Keeneland and Hawthorne are under way with enthusiasm and full fields for their fall meets as the clock ticks down to less than a month until the Breeders' Cup World Championships.
And it's not too early to be thinking about British Champions Day in a few weeks' time ... and onward to Japan and Hong Kong. Gee, the year's almost over already. So let's enjoy it while we can, starting right now:
It's Paris in the early autumn, so it will be lovely. But this weekend's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting has been seriously dinged by the late defections of defending champion Danedream and British runner Nathaniel from the big race. Danedream has been caught in quarantine in Cologne after a case of "swamp fever" was reported at the training center there, and it remains to be seen whether she will be sprung in time for the Japan Cup or even the Hong Kong Cup, should her connections so desire. Nathaniel was ruled out Tuesday after blood work came back abnormal. Yet, the race is far from a bust. It still includes Japanese Triple Crown winner Orfevre, who thoroughly pleased rider Christophe Soumillon with a Wednesday morning work. And, absent Danedream and Nathaniel, Aidan O'Brien confirmed Wednesday that Derby winner Camelot will join Breeders' Cup Turf winner St Nicholas Abbey in the Arc lineup. Joseph O'Brien, who has ridden both, will be aboard St Nicholas Abbey as he can't make the 8 stone, 11 pounds (123 pounds) assigned the 3-year-old.
"Bar we cut off one of his arms, he will not be on Camelot," said his father, the trainer.
Instead, with Godolphin lacking a runner, Frankie Dettori will take his first mount for O'Brien since he rode Scorpion in the 2005 St Leger.
There are plenty of others in this big field who are capable of springing the upset, including Shareta, Sea Moon, Meandre, Masterstroke, Saonois and Bayrir. So, yes. It will be lovely even if mid-week rains leave the course a bit testing. Course Director Christian Delporte said Thursday more rain is expected and could reduce the ground from "soft" to "very soft."
And, of course, the Arc card is brimful of other challenging races as the European season winds down and year-end honors are on the line. Six other Group 1 events will test the Continent's top horses at distances ranging from the 5 furlongs of the Prix de l'Abbaye to the 20 furlongs of the Prix du Cadran.
Back in North American, looking to the Breeders' Cup World Championships at Santa Anita, Nov. 2-3:
This race often is among the most interesting on the entire Breeders' Cup program and this year's edition promises to add to -- or even enhance -- that legacy, with names like Wise Dan, Silver Max and Little Mike among the American stars and Excelebration and Moonlight Cloud expected or possible from Europe. The latter two already would be recognized international superstars if they hadn't run into Frankel and Black Caviar. Now, trainer Graham Motion has tossed into the hat for this year's Mile the name Animal Kingdom -- the 2011 Kentucky Derby winner, who would be making his first start since Feb. 18 after being injured while prepping for the Dubai World Cup. A victory by Animal Kingdom would bring back memories of Da Hoss, who won the 1996 Mile, then came back from a two-year layoff to win the 1998 edition with but a single prep race.
"The timing is right for his schedule coming back," Motion said, "and the caliber of horse that he is, you're not going to look for a nice, easy spot."
Well, that's good, because this won't be one. Some of the weekend races that will produce competitors:
Wise Dan headlines a dozen entrants for Saturday's $750,000, Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. Coming off daylight wins in the Grade I Ricoh Woodbine Mile and the Grade II Fourstardave at Keeneland, Wise Dan is rated internationally at the same level as such superstars as Danedream, Camelot, Cityscape, Snow Fairy and St Nicholas Abbey. Data Link, winner of the Maker's 46 Mile, and 3-year-old Silver Max are among the top contenders. Willcox Inn is cross-entered here and at Hawthorne.
Fillies and mares have done well in the Mile so it's wise to watch Saturday's $350,000, Grade I First Lady at Keeneland, which drew a well-balanced field of six, including multiple graded stakes winners Tapitsfly, Hungry Island, Summer Soiree and Daisy Devine. Summer Soiree is cross-entered in Sunday's Grade I Spinster on the Keeneland main track.
