Saturday's Delaware Oaks could be an early stepping stone to the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic. And there's a small clutch of races for the 2-year-old set on both dirt and turf.
But by any measure, the green course is the place to be, with 10 graded stakes races from 1 mile out to 1 1/2 miles in the United States alone.
"Million Preview Day" Saturday at Arlington Park points directly to that track's three Grade I races Aug. 17. The grassy events at Belmont and Hollywood Park foreshadow later showdowns at Saratoga and Del Mar. And don't overlook Colonial Downs and Delaware Park.
A big litter of "Kittens" is running around, too. Yes, those "Kittens."
It's an exciting time, so read on.
There are several to watch in a field of eight drawn for the $600,000, Grade I Man o' War at 11 furlongs at Belmont Park. Last year's winner, Point of Entry, was to have defended his title but emerged from the Manhattan on Belmont Stakes day with a non-displaced condylar fracture and is sidelined, at least for now. Boisterous finished third in this race two year ago but ran instead in the Arlington Handicap last season. He's back this year, fresh off a win in the Grade II Monmouth Stakes on the Jersey shore and looking for his first Grade I win. He's been working nicely at Belmont for trainer Shug McGaughey, who says, "We've always thought he was a Grade I kind of horse." Twilight Eclipse won the 1 1/2-miles, Grade II Pan American Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then finished fifth behind some toughies in the Grade I Manhattan at Belmont. Those, in fact, included Optimizer, a D. Wayne Lukas charge who also is back for this. Optimizer has been in the trifecta in five of seven starts this year, all graded stakes. Al Khali was second in two of last year's top Grade I summer turf stakes, the Sword Dancer at Saratoga and the Northern Dancer at Woodbine.
Eight signed on for the $200,000, Grade III Arlington Handicap at 1 1/4 miles at Arlington Park -- the local prep for the Grade I Arlington Million at the same distance Aug. 17. At the top of the list is Rahystrada, winner of last year's Arlington Handicap and third in the Million. He comes off a respectable fourth-place finish behind Boisterous in the Grade II Monmouth Stakes. Dullahan, third in last year's Kentucky Derby, makes his first start since participating in the general American meltdown in Dubai on World Cup night (Animal Kingdom, the exception). He has struggled since winning the Grade I Pacific Classic on the Hollywood Park all-weather last summer. Najjaar comes off a third-place showing in the Grade III Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs.
The $200,000, Grade III American Derby at 1 3/16 miles at Arlington Park drew 11 3-year-olds. General Election and Admiral Kitten, the 1-2 finishers in the Grade III Arlington Classic May 25, are back for an encore, as are a few others who finished farther back. There are some invaders who will provide a measure of how well the locals are running. This is the local prep for the Grade I Secretariat Stakes on Million Day.
The $150,000, Grade III Stars and Stripes, run at 1 1/2 miles at Arlington Park, is a prep for the second edition of the American St. Leger on Million Day -- a race that competes directly with the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga. It's hard to look past Dark Cove, a 6-year-old son of Medaglia d'Oro, who has won the Grade II Elkhorn Stakes at Keeneland and the Grade III Louisville Handicap in his last two starts, both at 1 1/2 miles. Ioya Bigtime, a stalwart for the local heavyweight Team Block, has plenty of graded stakes experience and won the Stars and Stripes last year. But he was ninth in the Elkhorn and fifth in the Louisville Handicap. Maybe the home turf will suit better. Team Block also fields Suntracer, who is cross-entered in the Arlington Handicap. Horsemen raised some objection to the $400,000 purse for this year's American St. Leger and Arlington has been recruiting heavily in England and Europe to attract a bigger and stronger field for that prime-time event.
