That's not to say there's not a lot of talent in the $750,000, Grade I Woodward. Even though the winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Classic, Fort Larned, is out with a minor issue, the third- and fourth-place finishers from that race, Flat Out and Ron the Greek remain in the Woodward field along with some other promising sorts, including Successful Dan and Paynter.
The long Labor Day weekend also includes some very important races for 2-year-olds on both coasts, a couple prep for the Breeders' Cup Turf Mile and a smattering of other graded stakes.
On the international front, Sunday is the Grosser Preis von Baden in Germany and it appears King George winner Novellist will have only four rivals for the fixture. More on that in the weekend report.
Let's hit the binoculars-rental stand and get ready to take a closer look.
The thing about the Woodward is, while each of them has shown outstanding talent at one time or another, the East Coast contenders in the Classic division haven't been able to establish a reliable pecking order this year. And Cross Traffic, winner of the Grade I Whitney earlier in the Saratoga meeting, is taking a pass on the Whitney as trainer Todd Pletcher seeks the best course to the Breeders' Cup for that one.
Trainer Ian Wilkes said Thursday Fort Larned, who has struggled mightily this year, was just coming around for him but suffered a strain this week and is "not 100 percent." He said the injury is not serious and reiterated, "The goal will still be to get to the Breeders' Cup."
Of the others remaining in Saturday's field, Ron the Greek has been all Greek to trainer Bill Mott, winless since the Sunshine Millions Classic in January. Flat Out has been in and out, also for Mott, but does have two graded stakes wins. Mucho Macho Man wasn't able to finish his first start of the year at Gulfstream in January and has two third-place showings in recent months. Alpha hasn't shown much since his dead-heat win in last summer's Travers and his trainer, Kiaran McLaughlin, said, "We thought we'd give him one more shot against these horses."
The 5-2 favorite on the morning line is Successful Dan, the older half-brother of reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan. He finished fourth in the Stephen Foster and second in the Whitney. "He's had his issues through the years," said trainer Charles LoPresti. "But knock wood, he's been as good as I've had him."
Bob Baffert brings Paynter back east for the first time since he became sick and nearly died after winning the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth last summer. The Awesome Again colt won his comeback race in June, then finished second behind Kettle Corn in the Grade II San Diego in his last start. "It's an incredible story," Baffert said. "It was so emotional, what he went through for two months. Now that he's back, I really want him to take on the big guys, because he's a big guy himself ... I didn't want to run him in the Pacific Classic," Baffert added. "The Woodward is a great race, pointing to the Breeders' Cup. We're excited about running him. It's a tough field, but he's tough."
Since Kettle Corn was all out to finish 8 1/2 lengths behind the Baffert-trained Game On Dude in the Grade I Pacific Classic this past Sunday, handicappers are forced to conclude that, 1) Game On Dude is a lot better right now than his eastern rivals, or 2) Game On Dude has been beating up on lesser horses and will have his hands full when he meets the best of these in November.
By 6 p.m. EDT on Saturday, we may have a few more clues.
Also on Saturday, six are set for the $150,000, Grade III Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park. The field is headed by Wilcox Inn, a Michael Stidham trainee who comes off his more familiar home on the turf to tackle 9 furlongs on the all-weather course. The 5-year-old son of Harlan's Holiday has been a consistent stakes performer without quite being able to break through to the top ranks. He was a respectable fifth in the Grade I United Nations in his last outing. Mister Mardi Gras, second in this race last year, tries again. As to the surface switch: Wilcox Inn broke his maiden on the Arlington Park Polytrack, beating Animal Kingdom by 2 3/4 lengths in the first race for both of them nearly three years ago. That race had been scheduled for the grass. He then finished third over the Keeneland all-weather in the Grade I Dixiana Breeders' Futurity and has been on the green course ever since.
As Saratoga and Del Mar wind down, things start to get serious for the most promising juveniles. And both courses offer springboards for the young colts and fillies.
Go Greeley just put a nose in front of pacesetting Spin the King on the wire at the end of Wednesday's $200,000 (Canadian) Simcoe Stakes at Woodbine. Man o' Bear finished third. Go Greeley, a son of Horse Greeley, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather course in 1:16.32 under Eurico Da Silva. It was his third stakes win of the season and avenged his only loss -- by a nose to Spin the King in the Clarendon Stakes. "I had a lot of horse, but I was worried because I didn't have much space there," said Da Silva. "But, it worked out in the stretch when I had room."
Sunday's $200,000, Grade III Sapling at 6 furlongs at Monmouth Park attracted seven. Among the likely ones are Debt Ceiling, who won the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs but then got home sixth in the Grade II Sanford at Saratoga last month, and Yes I'm Lucky, who has won all three of his starts including the Tyro over the course on Aug. 3.
Monday's program includes the $300,000, Grade I Three Chimneys Hopeful at 7 furlongs at Saratoga.
