Two iconic race tracks reopen for business this weekend -- one of them welcoming an iconic jockey for the first time -- while the sport bids adieu to a pair of its stars.
The tracks are Saratoga in scenic upstate New York and Del Mar, situated on the scenic California coast north of San Diego. The jockey is Frankie Dettori, who was cut loose from his European commitments for a long weekend to ride for the first time at Saratoga.
Both "The Spa" and "Where the Surf Meets the Turf" have important stakes races on their opening weekend cards. And, with the opening of the boutique meets, the graded stakes for the heavy-hitting 2-year-olds also commence, providing midsummer dreams for the lucky owners and trainers of those steeds.
Trotting off to their second careers are reigning Breeders' Cup Classic champ Mucho Macho Man and Dunaden, the globetrotting winner of the Melbourne Cup and Hong Kong Vase, who is credited by his owner Sheik Fahad al Thani as providing "a vital role in the evolution of Qatar racing."
Let's say hello this week's preview by saying goodbye to some old friends.
Dunaden, a French-bred, 8-year-old son of Nicobar, had his greatest moments on the road for trainer Mikel Delzangles in the fall and winter of 2011. That year he used a victory in the Geelong Cup as a springboard to winning Australia's signature race, the Melbourne Cup, then backed that up by lifting the Group 1 Hong Kong Vase at Sha Tin. He has not won for a while but finished second or third in several Group 1 races last year, including a third in the 2013 renewal of the Hong Kong Vase. Sheik Fahad said a training setback prompted his retirement. Dunaden's Melbourne Cup win, the sheik said, provided his happiest moment in racing. But, he added, "Perhaps Dunaden's greatest legacy is that his success ignited my brothers' interest to become involved in racehorse ownership. His career has played a vital role in the evolution of Qatar Racing."
Mucho Macho Man, like Dunaden, retires basically sound despite the rigors of track and training. He followed up his 2013 Breeders' Cup win with a victory in the Sunshine Million Classic at Gulfstream Park, then finished fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, a race won by Game On Dude. He had not raced since. "He is still sound and happy," said trainer Kathy Ritvo. "But we have decided it is in his best interests to retire him. He has nothing more to prove." He also finished second in the 2012 Breeders' Cup Classic and third in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Equibase figures put his earnings at $5,625,410.
Historically, the Saratoga meeting was part of the "dog days" exodus from hot and oppressive New York City. Saratoga Springs provided a chance for the wealthy to take the waters, see and be seen and watch their horses race amid refreshing, bucolic splendor. It's not much different today -- except for all the money coming into the wagering pools from other sources.
Saturday's feature is the $500,000, Grade I TVG Diana, for fillies and mares at 9 furlongs on the grass. Chad Brown is trying to get another top-level American win for Alterite, a French filly who won the Grade I Garden City Stakes at Belmont Park last September in her first U.S. start, then finished second in the QE II Challenge Cup at Keeneland and third in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. She makes her first start of 2014. Brown also will saddle multiple Grade I winner Stephanie's Kitten. There are eight other tough ones, many of them multiple graded stakes placed. Think Emollient, Somali Lemonade, Solid Appeal, Strathnaver, Discreet Marq, Caroline Thomas, Tannery and Abaco. Oops. That's the entire field. It must be Saratoga. Dettori gets a leg up on Stephanie's Kitten.
Sunday finds 3-year-old fillies tackling 9 furlongs on the dirt in the $300,000, Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks. Stopchargingmaria comes off a win in the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan at Pimlico and broke her maiden almost exactly a year ago at Saratoga. Unbridled Forever is riding a string of three straight third-place finishes, albeit in tough company -- the Fair Grounds Oaks, Kentucky Oaks and Acorn. America has been knocking on the door in graded stakes. The other three need to kick it up a notch.
This is the track built by and for the Hollywood start, where investor Bing Crosby took tickets on the opening day in 1937 while singing "Where the Surf Meets the Turf" (including the line: "There's a smile on every face, and a winner in each race...". There used to be a fabulous display of photos from that day at the long-since bulldozed Boardwalk Casino in Las Vegas. Here's hoping the pix found a good home.
Saturday finds a dozen 3-year-old fillies set to go 1 mile on the lawn in the $200,000, Grade II San Clemente Handicap. My Conquistadory, fourth in last fall's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, drew the outside stall for this while making her second start of the year after a tough, last-jump defeat in the Grade II Selene Stakes at Woodbine. The Artie Schiller filly has made four career starts -- all of them graded stakes. Sandiva, a daughter of Footstepsinthesand, makes her first U.S. start after racing with some success in England and France, winning at Nottingham, Naas, Deauville and Newmarket but unable to make much impression at the Group 1 level. Istanford won the Grade III Arlington Classic in May but has been inconsistent. Sheza Smoke Show has won three of her last four, including the Grade III Senorita Stakes at Santa Anita last time out. Diversy Harbor has been in the money in all five career starts against top company.
Sunday, a half dozen turf runners are on display in the $300,000, Grade I Eddie Read Stakes at 9 furlongs. Summer Front comes into this followed a runner-up showing behind Obviously in the Grade I Shoemaker Mile at Santa Anita. The 5-year-old son of War Front has been a consistent performer but still seeks his first Grade I win. Cogito, a 5-year-old son of Giant's Causeway, is making his first start since finishing sixth in this race a year ago. Unbridled Command reeled off five straight wins in 2012, but then made only two starts last year and hasn't been too effective. Tom's Tribute did finish third in the Shoemaker Mile in his last start.
No, we didn't miss these races in the above track reports. They're just subjectively different.
