Last year's top Breeders' Cup champs won one and lost one at Churchill Downs in a weekend of comebacks, records and occasional heartbreak.
Fort Larned, winner of the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic, cruised to victory under the Twin Spires. But Royal Delta, winner of last year's Ladies' Classic, was unable to catch a speedy leader.
John Velazquez celebrated his 5,000th career win in North America -- but in doing so noted the heart-wrenching decision by Ramon Dominguez to end his career as a result of injuries suffered earlier this year.
Paynter completed his remarkable comeback from serious illness with a resounding win Friday at Hollywood Park -- a true feel-good story -- and Verrazano rebounded from his Kentucky Derby bust with a resounding victory at Monmouth. But while Verrazano was winning, fellow Derby contender and Preakness runner-up Itsmyluckyday was pulled up and vanned off the track.
A 12-year-old won at Beulah Park.
And Royal Ascot is practically upon us, with a special tribute to the late Sir Henry Cecil.
Plenty to ponder so please proceed.
Fort Larned came into Saturday night's $500,000, Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs with some question marks despite his 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic win. Since then, his two-race record found him stumbling at the start of the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap, dropping jockey Brian Hernandez Jr., then running a dull fifth in the Grade II Oaklawn Park Handicap. No such issues surfaced Saturday. Instead, Hernandez hustled Fort Larned out of the gate and right to the front, worked up a big lead and coasted home first by 6 1/4 lengths. Golden Ticket was second with Ron the Greek third. Successful Dan, Pool Play and the favorite, Take Charge Indy, completed the order of finish as the 9 furlongs went in near-record time of 1:47.45. "We were going down the backside and were cooking right along and the poles were going by pretty fast," Hernandez said. "But he was always doing it well within himself so I wasn't really worried about it. When we turned for home, I pulled the stick through and he switched leads like the Fort Larned of old." The race was a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Classic and trainer Ian Wilkes said that's where he's pointing the 5-year-old son of E Dubai. "We'll run him in the Whitney [at Saratoga] and try to have him defend his crown," the trainer said.
Two races earlier on the rich Saturday night program, Funny Proposition got the jump on two-time and defending Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic champ Royal Delta and the latter couldn't catch the leader. In fact, Royal Delta couldn't even get close as Funny Proposition ran on to win by 5 lengths. She's All In finished third with a mild late run. Funny Proposition, a 4-year-old Medaglia d'Oro filly, ran 9 furlongs in 1:50.22 under Joel Rosario. She was jumping up from a victory over the course a month ago in an optional claimer and made no impression whatsoever in her two previous stakes appearances. Royal Delta was making her first start since a second straight disappointing trip in the Dubai World Cup. She won this race last year on a similar schedule. Asked if he really thought Funny Proposition could beat Royal Delta, trainer Mark Casse said, "I would never say that because I have a lot of respect for that mare, especially on this racetrack. But if we were going to get an advantage it was going to be today because she was coming off a layoff and a dull effort in Dubai. It's a very big deal because it puts Funny's name on the map. We beat the best in the country and now we're going to get some recognition." Royal Delta's trainer, Bill Mott, said. "She seemed a little bit more pensive in the paddock than normal. Maybe it's just a matter of getting back into action. We'll see." He said Sunday morning the $750,000, Grade I Delaware Handicap July 20 might be Royal Delta's next target.
Code West stalked the pace in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Matt Winn Stakes for 3-year-olds, rallied to the front in the stretch, swapped leads with Uncaptured and finally prevailed over that one by a head. It was a long way back to Abstraction in third. Code West, a Lemon Drop Kid ridgling, finished 1 1/16 miles on the main track in 1:43.37 with Rosie Napravnik up for trainer Bob Baffert. It was his first stakes win. Baffert, who celebrated his 100th Churchill Downs win by long distance from California, said he was confident in Code West. Now, he added, "I'm going to bring him home. He'll be on the summer Derby trail."
Kitten's Dumplings, the odds-on favorite, broke near the back of the pack in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Regret Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, moved up boldly along the outside on the stretch turn and drew off late to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Praia. Oscar Party finished third. Kitten's Dumplings, a daughter of Kitten's Joy, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.41 with Joel Rosario riding. "This looks like a Breeders' Cup filly on down the line," said owner and breeder Ken Ramsey. "We've got several places to go from here. I haven't nailed it down yet. She looks like a good one." Trainer Mike Maker added he would "like to win" the Queen Elizabeth at Keeneland.
