The question of the weekend in Thoroughbred racing: Is Game On Dude really back on his game, or was his Santa Anita Handicap win just a fluke?
Meanwhile, there's the Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Racecourse, with Midnight Hawk representing the Chicago Blackhawks' brain trust, and Kauai Katie and Emollient make their 4-year-old debuts in the Distaff division.
Internationally, there's a new deal on the all-weather in England; the Satsuki Sho, or Japanese 2,000 Guineas at Nakayama Racecourse could define a budding star; and Carlton House could land an Australian Group 1 named for his owner. Can you guess who?
Starting at the top, is Game on Dude back on his game, dude?
The Classic Division
The next test for the Bob Baffert-trained, 7-year-old gelding is Saturday's $1.5 million, Grade II Charles Town Classic, with $1 million going to the winner. Game On Dude, by Awesome Again, was a question mark after he ran ninth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Classic. He rebounded with a second-place finish, just a head behind Will Take Charge, in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs later that month but then produced a dull, fifth-place showing in the Grade II San Antonio at Santa Anita in his 2014 debut. That was before last month's Santa Anita Handicap -- the "Big Cap". In the San Antonio, Baffert said, "He got tired and I thought that race would set him up for the next one. So I honed in on him. I used that as a steppingstone to the Big Cap. At the three-eighths pole when those horses came to him, for a split second I said, 'If they engulf him, we're watching Game on Dude's last race ever.' My wife, who loves him, put her head down and said, 'I can't watch.' I said, 'He's not done! He's kicking on!' and she picked her head back up." Game On Dude won by 1 3/4 lengths over Will Take Charge with Mucho Macho Man a fading fourth. Saturday, he will have to cope with Moreno, who was scratched from last weekend's Oaklawn Handicap in favor of this and likely will be a pace factor. When Game On Dude collected $1 million in this race last year, he let Percussion set the early pace and caught him in the late going so a repeat of that scenario is not impossible. Moreno has not raced since fading to finish 10th in the Breeder's Cup Classic after leading early. Clubhouse Ride also comes from California with multiple graded stakes placings but seldom wins. The other four look to be contesting minor awards, which, in this race, aren't so minor.
The favorites drew inside and outside in a 10-horse field for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Ben Ali Stakes over the Keeneland all-weather course. Newsdad makes his third start after a long vacation and comes off a win in the Grade II Pan American, going 1 1/2 miles on the Gulfstream Park turf. He started No. 9 of 10 in that event and drew No. 10 for this 1 1/8-miles heat on the all-weather course. Norumbega, who drew the rail, comes off a second-place effort in the Grade III Skip Away at 1 3/16 miles on the Gulfstream Park main course.
Saturday's $500,000, Grade III Illinois Derby at Hawthorne Race Course is headlined by Midnight Hawk, whose top local credential may not be his race record but, rather, his ownership team. That group includes Chicago Blackhawks Coach Joel Quenneville and his assistant, Mike Kitchen, as well as Chicago Bears Offensive Coordinator Mike Tice -- all mighty popular figures among Windy City sports fans. Churchill Downs, in its wisdom, does not include the Illinois Derby as an official Kentucky Derby prep race, so participants are more likely to resurface in the Preakness Stakes in Baltimore, rather than at Churchill Downs. Trained by Bob Baffert, Midnight Hawk has chased the top West Coast 3-year-olds, including likely Kentucky Derby favorite California Chrome, with limited success. Martin Garcia will ride. Rosie Napravnik will visit the Chicago suburbs to ride King Cyrus. Others of note in the 1 1/8-mile test are Dynamic Impact and Class Leader.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Coolmore Lexington Stakes at Keeneland is a Kentucky Derby qualifier. But it's only worth 10 points to the winner and, therefore, is unlikely to affect the lineup in the Run for the Roses. The morning-line favorites in a field of 11 are Mr Speaker, who has been at his best on the lawn, and Divine Oath, who is 2-for-2, with both starts coming over the Gulfstream Park grass.