Not only is Bessie's Boy 2-for-2, including a victory in the Tremont at Belmont Park, but Frankie Dettori is flying in to ride him in Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Sanford at Saratoga. Well, Dettori's coming to take as many rides as his various agents can line up for him in his first visit to the Spa. But Wesley Ward, no stranger to internationalism, was happy to put him up on the Smoke Glacken colt. He'll need all the help he can get while facing eight rivals, including Cinco Charlie, the impressive winner of the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. Chocolate Wildcat, second in the Tremont, also is back for this, as is Silverhill, second in the Bashford Manor. Nonna's Boy attracted attention with a muddy Belmont victory. There are some other really promising types coming off maiden wins, too. And, as an extra bonus, Rosie Napravnik is back from her recent injury, riding Silverhill.
Saturday evening's $75,000 Prairie Gold at Prairie Meadows in Iowa got eight flutters into the entry box. Brookerson, the 7-2 morning-line favorite, has won both his previous starts, both at Turf Paradise in Arizona. The Henny Hughes colt drew the outside gate. Shrewd Move finished behind Brookerson in both those races, then moved east to win at Prairie Meadows and finish fourth -- and a well-beaten last -- at Belmont Park in the $100,000 Tremont Stakes. There are recent maiden winners from Arlington, Indiana Grand and Canterbury Park, too.
Sunday, a half dozen are entered for the $50,000 Emerald Express for colts and geldings in the shadow of Mt. Rainier at Emerald Downs.
Internationally, Saturday's card at Hakodate features the Group III Hakodate Naisi Stakes for 2-year-olds going 1,200 meters or about 6 furlongs. Nine colts and eight fillies are entered. Among the latter is a Manhattan Café filly unaccountably named Umbilical.
Both Del Mar and Saratoga have 2-year-old filly races on Friday. The $150,000, Grade III Schuylerville at the Spa attracted five, including morning-line favorites Fashion Alert (3-5) and Tulira's Star. Fashion Star, an Old Fashioned filly out of a Tiznow mare, kicked off her career with a 4 3/4-lengths triumph in the Astoria Stakes at Belmont last month for trainer Todd Pletcher. Tulira's Star, By Congrats, comes off an almost equally impressive first-out win over the Arlington Park all-weather course. Two of the others also are 1-for-1. Take Charge Brandi was a winner in her first start at Churchill Downs and Evrybdymstgetstonz (really!) got her picture taken at the first opportunity at Belmont Park. The latter is a Bustin Stones filly.
The CBTA Stakes at Del Mar is for state-breds and drew a field of nine. My Fiona, a Ghostzapper filly, comes off a third-place finish in the Landaluce Stakes at Santa Anita. Otherwise, these gals need some sorting out. As the program notes used to say, watch the tote board for further clues.
And speaking of wide-open, check out Saturday evening's $75,000 Prairie Gold Lassie at Prairie Meadows. There's a field of 10 with the morning-line "favorite" at 9-2. That's M B Prize, who has an impressive win over the track in her only start. But six others earned single-digit odds on the morning line, so good luck. Maybe box them for a dime.
Other major weekend races:
A very nice field of 10 is assembled for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Arlington Oaks at 9 furlongs on the all-weather course. Aurelia's Belle comes off a victory in the Grade III Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs and earlier won on the all-weather at Turfway Park in the Grade III Bourbonette Oaks. Her only off-the-board finish was a ninth-place showing in the Kentucky Oaks. Interrupted arrives from out east after winning the Penn Oaks on the turf at Penn National. Before that, she was third at long odds in the Grade III Florida Oaks on the grass at Tampa Bay Downs. She is making her first start on the all-weather but has been training over it at the Fair Oaks center. Stellaris has made four starts at four tracks from Fair Grounds to Canterbury and never missed the top three. Annulment has been improving and Florent Geroux rides. Colonel Joan was third in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last fall. She's Offlee Good won the Arlington-Washington Lassie last fall but is winless in four subsequent tries.
A big and balanced field is set for Saturday's $300,000, Grade III Ohio Derby at 9 furlongs on the dirt. Almost Famous is a narrow morning-line favorite after finishing third in the Grade III Matt Winn at Churchill Downs last time out. He was fourth in that key Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park this winter. Jessica's Star has won three in a row, most recently the Grade III Iowa Derby at Prairie Meadows, where he caught Embellishing Bob and Vicar's In Trouble in the late going for the win. East Hall has had his moments in Florida recently. Watch for Cleburn, who comes off an unsuccessful detour to the turf for trainer Dale Romans.
Za Approval is the morning-line favorite for Saturday's $200,000 (Canadian), Grade II Nijinsky Stakes despite two fourths and a third from three trips so far this year. The 6-year-old Ghostzapper gelding looks to return to the form that found him a close second to Wise Dan in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile. This race is a furlong longer. Five Iron has been tough to handle at Woodbine. Up With the Birds won the Grade I Jamaica Handicap at Belmont to wind up his 3-year-old season but has been less than impressive in two starts so far this year. River Seven, Dynamic Sky, Really Sharp and Dorsett round out the field.
Is it not enough to have trainer Aidan O'Brien and his jockey son, Joseph, making up such a powerful force in international racing? Apparently not as Ana O'Brien, Aidan's daughter, steps up to Group 1 company riding Beyond Brilliance in Saturday's Irish Oaks at The Curragh. The other news from this race is the withdrawal Thursday of Epsom Oaks winner Taghrooda, leaving as likely favorites Epsom runner-up Tarfasha and Marvelous. The elder O'Brien saddles five of the 11 prospective starters with Joseph up on Tapestry, Colm O'Donoghue on Bracelet, Ryan Moore on Marvelous and Seamie Heffernan on Palace.