Important stakes races run the gamut this weekend, on all surfaces, for all ages, from short to long and from Ireland to Iowa.
Japan Cup and Dubai Sheeman Classic winner Gentildonna, Epsom Derby winner Australia, Kentucky Oaks winner Untapable and the enigmatic old man, Game On Dude, all are on tap.
Saturday is the Group 1 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby and, conditions permitting, the impressive winner of the Group 1 Investec Epsom Derby, Australia, will be trying for the "Derby Double." On the other side of the world, some of Japan's brightest stars, including Gentildonna, will line up for Sunday's Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin.
The going gets a little deeper for the juvenile set in the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs and the My Dear Stakes for fillies at Woodbine.
At Prairie Meadows in Iowa, a stakes-filled weekend culminates in three graded events on Saturday, including the $300,000, Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker.
And Saturday's Firecracker Stakes at Churchill Downs looks like an old-boys club, even without 7-year-old, two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan.
Before we get much older, let's get going:
We'll be missing Wise Dan in Saturday $200,000, Grade II Firecracker Stakes at Churchill Downs. The 7-year-old, two-time and reigning Horse of the Year, currently recovering from a colic attack, won the Firecracker in 2011 and again last year. But the Firecracker field has plenty of pop, with the likes of Silver Max, who makes his first start since finishing a good fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Mile after three straight graded stakes wins; Free World, riding a five-race win skein; 7-year-old Regally Ready who has won two straight under the Twin Spires; Nikki's Sandcastle, another 7-year-old who won the Grade III Hanshin Cup on the Arlington all-weather in his last start; and Guy's Reward, yet another 7-year-old who won this race two years ago. Dale Romans, who trains Silver Max and Guy's Reward, said the former is well rested and ready to run. Latest reports have Wise Dan doing well -- perhaps well enough to return during the Saratoga meet and then shoot for a third straight Breeders' Cup Mile win.
Three-year-old fillies tackle 1 mile on the grass in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Senorita Stakes at Santa Anita. To paraphrase Benjamin Braddock in "The Graduate," this bunch isn't completely baked yet. But it might pay to watch for Famous Alice, a Kitten's Joy filly who won over the course and distance before finishing fourth on a trip to the Penn Oaks Stakes out east. Tom Proctor trains and Gary Stevens rides. Rovenna has won three straight but all on the dirt.
Fillies and mares go the same distance on the lawn in Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Royal Heroine at Santa Anita. Stormy Lucy is the highweight among 10 entered after winning the Grade II Santa Anna and the Grade III Santa Barbara earlier in the meeting. But she finished fourth in her last try, the Grade I Gamely Stakes. Wishing Gate and Parranda are graded stakes winners.
Speaking of 7-year-olds, Game On Dude is back for Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita, facing six rivals. The Awesome Again gelding has been inconsistent of late for trainer Bob Baffert. But he did win the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap over the course earlier in the year before yielding to Imperative in the late going in the $1.5 million Charles Town Classic. This used to be the Hollywood Gold Cup, when there was a Hollywood Park, and Game On Dude won the last two runnings at the LAX track. Imperative finished seventh in the "Big Cap" before taking home the big check from West Virginia and the recently reformed claimer is back to try Game On Dude again. Fury Kapcori and Clubhouse Ride are both tough customers over the Santa Anita strip. Salto Del Indio and Lidaris both make their first U.S. start after shipping up from South America. The race is a "Win and You're In" event for the Breeders' Cup Classic. In light of Game On Dude's dismal record in the last two runnings of that event, trainer Bob Baffert might be looking for some redemption for the old guy.
Oddly enough, the Equibase morning-line for Saturday evening's $300,000, Grade III Cornhusker Stakes at Prairie Meadows will line up in order of their odds, from the outside in. The 3-1 favorite, Golden Ticket, is drawn No. 8 with the outside chance, Eriugena, in stall No. 1. Golden Ticket, a 5-year-old son of Speightstown, won last year's Prairie Meadows Handicap and earlier this year finished second in both the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap and the Grade II Alysheba at Churchill Downs. Immediately to his inside for the 9-furlongs tilt is Carve, who is 2-for-4 this season with both wins coming in allowance company. Ground Transport had a two-race winning streak snapped in his last outing. Coin Broker is lightly raced and promising for trainer Dale Romans. Right to Vote has a recent win over the course in a minor stakes.
