A big weekend of turf racing includes not one but two St Legers and the reigning U.S. Horse of the Year back in action in Canada.
The original, British version of the St Leger, set for Saturday at Doncaster, dates to 1776. There's also a St Leger in Ireland 24 hours later. And, while Canada is the focus of North American turf attention, with Wise Dan entered for the $1 million Woodbine Mile, there are important grass races at Belmont, Arlington and Kentucky Downs, too.
We also have some results, including Fairmount Park's big stakes day and a 2-year-old Midnight Lute colt running for Bob Baffert and his merry band of owners out west.
Put the St Legers on hold for a second and turn north toward Toronto as we take a look at the North American greensward for the race of the week.
The Woodbine Mile
The 2012 U.S. Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, looks to keep up his march through the ranks of North American 1-mile turf races against a small field in Sunday's $1 million (Canadian) Ricoh Woodbine Mile. Wise Dan already has accounted for the Grade I Maker's Mark at Keeneland, the Grade I Turf Classic and the Grade II Firecracker Handicap at Churchill Downs and Saratoga's Grade II Fourstardave.
Among the five challengers is Excaper, who comes off a runner-up finish in Woodbine's Grade II Play the King. But Excaper seems satisfied with finishing second, having done so six times in stakes company, including the 2011 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
Dimension, who won the Play the King by 2 1/2 lengths over Excaper, also is in this field, as is Riding the River, who was a close third in that race. Also heading for the Woodbine Mile are New York-based Za Approval, coming off a second-place finish to Obviously in the Shoemaker Mile at Hollywood Park in June, and English invader Trade Storm. The latter posted two big wins in Dubai over the winter but was unable to break through in England.
Trainer Charles LoPresti has been fielding some criticism for keeping Wise Dan in grassy miles this year but pointed out the horse already has proved his versatility.
"People forget this horse won a Grade 1 on the dirt (the Clark Handicap), was second beaten a head in a Grade 1 on the dirt (the Stephen Foster Handicap) and he broke a track record on synthetic (the Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland)," LoPresti said.
"They also forget he won a Grade III sprinting on the synthetic (in the 2010 Phoenix, at Keeneland) ... At this point in time, I don't feel like I have to prove anything to anybody. I want to do what's right for my horse and what the owner wants to do. He pays the bills and we'll do what's right for him and the horse.
In addition to that headliner, here's what to look for during the weekend:
England & Ireland
Saturday's 237th running of the Group 1 Ladbrokes St Leger is the jewel of the four-day Doncaster festival and promises to be both a brilliant event in its own right and a potential look at the upcoming British Champions Day lineup. Although each has but a single win to his credit, Excess Knowledge and Galileo Rock are the favorites in a field of 11 3-year-olds set for the race, contested at just more than 1 3/4 miles. Galileo Rock finished second in the Group 1 Irish Derby in his last outing and third in the Epsom Derby before that. Excess Knowledge was second in the Group 3 Gordon Stakes at Goodwood in his last race. Three of the others are owned by Godolphin Racing, including Libertarian, who was purchased by Sheik Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum's racing juggernaut after finishing a fast-closing second in the Epsom Derby -- but was a sad eighth in the Irish Derby. Aidan O'Brien brings Milan, Brian Boru and Scorpion. Talent, the Oaks winner trained by Ralph Beckett, has been dropping on the bookmakers' line as the prospect improves for softer ground on the Doncaster course. Forty-one fillies have won the classic, including the first one -- unnamed at the time but later christened Allabaculia.
Saturday's Group 2 Park Stakes at 7 furlongs also merits note with the likes of Aljamaaheer, Red Jazz, Gregorian, and Caspar Netscher in the 11-horse field. And on the same card, the Group 2 Champagne Stakes for 2-year-olds attracted seven, including this week's "name of the week," The Gray Gatsby. Unaccountably, he is a chestnut son of Mastercraftsman. If you want a gray in this fray, pray go to Godolphin's starter, Outstrip, who is likely to be among the favorites.
On Sunday, the action switches to the Curragh near Dublin, where the Group 1 Irish St Leger for 3-year-olds and up will feature last year's winner, Royal Diamond, and Brown Panther, owned by British soccer star Michael Owen. The big field as of Thursday also included the likes of globetrotting Red Cadeaux, who won the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase last December at Sha Tin, finished second to Animal Kingdom in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup and finished third in the Group 1 Tenno Sho Spring at Kyoto in Japan. Also entered is Ernest Hemingway, who was third in the St Leger Trial over the course last month.