On the turf, Thursday's $200,000, Grade II With Anticipation at Saratoga went to front-running Bashart, by 1 1/4 lengths over late closer River Dancer. Marvin's Miracle was third and the favorite, Tiger Bourbon, finished fourth. Bashart, a War Front colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:41.97 with Javier Castellano in the irons. It was his second race in two weeks. "It gave us an opportunity with a horse that's still learning to run twice ... before a possible Breeders' Cup," said winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "That's why he ran back on short rest."
Already in the books: Making just her second start -- and on a Wednesday, at that -- Sunday Rules jetted off to a front-running, 8 1/2-lengths win in the $150,000 Generous Portion Stakes for California-bred 2-year-old fillies at Del Mar. Whatsallthedrama rallied from a poor start to finish second with Moving Desert third. Sunday Rules, a Tribal Rules filly, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.56 under Edwin Maldonado. "I think she'll run like this on the dirt," said winning trainer Mike Mitchell. "I don't think she's a synthetic specialist or anything like that. So we'll take her to Santa Anita and we'll find a nice race for her."
Also in the record: Granny Mc's Kitten closed on the leaders a furlong out in Wednesday's $100,000 P.G. Johnson Stakes for 2-year-old fillies at Saratoga and edged clear, winning by 1 3/4 lengths. Duff One and Miss Frost filled the trifecta. Granny Mc's Kitten, a Kitten's Joy filly from the band, got 1 1/16 miles on the grass in 1:42.07 under Javier Castellano. "I'm hoping she's still on the improve," said trainer Chad Brown.
In Wednesday racing: On Rainbow Bridge got home first in Wednesday's $200,000 (Canadian) Muskoka Stakes at Woodbine but was set down to second for interfering with Lexie Lou in the late going. Paladin Bay finished third. The 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track went in 1:16.87. Skye Chernetz was aboard the transgressor and Gary Boulanger was the beneficiary of the stewards' ruling. "She's a very nice filly," Boulanger said. "She showed a lot of guts today and she's learned how to relax and come from off the pace."
Three of the seven fillies entered for Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Del Mar Debutante are trained by Bob Baffert. The race is 7 furlongs on the all-weather course. Of Baffert's trio, Awesome Baby and Secret Compass are coming off maiden wins and Fascinating is yet a maiden after a pair of third-place showings. Likely favorite is Concave, an Ontario-bred daughter of Colonel John. She is 2-for-2, including a win in the Grade II Sorrento Stakes over the course. She's a Tiger was second in the Sorrento after two earlier wins. Sprouts has won three straight, two of those against fellow Cal-bred fillies.
Brazen Persuasion, winner of the Grade III Schuylerville earlier in the meeting is back for Sunday's $300,000, Grade I Spinaway Stakes at 7 furlongs at Saratoga. So are Bahnah, who finished second in the Schuylerville; Designer legs, winner by disqualification of the Grade II Adirondack; and a bunch of maiden winners including the Todd Pletcher duo of Stopchargingmaria and Sweet Whiskey. The latter is coming off one of the more memorable first starts of the meeting -- a 5 1/2-furlong effort clocked in 1:02.51 -- just 0.3 second off the track record. "Lived up to the hype," announcer Tom Durkin commented that day of the Old Fashioned filly.
Flay Mignon is not owned by Bobby Flay but she is the 121-pound highweight among nine entered for Sunday's $100,000 Sorority at Monmouth, going 6 furlongs . The New Jersey-bred filly has won both her starts, including the local Colleen Stakes, and gives 4 pounds or more to each rival. Yes Liz comes off a fourth-place finish in the Grade III Schuylerville at Saratoga.
On the turf, Monday's schedule includes the $100,000 Oak Tree Juvenile Fillies Turf at Del Mar.
Sunday's $300,000, Grade II Del Mar Derby, going 9 furlongs on the lawn, has a distinct Chicago flavor even though Dice Flavor and Den's Legacy were the exacta finish in the Grade II La Jolla Handicap three weeks ago. Infinite Magic is in from the east after winning the Grade III American Derby at Arlington Park. Play It Loud invades from New York after a second in the Grade III Hill Prince at Belmont. General Election was second in the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland and won the Grade III Arlington Classic but was nowhere in the American Derby. Arlington-based Dorsett was fifth in the American Derby and then journeyed to Minnesota to win the Mystic Lake Derby at Canterbury.
A field of seven, plus three entered for "main track only" signed on for Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Saranac for 3-year-olds at 9 furlongs on the Saratoga turf. Notacatbutallama and Battier, who were first and third in the recent Grade III National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes, are in the field with the former riding a three-race win skein. Frac Daddy showed little in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes but won his return race when switched to the grass just a week ago. If the race should come off the grass, watch for Micromanage, who finished third in the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth in his last outing.