Kitten's Joy won the Virginia Derby nine years ago and Saturday's $500,000, Grade II renewal of the 1 1/4-miles race at Colonial Downs will feature three of his offspring -- Fear the Kitten, Redwood Kitten and Charming Kitten. "Fear" and "Redwood" are Illinois-breds, by the way. Redwood Kitten finished a fading third in the 1 1/16-mile Transylvania Stakes at Keeneland, then came back to win a minor stakes at Pimlico, going 1 mile on the lawn. Charming Kitten was third in the Grade I Blue Grass and ninth in the Kentucky Derby, then came back to finish second behind Rydilluc at 1 mile on the turf at Penn National. That was Rydilluc's first start since finishing fourth in the Blue Grass over the Keeneland all-weather and he also returns in this field. He also won the Grade III Palm Beach Stakes going 9 furlongs on the Gulfstream green and that should make him very attractive here. Others: Jack Milton won the Grade III Transylvania; War Dancer was third in the Grade II American Turf at Churchill Downs; Gefest was third in the Grade III Arlington Classic.
Speaking of Kitten's Joy, a dozen are entered for Saturday's $75,000 Kitten's Joy Stakes at 1 1/2 miles at Colonial Downs. Among them is Amen Kitten.
Marketing Mix takes on five males in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Sunset Handicap at Hollywood Park. The race is 1 1/2 miles on the lawn. The 5-year-old Medaglia d'Oro mare finished a close second to Zagora in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, then won her seasonal debut May 27, stepping right into the fray in the Grade I Gamely Stakes at 9 furlongs over the Hollywood grass. She has been out of the trifecta only three times in her 17-race career. Dhaamer, last year's winner, comes to it fresh from a victory in the Round Table Stakes over the course and distance. The others need to improve. Among them, Hawk's Eyes makes his U.S. debut after shipping up from South America.
Filly & Mare Turf
Trainer Bill Mott will try Emollient, an Empire Maker filly, on turf for the first time in Saturday's $350,000, Grade I American Oaks at 1 1/4 miles at Hollywood Park. She is the winner of three of seven starts and had an excellent outing on the Keeneland all-weather track while winning the Grade I Ashland Stakes by 9 lengths over some good ones, including Kitten's Point and Kitten's Dumplings. Sarach, an Arch filly trained by Richard Mandella, comes off a win in the Grade II Honeymoon Handicap at 9 furlongs. Scarlet Strike, Macha and Becky Lou, the 2-3-4 finishers in the Honeymoon, all are back. Wesley Ward brings the Keeneland-based Emotional Kitten, winner of the Hilltop Stakes at Pimlico in her last outing.
Colonial Flag, Strathnaver and La Tia are the early choices among eight set for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Modesty Handicap, run at 1 3/16 miles over Arlington Park's lush turf. Colonial Flag, trained by Michael Matz at Fair Hill, has two straight thirds in Grade III events at Churchill Downs. Strathnaver also invades from Fair Hill but seeks a rebound after a poor outing over soft going at Belmont. Beautiful weather in Chicago promises a firm course Saturday. La Tia won the Grade III Arlington Oaks last season and is 2-for-2 this year, with both races over the course. Also in the field is Artemus Kitten.
The Alan Goldberg entry of Laughing and Tannery is among the favorites with 10 entered in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Robert G. Dick Memorial Stakes at Delaware Park. Graham Motion has three to saddle, all as separate interests. But the morning-line favorite for the 11 furlongs tilt is Aigue Marine, a 4-year-old Galileo filly who raced well enough in the minors in France, then finished third in her U.S. debut, the Grade 3 Long Island Handicap at Aqueduct last fall. She flopped in the Grade IIII Orchid at Gulfstream Park in March and trainer Christophe Clement is just now bringing her back to the races.
Praia heads a field of 11 for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Virginia Oaks at 9 furlongs over the Colonial Downs turf. The Distorted Humor filly has failed to make the top two only once in six career starts and finished second last time out in the Grade III Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs. The mandatory "Kitten" quota is filled here by Always Kitten, out of a Dynaformer mare and thus eligible to improve with experience.
There are three races to watch Saturday in this division, none graded but all with potential. The $100,000 Solar Splendor at Belmont is for 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles. And revitalized Canterbury Park in Minnesota has the $125,000 Mystic Lake Mile and the $100,000 Lady Canterbury Stakes for fillies and mares, also at 1 mile.