Byrama rated well off a longshot leader early in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Vanity Handicap for fillies and mares, came to contention between horses with a quarter mile to go and kicked clear in the stretch, winning by 3 1/2 lengths over More Chocolate. The favorite, Lady of Fifty, got home third. Byrama, a 4-year-old, British-bred Byron filly, ran 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:50.40 with Gary Stevens aboard for trainer Simon Callaghan. "Actually, I made her kick a little earlier than I would have liked," Stevens said. "Her run is only about an eighth of a mile and I had to use her between the quarter pole and the eighth pole. She was able to just float home the last sixteenth." Callaghan said he will keep Byrama on artificial surfaces for now.
Kobe's Back -- yes, named for Kobe Bryant -- recovered from a terrible start to win Saturday's $100,000 Willard L. Proctor Memorial for 2-year-olds. After breaking in the air, jockey Rafael Bejarano gathered the Flatter colt, bided his time and made his move in the stretch, getting up to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Willie B Awesome was second and Solid Wager lived up to his name, if you bet him to show. Kobe's Back ran the 5 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:05.42 in his first career start. "It was unbelievable," said Bejarano. "This horse is something else."
In the $100,000 Cinderella Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, Sprouts bounced out of a victory last month against state-bred rivals to win her first stakes engagement by 3 1/2 lengths over Pleasant Miss. Time for Angie was third. Sprouts, a Square Eddie filly, covered 5 1/2 furlongs in 1:05.45 for jockey Mario Gutierrez. "She's improved so much," said winning trainer Edward Freeman. "I think it's just experience and maturity."
Include Me Out, making her first start since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic last fall, caught pacesetting Shumoos in deep stretch to win Sunday's $70,000 Desert Stormer Handicap by 3/4 of a length. The favorite, Teddy's Promise, finished third. Include Me Out, a 5-year-old Include mare, got the 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:10.32 with Joe Talamo aboard. "That was a workout for Include Me Out," winning trainer Ron Ellis said. "She's a super filly. She's come back really well from the rest."
A big team of caregivers jumped for joy during and after Friday's seventh race as Paynter dominated seven rivals to win his first race since becoming seriously ill last summer. The Awesome Again colt, who overcame colitis and laminitis, quickly seized the lead under Rafael Bejarano and kicked clear when asked, winning by 4 1/2 lengths, ridden out. Majestic City's folks will be able to say they finished second to Paynter and Fly Lexis Fly completed the trifecta. "I had a lot of confidence in this horse and I knew he was going to win easily," Bejarano said. Added trainer Baffert, "He is just an incredible, phenomenal horse. I can't believe he is back. He's just a great horse."
When last we saw Verrazano on the track, his undefeated record was going up in smoke -- or, more to the point, down in the slop -- as he finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby. Sunday, he showed that was a fluke as the More Than Ready colt led all the way to a 9 1/4-length trouncing of four rivals in the $150,000, Grade III Pegasus Stakes. With John Velazquez up, Verrazano finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:41.72. Reporting Star was second and Bethel was third. Itsmyluckyday was pulled up by Jockey Mike Smith midway through the race and vanned off. Verrazano's impressive performance reopened the question of who is the best 3-year-old, especially after having three separate winners in the three Triple Crown races. "I think we got exactly what we wanted to set us up for the Haskell," co-owner Brian Sullivan said. The $1 million Haskell is at Monmouth on July 28. "I think it makes the next six months interesting with a sprint to see who's Horse of the Year. I think we're squarely in that picture." Itsmyluckyday, coming off a runner-up performance in the Preakness, was moving toward Verrazano when Smith pulled him up. "It felt like a left hind," the rider said. "I wasn't going to take a chance and decided it was better to be safe than sorry. So I just took the cautious road." Trainer Eddie Plesa Jr. said there was no obvious injury and that Itsmyluckyday was undergoing tests.
Richiefromshoprite led from the early going in Sunday's $60,000 Dan Horn Stakes for New Jersey-breds and went on to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Hop Skip and Away. Javerre got home third but was disqualified all the way down to 11th, promoting Fine Friends to show money. Richiefromshoprite, a 6-year-old son of Iron Deputy, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:35.50 with Gabriel Sanchez in the irons.
Ju Ju Eyeballs rallied from well back to win Saturday's $60,000 Crank It Up Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, scoring by 1 3/4 lengths over Fearless Jacq. Jewel of a Cat settled for third. Ju Ju Eyeballs, a Gators N Bears filly, got 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:04.24 for jockey Paco Lopez.