Five salty ones signed on for Sunday's $150,000 Arroyo Seco Mile at Santa Anita, formerly the Oak Tree Mile. Mr. Commons has been tough as nails over the course, including wins in the Grade II Arcadia and Grade II Sir Beaufort Stakes during the last winter meet and a second in this race last year. While Orfevre awaits his turn Sunday in France, Trailblazer represents Japan in this race, hoping for a boost into the Breeders' Cup. He was fourth in last year's Japan Cup. Obviously, you need to look at Obviously, the winner of the Grade II Del Mar Mile in his last start. Kettle Corn is always right there but short on wins at this level. Bob Baffert is represented by Midnight Interlude, who needs to step up his game.
Eight are set for the $100,000 Indian Maid on Saturday at Hawthorne, topped by multiple graded stakes winner Romacaca.
Alternation is the 5-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday's $500,000, Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup and will break from the rail under Luis Quinonez. Alternation reeled off four straight stakes wins to open his year, finished fifth in the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs and bounced back to win the Governor's Cup at Remington Park in August. Pool Play won last year's Stephen Foster, was off for a long time and then finished third in the Grade III Washington Park Handicap at Arlington in his last race. Cease was third in this race last year and most recently third in the Grade I Woodward. Nate's Mineshaft won the Grade III Mineshaft Handicap in New Orleans, then followed up with a win in the Grade II New Orleans Handicap. He was third in the Stephen Foster last time out. Mister Mardi Gras, from the Team Block powerhouse, is the top local hope. One to watch: South American import Fly Lexis Fly, who was flying late to finish second to Bourbon Courage in the Super Derby in his second U.S. start. A couple of these horses are under the microscope for a possible trip to the Japan Cup Dirt in November as an added incentive.
A dozen, many of them graded stakes winners, are set for Saturday's $500,000, Grade II Indiana Derby at Hoosier Park. Bourbon Courage comes off a win in the Grade 2 Super Derby. Morgan's Guerilla was second in the Grade III Illinois Derby in April, most recently third in the Grade II Dwyer. Easter Gift won the Grade III Smarty Jones at Parx for Nick Zito. Fed Biz has won three of four for Bob Baffert and could target the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. O'Prado Again won the Grade II Remsen in his last race for Dale Romans. Stealcase won the Grade III Ontario Derby at Woodbine last time out. Second City's last effort was at Hastings, where he won the Grade III British Columbia Derby. Neck 'n Neck took down the Grade III Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs in June and finished sixth in the Grade I Travers in his last race.
Grade I winners Aruna, Summer Soiree and Karlovy Vary are among 13 entered for Sunday's $500,000, Grade I Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland. Summer Soiree is cross-entered in Saturday's Grade I First Lady on the turf. While this race is on the all-weather track, many of the entrants have recent grass experience. Aruna won the Spinster last year but since then has visited the winner's circle only once in five tries, all on the green course. In her last outing, she was 10th in the Grade I Beverly D. over the Arlington grass. Karlovy Vary won the Central Bank Ashland over Keeneland's main track this spring. In Lingerie finished second to Questing in the Alabama at Saratoga last time out and is 2-for-2 on the all-weather tracks.
Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Indiana Oaks sure came up tough. Grace Hall won the Grade II Gulfstream Oaks and Grade II Delaware Oaks this year and was third as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks. Wine Princess won the Grade III Monmouth Oaks in her last race. Eden's Moon was second in the Grade II Hollywood Oaks for Baffert, then won the Grade II San Clemente before disappointing in the Grade I Del Mar Oaks. Uptown Bertie won the Grade III Iowa Oaks. Wine Princess and Uptown Bertie run as an entry, leaving eight betting interests.
