With defending champion Wise Dan and Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome still question marks, U.S. Horse of the Year honors are very much in play and weekend races could factor right in to the ultimate decision.
Headed by the Travers for 3-year-olds at Saratoga and the Pacific Classic for 3-year-olds and up at Del Mar, the weekend is jam-packed with Grade I races. Many of the other divisions have late-summer showdowns, too.
Overseas, the big news already is in the books from York and from Deauville -- good news for Australia and Avenir Certain but not so much for Taghrooda. Let's catch up on that before bracing ourselves for the weekend's tough choices.
Australia could not be more regally bred -- by Galileo, out of Ouija Board -- and he indeed had class to spare in Wednesday's Group 1 Juddmonte International at York. The main drama surrounding the race was jockey Joseph O'Brien dieting his way down to his lowest riding weight in two years, and trainer Aidan O'Brien fearing Australia himself was packing a few extra pounds. None of it mattered. After trailing the short field, Australia exploded when O'Brien let him run in the straight, finishing 2 lengths to the good of French Derby winner The Grey Gatsby. It was a further 2 1/4 lengths back to Telescope, who was trailed by Mukhadram, Arod and Australia's pacemaker, Kingfisher. "Without being blasé, there was never really a moment of worry," said part-owner Michael Tabor. "He has to be up there with the very best," Tabor continued, saying his versatility makes Australia dangerous from a mile to 1 1/2 miles. "In a perfect world," he said, the colt would go to the Irish Champion Stakes, the English Champion Stakes "and then maybe one more race after that. I don't think so but we'll play it one race at a time."
Thursday's Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks produced a huge upset as Tapestry dueled previously undefeated Taghrooda into defeat. Taghrooda, with Paul Hanagan up, surged to the lead with 2 furlongs to run in the 1 1/2-miles event and seemed ready to record her fifth win without a loss. But Ryan Moore, never to be counted out, tracked down the Oaks winner inside the furlong marker and the two battled to the finish with Tapestry prevailing by 1/2 length. The other five were far back at the end. The win capped a slow development for Tapestry through the first half of her 3-year-old season. The Galileo filly, trained by Aidan O'Brien, started with a dismal performance in the 1,000 Guineas at Newmarket, skipped the Oaks and finished sixth in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes at Ascot. She showed promise with a close second behind Bracelet in the Irish Oaks in her last start before York. Taghrooda had been among the favorites for Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe but her standing slipped slightly with British bookmakers after the defeat.
Dutch Connection edged Toocoolforschool to win Wednesday's Group 3 Tattersalls Acomb Stakes for 2-year-olds by a head with the favorite, Basteen, fading to finish third after taking a brief turn at the front. Jamaica was fourth in the 7-furlongs sprint. Dutch Connection, a Dutch Art colt, scored his second straight win for trainer Charles Hills. The big sprint of the meeting is Friday's Group 1 Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes, which features the likes of Shea Shea, Sole Power, Cougar Mountain and Extortionist.
Felix Leiter, a 2-year-old colt by Monsieur Bond, scored his third straight win in Wednesday's Stanjames.com Stakes, reporting home a head in front of Kibarr and another neck better than Geordie George. For non-007 fans, Felix Leiter was the CIA operative who frequently played Watson to James Bond's Sherlock in the Ian Fleming novels -- including "Diamonds Are Forever," which was set in part at Saratoga. The book is much better than the movie.
Tiggy Wiggy made all the going in Thursday's Group 2 Pinsent Masons Lowther Stakes for 2-year-old fillies and cruised home first by 1 1/2 lengths over Cursory Glance. Anthem Alexander finished third. Tiggy Wiggy, a daughter of Kodiac, scored her fifth win from seven starts, including one on the all-weather surface, for trainer Richard Hannon.
Postponed got to the fore with a couple of furlongs to run in Wednesday's Group 2 Neptune Investment Management Great Voltigeur Stakes and ran on well to win by 2 1/4 lengths over Snow Sky. Odeon was far back in third. Postponed, a 3-year-old Dubawi colt who seems to be on the upswing for trainer Luca Cumani, posted his second straight win.
The stayers get their day Friday in the 2-miles Weatherbys Hamilton Insurance Lonsdale Cup, a Group 2 affair that has attracted the likes of Dubai Gold Cup 1-2 finishers Certerach and Cavalryman and Her Majesty the Queen's Ascot Gold Cup runner-up, Estimate.
