Canada's signature race of the year, some defending Breeders' Cup champions and speed, speed, speed all are on tap in weekend racing.
It's the Queen's Plate at Woodbine near Toronto, where the northern nation's top 3-year-olds slug it out for Canada's biggest Thoroughbred prize.
Out west, Game On Dude also has a lot of weight on for Saturday's Hollywood Gold Cup. If he can tote the poundage, Game On Dude will solidify his standing among the favorites for the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall. At Belmont Park, Saturday's Suburban for older horses and the Dwyer for 3-year-olds also will be noted by those watching the Classic contenders.
Saturday's card at Calder features one of the year's top attractions for sprinters -- the Summit of Speed. Six races, on both turf and dirt, are worth a total of $1.2 million and one is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Belmont, Arlington, Woodbine and Monmouth all have big sprints, too, and Arlington's is a showcase for the senior set with an 8-year-old and two 9-year-olds among the more fancied.
Longer-distance turf runners have a big weekend on tap, too, with the $500,000 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth offering a ticket to the Breeders' Cup Turf and a pair of Sunday races at Woodbine pointing to that track's multimillion-dollar turf features later in the summer.
Overseas action includes the Group 1 Coral Eclipse at Sandown in England and the Group 1 Deutches Derby in Hamburg.
Take a deep breath and dive right on in.
The Queen's Plate
Trainer Mark Casse has become a force in the sport on both sides of the border. But he has never won Canada's most prestigious race. The odds are good -- four out of 11, to be exact -- that he will change that Saturday in the $1 million (Canadian) Queen's Plate. Casse will saddle a quartet in the 1 1/4-mile race over the Woodbine all-weather course. His best chances are with Dynamic Sky, winner of the Plate Trial, and Spring in the Air, runner-up in the Woodbine Oaks and last year's Canadian 2-year-old filly champ. Casse said Dynamic Sky ran a good race in the Trial, adding, "It took everything he had to get up in the last jump. Now he gets another eighth of a mile ... I would expect him to run well. Hopefully it will be enough." The morning-line favorite in the field of 12 Canadian-breds, however, is Up With the Birds. The Stormy Atlantic colt was second in the Grade III Transylvania Stakes on the Keeneland grass this spring, then won the Marine Stakes over the Woodbine all-weather track by 4 3/4 lengths in his last start. Also in the field are the Oaks winner, Nipissing, and the Plate Trial runner-up, His Race to Win.
Last weekend, Wise Dan was loaded down with 128 pounds and won the Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs anyway. Saturday, Game On Dude will be asked to shoulder 127 pounds in the Hollywood Gold Cup, giving eight pounds or more to each of four rivals in the 1 1/4-miles test. Like Wise Dan, Game On Dude has earned the impost. He has won five of his last six races, all graded stakes, with the lone loss coming in the Breeders' Cup Classic when he missed the break. Since then, he has won the Grade III Native Diver Stakes, the Grade II San Antonio, the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap and the Grade II Charles Town Classic, where the winner's share was $1 million, boosting his lifetime bankroll to $4.7 million. The 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding takes on Clubhouse Ride, Oilisblackgold, Kettle Corn and Sky Kingdom. Clubhouse Ride, a more recent addition to the graded stakes ranks, has finished second to the favorite in the San Antonio, Santa Anita and Charles Town Classic. Kettle Corn finished third in this race last year -- behind Game On Dude and Richard's Kid. Game On Dude and Sky Kingdom are both trained by Bob Baffert.
Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Suburban at Belmont Park features five well-matched runners going 9 furlongs. Last Gunfighter has won six straight, moving up the ladder to take the Grade III Pimlico Special in his last outing. Flat Out won the Grade III Westchester two starts back. Alpha, the dead-heat winner of last summer's Grade I Travers, hasn't won since and will make his first appearance since finishing fifth in the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night at Meydan. Percussion fell victim to the dramatic late run of Calidoscopio in the sloppy Grade II Brooklyn Handicap, finishing second. And Fast Falcon, third in the Brooklyn, will take another swing.
Six signed on for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Dwyer at Belmont, a 1 1/16-miles test for 3-year-olds. Ladies, get out your hat pins because this race is a program-stabber. Saint Vigeur finished second in the Grade II Peter Pan, but was 13 1/4 lengths back of the winner. Abraham has been going the wrong way for trainer Todd Pletcher. Moreno comes off a visually impressive maiden-breaker in his first New York race after nine beats in California.
Friday's fourth race at Hollywood Park is worth a look. The conditioned allowance field of six includes graded stakes winners Old Time Hockey and Blueskiesnrainbows, along with a couple other stakes-placed critters. They will go 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather course.
