With the Triple Crown disappearing in the rear-view mirror, action shifts back to the older horses this weekend, with the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs at the top of the list.
Internationally, 3-year-old fillies will tackle the Chantilly Turf in the Prix de Diane Longines. Otherwise, there will be a brief pause before Royal Ascot kicks into gear on Tuesday with some of the world's finest pageantry -- and some really nice horses, too.
The question of the day in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs is: What was up with Will Take Charge in his last race? The 2013 3-year-old champ, winner of last year's Grade I Travers and Grade I Clark Handicap, as well as this year's Grade II Oaklawn Handicap, tossed in a monumental clunker in the Grade II Alysheba under the Twin Spires on May 2, finishing sixth. The top two from the Alysheba are back -- pacesetter Moonshine Mullins and Golden Ticket. Other graded stakes winners lining up include Departing and Prayer for Relief. Also on tap is Revolutionary, who finished second to Will Take Charge at Oaklawn, then beat Prayer for Relief by a neck in the Pimlico Special last month. Churchill Downs handicapper Mike Battaglia installed Revolutionary as the 2-1 morning-line favorite with Will Take Charge at 5-2. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas offered no explanation for Will Take Charge's flop in the Alysheba. "I think we'll just forget it happened and go on to the next one," Lukas said. "I think we're sitting right on a big one, hopefully. He's had a really good month."
Tapiture makes his first start since the Kentucky Derby in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Matt Winn at Churchill Downs -- as the morning-line favorite. The Tapit colt finished second in the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn Park, then fourth in the Grade I Arkansas Derby and 15th in the Run for the Roses. He has been idle since and now faces a half-dozen fellow 3-year-olds going 1 1/16 miles in this refuge for Triple Crown trail also-rans. Almost Famous looks sharp off a good effort in an allowance race. Rise Up won the Delta Jackpot as a 2-year-old but failed to make an impact in the Louisiana Derby preps. He also won a comeback race impressively. Conquest Titan was second in the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park in January.
Another Derby survivor, Uncle Sigh, is among seven set for Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Pegasus Stakes at Monmouth Park. The Indian Charlie colt finished second to Samraat in the first two big New York Triple Crown preps, then tailed off to get home fifth in the Grade I Wood Memorial and 14th in the Run for the Roses. Ring Weekend won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby, then finished second in the Calder Derby and fifth in the Preakness. Albano was second in both the Grade III LeComte and Grade II Risen Star at Fair Grounds, then fourth in the Louisiana Derby and unraced since. There also are a couple recent maiden winners in here.
The Plate Trial is this Sunday at Woodbine. The winterbook favorite for the Queen's Plate itself, We Miss Artie, is among seven Ontario-breds on tap for the event.
Eight are set for Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Vanity at Santa Anita, going 9 furlongs on the main track. Let Faith Arise won the Grade I Santa Margarita earlier in the meeting, traveled to finish fourth in the Grade I Apple Blossom in Arkansas and returned to win the Grade III Adoration in her last start. Grace Hall was seventh in the Apple Blossom but then second behind Fiftyshadesof Hay in the Grade II Ruffian at Belmont Park. Iotapa has missed the exacta only once in nine California starts, many of them graded stakes. Let Faith Arise has been almost equally good at home and finished fourth in the Apple Blossom. Scherzinger won the Grade II Santa Monica at Santa Anita, then was third in the 7-furlongs Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on Derby weekend.
On Fire Baby won't have to deal with Close Hatches in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs, but she does have some toughies among five rivals in the 9-furlongs test. On Fire Baby, a 5-year-old Smoke Glacken mare, finished second behind Close Hatches two races back in the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park, then won handily in the Grade I La Troienne last month. The second-place mare from that race, Molly Morgan, tries again here. Also in the field is Fiftyshadesofhay, who comes off a victory over Grace Hill in the Grade II Ruffian at Belmont Park. And Flashy American won the Grade III Sixty Sails at Hawthorne in her last outing. Frivolous was second in the Grade III Arlington Matron in her last start and Ondine is in from California with graded stakes placings on her resume. Tough field.
