Stakes races share the limelight this weekend with the annual Claiming Crown -- the blue-collar version of the Breeders' Cup.
For the first time, Gulfsteam Park will host the races for horses that have raced for a claiming price at least once in the past two years. The purses are increased and the seven-race series will have national attention.
Topping the stakes action is Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Native Diver Stakes at Hollywood Park, presented by the Oak Tree Racing Association. The race features a rematch of two horses who bombed in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
In addition, Calder offers a pair of graded turf stakes Friday, Zia Park Sunday offers a $200,000 event at 9 furlongs and there are quite a few events here and there for 2-year-olds.
Kentucky action shifts from Churchill Downs to Turfway Park. In Florida, Tampa Bay Downs cranks up its season. Before they're done, both tracks will host Kentucky Derby preps as the season flies by.
Internationally, Sunday is the Japan Cup Dirt at Hanshin, which is a purely local affair this year. And it's just a week to the Longines Hong Kong International Races, which wind down the international year even as Medan is gearing up to kick off 2013 competition in Dubai.
First, the Claiming Crown.
The seven Claiming Crown races on Gulfstream's Saturday program are topped by the $200,000 Jewel, at 9 furlongs on the main track for horses who have started for $35,000 or less in 2011 or 2012. Twelve are entered, with an emphasis on local steeds who have run in top-level allowance company or finished mid-pack in stakes. There also are representatives from up and down the East Coast and Tiz Liberty comes from a string of claiming starts in California.
The generous purses appear to have provided an incentive to ship a bunch of horses south early, as many of the runners in all the races show last-start running lines from New York, Delaware, Pennsylvania and even Canada.
There's an overflow field for the $125,000 Emerald at 1 1/16 miles on the turf with a $25,000 tag requirement, featuring some top-level stakes performers. King David and King Kreesa come to the race after finishing first and second in the Grade I Jamaica Handicap at Belmont Park. The 3-year-olds both qualified as a result of maiden claiming starts early in the year. Nikki's Sandcastle finished second in three straight races, culminating in the Grade II Fayette Stakes at Keeneland last time out. The rest are more typical Claiming Crown workaday performers.
The $125,000 Tiara is 1 1/16 miles on the grass for fillies and mares who have started for $25,000 or less. There are 14 to go with one also-eligible. Mike Maker, heavily represented across the card, has three here, including Juanita, who won the Grade II La Troienne Stakes at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend.
In addition: The $100,000 Express is a 6-furlong sprint for 3-year-olds and up who have started for $7,500 or less; the $100,000 Glass Slipper is a 7-furlong event for fillies and mares who have started for $10,000 or less; the $100,000 Iron Horse is 1 1/16 miles on the main track for $7,500 starters; and the $100,000 Rapid Transit is a 7-furlong race for horses who have run for a tag of $16,000 or less.
Full fields from a variety of tracks will make for some nice betting opportunities.
Sunday is the Japan Cup Dirt, companion race to last weekend's Japan Cup but held at Hanshin rather than Tokyo. Sixteen horses -- all Japanese -- are ready to run the 1,800 meters. Transcend has won the past two runnings of this event but is winless in three starts this year, including a last-place effort in the Dubai World Cup. Espoir City, who won the race in 2009, is still going strong and back for another try. He finished third in the race last year with a detour in 2010 to the Breeders' Cup Classic, where he finished 10th.
Calder says adios with a pair of graded stakes Friday.
The $100,000 Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap at 9 furlongs got a well-balanced field of 12, including morning-line choices Hollinger, Citrus Kid, Dannhauser and Philly Ace. As with the Claiming Crown events, this heat attracted some early snowbirds, including Roger Attfield's uncoupled pairing of Hollinger and Good Better Best. Hollinger finished third in this race last year but has won only one race since starting his career 4-for-4.
The $100,000, Grade III La Prevoyante Handicap finds fillies and mares going 1 1/2 miles on the lawn. Havant raced in England and France before finishing fifth in the Grade I E.P. Taylor Stakes at Woodbine in her last start. Ciao Bella comes off a runner-up effort in the Rood & Riddle Dowager Stakes at Keeneland. Eight are signed on for the race.
The marquee attraction is Saturday's Native Diver, with a five-horse field that includes Breeders' Cup Classic disappointments Game On Dude, who stumbled at the start and finished seventh as the favorite, and Richard's Kid, who got home fifth in the $5 million Breeders' Cup setpiece. Game On Dude was a Horse of the Year candidate before the Santa Anita debacle and still is a contender for a divisional Eclipse award -- provided he runs well here. The field also includes Nonios, who was sixth in the Classic and second in the Haskell earlier in the year. Kettle Corn and Make Music For Me complete the field.
It's a Bob Baffert-fest as sprinters take center stage Sunday in the $100,000, Grade III Vernon O. Underwood at 6 furlongs on the all-weather track. Baffert trains four of the seven entrants -- Fast Bullet, Capital Account, Smash and Bank the Eight. The others are Comma to the Top, Smiling Tiger and Private Zone. Smiling Tiger finished a late-running third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Fast Bullet finished a respectable sixth in that race in his first start in almost a year.
Two hundred big ones are on the line in Sunday's 9-furlong Zia Park Distance Championship in New Mexico. Ten are entered, including many of the usual suspects from the Land of Enchantment. Also on tap is Stachys, who is based in the Midwest but won the 2010 Zia Park Derby in his only previous foray into New Mexico.
The juvenile set has opportunities all over the map. The big open races are Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian), 1 1/16-mile Display Stakes at Woodbine and $100,000, 7-furlong Marylander at Laurel Park.
There are state-bred races for 2-year-olds at Zia Park, Woodbine, Tampa Bay, Hawthorne, Golden Gate Fields, Charles Town and Remington Park. Keep an eye on them. Good ones can spring up anywhere.
Looking a week ahead, Sunday's Longines Hong Kong International races, as usual, present a challenge for the visitors as the local team looks tough in each event.
In the HK$15 million, 1,200-meter Sprint, Curren Chan and Lord Kanaloa are expected from Japan to take on a Hong Kong contingent that includes Little Bridge and Lucky Nine among others. Super Easy is to represent Singapore and Sea Siren to carry the Australian banner.
The HK$20 million Mile features Hong Kong's two-time Horse of the Year Ambitious Dragon and very accomplished Xtension. They will have to cope with some tough raiders, including Siyouma from France, Master of Hounds from England and Grand Prix Boss and Sadamu Patek from Japan.
The HK$15 million Vase at 2,400 meters has no fewer than seven international Group 1 winners among the 13 remaining on the likely runner list with all the most-fancied from overseas. Only two of the 13 are locally based with Dunaden, Meandre, Bayrir and Chinchon among five sporting the French red white and blue; five from England, including Joshua Tree, Sea Moon and Red Cadeaux; and Jaguar Mail from Japan.
The HK$22 million Cup also has 13 on the entry list, including Cirrus des Aigles, arguably the world's top horse now that Frankel is retired. The race could be a duel between the French-based Cirrus des Aigles and Hong Kong's California Memory. But there are some other capable Hong Kong horses here -- notably Sweet Orange, Irian and Zaidan. And don't look now but Her Majesty, Queen Elizabeth II is represented by Carlton House, a 4-year-old who could do with a breakout performance here. Feuerblitz represents Germany; Alcopop, Australia.