Already in the books is Monday's $150,000 (Canadian) Dominion Day Stakes at Woodbine, won in course-record fashion by Delegation. It was barely a contest as Delegation, with Luis Contreras up, drew off in the lane to score by 9 1/4 lengths over James Street. Alpha Bettor was third. The 4-year-old Speightstown gelding got home in 2:01.51, shaving nearly 1/2 second off the track record set by Strait of Dover in the 2012 Queen's Plate. "When this horse is on his game, he's probably as good a horse as I've ever trained," said Casse. "He has an unbelievable stride ... When he's on his game, he can probably run with any horse in North America." Delegation finished third, behind Tapizar, in last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Also over and done is Thursday's $150,000, Grade II Swaps Stakes for 3-year-olds at Hollywood Park. Chief Havoc led all the way to a 2 1/2-lengths win in that 9-furlongs event over the all-weather course with Tiz a Minister rallying from last of four to take second. Dice Flavor and Java's War completed the order of finish. Chief Havoc, a Giant's Causeway colt, finished in 1:50.17 with Rafael Bejarano aboard. Trainer Peter Miller said he will discuss with the owner whether to keep on against 3-year-olds or take a stab at the $1 million, Grade I Pacific Classic on Aug. 25 at Del Mar.
On the grass
Little Mike had a great year in 2012, winning the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs, the Grade I Arlington Million and the Breeders' Cup Turf. But then he went to Dubai, where he finished eighth in a prep race and 11th in the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free. Now trainer Dale Romans has him ready for a return in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I United Nations at 11 furlongs over the Monmouth Park grass. The race is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Turf and Little Mike, who broke his maiden over the course nearly three years ago, will face seven rivals. Skyring upset the Grade II Dixie Stakes at Pimlico at 24-1 odds in his last outing with Wilcox Inn second and both try again here. Big Blue Kitten was second in the Grade II Monmouth Stakes in his prep for this one. Teaks North won the UN two years back but hasn't matched that effort since.
Joel Rosario is booked into Woodbine to ride the favorite, Forte Dei Marmi, in Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian), Grade III Singspiel Stakes. The 7-year-old, British-bred Selkirk gelding needs a turnaround, however, as he finished ninth in the Grade II Dixie Stakes at Pimlico in his last outing and 11th in the Grade II Elkhorn at Keeneland before that. He has run much better over the local greensward, including third-place showings last year in the Grade I Canadian International and Grade I Northern Dancer. The 10-horse field to go 1 1/2 miles also includes Pool Play, Fifty Proof and Aldus Snow.
Ladies on the lawn
A cast of six is ready for Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Royal Heroine Mile at Hollywood Park but they are universally challenged when it comes to winning at the graded stakes level. I Dazzle managed a third-place showing in the Grade II Marjorie L. Everett Handicap in her last outing. Mi Gi Gi may go favorite as she won the Grade II Honeymoon Handicap over the course 13 months ago -- her last win.
Sunday's $200,000 (Canadian), Grade II Dance Smartly Stakes at Woodbine attracted 11 and a well-matched bunch they are, with six posted on the morning line at single-digit odds. The 3-1 favorite, Irish Mission, took the second half of last year off, then ran well this winter at Gulfstream Park before shipping back north and finishing second to Solid Appeal in the Grade II Nassau over the local course. Solid Appeal also is in this field, along with the likes of Hard Not to Like, Northern Passion, Moment of Majesty, Coffee Clique and celebrity chef Bobby Flay's Julie's Love. This looks like one of the better wagering opportunities of the weekend.
Already in the books: Somali Lemonade saved ground in Tuesday's $250,000, Grade III Dr. James Penny Memorial Handicap for fillies and mares at Parx Racing, split rivals entering the stretch and was all out to win by 1/2 length over the late-running Miz Ida. The favorite, Pianist, led early but faded to get home third. Somali Lemondae, a 4-year-old Lemon Drop Kid filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:47.83 with Joel Rosario up. It was her first win since her 2-year-old year, though she has run well in graded stakes company.
Thursday's $150,000, Grade III Poker Stakes at Belmont Park was all King Kreesa. With Irad Ortiz Jr. up, the 4-year-old King Cougat gelding was right on the lead, kept Howe Great at bay and won by 1 1/2 lengths over that one. Big Screen was third and the odds-on favorite, Data Link, didn't have enough late and settled for fourth. King Kreesa finished in 1:33.65 over firm turf. It was the second straight victory and first in a graded stakes for the winner, who employed similar tactics to win the Kingston for state-breds on June 1. "It's a thrill for him to get his first graded stakes win," said owner Gerald Kresa (cq). "He'd been close several times. We'll probably look next at the Fourstardave. We'll see how he comes out of this one." The Fourstardave is a $500,000, Grade II on Aug. 10 at Saratoga.