Embellishing Bob and Vicar's In Trouble are the early picks for Saturday's $250,000, Grade III Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows. Embellishing Bob, a Northern Afleet colt, won the Grade III Derby Trial at Churchill Downs on a disqualification after Bayern beat him to the wire by a nose. He subsequently finished seventh in the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont -- a race Bayern won by 7 1/2 lengths. So, go figure. Vicar's In Trouble won the Grade II Louisiana Derby at Fair Grounds, then finished last in the Kentucky Derby after being bounced around pretty severely in the first few furlongs. The Mike Maker trainee has been working well over the Churchill Downs training track. The other seven have more to prove. However, Charge Now, a Tiznow colt trained by Bill Mott, posted a second and a win at Gulfstream Park, then was the easiest of winners in a Belmont Park allowance event and bears watching.
It's hard to look beyond Untapable in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Mother Goose at Belmont Park. The Tapit filly makes her first start since running away with the Kentucky Oaks. Before that, she also was an easy winner in the Grade III Rachel Alexandra and Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks, both in New Orleans. She has been off for a while. She does cut back to 1 1/16 miles. And her regular rider, Rosie Napravnik, is sidelined with a shoulder injury. But John Velazquez is a fine substitute and Untapable has been working steadily at her Churchill Downs home base for trainer Steve Asmussen. So her five rivals have their work cut out for them although Stopchargingmaria looks good after a hard-fought win in the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico. Those who do look beyond the favorite might look for House Rules.
Sugar Shock, the eighth-place finisher behind Untapable in the Kentucky Oaks, came back to post a hard-fought win in the Panthers Stakes at Prairie Meadows in her last start and is among the favorites for Saturday's $200,000, Grade III Iowa Oaks over the same track. The Candy Ride filly also shows a win in the Grade III Fantasy Stakes at Oaklawn Park this spring among her four career victories. Thank You Marylou was third in the Ashland at Keeneland before finishing fifth in the Kentucky Oaks and makes her comeback here for owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey. She also was second -- after a disqualification -- to Designer Legs in last summer's Adirondack at Saratoga and faces that foe again on Saturday. And speaking of disqualifications, the Iowa Oaks field also includes Ria Antonia, who won last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies after the DQ of She's a Tiger. She hasn't won since while bouncing from trainer to trainer to trainer although Bob Baffert did saddle her to a second-place showing Grade I Santa Anita Oaks during his brief tenure. She was running for Tom Amoss when she finished 10th and last in the Grade I Preakness in her last start. She started her career with Jeremiah Englehart.
Quiet Success just missed in the $200,000 Sugar Maple Stakes at Charles Town in her last race and now the 4-year-old Successful Appeal filly finds herself the morning-line favorite for Friday's $100,000 Iowa Distaff at 1 1/16 miles. Diva's Diamond, Hung the Moon and Hitechnoweenie will provide some meaningful competition.
Filly & Mare Turf
Tannery heads a cast of six for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II New York Stakes at 1 1/4 miles on the Belmont Park green course. The 5-year-old Dylan Thomas mare finished fifth in this heat last year but has done better since, winning the Grade I E.P. Taylor Stakes at Woodbine last fall, then taking her seasonal debut at Monmouth Park last month in a show of determination. Riposte is fresh from a win in the Grade II Sheepshead Bay Stakes over the course and hasn't been out of the frame in any of her four U.S. starts since shipping from Europe after last year's campaign. Inimitable Romanee won the Grade III The Very One Stakes at Gulfstream Park and the Grade III Bewitch at Keeneland earlier in the year. Shug McGaughey saddles Scampering, who might enjoy the added distance.
Sahara Sky might be the favorite in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita going 7 furlongs just because of his victory in March in the Grade II San Carlos. But he has been going the wrong way since, albeit in good company, and finished seventh in his last outing, the Grade II Churchill Downs Stakes. Cyclometer and Wine Police come to this off a 1-2 finish in the Grade III Los Angeles Handicap at 6 furlongs. But there was only one other starter in that race and he finished 10 3/4 lengths back of Wine Police. Bob Baffert has two of the seven starters here but neither of them is top-shelf right now, either. Someone has found an easy spot. The problem is spotting which one that is. There are a lot of "buts" in this paragraph.
