Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome drew comfortably in gate No. 3 for Saturday's Preakness Stakes and is the overwhelming favorite to win the second jewel of the U.S. Triple Crown.
The Preakness heads a sparkling weekend of racing at Pimlico, which also finds full cards of stakes races on both Friday and Saturday.
Internationally, American flag-bearer Si Sage takes on an international cast in Sunday's Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji, with the Group 1 KrisFlyer International Sprint on the same card. Sunday also has the Group 1 Victoria Mile for fillies and mares at Tokyo Racecourse in Japan and American transplant Verrazano making his first start in England for Aidan O'Brien.
Not to be overlooked: Kauai Katies back in action at Belmont Park on Saturday and a couple nifty turf miles: the Grade II American Stakes at Santa Anita and the Grade III Red Bank Stakes at Monmouth Park, both on Saturday.
First, tear your attention away from the crab cakes and NatBo beer and focus on that Preakness.
The Triple Crown trail
Nine rivals will try to prevent California Chrome from taking the next step toward becoming the first Triple Crown winner since Affirmed in 1978. Victor Espinoza will start the Lucky Pulpit colt from gate 3 in the $1.5 million, Grade I Preakness, which should be no problem for his stalking style. The Pimlico morning line has California Chrome at 2-5 to advance to the Belmont with a chance to make history. The track program will show Social Inclusion, at 5-1, the only other starter at single-digit odds even though he has only three previous starts and finished third in the Grade I Wood memorial. The filly Ria Antonia, who won last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, also is in the field after running eighth in the Kentucky Oaks. She is on her third trainer in less than a year, one of whom was Bob Baffert, who will start Bayern on Saturday. Bayern finished third in the Grade I Arkansas Derby, then finished first in the Grade III Derby Trial at Churchill Downs, only to be set down to second.. Pablo Del Monte, Dynamic Impact, General a Rod and Ride On Curlin all have had their moments but, on form, none are in the same class as California Chrome. If there are issues, they would be the typical Triple Crown concerns: Too much racing in too short a time and the relative immaturity of the still-developing 3-year-olds. Trainer Art Sherman says California Chrome is fit and ready to run. And his son and assistant trainer, Alan Sherman, said after a leisurely tour of the track Tuesday the colt looked fine. But, after his Derby win, the elder Sherman said he hates to run any of his horses, event the cheap claimers, back on such short rest. And, should he win Saturday, it's only another three weeks until the Belmont Stakes.
The entire Kentucky Oaks field, including the winner, Untapable, is passing up Friday's $500,000, Grade II Black-Eyed Susan Stakes, leaving a field of 11 "new shooters" to contest the 9-furlongs event. Stopchargingmaria won a pair of graded stakes last year but hasn't hit the board in two previous starts as a 3-year-old. Nonetheless, she is the morning-line favorite. Euphrosyne, Sloane Square, America, Arathusa and Shanon Nicole all merit attention in what promises to be an interesting heat. The only one of the bunch who won a stakes race in her last previous start is Joint Return, who starts from the rail after taking the Calder Oaks a month ago.
Friday's $300,000, Grade III Pimlico Special at 1 3/16 miles, features the horses who ran second, third and fourth behind Will Take Charge in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap -- Revolutionary, Carve and Prayer for Relief -- as well as Moreno, who finished third behind Imperative and Game On Dude in the Grade II Charles Town Classic. Worth noting is Major King, who makes his second North American start after shipping from Korea, a jurisdiction which is making great strides in its racing and breeding. Major King, so far, hasn't been much of an ambassador as he ran sixth, beaten 40 lengths, in his local debut over the Pimlico course last month.
Don't miss Friday's $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint, if only to catch 8-year-old Ben's Cat, who has won two of the last three runnings and become something of a local legend for trainer King Leatherbury. The Parker's Storm Cat gelding is edging close to $2 million in earnings and seeks his 26th win in his 39th career start.
Saturday's Preakness undercard includes a raft of stakes. The $400,000, Grade II Dixie on the turf has the consistent Hey Leroy, Charming Kitten and Up With the Birds among 10 set to go 1 1/16 miles. The $150,000, Grade III Gallorette Handicap for fillies and mares features Soimali Lemonade, a recent Keeneland winner after a short freshening, as well as British-bred Strathnaver and Irish-bred Watsdachances -- all of who would seem to have reasonable chances.
This is a division to watch this year, especially as it could culminate in a Breeders' Cup showdown between two-time U.S. Horse of the Year Wise Dan and South African Champion and recent Dubai and Hong Kong winner Variety Club. Who else might join that hoped-for party?