For the older males and 2-year-olds of both genders on the turf, forget about the coasts and turn your gaze to Ontario and the southernmost edge of Kentucky. Woodbine has two full days of world-class turf racing and Kentucky Downs adds four events, including its signature Kentucky Turf Cup.
Sunday's $300,000, Grade I Northern Dancer Turf at 1 1/2 miles over the sweeping Woodbine grass drew a relatively light field of seven. Forte Dei Marmi was third in this race last year behind Wigmore Hall and Al Khali and currently is riding a two-race winning streak in graded stakes over the course. Hampstead Heath finished second in two local graded stakes efforts. Stormy Len, the only 3-year-old in the field, comes off a second-place showing in the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park for trainer David "Slam" Donk.
On Saturday at Parx Racing, 11 and an also-eligible are signed on for the $250,000 PTHA President's Cup at 9 furlongs on the green course. The morning-line picks here are Change of Command, a cross-entered Hampstead Heath and Swift Warrior.
Saturday's $400,000, Grade III Kentucky Turf Cup is run at 1 1/2 miles on the testing, European-style course along the Kentucky-Tennessee border. Nine are entered with the morning-line favorites Temeraine, Najjaar, Suntracer and Side Road. Temeraine was a big price when trainer Tom Proctor ambitiously placed him in the Grade I Arlington Million last time out, where he ran out of ground for his late run, finishing fifth but beaten only about 5 lengths. The 4-year-old Arch gelding seems to be on the upswing. Suntracer and Najjaar come off second- and third-place finishes in the 1 11/16-miles American St. Leger on Million day. (Arlington, unlike the British and Irish, uses the punctuation mark). Side Road was second behind Hyper in the John's Call Stakes at 1 5/8 miles at Saratoga in his last race.
If you're liking the turf sprinters, look no farther than Saturday's $150,000 Kentucky Downs Turf Dash at 6 furlongs. There's a very competitive field of 12 with an also-eligible so be ready to bet with both hands.
And for the turf milers, it's the $150,000 Franklin-Simpson Mile at Kentucky Downs, which earlier was known as Dueling Grounds. Coalport, The Pizza Man, Trend and several others are hard to separate in this 11-horse tussle.
The Kentucky Downs programs this week and last, by the way, are the last vestige of the late and very much lamented Kentucky Cup program. That innovative effort at Turfway Park in northern Kentucky fell victim to the economics of that state's racing and Turfway this year lost its fall meeting to Churchill Downs. In its heyday, the Kentucky Cup produced viable Breeders' Cup contenders in nearly all divisions.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Garden City at Belmont Park found 11 3-year-old fillies to tackle 9 grassy furlongs. Heading the field are Discreet Marq, Emollient and Alterite. Discreet Marq won two grassy stakes at Belmont, including the Grade II Sands Point, then journeyed west and took down the Grade I Del Mar Derby over the seaside grass. Emollient comes off a win in the 1 1/4-miles, Group 1 American Oaks at Belmont after a disappointing try in the Group 1 Black Eyed Susan on the Pimlico dirt course. Alterite comes directly from France, where she finished second in the Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary at Longchamp in May, then sixth in the Prix Diane, or French Oaks, in June. Chad Brown takes over training duties. There are plenty of other choices in this field, making for some great wagering opportunities.
Three-year-old fillies also are featured in Saturday's $175,000, Grade III Pucker Up Stakes on the sun-kissed Arlington Park grass. A nicely balanced field of eight is signed on for the 9 furlongs. Among them are I'm Already Sexy and I O Ireland, the upset winners of the two divisions of the Hatoof Stakes on Arlington Million day. Some Hatoof also-rans are in the field, notably Frivolous, who finished second in the Grade III Arlington Oaks before disappointing on the track's biggest day. A rebound here could put her back in the mix for some big races in the near future.
Older distaffers tackle 1 mile of Belmont turf in Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Noble Damsel Handicap with Better Lucky and Hungry Island the heavy morning-line favorites among six. Those two finished second and third behind Stephanie's Kitten in the Grade I Just A Game Stakes at Belmont in June. However, Hungry Island hasn't won since she opened her season with an allowance victory in April at Keeneland. Better Lucky remains winless in two starts this year. Among the others, Assateague has two straight wins against lesser foes.