Friday night's $125,000 Iowa Sprint Handicap at Prairie Meadows promises to be a contentious -- and speedy -- affair. The morning-line favorites, Delaunay and Work All Week, both like to be out there on the lead. Delaunay was second in this race last year as the favorite and won the Grade III Aristides Stakes at Churchill Downs in his last start. Work All Week, based at Arlington Park, has won nine of his last 10 starts but gets a significant class test in this event. There are some qualified closers, including Alsvid, who was second in three straight stakes at Oaklawn Park, including the Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap and comes off a victory over the Iowa oval. Mico Margarita is a graded stakes winner and Apprehender has been known to apprehend reckless early speed with a late stretch rush.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Apropos makes her first visit to Chicago for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Chicago Handicap at 7 furlongs and was installed as a lukewarm morning-line favorite. The First Samurai filly won her first two starts of the year, then ran out in graded stakes at Keeneland and earlier in the Churchill Downs meet. Cozze Up Lady shows a similar pattern, the difference being she won this race last year. Disco Barbie has won two straight optional claimers at Presque Isle Downs. My Option won the Grade III Arlington Oaks last season but hasn't tasted victory in six intervening trips.
An evenly matched field of 11 distaffers is set for Friday night's $100,000 Saylorville Stakes at 6 furlongs at Prairie Meadows. With more than half the field at single-digit odds on the morning line, it's a tough one to figure. But it sure offers some opportunity for those who find the key.
Marks Mine is almost always in the frame in minor stakes and could be the one in Saturday's $100,000 Oak Tree Distaff at Pleasanton. Unusual Way was second in the Grade II San Clemente at Del Mar nearly a year ago. The rest have served, so far, with little distinction.
Only six were entered to tackle 6 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. Governmentshutdown, an Exchange Rate gelding, has won two straight at Pimlico after finishing third in his career bow. Cinco Charlie was impressive in blazing to victory in a 4 1/2-furlong maiden win under the Twin Spires. The others also come direct from maiden wins as far afield as Lone Star Park, Keeneland and Presque Isle Downs.
Sweet Dreams came from off the pace to win at first asking last month and that's enough to make her the narrow favorite for Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) My Dear Stakes over the same all-weather course. The daughter of Candy Ride is trainer by Gail Cox. Unhindered won her career debut at Woodbine two weeks ago by 5 lengths, well in hand, after leading most of the way. The Stormy Atlantic filly is trained by Ralph Biamonte. Happy to Go was all of that in winning her career debut at Arlington. Twisted Ginger was a first-out winner at Presque Isle Downs. Dixie Twist, an Indian Charlie filly making her first start for trainer Mark Casse, could have a future.
Aidan O'Brien says Australia, the Epsom Derby winner, is a "good ground horse" and if there is boggy ground on Saturday at the Curragh, that might keep him on the sidelines. Otherwise, the son of Galileo-Ouija Board could continue what promises to be a stellar career that would live up to his heavenly pedigree. Six likely rivals include Kingston Hill, Fascinating Rock, Geoffrey Chaucer, Orchestra, Kingfisher and Ponfeigh. Kingston Hill, second to Australia at Epsom, would seem the main threat in the 1 1/2-miles test.
Fifteen fillies and mares remained in the mix on Thursday for Sunday's Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh, among them Irish 1,000 Guineas winner Marvelous, who subsequently finished sixth in the Epsom Oaks. Several of these are ambitiously entered but Ambivalent, Thistle Bird and Venus De Milo all are recent Group stakes winners.
Like the year-end Arima Kinen, the field for Sunday's US$2.75 million, Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin is chosen primarily by fan ballot. The top 10 vote-getters are given an automatic pass into the race should their connections choose to run. For the first time since 2007, the three top vote-getters will run -- Gold Ship, Win Variation and Gentildonna. Gold Ship, a 5-year-old son of Stay Gold, won this race last year. Norihiro Yokoyama will have the mount for the first time on the top vote-getter. Win Variation has been running in the shadow of Orfevre and tries for the eighth time to land a Group 1 victory. Gentildonna, twice winner of the Japan Cup, has been idle since winning the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic on March 29. She followed a similar course last year but finished a good third in the Takarazuka Kinen. There are some other good ones here, too, including Meisho Mambo and Denim and Ruby, who just missed upsetting Gentildonna in last fall's Japan Cup. The race is at 2,200 meters, or about 11 furlongs, on the right-handed Hanshin turf course. The race also is a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Friday's Copa de Oro Vinas de Chile at Santiago is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
News and notes:
Breeders' Cup made it official Tuesday: The 2015 World Championships will be run at Keeneland; 2016 at Santa Anita; 2017, Del Mar. Keeneland and Del Mar, two of the most iconic tracks in North America, will be hosting for the first time. "In solidifying the Breeders' Cup World Championships as a leading global event in Thoroughbred racing, we are very pleased to align ourselves with three of the world's premier racetracks in Keeneland, Santa Anita and Del Mar," said Craig Fravel, Breeders' Cup president and CEO. He said the venues, enhanced marketing and innovative outreach efforts "provide us with an excellent opportunity to grow our audience by combining the best that horse racing and entertainment have to offer."