Filly & Mare Turf
There are two major events at very different distances Monday in this division: The $150,000, Grade II Yellow Ribbon at 1 1/16 miles on the Del Mar Turf and the $150,000, Grade III Glens Falls Handicap going 11 furlongs at Saratoga.
Silver Max has had his ups and downs as trainer Dale Romans has experimented with surfaces for him. But Romans feels the 4-year-old Badge of Silver colt is ready to resume his turf dominance against six rivals in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the Saratoga turf. Silver Max comes off a dominating win in the Grade III Oceanport at Monmouth Park. "I think he's back, and he'll end up being one of the best turf horses in the country when the year is done," Romans said Wednesday. He also has the advantage of liking the early lead, while the others are late runners. However, Za Approval presents a problem, having run second to the dominating Obviously during a last-race visit to California for the Grade I Shoemaker Mile, albeit 3 1/4 lengths in arrears. Before that, the 5-year-old Ghostzapper gelding had two straight graded stakes wins.
Madame Giry sat behind the pace in Monday's $100,000 Smart and Fancy Stakes at Saratoga, moved up on the turn and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Rosa Salvaje. Lion Down by Me finished third. Madame Giry, a 4-year-0old Castledale filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:01.52 with Joe Rocco Jr. handling the reins.
Monday finds two rich 5-furlongs events at Parx Racing: the $350,000, Grade III Turf Monster Handicap and the $200,000 Turf Amazon Handicap for fillies and mares.
You get two good ones for the price of one in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Forego at 7 furlongs on the Saratoga main track. Justin Phillip and Fast Bullet run as a coupled entry as the even-money favorites with Sage Valley and Saratoga Snacks getting most of the rest of the early love. Fast Bullet, a 5-year-old son of Speightstown, has won four of his five career starts with a sixth-place misfire in last fall's Breeders' Cup Sprint the only blot. Justin Phillip finished fifth in that Breeders' Cup heat but since then has three wins in five starts, three of them graded stakes. He won the Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap over the course last time out. Jackson Bend won this race two years ago but was seventh last year. He can jump up and spring a surprise off some recent good works at Calder.
Other races already in the books:
Wednesday was Canadian Millions Sales Stakes Day. (All purses expressed in Canadian $$)
Welloiledmachine led from the start in Wednesday's $125,000 Halton Stakes and won by 2 3/4 lengths over Pender Harbour. Courtville finished third. Welloiledmachine, a 5-year-old Mobil gelding, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:37.51 under James McAleney.
Bear No Joke rallied by pacesetting favorite Black Hornet late in Wednesday's $125,000 Kenora Stakes and went on to win by 1 1/4 lengths over that one. Consolidator Joe was third and Bear's Chill completed the order of finish. Bear No Joke, a 5-year-old It's No Joke gelding, finished 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:09.00 with Eurico Da Silva up.
Good Better Best got the best of pacesetting favorite Ultimate Destiny in the stretch run of Wednesday's $125,000 Elgin Stakes, going by for a 1 1/2-lengths victory. Aldous Snow and Denim Bay completed the order of finish. Good Better Best, a 5-year-old son of Best of the Bests, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.35 for jockey Luis Contreras.
Logan's Peak stalked the pace in Wednesday's $125,000 Algoma Stakes for fillies and mares and got clear late to win by 2 lengths over Tea Game. Bear's Gem finished third. Logan's Peak, a 4-year-old Teufelsberg filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.71 with Da Silva in the irons.
Go Unbridled came around the leaders as the field turned for home in Monday's $100,000 Saratoga Dew Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares and got clear to win by 2 3/4 lengths. Lady on the Run and Mischief Maker filled the trifecta. Go Unbridled, a 6-year-old Unbridled Jet mare, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.68 with Junior Alvarado up.
News and notes:
When Granny Mc's Kitten won the P.G. Johnson Stakes on Wednesday, Ken and Sarah Ramsey established a Saratoga meeting owners' record with 19 victories. "I made a prediction," Ken Ramsey said. "I wanted to get to 20, and I'm going to hold to that ... I found out the record was 18, so I geared up and brought enough horses and claimed enough horses that I thought I could make it to 20. So, it's 19 down and one to go. We've got a horse in next race and the last race, so we could do it today." In the next race, the Ramseys' Sneaky Kitten finished second, beaten a neck. In the final race, their Present Course also finished second, beaten 2 1/4 lengths.
There was good news and not-so-good news for apprentice rider Heidi Rose in the first race at Arlington Park on Thursday. The good news: The 27-year-old scored her first career win by a nose aboard Silver Prince at odds of nearly 10-1. The not-so-good: After crossing the wire, the disrespectful winner tossed Rose and ran off, exiting the track at the mile gap. Neither horse nor rider was injured but Rose made her first winner's circle visit sans horse. "I will definitely never forget this one," Rose said.