Kauai Katie has not raced since she finished sixth in the Grade I Prioress last July but makes her return Saturday in the $200,000 Grade II Prioress at Aqueduct. Kauai Katie won her first three starts as a juvenile but then tired when stretched out for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, finishing fourth. She won the first three starts last season, then stumbled at the start of the Grade I Acorn at Belmont Park, finishing third. She then was last of six in the Prioress. "She has been feeling great in the mornings," said Byron Hughes, assistant to trainer Todd Pletcher. "This is a difficult spot. But she's a very high-quality filly and we think she's capable of competing at any level." La Verdad is the morning-line favorite among seven entered. She has won six of her last seven starts but steps up in class.
Emollient also makes her 4-year-old debut this weekend, in Friday's $100,000, Grade III Hilliard Lyons Doubledogdare Stakes at Keeneland. The Empire Maker filly won three Grade I events last season -- the Ashland and the Spinster over the Keeneland all-weather and the American Oaks over the Hollywood Park all-weather surface. She was unplaced in five efforts over real dirt. With Hollywood Park closed and Keeneland returning to a dirt surface for the fall, Emollient's future should include Arlington Park. Friday's rivals include Dixie Strike, Sisterly Love, Strathnaver, Ire and Solid Appeal.
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Sixty Sails Handicap at Hawthorne attracted a nicely balanced field of eight distaffers to go 9 furlongs. Flashy American, Sonja's Angel, Gamay Noir and Ana Louisa all are at short odds on the morning line while Dixie Strike is cross-entered for Friday's Keeneland feature.
My Pal Chrisy and Solid Success are the morning-line favorites among 10 set for Saturday's $200,000 Sugar Maple at 7 furlongs at Charles Town. My Pal Chrisy has been a consistent stakes performer in Florida for trainer Marty Wolfson but exits the Sunshine State for the first time in nearly two years, when she ran fifth in the Doubledogdare at Keeneland.
An overflow field is set for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Miami Mile at Calder Race Course. Summer Front won this race last year but comes off a dull effort in the Grade I Gulfstream Park Turf Handicap. The field also includes Hey Leroy, winner of the Grade III Appleton Stakes at Gulfstream in his last trip; Dad'z Laugh, who shows four straight runner-up finishes; and the persistent Travelin Man.
Friday is the inaugural "All-Weather Championship Finals" at Lingfield in England, capping a winter-long program designed to expand the definition of British racing. The program includes seven races, ranging from an apprentice handicap with a purse of 50,000 pounds sterling to the Coral Easter Classic All-Weather Middle-Distance Championships Conditions Stakes (fit that into a headline!) at 1 1/4 miles for 200,000 pounds. Total purse money is 1 million pounds. Grandeur and Robin Hoods Bay renew a rivalry in that headline race.
Eighteen colts and one filly are nominated to Sunday's Group 1 Satsuki Sho at Nakayama. A lot is expected from To the World, if only from his breeding. The colt is by King Kamehameha out of To the Victory, who finished second in the 2001 Dubai World Cup before returning to Japan to capture the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup. To the World has won four of his five starts and will be on a rise toward stardom with a good showing in the Satsuki Sho. The race also includes several young 3-year-olds who have blossomed relatively recently, adding an air of uncertainty to the 2,000-meters turf test.
Carlton House faces nine Group 1 winners set for Saturday's Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes at Randwick. Nonetheless, the 6-year-old son of Street Cry, owned by Her Majesty the Queen, is a viable choice while coming off a heartbreaking loss to Silent Achiever in the Group 1 Ranvet Stakes at Rosehill a month ago. "To win Her Majesty's race with Her Majesty's horse? It wouldn't get any better. He'll be right there," said trainer Gai Waterhouse, who has yet to coax a win from the royal steed. To achieve the goal this time, Carlton House will have to reverse the short-head decision to Silent Achiever and also cope with the likes of It's A Dundeel, Boban and Green Moon. Of note: My Kingdom of Fyfe, a 9-year-old, formerly was owned by Her Majesty and campaigned in England by trainer Sir Michael Stoute. He would be a surprise here, though. The Queen Elizabeth tops a rich day of racing at the Australian venue.