We said in this week's advance story that Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Hill Prince Stakes for 3-year-olds was a wide-open affair and the $4,808 trifecta payoff bears that out. Notacatbutallama rallied five-wide into the stretch and won by a neck over 37-1 chance Play It Loud. Chamois was third at 12-1 and the favorite, Red Rifle, settled for fourth in the 12-horse field. Notacatbutallama, a New York-bred son of Harlan's Holiday, got home in 1:35.82 over "good" turf with John Velazquez up. Velazquez said he had ridden Play It Loud and liked him, so when that one made his move, "I moved out with him and made a nice run down the lane."
With only five starters, Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Bed o' Roses Handicap for fillies and mares was a little easier to figure out and the favorite, Dance to Bristol, rallied to a smart 2 3/4-length victory over Fantasy of Flight. It was the fifth straight win for Dance to Bristol. Delightful Quality finished third. Dance to Bristol, a 4-year-old daughter of Speightstown, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:20.81 with Xavier Perez up. The time missed the track record by a little more than a half second. "Whenever you have a streak like that," said winning trainer Ollie Figgins III, "it's just hard for a horse to perform like that every time, and she seems to do it, somehow. As long as she stays healthy, hopefully it will keep happening."
Maximova came to pacesetter Mariel N Kathy in the stretch run in Sunday's $90,000 Bit of Whimsey Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, the two exchanged bumps and Maximova got home first by head. Caroline Thomas just missed with a late run that found her third, a nose farther back. Maximova, a daughter of Danehill Dancer, ran 9 furlongs on the firm inner turf course in 1:50.74 with Jose Lescano up.
Bryan's Jewels had the goods as the odds-on favorite in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Obeah Stakes for fillies and mares -- but just. After racing last of six, the 5-year-old Rockport Harbor mare had to wait behind horses at the head of the stretch, finally found a seam and outdueled And Why Not to the wire, winning by a head. Five Assay was a distant third. Bryan's Jewels, with Alex Cintron in the irons, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.21. She was bouncing back on just one week's rest after capturing the $75,000 John Rooney Memorial over the same track. "I am fortunate that I can do stupid things for owners," trainer McLean Robertson said of the short turnaround. "They put up with being wrong ... . But this one turned out to be a great idea." Robertson said he's not so sure about running Bryan's Jewels in the $750,000, Grade I Delaware Handicap July 20. "She would have to be awfully right to run in that race," he said.
Tell a Great Story was up in the last jump to win Saturday's $75,000 Go For Wand Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a nose. Ile St. Molly led in the stretch run and took the tough beat. Alli Leigh finished third and the favorite, What You Know, was pulled up and vanned off. Tell a Great Story, a Bluegrass Cat filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards under Forest Boyce in 1:40.80. The race is a prep for the $300,000, Grade II Delaware Oaks on July 13.
Golden Gate Fields
Skydreamin won a three-way photo in Saturday's $65,000 Lost in the Fog Stakes for 2-year-olds, beating longshot Tupelo Cush by a head and the favorite, Olympic Jumble, by another nose. Skydreamin, a Sky Mesa colt out of the Silver Deputy mare Unfinished Dream, ran 5 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:00.64 in her first career start. Russell Baze had the mount for trainer Jeff Bonde. Skydreamin was involved in some bumping at the start of the race but Baze said once he got him pointed in the right direction, "He easily got up within striking distance at the head of the lane and then those horses on the lead started getting a little tired. He was getting tired, too, but he ran game all the way to the wire. This is a quality colt and I think the quality showed out there."
While Saturday's $200,000 Centaur Stakes attracted 3-year-olds from surrounding states, the winner was the only one in the field whose last start had come over the track -- Free World. The Stormy Atlantic colt assumed the lead quickly after the start and wasn't threatened, winning by 2 lengths over War Dancer. Moro Tap was third. General Election was a scratch. Free World, with Chris Landeros up, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:34.32.
A Diehl came around rivals on the turn in Saturday's $100,000 J. Kenneth Self Shelby County Boys and Girls Club Stakes and outfinished Live In Joy to win by 3/4 of a length. Derby Kitten, the favorite, was just a half length farther back in third. A Diehl, an 8-year-old Aldebaran gelding, ran the mile on firm turf in 1:34.36 under Marcelino Pedroza.
Frontside quickly showed her backside to 10 rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Girls, Inc. of Shelbyville, Shelby County Stakes and led all the way home. Kune Kune was second, 1 3/4 lengths in arrears, and Artemus Kitten finished third. Frontside, a 5-year-old War Front mare, ran the mile on the grass in 1:35.04 under Marlon St. Julien.
Illinois-breds strutted their stuff on the lush, but yielding, lawn on Saturday in a pair of $100,000 events at 1 1/16 miles.