Filly & Mare Sprint
A nice field of eight is set to go 7 furlongs in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II A Gleam Handicap, at Hollywood Park, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. The field includes Book Review and Reneesgotzip, the 1-2 finishers from the Grade I La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies last December. Reneesgotzip finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup. Book Review got a break after two Grade II seconds at Santa Anita. Several of the others have shown talent at one time or another.
The morning-line favorites for Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Delaware Oaks were drawn on the far outside of the nine-filly field expected for the 1 1/16-miles race on the main track. Tell a Great Story, the 5-2 pick, won her last two and is drawn No. 9. Ile St. Molly finished second to Tell a Great Story in their last race and will line up No. 8. Also of note in a field generally looking for improvement is Maracuya, a Big Brown filly who finished fourth in the Black Eyed Susan at Pimlico after winning her first two races in Florida.
Seven are set to face the starter for Saturday's $150,000 Hollywood Juvenile Championship at 6 furlongs on the all-weather course. Willie B. Awesome was second in the Willard Proctor Memorial last month. Solid Wager won at first asking, then finished third in Proctor. There are some first-time starters here, too.
Also Saturday is the $50,000 Chenery Stakes at Colonial Downs, with juveniles going 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass.
Saturday's $150,000 Landaluce Stakes, a 6-furlongs affair at Hollywood Park, got seven starters. Pleasant Miss and On the Backstreets both contested the Cinderella Stakes after maiden wins. The others are less experienced.
Also Saturday, the $50,000 Tippett Stakes at Colonial Downs is 5 1/2 furlongs on the grass.
Saturday's Group 1 Darley July Cup at Newmarket features no fewer than six individual Group 1 winners. The race also has four overseas runners, making it both classy and interesting. The race, appropriately, is the seventh leg of the Global Sprint Challenge, with races in Japan, Australia and Hong Kong yet to go. It also is part of the expansive British Champions Series. The Group 1 winners confirmed for the race are Krypton Factor, Lethal Force, Shamexpress, Shea Shea, Society Rock and Sole Power. Shamexpress comes from Australia, Shea Shea from South Africa and Krypton Factor from Bahrain. In addition, Havelock is set to represent the United States. Sole Power won the fifth race in the Global Sprint Challenge, the King's Stand early in the Royal Ascot meeting, and Lethal Force accounted for the Diamond Jubilee on getaway day of that prestigious gathering. A win Saturday would not advance the cause of either horse in the series, however, as the $1 million bonus pays out only for winning three legs in three different countries. Shea Shea's trainer, Mike De Kock, emphasized the international importance of the 1,200-meters (6-furlongs) fixture. "For South African racing and breeding and for myself, to be competitive in a race like the July Cup means a lot. To win it would be something special," the trainer said. Fawzi Nass, who trains 2012 Dubai Golden Shaheen winner Krypton Factor, echoed the sentiment.
"There has never been a Bahraini winner in Britain before and to win a race like the July Cup would be an honor for myself and would get plenty of recognition back home," he said.
A clutch of other races support the July Cup in Newmarket's festival week.
Eight are set for the 1 1/2-miles, Group 1 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris on Saturday at Longchamp. The Coolmore standard bearer, Battle of Marengo, is the 131-pound highweight off his second-place finish in the Group 2 King Edward VII Stakes last month at Ascot. Joseph O'Brien will ride for his father, trainer Aidan O'Brien. Ocovango returns to action after suffering his first career defeat -- a fifth-place finish -- in the Epsom Derby.
News and notes:
The Fourth of July has come and gone but there are other "self-evident truths" besides those enumerated in the Declaration of Independence. For example, what Fair Grounds VP and Racing Manager Eric Halstrom had to say about the Louisiana Derby STILL being only a Grade II event: "We continue to hope that the esteemed committee will finally recognize that Fair Grounds deserves a Grade I race. The Louisiana Derby produced two of the top three finishers in the Kentucky Derby and the winner of the Belmont Stakes. Our three-race prep series overall featured five of the top six Kentucky Derby finishers plus the Preakness and Belmont winners. A nationally televised, million-dollar race that is now proven as the key final Triple Crown prep has probably earned Grade I status." The North American Graded Stakes Committee meets in December to evaluate the status of races for 2014.