There's a lot of action for the speedsters and at the top of the list is Calder's "Summit of Speed" on Saturday. If you can't make it in person, check it out on Horse Racing Radio Network, from 3-5 p.m. EDT on Saturday on Sirius 93/XM 209. Mike Penna and Jude Feld will be broadcasting live from the track.
Topping that action is the return of 2012 Eclipse Award champion Trinniberg, who has misfired in two starts since winning last year's Breeders' Cup Sprint. Trinniberg will face a full field of 11 rivals, including the likes of Fort Loudon, Justin Phillip, Apriority, and Swagger Jack, in the $350,000, Grade II Smile Sprint Handicap, a "Win and You're In" for this year's Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita. Fort Loudon won last year's Carry Back Stakes on the "Summit" card, with Trinniberg second by a mere neck.
R Free Roll, a filly, will bypass the companion race on the Calder card to take on males again in the $150,000, Grade III Carry Back for 3-year-olds. She already has won two starts against the boys, most recently in the local prep for this, the Unbridled Stakes, which she took by 6 3/4 lengths. Six colts are lined up to try their luck.
Run and done: Rainbow Heir set a nice pace in Thursday's $100,000, Grade III Jersey Shore Stakes for 3-year-olds at Monmouth Park, then easily drew clear of his rivals, winning by 5 lengths. Amarish was best of the rest. Uptown Boy finished third. Rainbow Heir, a Wildcat Heir colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.43 with Elvis Trujillo in the irons.
Filly & Mare Sprinters
Saturday's $350,000, Grade I Princess Rooney Handicap at Calder attracted Judy the Beauty, who has been knocking on the Grade I door. Reneesgotzip also has been second in Grade I company and was third in last year's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint.
With R Free Roll going in the Carry Back, there's a scramble in the $150,000, Grade III Azalea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. Among the likely ones are Wildcat Lucy and Street Girl, who finished first and third in the local prep.
Thirteen are entered for Sunday's $200,000 (Canadian) Highlander Stakes at 6 furlongs on the lush Woodbine green. The 2-1 morning-line favorite is Something Extra, an extra-consistent son of Indian Charlie who exits a win in the Grade II Connaught Cup. Night Officer and Go Blue or Go Home also are notable on the morning line.
The venerable Ben's Cat is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Parx Dash at Parx Racing in Pennsylvania. The 7-year-old gelding won the race last year -- among the 21 wins he has compiled from 32 lifetime starts. His rivals include Bridgetown, second in this race last year and then 14th in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint last November, and Tightend Touchdown, who jumped up from optional claiming to win the Pennsylvania Governor's Cup last time out by 5 1/2 lengths -- with Bridgetown second and Ben's Cat third.
Saturday's $100,000 Arlington Sprint at Arlington Park -- a veritable old-timers reunion -- has nine entrants with Saint Leon the 5-2 morning-line favorite. The 8-year-old Stravinsky gelding won this race last year, then did not race again until May 12, when he won an optional claimer by an easy 3 lengths over Que Posse, who also is in this field. Chamberlain Bridge is even older than the favorite. At age 9, the War Chant gelding looks back on a victory in the 2010 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint as a career highlight -- but also finished second two starts back in the Grade III Twin Spires Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs. He was second in this heat last year. Another 9-year-old, Yankee Injunuity, won the 2009 edition of the Arlington Sprint but was available for $40,000 in his last race, which he won.
A dozen fillies and mares, five trained by Marty Wolfson, are entered for 7 1/2 furlongs in the $100,000 Hollywood Wildcat Handicap in the "Summit of Speed" while the $100,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint, at 5 furlongs on the Calder lawn, got 13 entries. One in each race is for main-track-only.
Evangeline Downs hosts the Louisiana Legends races on Saturday -- seven stakes events, each worth $100,000.
Saturday also finds the TTA Sales Futurity races at Lone Star Park, $100,000 events for 2-year-old colts and geldings and 2-year-old fillies.
Across the waters
Saturday's Group 1 Coral Eclipse at Sandown in England could pit two Group 1 Royal Ascot winners -- Al Kazeem, who won the Prince of Wales's Stakes, and Declaration of War, the Queene Anne Stakes winner. The German-trained Pastorius also is a possibility if he can rebound from a sub-par performance last time out in the Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup. Mars and The Fugue also are in this field of seven.
Don't overlook a listed race at Sandown the day before the Eclipse. The Gala Stakes, at the same 1 1/4-miles distance, includes Group 1-caliber names like Asfare, Mandour, Sri Putra and Mendip and easily could be a springboard to bigger races in Europe and the rest of the world during the second half of the year.
Sunday's Group 1 Deutsches Derby at Hamburg features three runners from the ever-powerful barn of trainer Peter Schiergen. Lucky Speed and Empoli are the more fancied of the three. The third, Bermuda Reef, looks for a turnaround with Frankie Dettori in the irons.