Now here's Dullahan, third in the Kentucky Derby and winner last time out in the Grade I Pacific Classic, giving it a try on the Belmont Park lawn in Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Jamaica Handicap for 3-year-olds at 9 furlongs. He is a two-time Grade I winner on the all-weather surfaces, so why not?
"This will be his first time on the turf where he's 100 percent," said trainer Dale Romans. "I'm kind of anxious to see what he does ... The Jamaica is one of the last 3-year-old races of the year, and the 1 1/8 miles opens up a lot of options."
Brian Meehan brings Cogito (ergo sum?) from a modest campaign in England and France with Frankie Dettori named to ride, although since he picked up the mount on Camelot Sunday at Longchamp, we'll see. Summer Front was third in the Grade I Secretariat last time out. Howe Great has been right there in graded stakes all year.
A field of 12 is set to go in Saturday's $100,000 Robert F. Carey Memorial at 9 furlongs over the nice Hawthorne Race Course grass. The well-balanced field is headed by 7-2 morning-line favorite Wilcox Inn and Suntracer, the latter from Team Block. But watch out for Ratatat from the craftily managed string of up-and-coming owner Frank Nicholson.
2010 Breeders' Cup winner Chamberlain Bridge finished eighth in last year's edition but he appears to be back on his game and is among seven entered for Saturday's $150,000, Group III Woodford Stakes over 5 1/2 furlongs of Keeneland Turf. Bridgetown, fourth in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, is in this field after a reasonably good stay at Saratoga. Great Mills was third behind Ben's Cat and Chamberlain Bridge in the recent Grade III Turf Monster at Parx Racing.
Hear ye, hear ye. Now comes Todd Pletcher, again, in Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Foxwoods Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park. Pletcher has three of the seven entrants with the undefeated Shanghai Bobby at the top of the list. That Harlan's Holiday colt is 3-for-3 with wins at Aqueduct, Belmont and in the Grade I Three Chimneys Hopeful at Saratoga. Rosie Napravnik will ride. Pletcher said he was encouraged Shanghai Bobby was able to rate in the Hopeful, adding, "The fact he successfully got 7 furlongs and wasn't desperate doing it was a good indication that a one-turn mile should be well within his scope."
The other two Pletchers, Archwarrior and Micromanage, come off first-asking wins at Saratoga. Chief Havoc is in from England. Godolphin Racing color-bearer Fortify and Bern Identity, second and third in the Hopeful, are both back. Bern Identity took down the Grade II Sanford earlier at the Spa.
Sixteen are entered, including two also-eligibles, for Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland so racing fortune probably will play a role in the outcome. Pletcher sends out Tizracer and Charming Kitten, the latter off a third-place finish in the Grade II With Anticipation at Saratoga. Kenny McPeek also has two: He's So Fine, second in the Grade II Saratoga Special but fifth in the With Anticipation, and Java's War, winner of the Sunday Silence Stakes at Louisiana Downs. Balance the Books and Joha finished first and second in the With Anticipation. Pataky Kid won the Grade III Arlington-Washington Futurity. Positively was second in the Grade III Bashford Manor. Tree of Life is undefeated in two California starts, including the Barretts Juvenile at Fairplex. Several others, including a Canadian contingent, have promise.
Baffert has only a first-time starter in Saturday's $200,000 Tim Conway, formerly the Jack Goodman, at Santa Anita. But the Pulpit colt, Super Ninety Nine, has been working nicely over the Santa Anita course. Zeewat won the Cavonnier Juvenile at Santa Rosa. Scherer Magic is the Iowa-bred who won the Grade III Hollywood Juvenile but then struggled in the deeper waters of the Grade II Best Pal and Grade I Del Mar Futurity at the shore.
Uncaptured is also unbeaten in four career starts and among seven entered for Sunday's $200,000 (Canadian), Grade III Grey Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather track. The Lion Heart colt has whipped through a maiden race and three stakes, all at Woodbine. Several of the others have been chasing him without success but try again at the 1 1/16-mile distance.
