The first of two big Breeders' Cup prep weekends features a great lineup of stars at Belmont Park, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs.
Other races as far afield as Oklahoma and Ontario could produce Breeders' Cup contenders. Eleven weekend events are "Win and You're In" races, guaranteeing a spot in, and financial assistance to, the "World Championship" events.
After the following weekend's doings at Keeneland, Santa Anita, Belmont, Hawthorne, Woodbine and Indiana Downs, we should have a pretty good idea of who's who and what's what for the big races at Santa Anita on the first two days in November.
In Japan Sunday the Group 1 Sprinters Stakes, another leg in the Global Sprint Challenge, is a good test whether Lord Kanaloa again will be a force in Asia's remaining 2013 sprints after his second-place finish in the Centaur Stakes last time out.
Europe also has a few interesting heats, looking forward a week to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and its attendant races at Longchamp.
It's virtually an all-star cast for Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, a 1 1/4-miles "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Among the eight entrants are Kentucky Derby winner Orb, Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice, Woodward winner Alpha, Whitney winner Cross Traffic and 2012 Stephen Foster and Santa Anita Handicap winner Ron the Greek. And that doesn't even count Flat Out, who will be trying to land the Gold Cup for the third straight year -- a feat accomplished previously only by Kelso.
"I'd say it's a very strong renewal," said Todd Pletcher, who will saddle Palace Malice, Cross Traffic and Brazilian import Vitoria Olimpica, who comes off a win at the Spa. Rounding out the field is Last Gunfighter -- 10-1 on the morning line despite winning seven of his last eight races including three graded stakes. Don't miss this one.
Then switch to Pacific time for Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, a 9-furlong race that's also a "Win and You're In." On paper, this doesn't look as awesome as the Gold Cup since Game On Dude is taking the day off. But there are some interesting prospects, including Bob Baffert's project, Paynter. He's by Awesome Again and had his comeback from a near-fatal illness sidetracked by a fifth-place finish when Baffert sent him east for the Grade I Woodward at Saratoga. He's back home. Baffert also saddles Liaison and Take Control, the latter making just his fourth career start. Others to watch in the competitive field: Golden Ticket, You Know I Know, Jeranimo, and Mucho Macho Man, who ran a close second to Fort Larned over the course in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic and looks dangerously due.
Churchill Downs' new fall meeting features the equally new Homecoming Classic, a $175,000 event that attracted defending Breeders' Cup Classic winner Fort Larned as part of a seven-horse field. The 9-furlong race goes Saturday night. Fort Larned, a 5-year-old son of E Dubai, has not had a very satisfying campaign so far in 2013 with only a single win to his credit. But that win did come in the Grade I Stephen Foster over the Churchill Downs strip and trainer Ian Wilkes said the horse "can do" after a 5-furlongs work Monday.
"The horse is ready. He finished up good, got home good and galloped out strong," Wilkes said. "We're ready to go."
He said he elected against a trip to New York for the Jockey Club Gold Cup because "we don't have to ship. The ultimate goal is to get to the Breeders' Cup." Rivals Saturday include Prayer for Relief, Pool Play and Golden Ticket so it's no walkover.
Sunday's $400,000, Grade III Oklahoma Derby at 9 furlongs features Departing, trying for his third derby victory after the Grade III Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course and the Grade II West Virginia Derby. But trainer Al Stall Jr. said the Remington Park event will be Departing's last start of the year. The gelding, he said, might be considered for the Breeders' Cup next year. The competition has lesser credentials although Broadway Empire did win the Grade III Canadian Derby at Northlands Park in his last start. Cameo Appearance finished third in the Grade II Super Derby. If bling is your thing, an exacta box involving Texas Bling and He Has Bling should return a handy profit in the unlikely event the others falter.
How about a showdown between the reigning older mare and the leading candidate to be 3-year-old filly champ? That's the storyline for Saturday's $400,000,Grade I Beldame at Belmont Park, another of those "Win and You're In" doohickies at 9 furlongs. Royal Delta finished second in this race two years ago, and then went on to win the Breeders' Cup Distaff and the Eclipse Award. Last year, she won the Beldame, the Breeders' Cup and the Eclipse Award. And, in her last two races, she won the Grade I Delaware Handicap by 10 3/4 lengths and the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga by 4 1/2 lengths, virtually eased at the end.
"Royal Delta is going well," said soft-spoken trainer Bill Mott. "I would say she's on the same path she was last year."
On the other hand, Princess of Sylmar is no slouch, either, and Pletcher throws the winner of the Kentucky Oaks, Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama against older rivals with hope as much as faith. He said the 3-year-old won't alter her style to chase Royal Delta in the early furlongs.
"What we've got to hope," he said, "is in the last eighth of a mile, the last 16th of a mile, Royal Delta Comes back to us a little bit."
Centring, Lady Cohiba, And Why Not and Roman Invader complete the field. This should be fun to watch.