Solid Appeal disappointed in the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington Park, finishing sixth. But before that, the 4-year-old Successful Appeal filly won three straight races to open her season, two of them at Woodbine. She's back home for Sunday's $300,000, Grade II Canadian, for fillies and mares at 9 furlongs and facing an interesting mix of eight rivals. Ladys First makes her first start outside England, where she has been running well and most recently won a Group 3 event at Sandown. Meri Shika is just off the plane from France where she found some success at the middle levels. La Tia comes from Arlington Park, where the Illinois-bred finished fifth in the Beverly D. last time out.
Saturday's $150,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile, at 7 furlongs, picked up eight entries. Morning-line favorite Here's Johnny, a Colonel John colt, is one of trainer Wesley Ward's intercontinental projects. He won at first asking in June at Churchill Downs, then finished a credible fourth when Ward packed him over to France for the listed Prix De La Valle D'Auge at Deauville's prestigious meeting just a month ago. He finished fourth there, beaten less than 2 lengths. If he's jet lagged, look to Boji Moon, who won both his previous starts at Prairie Meadows, including the Iowa Cradle Stakes, or School On a Hill -- but see the next item.
Asserting Bear and Tropic of Artie are the favorites for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Natalma Stakes at Woodbine at 1 mile. That duo finished 1-2 in their last race, just a head apart, at Woodbine. Wayne Catalano cross-entered School On a Hill from Arlington, where the Student Council colt won at first asking last month.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
Ready To Act is favored for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Natalma Stakes at Woodbine at 1 mile off a victory in her first start at Saratoga. Should she falter, Springlike a Cobra will be ready to strike off a victory in a local maiden effort.
Nine are set for Saturday's $150,000 Kentucky Downs Juvenile Fillies at 7 furlongs. With no strong favorite -- and the way things are going for the owners and sire -- why not lean on Lien on Kitten, who comes off a first-out win at Arlington Park?
Filly & Mare Sprint
In the "already run" department: Groupie Doll got a somewhat tardy start in Monday's $400,000, Grade II Presque Isle Downs Masters, then was fanned five-wide around the turn and still got home first, edging by Purely Hot late to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Judy the Beauty finished third. Groupie Doll, a 5-year-old Bowman's Band mare, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in course-record time of 1:14.88 with Rajiv Maragh in the irons. Last year, Groupie Doll won five straight races, including this one and culminating in a victory in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. Since then, she had been winless in two previous starts.
"She might be even better than last year," Maragh said in a post-race interview on TVG. "She's definitely not slower."
Winning trainer Buff Bradley said she will have one more prep for the Breeders' Cup -- the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keeneland Oct. 5.
Other races you can't bet on anymore:
The downstate Illinois oval celebrated its biggest stakes day on Tuesday, one day before a depressing meeting of the Illinois Racing Board considered potential cutbacks for the 2014 schedule. The races, each worth $50,000, were for Illinois-breds and the track was fast.
Entrymates Work All Week and Signsealndeliver finished 1-2 in the Tex's Zing, with Work All Week covering 6 furlongs in 1:09.60 under Francisco Torrez. River Bear was third and My Fever, owned by former Illinois Gov. Jim Edgar, stumbled at the start and got home last of seven. Edgar is a bigger player in the Standardbred game. Win'em All was elevated to the win in the 6-furlongs Lady Riss when Missjeanlouise was set down to third for interference early in the race.
Solar Flare rallied past pacesetting favorite Bad Boy Peter late to take the Troy Our Boy Stakes for 2-year-olds by 3/4 length. Sasy Ms Elizabeth dominated the All Sold Out Stakes for 2-year-old fillies, winning by 5 1/2 lengths over Prairie Vista.
Our Domain won the 1 mile and 70 yards Bungalow Stakes for fillies and mares by 2 lengths over Diva's Diamond. Love Bandit snuck by late to land the Pete Condellone Memorial, also at 1 mile and 70 yards, by 1 length over Nagys Piggy Bank.
Roundupthlute rallied by pacesetting favorite Echo Zulu in the stretch run of Wednesday's $50,000 C.B. Afflerbaugh Stakes for 2-year-old and went on to win by 2 lengths over that rival. Brighton Star was third. Roundupthelute, a Kentucky-bred colt by Midnight Lute out of the A.P. Indy mare In Secure, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.97. Martin Garcia rode for trainer Bob Baffert and one of his top ownership teams so Roundupthelute is likely one to watch.