This would be the weekend for racing fans to gather up the year's winnings and get that Christmas shopping done.
They won't be missing much action at the track or simulcast window. With only a few exceptions, racing is taking a break.
It's a short window of opportunity, though. Once Christmas is done, Santa Anita swings back into action, joining Gulfstream, Tampa Bay Downs, Fair Grounds and the other cold-weather sites. And before you know it, we'll be hurtling pell-mell into the Kentucky Derby prep season.
Things are not so peaceful in Japan, where Sunday's Group 1 Arima Kinen -- formerly the Grand Prix -- causes a national stir not unlike the Kentucky Derby, Melbourne Cup and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in their respective jurisdictions. In this one, the fans vote for which horses they want to see in the race. Churchill Downs, could this be the next option?
This weekend's highlights:
The New Orleans oval marches to a little different rhythm, fitting its schedule around Mardi Gras and then leading up to one of the earliest of the 3-year-old Kentucky Derby "semifinals," the Louisiana Derby. So, Fair Grounds keeps right on going into the holiday weekend with a slate of five stakes races on Saturday, including a pair for 2-year-olds.
But even those races drew relatively light participation.
Only six signed on for the $60,000 Sugar Bowl Stakes for 2-year-olds going 6 furlongs on the main track. None has a particularly distinguished record to date although Ive Struck a Nerve might get some play after running -- albeit to a ninth-place finish -- in this summer's Grade I Del Mar Derby. The Yankee Gentleman colt broke his maiden last time out in his first try at Fair Grounds with Rosie Napravnik up and she gets the return call.
Nine are entered for the companion $60,000 Letellier Memorial Stakes for juvenile fillies, also at 3/4 mile on the main track. Napravnik rides Coastal Sunrise, who has won three of four, including the Xtra Heat Stakes at Delaware Park in her last start. Prettyhotprincess bears watching if she can move from all-weather to dirt. Finding More has won her last two, at Woodbine and Churchill Downs.
Saturday's card also includes the $75,000 Bonapaw Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass, with nine entered; the $75,000 Buddy Diliberto Memorial Handicap with 7 set to go the "about" 1 1/16 miles on the lawn; and the $75,000 Blushing K.D.H, also at "about" 1 1/16 miles on the turf but for fillies and mares.
Saturday's $100,000 Thirty-Eight Go-Go Stakes finds fillies and mares tackling 1 mile on the main track. Bold Affair has won five of her last seven starts, all on the Maryland circuit, and nine of 15 overall. Whatabootie has won three in a row in the local allowance ranks. With Great Pleasure finished second the in Willa On the Move Stakes just last weekend. Nine are entered.
The south Florida turf gets a workout in Saturday's $75,000 El Prado Stakes for 3-year-olds and up at 1 mile. A very contentious and very full field is set for this heat. The field includes likely favorite Nikki's Sandcastle, a 5-year-old coming off a victory in the Claiming Crown Emerald. Also likely to be fancied is Hollinger, who comes off a game second-place showing in the Grade III Tropical Turf Handicap at Calder on Nov. 30. Hollinger ran well in graded stakes company during last winter's Gulfstream meeting. Teaks North, who was a force among turf runners in 2011, returns from an 11-month layoff. Get Serious, an 8-year-old who seems to run better in New Jersey than elsewhere, will be looking for a rare win and many of the others are capable on a good day.
Sunday's unique focus will be on the $100,000 Riley Allison Futurity at Sunland Park, with 2-year-olds going 1 mile on the dirt. A well-balanced field of 10 is expected to face the starter in that one.
Sunday's Arima Kinen will lack some of the nation's top runners in Orfevre and Gentildonna. But that won't dampen the spirits of those who turn their attention to the 2,500-meters race on the Nakayama grass. Among the runners who are set to go are Rulership, second-place vote-getter behind Orfevre in the fan poll for the field, and Japanese 2,000 Guineas winner Gold Ship. Also on board are Beat Black, the winner of the Tenno Sho (Spring), and Dark Shadow, who was knocking on the door in the Tenno Sho (Autumn) and last month's Japan Cup. Lelouch returns after a win last month in the Copa Republica Argentina. The race is a real test of stamina, conditioning and jockey skill as the short stretch run also includes a sharp incline to the finish line. The race is worth more than $5 million, with the winner to receive just over $2 million. Handle usually is tops for any race run in Japan.
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