Before we hand the 3-year-old filly title to Princess of Sylmar, let's keep an eye on Beholder, who is one of the featured attractions in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Zenyatta Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita. This is year another Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In." Beholder won last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. And she won the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks before finishing second in the Kentucky Oaks, just 1/2 length in arrears of Princess of Sylmar. Pletcher sends Authenticity west for this one after a second-place finish behind Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign, which is a pretty good credential. Joyful Victory won the Grade I Santa Margarita over the track in a raid from Kentucky in March and returns for another bite of the apple. Flashy American has won four of her last five races. Joyful Victory was victorious in the Grade II Molly Pitcher at Monmouth in her last race.
Marathon Lady looks like the real deal in Sunday's $200,000 Remington Park Oaks at 1 1/16 miles. The Graeme Hall filly boasts recent thirds in the Grade I Mother Goose and Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks. A repeat of those efforts should be enough against the six rivals in this heat.
They won't have to contend any further with the winner of last weekend's $400,000 Charles Town Oaks, So Many Ways. The filly was sold after that race by owner Maggi Moss to Katsumi Yoshida of Northern Farms in Hokkaido, Japan, and apparently is off to a breeding career. Moss said the filly will "live a life fit for the queen that she is."
Ten are entered for Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational at Belmont Park, 1 1/2 miles, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Turf. The field includes two coupled entries, including the morning-line favorite, Big Blue Kitten, who runs three-for-one with Real Solution and a rabbit, Joes Blazing Aaron. Big Blue Kitten finished second to Boisterous in the Grade II Monmouth Stakes in June and will have to contend with that rival again. But, in the interim, the 5-year-old son of Kitten's Joy has won the Grade I United Nations at Monmouth and the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga. Boisterous, with whom you also get Imagining, won the Grade I Man 'o War, but then finished eighth in the Sword Dancer and third in the Grade II Bowling Green at Belmont three weeks ago. Don't overlook Real Solution, who won the Grade I Arlington Million by the disqualification of The Apache. Little Mike, winner of last year's Arlington Million and Breeders' Cup Turf, probably will be contesting the lead with Joes Blazing Aaron -- not a formula likely reap reward for the backers of either. The three-horse entry is owned by Ken and Sarah Ramsey and recent experience shows ignoring them to the tough on the bankroll. A bit of a wild card is Slumber, who was very competitive in England last year. After a long rest, he won two tough optional claimers at Saratoga with authority and should be running well late.
Fourteen are set to go 1 1/4 miles in Sunday's $150,000, Grade II John Henry Turf Championship at Santa, a race named for the first winner of the Arlington Million -- among many other top stakes. The fascinating cast includes the first four finishers from last month's Grade II Del Mar Handicap at 1 3/8 miles -- Vagabond Shoes, Lucayan, Huntsville and Old Time Hockey. Others include Teaks North, Kettle Corn, Tale of a Champion and Slim Shadey.
Daddy Nose Best may be the most recognizable name in Sunday's $100,000 Remington Green Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. He comes off two straight wins on the turf at Indiana Downs and Remington and will face seven aspirants.
Filly & Mare Turf
Laughing has won three straight races, all graded stakes, coming into Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Flower Bowl Invitational at 1 1/4 miles at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Her seven rivals include Tannery, who finished fourth against males in the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga. The others have lesser credential and since Laughing and Tannery are running as an entry, this could be a single on many multiple-wager tickets. An outsider is Qushchi, who could be a sleeper for trainer H. Graham Motion, at least at the bottom of a ticket.
Marketing Mix, second behind Zagora in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf, returns for Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Rodeo Drive Stakes at Santa Anita. The 1 1/4-miles test is a "Win and You're In" for this year's Breeders' Cup. After winning two straight Grade I events at Hollywood Park, Marketing Mix checked in fourth in the Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington Park in August. Tiz Flirtatious has never finished off the board in 11 starts against quality rivals and has a pair of Grade II wins to her credit. Lady of Shamrock was fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup and is winless in three tries since April but is a contender. My Gi Gi has a bad case of "third-itis" in recent starts. Watch out for Starstruck, an Irish-bred and Irish-raced filly who comes off a win in the Grade III Matchmaker at Monmouth. Rosie Napravnik is due to ride for trainer Larry Jones and they aren't traveling to enjoy the smog.
Redwood Kitten and General Election are among the likely ones in Saturday night's Grade III Jefferson Cup for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs. Redwood Kitten boasts a third-place finish in the Grade II Del Mar Derby and General Election won the Grade III Arlington Classic. Nine are set to go. The race will be contested at 1 mile for the first time in its history as part of the reshaped fall schedule under the Twin Spires. Absent from last year's schedule, it previously was run during the spring meeting. The Saturday night card is billed as "Homecoming Dance: A Night to Remember," which is this week's "name of the week."
Twelve are entered for Saturday's $70,000 Unzip Me Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita. It's neither graded nor a big pot but it's down the hillside turf course where the Breeders' Cup Sprint will be staged. It's like the old David Letterman bit, "Is This Anything?"
