighed what is in her best interest versus my chance to compete at Santa Anita and decided it is simply pushing her too hard." She is expected back at Gulfstream Park.
Other weekend events for the young ladies: Saturday's 6-furlong, $65,000 Cassidy Stakes at Calder, Saturday's $100,000 Presque Isle Debutante at 6 furlongs and the $125,000 (Canadian) Victorian Queen for Ontario-sired misses on Saturday at Woodbine. Delaware Park on Saturday has the $75,000 Blue Hen Stakes at 1 mile and 70 yards -- the race in which Grace Hall prepped for her second-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup.
Where else would Churchill Downs kick off its new Kentucky Derby qualifying program other than Newmarket in September? Well, whatever the intention, Saturday's Group 2 Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes will award the first-ever points toward a position in the Churchill Downs starting gate to the top four finishers among the nine scheduled starters. The race has produced Breeders' Cup starters but none for the Kentucky Derby. This year's field is chock-full of well-bred colts hoping to follow in the hoofprints of Frankel, who ran away with the race in his stakes debut two years ago.
The Newmarket meeting also includes the Kingdom of Bahrain Sun Chariot Stakes for fillies and mares going 1 mile on the lawn and the Cheveley Park Stakes for 2-year-old fillies.
Sixteen are set to go in Sunday's Group 1 Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama and the field has some powerhouses, indeed. Notable among them are defending champion Curren Chan and Hong Kong's duo of Lucky Nine and Little Bridge. Captain Obvious is in from Singapore. Little Bridge is riding a three-race winning streak. That skein included the King's Stand Stakes at Ascot and, as a result, a victory Sunday would give him the opportunity to earn the $1 million Global Sprint Challenge bonus should he return home to also take the Longines Hong Kong Sprint in December.
Sunday is the Group 1 Premio Vittorio Di Capua at Milan, with 3-year-olds and up going one mile on the turf.
News and notes:
Trainer Peter Moody says Black Caviar will, indeed, return for fall racing in Australia. But he said the undefeated mare's campaign -- and its timing -- remain undetermined. Consideration was given to retiring Black Caviar after her close victory in the Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes at Royal Ascot that boosted her record to 22-0.