Coalport surged to the lead entering the stretch run in the Black Tie Affair Handicap and easily got the best of the favorite, The Pizza Man. Princeville Condo ran evenly to finish third. Coalport, a 4-year-old Kitten's Joy colt, got home in 1:43.18 under James Graham. After knocking heads in open company in Kentucky, Florida and Louisiana earlier in his career, trainer Wayne Catalano seems to have found a sweet spot for the colt in the Illinois-bred ranks, with two wins and a second in three starts since his return to the Land of Lincoln. But he is not without ambition for his charge. "The [Grade III $200,000] Arlington Handicap is maybe next," Catalano said Sunday. "I''m not sure he's good enough for the Million, but he sure did look good" in Saturday's effort.
La Tia added to an already impressive resume with a dominating, pacesetting win in the Lincoln Heritage Handicap for fillies and mares. With Constantino Roman up, the 4-year-old City Place filly scored by 3 1/2 lengths over Tipsy, with With a Twist third. La Tia won in 1:44.15. She now has six wins in her last eight starts, including a victory in the Grade III Arlington Oaks last summer. She is out of the Sky Classic mare La Adelita. Sky Classic was a tough-luck second in the 1992 Arlington Million when jockey Pat Day let Dear Doctor slip through inside him in deep stretch for a narrow win.
Five Iron led from the start in Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Victoria Park Stakes for 3-year-olds and won by 1 1/4 lengths over the odds-on favorite, Winning Cause. Sweet Little Man and Bear Fabulous Son completed the order of finish. Five Iron, a Kentucky-bred Sharp Humor colt, ran the 9 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:50.38 with Luis Contreras up.
Ultimate Destiny put a head in front of Good Better Best at the right time to win Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Steady Growth Stakes. Bobcaygeon was 4 lengths farther back in third. Ultimate Destiny, a 4-year-old Dance to Destiny gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.33 under Eurico Da Silva. It was his third win in three tries this season, all with Da Silva up. "Everything worked right for my horse today," Da Silva said. "He positioned himself very close. He was very relaxed and just waiting for me to turn him loose. When I asked him, he responded pretty well for me."
Northern Passion was up in the final strides to win Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Zadracarta Stakes for Ontario-bred fillies and mares by a neck over Why Katherine. Evil Kitten got home third. Northern Passion, with Contreras up, ran 7 furlongs on "good" turf in 1:23.11. She is a 4-year-old First Samurai filly.
Najran Breeze blew home a 12-length winner in Saturday's $50,000 (Canadian) Western Canada Handicap for 3-year-olds. The odds-on favorite, Tigger Town, beat the rest of them with For Cash third. Najran Breeze, a Kentucky-bred Najran gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11 1/5 under Nate Smith.
Tell Me Lies dueled with Canaveral Leader throughout Saturday's $50,000 (Canadian) Chariot Chaser Stakes before Tell Me Lies prevailed by 3/4 length. Port of Appeal and Ten Thirty completed the order of finish. Tell Me Lies, a daughter of 1997 Florida Derby winner Captain Bodgit, ran 6 furlongs in 1:13 4/5 with Quincy Welch up.
Catlaunch led most of the way in Sunday's $50,000 Sydney Gendelman Memorial Handicap, was headed by Master Rocket and came again to win by a nose over that rival. Bold Captain finished third. Catlaunch, a 12-year-old Noble Cat gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:48.17 with Megan Fadlovich riding. Catlaunch was making his 105th career start, from which he now has 40 wins, 22 seconds and 14 thirds.
Hammers Terror went right to the lead in Sunday's $50,000 Brooks Fields Stakes, set a pressured pace and held on to win by 1 length over Slip and Drive. Hammers Terror, an Artie Schiller colt, ran the 7 1/2 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:30.47 with Dean Butler up.
Jebrica shot to the front in the final sixteenth in Sunday's $50,000 Budweiser Handicap, getting up to win by 3/4 of a length. Winning Machine got cranked up late, too, but settled for third while the favorite, Hoist, faded to finish sixth. Jebrica, a 5-year-old Liberty Gold gelding, ran the mile on a fast track in 1:34.72 with Isaias Enriquez in the irons.