There are several candidates in Saturday's $100,000, Grade II American Stakes over the Santa Anita greensward. Winning Prize is 2-for-2 already this year, both races graded stakes. In the Grade I Kilroe Mile, beating some good ones. Obviously, now 6, is making his first start since finishing up the track to Wise Dan in the Breeders' Cup for the second time. The other five still have something to prove at this level.
The field for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Red Bank Stakes at Monmouth Park includes a bunch of aging veterans who look unlikely to rise to the top of the ranks. Among the relative youngsters, Winning Cause, a 4-year-old Giant's Causeway colt, has shown promise for trainer Todd Pletcher while bouncing from turf to the all-weather course at Keeneland and Midnight Cello has had his moments in Florida. Slim Shadey, a 6-year-old warrior, has lots of back class, mostly at longer distances, but hasn't been up to snuff for a while now.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Kauai Katie returned from a nine-months absence to finish second in the Grade II Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct last month and now bounces back in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Vagrancy Handicap at Belmont Park. The 4-year-old Malibu Moon filly faces just five rivals. Of those, Five Star Momma has two in-the-money finishes at Gulfstream Park in her last two starts. The others show more modest resumes.
Defending Champion Military Attack on Thursday drew gate No. 10 for Sunday's Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup while stablemate Dan Excel, last year's runner-up, got Gate No. 1. "If I could swap them around, then I would," said Hong Kong-based trainer John Moore. "Dan Excel has good gate speed, so gate 10 would have been less of a problem. It's going to test Military Attack. If he can get three deep with cover, in midfield, I'll be a happy man. He won this race very easily last year and I still think he's the one to beat." Si Sage, the first American horse to contest the race in nine years, drew gate No. 4 and trainer Darrell Vienna said he was happy with that. "He can run either forward or from the back and I suspect he'll be on the pace," said Vienna, fresh from a flight from Los Angeles. Mull of Killough, fifth last year for England, drew the No. 3 gate but Limario, a German-bred who has competed in Dubai, was saddled with the No. 12 stall. Limario's trainer, Doug Watson, got Post Position No. 12 with Meandre and finished ninth. "I can't believe this. We got No. 12 again. It's not ideal," Watson lamented. Japan's entry, Tokei Halo, drew No. 9. He was second in last December's Group 1 Hong Kong Cup at Sha Tin.
Moore also got the short end of the draw for Sunday's Group 1 KrisFlyer International Sprint as Sterling City, winner of the Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup night, was stuck with the outside stall in a field of 10. "It makes it more difficult but it's 10 of 10, not 14 of 14," Moore rationalized. He said he will put his head together with jockey Joao Moreira to work out a plan, "and we know he'll be kicking at the end." The other Hong Kong runner and last year's winner, Lucky Nine, drew gate No. 2. Ireland's Balmont Mast, fourth in last year's Sprint, drew No. 9. "Not ideal but we'll see how it goes," said Sarah Lynam, daughter of owner Edward Lynam. Side Glance, winner of the Group 1 Mackinnon Stakes. Medicean Man, a close fourth in the Group Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai, drew inside. "Better in than out. Can't complain," said trainer Jeremy Gask.
Five Group 1 winners grace a field of 18 in Sunday's Group 1 Victoria Mile for fillies and mares at Tokyo Racecourse, including Whale Capture, Meisho Mambo and last year's winner, Verxina. The projected favorite is the lightly raced 4-year-old filly Smart Layer, who has won five of eight starts. Also in this field is Denim and Ruby, who came up just a nose short of defeating Gentildonna in the Group 1 Japan Cup last fall, then finished 10th in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic at 2,400 meters and will enjoy the return to a mile.
Speaking of grassy miles: Olympic Glory is the early favorite for Sunday's Group 1 JLT Lockinge Stakes at Newbury but is overshadowed by the first UK start by American transplant Verrazano. Verrazano, trained in the States by Todd Pletcher, now is handled by Aidan O'Brien. Verrazano last ran in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct in November, finishing third. He was fourth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. Olympic Glory was an impressive winner of the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on British Champions Day last fall, then traveled the other way across the pond to finish ninth behind Wise Dan and others in the Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf.
And speaking of 3-year-olds: The Grey Gatsby pulled off the upset in Thursday's Group 2 Betfred Dante Stakes at York with Epsom Derby hopeful True Story finishing a tardy third, nipped for second by Arod. A good finish by True Story would have boosted him toward the top of the Epsom hopefuls. His actual result set his odds soaring and cemented Australia as the favorite for next month's Classic. The Grey Gatsby, not nominated to the Epsom race, is most likely to resurface in the French Derby. Trainer Saeed bin Suroor said conditions did not suit True Story and predicted he will contend in the Derby. Arod also is likely to advance to the big race. Australia, a Galileo colt out of the champion mare Ouija Board, has two wins from four starts and finished third in the 2,000 Guineas earlier this month, narrowly beaten in an oddly run race.