A balanced field of eight is entered for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park, including the morning-line favorite entry of Gamay Noir and Golden Production. The former won the Grade III Rampart Stakes at Gulfstream Park, then finished third in the Sixty Sails at Hawthorne earlier this year. Montana Native, a Kentucky-bred Yes It's True filly, has been promising and promising and looks set to deliver. Ambusher outran her odds to finish a good fourth in the Grade III Arlington Matron in her last race.
On the Woodbine all-weather course, nine fillies are entered for Sunday's $500,000 (Canadian), Grade III Woodbine Oaks. Paladin Bay, Hot and Spicy, Lexie Lou and Sweet Catomine are among the featured players for the 9-furlongs event. Paladin Bay has four wins, four seconds and two thirds from 11 starts and trainer Harold Ladouceur said he and his owner wife, Jesse, had a plan to get their filly to the Oaks. After that, "We are nominated to the (Queen's) Plate. But I'm not 100 percent sure we're going to run in that," he said. "
The Breeders' Cup Mile still could turn out to be one of the year's top races, especially if Wise Dan recovers from his colic scare in time to try for a third straight win in the event. So Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Shoemaker Mile, over the same Santa Anita Course, is a race worth watching. Winning Prize has been living up to his name with wins in the Grade II Arcadia Stakes and Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile over the course in his last two outings. Obviously, who won this last year, was victorious last time out in the Grade III American Stakes at Santa Anita. Summer Front is in from the East Coast, where he has had some success against good competition. Jack Milton has won two straight, including the Grade III Poker Stakes at 1 mile on the Belmont lawn. Silentio is usually close and occasionally wins. Pulpit's Express is by Lucky Pulpit, who sired California Chrome. Pay attention. It's only four and a half months until the Breeders' Cup.
Filly & Mare Turf
Ten signed on for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Regret for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs and they all have some questions to answer. Five are last-race winners, including Istanford, who comes from the Grade III Arlington Classic against older foes, and A Little Bit Sassy, who took the Edgewood on the Churchill Downs grass. Also lining up are Aurelia's Belle, who got home first in the Grade III Bourbonette Oaks at Turfway Park before finishing up the track in the Kentucky Oaks; Tepin, who won the Grade III Delta Princess last fall but ran poorly in her first 3-year-old start; and Share the Sugar, who comes off a good allowance win locally.
Saturday's 10th race at Churchill Downs is the President of the United Arab Emirates Cup, for purebred Arabians. It's worth noting if only because an occasional horse comes from this race to contest the opening race on the Dubai World Cup card the following March and it's always nice to get off to a good start on that evening.
Saturday's Belmont Park card includes the 102nd running of the Astoria for 2-year-old fillies. Sunday, it's the Tremont, for 2-year-olds generally. Each is worth $100,000 and each is run at 5 1/2 furlongs. Watch to get a line on what might be happening in the graded stakes for the young 'uns this summer at Saratoga.
On the international front:
Thirteen remained in the mix on Thursday for Sunday's Group 1 Prix de Diane Longines at Chantilly -- but the undefeated Group 1 winner We Are is not among them. Trainer Freddy Head said the filly has not worked up to his expectations since winning the Group 1 Prix de Saint-Alary at Longchamp in May. The 1 1/4-miles affair should be contentious nonetheless with the likes of 1,000 Guineas winner Miss France, Undefeated Poule d'Essai de des Pouliches victor Avenir Certain, Veda, Shamkala and Xcellence in the mix. Miss France also is entered for next Friday's Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot.
Hong Kong racing will get a 7 percent prize money increase next season with the emphasis on attracting more quality runners. William Nader, executive director of racing at the Hong Kong Jockey Club, said total prize money for the season that starts in mid-September will be HK$963 million (US$124.2 million), up HK$63 million (US$8.13 million) or 7 percent from this season's purses. "This season will be the first time that racing turnover will go over the HK$100 billion mark (US$12.9 billion)," Nader said. "But, more importantly, it has also been the very best season in Club history in terms of quality with terrific performances of Hong Kong horses at the elite level at home and overseas." To continue that momentum, he said, the biggest purse increases will be accorded Class 1 and Class 2 races and the bonus scheme for high-performing horses imported privately to Hong Kong also will be enriched. "It's about rewarding excellence," he said. Details about purse money for Hong Kong's six international Group 1 races will be announced later, he added.