Before looking a few days ahead to Royal Ascot, it's worth noting the victory Thursday at Nottingham by a colt named Morpheus. Not only is Morpheus a half-brother to Frankel, and thus a subject of intense interest on his own, but he also was the first winner for the Warren Place yard officially trained by Lady Jane Cecil after the death of her husband, Sir Henry Cecil, earlier in the week. She also won with Songbird at Yarmouth later the same day. "The win was for Sir Henry and also all the staff, who have been so supportive," Lady Cecil said after Morpheus' win in the ABG Law Classic Maiden Stakes with James Doyle riding. Morpheus is by Oasis Dream, out of Kind. Also Thursday, officials at Ascot announced the Queen's Vase, scheduled for Friday, will be run this year as 'The Queen's Vase In Memory of Sir Henry Cecil." Cecil's runners captured that vase eight times among his record 75 Royal Ascot wins. "We felt it was fitting to honor his achievements here ... and remember the passing of one of the greatest figures that the world of sport has ever seen," said Johnny Weatherby, the queen's representative at Ascot. The Queen's Vase is one of three races at Royal Ascot for which the queen donates the trophy.
Animal Kingdom's final race provides a dramatic start -- and possibly the early peak -- of this year's Royal Ascot meeting on Tuesday. After the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes, in which the Kentucky Derby and Dubai World Cup winner is an overwhelming favorite, it's off to Australia to begin his career at stud. The 1-mile Queen Anne, run down the Ascot straight, drew a field of 13. None of the other 12 has credentials like Animal Kingdom's but Declaration of War, an Aidan O'Brien charge with son Joseph O'Brien in the irons, should be respected. He will have to improve on his fifth-place showing in the Group 1 Lockinge Stakes in his last outing. The American-bred War Front colt has won five of seven starts. Another American-bred, the 4-year-old filly Elusive Kate, hails from John Gosden's barn. Also note that Animal Kingdom is giving 10 pounds or more to each of his rivals.
Nineteen signed on for Tuesday's Group 1 King's Stand Stakes, a 5-furlong cavalry charge. The heavy favorite in this bunch is Shea Shea, the Mike De Kock runner out of South Africa who won his last two in Dubai, culminating in a dramatic win over Hong Kong's Joy and Fun in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint over the same 5 furlongs. This race also is a leg of the Global Sprint Challenge.
Dawn Approach, who suffered his first career loss with a strange run in the Group 1 Epsom Derby, is a go for the Group 1 St James's Palace Stakes on Tuesday -- facing the likes of George Vancouver, Toronado and Magician. The race is at 1 mile, likely more to Dawn Approach's pleasure than the 1 1/2-mile Derby, in which he was headstrong early, fought to the lead and faded to finish last.
American trainer Wesley Ward sends out Ogermeister in the 5-furlong Windsor Castle Stakes for 2-year-olds on Tuesday's undercard, with Joel Rosario named to ride. The Silver Train colt comes off a maiden win at Belmont in his only previous race. This race also includes in the 28-horse field an Irish-bred colt named Fiftyshadesofgray, not to be confused with the California-based filly Fiftyshadesofhay and wouldn't a stretch run involving those two be fun for the race caller?
Meanwhile, the defections from the remainder of the card continued during the past week as Ed Dunlop announced Snow Fairy's return to the races is delayed by a "minor setback." There will a Group I race on each of the meet's succeeding days, including the Prince of Wales's Stakes on Wednesday, the Ascot Gold Cup on Thursday, the Coronation Stakeson Friday and the Diamond Jubilee Stakes to wrap things up on Saturday.
Treve was a bit tardy out of the stalls in Sunday's Group 1 Prix Diane-Longchamp at Chantilly, raced near the back of the field until called upon by jockey Thierry Jarnet some 3 furlongs out. From then, the French-bred Motivator filly was in charge all the way and went on to win by 4 lengths, remaining undefeated in three starts. Chicquita was the best of the rest with Silasol third. Treve got the 1 mile, 2 1/2 furlongs on good turf in 2:03.77.
Sha Tin wrapped up its group racing for the season Sunday as Sterling City charged down the straight to win by 3/4 of a length over Bullish Champion. Admiration and Time After Time finished third and fourth. Sterling City, a John Moore-trained 4-year-old, picked up his first win at 1,400 meters after previously scoring at 1,000 and 1,200. Moore said he expects his charge to step up for the big December races in the new season but isn't sure which one. "We'll try him at a mile before the Hong Kong Mile next season and we'll see," he said. "But I'll still keep the options open between the Mile and the Sprint."
News and notes
John Velazquez scored his 5,000th victory Friday at Belmont Park, riding Galloping Giraffe to victory as he won with all three mounts on the day's card. Asked if he plans to shoot for 6,000, Velazquez said, "I hope so. I plan to ride for a few more years, if I'm healthy enough. If God blesses me with health, I'll be here." But he noted the announcement earlier this week that Ramon Dominguez has been forced to retire as a result of injuries suffered in a January fall at Aqueduct. "Look what happened to Ramon, one of the best riders I've seen in my 23 years," Velazquez said. "Right at the peak. You have to be healthy and be lucky."