Last year's winner, The Lumber Guy, returns in a deep field of eight for Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Vosburgh Invitational at Belmont Park, a 6-furlongs "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. The Lumber Guy, a 4-year-old Grand Slam colt, finished second to Trinniberg in the Breeders' Cup last fall, disappointed in the Grade II San Carlos at Santa Anita in February and then was off until he finished second in a tightener at Saratoga last month.
"We just want to get over there and win," said trainer Mike Hushion. "And, more important, win next time."
He is far from the favorite, facing Grade I winners Justin Phillip and Strapping Groom, along with other graded stakes winners. The morning-line favorite is Forty Tales, who won three straight graded stakes before finishing fourth in the Grade I King's Bishop at Saratoga in August after getting caught in traffic.
Sunday's $150,000 Remington Park Sprint Cup at 6 furlongs got an interesting mix of eight.
Seven are on board for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Kelso Invitational at 1 mile at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Graydar, a 4-year-old son of Unbridled's Song, hasn't raced since March. But, before going to the sidelines, he won the Grade I Donn Handicap at Gulfstream Park and the Grade II New Orleans Handicap. He shortens up for this off some steady works for Pletcher at Saratoga and, more recently, at Belmont. Jackson Bend was second this race two years ago and comes off a second-place showing in the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga behind Strapping Groom, who goes Saturday in the Vosburgh. Hymn Book has three seconds from three starts this year for trainer Shug McGaughey. The others need to kick it up a notch.
Eleven are set for Saturday's $250,000, Grade I FrontRunner Stakes at 1 1/16 miles at Santa Anita, a "Win and You're In." Roundupthelute won the C.B. Afflerbaugh Stakes at Fairplex. Tamarando won the Grade I Del Mar Futurity for his second straight victory and Dance With Fate was second in that heat. Ontology finished second in the Oak Tree Juvenile on the grass.
Wired Bryan hopes to turn things around in Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Futurity at Belmont Park after winning the Grade II Sanford at Saratoga, then finishing second in the Grade II Saratoga Special and fifth in the Grade I Hopeful. Corfu won the Saratoga Special, then finished ninth in the 7-furlongs Hopeful. The Futurity is a 6-furlongs event. Mayor Bloomberg's favorite horse, Big Sugar Soda, is in here, too.
Eight are set to face the starter in Saturday's $250,000, Grade I Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita, going 1 1/16 miles in another "Win and You're In." She's a Tiger and Fascinating got home 1-2, just a half-length apart, in the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and meet again.
Seven are entered for Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Matron Stakes at Belmont Park at 6 furlongs. Miss Behavior is undefeated in two starts including the Sorority Stakes at Monmouth.
Sunday's Group 1 Sprinters Stakes at Nakayama Racecourse will be closely watched to see whether Lord Kanaloa can bounce back from a loss to Hakusan Moon in his last start, which apparently was a needed seasonal prep. Hakusan Moon is back for more, as is Grand Prix Boss, who is cutting back to 1,200 meters from his more frequent 1,600-meters trip. This is the eighth leg of the Global Sprint Challenge but even should Lord Kanaloa win, he's unlikely to pick up enough other wins to land the $1 million bonus. The 5-year-old son of King Kamehameha has 11 wins, five seconds and one third from 17 career starts. Last December, he landed the Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint, which normally is the preserve of the Sha Tin home team.
Speaking of the Global Sprint Challenge, Hong Kong's champion sprinter, Lucky Nine, is in Australia. There, he's expected to tackle the Group 1 Manikato Stakes at Moonee Valley Oct. 25 and the Group 1 Patinack Farm Classic at Flemington Nov. 2. The latter is the penultimate leg in the GSC. Should he add that title to his earlier win in the Group 1 KrisFlyer Sprint at Kranji in Singapore, Lucky Nine could qualify for the $1 million bonus with a victory in the Group 1 Hong Kong Sprint at Sha Tin Dec. 9.
"He's certainly strengthened up and he looks the part," said trainer Caspar Fownes. "He looks like he's gone up a touch more so it's exciting times ahead."
They're going great guns at Newmarket this weekend with a full slate of events across the divisions. Friday's Group 1 is the Shadwell Fillies Mile for 2-year-olds, with eight left in, including Godolphin's Ihtimal, a Shamardal filly seeking her third straight win as the general favorite. In Friday's Group 2 Nayef Joel Stakes at 1 mile, a well-matched field of seven includes Mike De Kock's trainee Soft Falling Rain, who is making only his second start since winning the Group 2 Godolphin Mile on World Cup night in March. He finished second at Newbury in his comeback effort. Montridge, Guest of Honor and Penitent also figure in this one. Sky Lantern and Elusive Kate head a seven-horse field for the Group 1 Kingdom of Bahrain Sun Chariot Stakes on Saturday. Eight 2-year-old fillies are entered for Saturday's Group 1 Connolly's Red Mills Cheveley Park Stakes.
Insomniacs can take a break from counting sheep to sort through the 35 horses still listed for Saturday's Betfred Cambridgeshire.