Avenir Certain kept her record perfect with an easy win over a sextet of rivals in Tuesday's Group 2 Shadwell Prix de la Nonette at Deauville. The Prix Diane winner, ridden by Gregory Benoist, was held up in midfield, advanced when asked and won by a comfortable 1 1/2 lengths over Crisolles. The Le Havre filly now has six wins from six starts, including two over Polytrack. She is expected to train up to the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Back to North America:
One's on the dirt for 3-year-olds. The other is on the all-weather track and features a clash between a top 3-year-old and his elders. But regardless of conditions, the Travers, aka the "Midsummer Derby," and the Pacific Classic are both important races leading to the Breeders' Cup Classic and potential Horse of the Year honors. And that battle looks pretty wide open now that Palace Malice has seen his winning streak snapped and both reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan and Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome are awaiting comeback races.
The Travers is just what it's supposed to be -- a showdown of 3-year-olds who either survived the Triple Crown's rigors or bypassed them in hopes of racing on later. If California Chrome were in the field ... Well, he's not. In fact, only two of the 19 Kentucky Derby starters have made it this far -- Commanding Curve, who finished second to California Chrome with a huge stretch run, and Wicked Strong, who was fourth in the Run for the Roses. Commanding Curve is a moderate long shot for Saturday's $1.25 million, Grade I race at Saratoga, where the "storyline" matchup is Wicked Strong vs. Tonalist. That pair finished 1-2 in the Grade II Jim Dandy, the local prep for the Travers. But Tonalist won the Belmont Stakes, with Wicked Strong finishing fourth. It's no match race, either. Kid Cruz, who finished third in the Jim Dandy, is back for more. The speedy Bayern ships back across the continent from Del Mar after winning the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont in June and the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth in July -- each by more than 7 lengths. Mr Speaker, winner of the Grade I Belmont Derby, gets another try on the main track. In his only previous dirt race, he misfired badly in the Grade II Holy Bull at Gulfstream Park. And there are some other nice ones in the field of 10 set to tackle 1 1/4 miles.
Out West, another of the top 3-year-olds, Shared Belief, could take a big step down the road to year-end honors in Sunday's $1 million, Grade I Pacific Classic on the Del Mar all-weather course. But he will have to deal with some tough elders, including defending race champion Game On Dude and Santa Anita Gold Cup winner Majestic Harbor. There's a field of 11 to go 1 1/4 miles. Game On Dude, a 7-year-old Awesome Again gelding, has had more downs than ups since winning this race last year by 8 1/2 lengths. He bombed for the second straight year in the Breeders' Cup Classic, finished a close second to Will Take Charge in the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, ran poorly in the Grade II San Antonio Handicap back at Santa Anita, won the Santa Anita Handicap in tour de force, finished second in the Grade II Charles Town Classic and then was fourth in the Gold Cup. Shared Belief, a Candy Ride gelding, had the short-term misfortune to miss the Triple Crown trail with an injury after winning the Cash Call Futurity and Hollywood Futurity last year. For the long term, that may prove to be a blessing as he is now fresh and comes off two straight victories, including the Grade II Los Alamitos Derby in his last start. Majestic Harbor jumped up big time at long odds in the Gold Cup and needs to replicate that effort to be considered at the top level. There are others who could figure here, including UAE Derby winner Toast of New York, Clubhouse Ride, Frac Daddy, Irish Surf and the sometimes surprising You Know I Know.
Friday's $500,000, Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga could go a long way toward anointing a favorite for year-end honors in this division and -- who knows? -- even a Horse of the Year candidate. Close Hatches and Princess of Sylmar drew the outside post positions in a field of seven. Close Hatches has won five of her last six starts -- a string broken only by a second-place finish behind Beholder in last fall's Breeders' Cup Distaff. Princess of Sylmar, last year's Kentucky Oaks winner, finished second, just a neck behind Close Hatches, in the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont in June, then second to Belle Gallantey in the Grade I Delaware Handicap last month. Belle Gallantey also is in this field, drawn just inside Close Hatches, but needs to prove the Delaware race wasn't a fluke. Fiftyshadesofhay flies in from California. She finished second in last year's Alabama at Saratoga -- behind Princess of Sylmar. The others are no slouches. Majestic River won the Grade II Molly Pitcher at Monmouth in her last start. Antipathy and Stanwyck finished 1-2 in the Grade III Shuvee at Saratoga in their last outing.
If everyone gets healthy and stays involved, this year's Breeders' Cup mile could be one for the ages. And Sunday's $250,000, Grade II Del Mar Mile should help shape the field. Obviously is an obvious contender. He won this race in 2012 and again last year, finished a fading fifth after setting a blistering pace in the 2013 Breeders' Cup Mile and now has a two-race winning streak, including a repeat win in the Grade I Shoemaker Mile. Tom's Tribute upset the Grade I Eddie Read, going a furlong longer, earlier in the Del Mar meeting. He Be Fire N Ice was going well last year before finishing eighth in the Breeders' Cup Mile and has not raced since. The others have more modest resumes.