A full field appears in prospect for Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Bourbon Stakes on the grass at Keeneland with 12 in the main field and two also-eligibles. Several of these youngsters, however, are cross-entered for Saturday's main-track feature. Several already are stakes winners and several come out of the With Anticipation.
Keeneland kicks off Friday with the $400,000, Grade 1 Darley Alcibiades at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather surface. A full field is in prospect, including Rose to Gold, who has annihilated her competition in two stakes races at Calder; Arlington-Washington Lassie winner Gold Edge; and Delaware Park stakes winner Tara From the Cape. The latter is another from Pletcher's deep bench. The winner gets the "Win and You're In" Breeder's Cup pass.
Dreaming of Julia is Pletcher's hope in the seven-filly field in the $400,000, Grade I Frizette Stakes on Saturday at Belmont. She is 2-for-2 with a win in the Meadow Star Stakes at Belmont in her last outing.
"She's a daughter of A.P. Indy, and the way she trains and the way she ran in her debut suggests that added distance won't be a problem," Pletcher said.
Sweet Shirley Mae was second in the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga behind So Many Ways, who has been put away for the rest of the year. Of particular note is Roveing Patrol, a Washington-bred Nacheezmo filly who has won both her starts at Emerald Downs in Seattle. She is listed now as owned by J. Paul Reddam and trained by Ben Cecil. Frankie Dettori is named to ride her, too.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
Spring Venture, undefeated in two starts, is the 3-5 morning-line favorite in Saturday's $200,000 (Canadian), Grade III Natalma Stakes at Woodbine. The Spring at Last filly took down the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine in her last start. Every Way comes off a first-asking win at Arlington Park. In all, eight are set to go in the 9 furlongs over the sweeping Woodbine grass course.
Defending Breeders' Cup champ Amazombie headlines a strong field for Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship, formerly the Ancient Title. The 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding won this race last year and he hasn't missed the trifecta in his last 17 starts. This year he has two wins, a second and a third, all in graded stakes. So he's a shoo-in? Not necessarily. Baffert sends out two: Capital Account, who won the Grade II Pat O'Brien at Del Mar in his last outing, and Coil, who was a close second in that race. Camp Victory, second in this race last year, comes into this edition off a third place in the Pat O'Brien and, before that, a win in the Grade I Triple Bend Handicap at Hollywood Park. Reneesgotzip, a 3-year-old City Zip filly, has four wins and two seconds from six starts. But Amazombie looks pretty good.
Opening Day at Keeneland also includes the $175,000, Grade III Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix at 6 furlongs on the all-weather course. Aikenite finished second by a nose to long shot Hoofit in this race last year, went on to finish fourth in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and was retired with a twitchy ankle. Now he's out of retirement and has been working well for Pletcher at Belmont Park. Doctor Chit was second in the Grade II Amsterdam and fourth in the Grade I King's Bishop, both at Saratoga. But the field is well-matched and looks like a chance for someone to step up and make a case.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Groupie Doll comes into Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland off three straight graded stakes wins, including the Vinery Madison Stakes during Keeneland's spring meet. Emma's Encore won graded stakes at Belmont and Saratoga, then finished sixth back at Belmont in the Grade II Gallant Bloom in her last start. Mega Dream is in from California with a second-place finish in the Grade II Royal Heroine at Hollywood Park to her credit. The others, including Zermatt, have a mountain to climb at this level.
Hoosier Park has a lovely card of state-bred stakes races supporting Saturday's Indiana Oaks and Indiana Derby. And the other open races, the $100,000 Mari Hulman George Stakes for fillies and mares and the Michael G. Schaefer Memorial, both attracted graded stakes-quality fields.
It's Maryland Million Day at Laurel Park on Saturday with nine races restricted to Maryland-breds, including the $150,000 Classic and $100,000 Oaks.