Filly & Mare Sprint
My Miss Aurelia was nearly unbeatable at any distance in 2011 and 2012, then ran only once last year and finished a promising third in a promising comeback last month in a restricted stakes at Saratoga. She tries again to regain her winning form in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Ballerina Stakes at the Spa -- a race that also includes Better Lucky, the mare who won that stakes last month, beating My Miss Aurelia by 1/2 length. Among the competition is Hot Stones, who won the Grade III Bed O Roses at Belmont Park in June at the same 7 furlongs the field of nine will negotiate on Saturday. The other six have been running mostly in minor stakes, state-bred races or optional claimers, with occasional forays into the graded stakes ranks. There is a fair amount of early speed in the field, which should set things up for the favorites.
Saturday's $500,000, Grade I King's Bishop for 3-year-olds at Saratoga has a fascinating cast set to go 7 furlongs, among them Wildcat Red, who beat one horse in the Kentucky Derby and most recently was eighth in the Haskell. He hasn't run this short since the Grade III Hutcheson at Gulfstream Park back in February, when he won by 1 1/4 lengths. But he has a lot to do, with some exciting newcomers in the field. For example, The Big Beast makes his fifth start after two straight wins, the last of those earning a 102 Beyer Speed Figure going 6 furlongs at Saratoga. Really? 102? That's the same figure Coup de Grace was awarded in winning the Grade II Amsterdam at Saratoga in his last start. And he finished the first 6 furlongs of that race one tick faster than The Big Beast's final time in his big effort -- same day, same track, one race apart. Then there's Fast Anna, who has won both his career starts, the last by 13 lengths, and has been working like a rocket ship since he arrived at Saratoga. He's by Medaglia d'Oro out of Dreaming of Anna. Noble Moon won the Grade II Jerome but then faltered in the Grade I Wood Memorial and makes his first start since that April 5 heat. This should be fun to watch but don't blink or you might miss it.
Sunday's $250,000, Grade II Pat O'Brien at Del Mar is contested at 7 furlongs on the all-weather track and got a field of eight, including the 1-2 finishers from last year, Fed Biz and Goldencents. Goldencents went on to win the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile last fall at Santa Anita. Fed Biz was sixth in that race, then idle until he came back last month to win the Grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar by 5 1/2 lengths. Fed Biz, in fact, is 3-for-4 at Del Mar with his only loss coming when he faded from the lead to finish a respectable fourth when asked to go 9 furlongs in the Grade I Eddie Read last July. Big Macher is on a big roll, with victories in the Grade II Potrero Grande and Grade I Bing Crosby in his last two starts -- the latter by 1/2 length over Goldencents. Silentio and Color of Courage merit a close look, if only for the bottom of the trifecta ticket.
A full field is on tap for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Del Mar Handicap, carded at 1 3/8 miles on the green course. Fire With Fire has been "en fuego" recently with three wins in his last four outings, most recently the Grade II Charles Whittingham Stakes at Santa Anita. Si Sage makes his first start since finishing 10 -- but with a game effort -- in the Group 1 Singapore Airlines International Cup at Kranji in May. Quick Casablanca was third in the Whittingham and second in the 1 3/4-miles, Grade II San Juan Capistrano at Santa Anita behind Big Kick, who subsequently finished last in the American St. Leger at Arlington Park. and third in the Whittingham.
Big Blue Kitten and Guys Reward top a field of seven for Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Cliff Hanger Stakes at Monmouth Park. The former is making his second start of the year after winning the Lure Stakes at Saratoga. He accounted for the Grade I United Nations at Monmouth and the Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga last year before finishing up the track in the Breeders' Cup Turf and taking nine months off. Guys Reward comes off a victory in the Grade III Oceanport over the course.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Ballston Spa at Saratoga could be a pointer to the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf or to the Turf Mile, depending on how it goes. The morning-line favorite in a field of seven is Filimbi, who raced successfully in minor events in France last year but has blossomed under Bill Mott's handling in the United States, with two wins and a second from three starts -- all at 1 mile. But the grey Mizzen Mast filly steps up in company. Among the rivals are multiple graded stakes winners Dayatthespa and Centre Court. Strathnaver and Abaco also have had superior days. The race is contested at 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf.
Fifteen fillies and mares, including one for main-track-only, are entered for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Violet Stakes at Monmouth Park, going 9 furlongs on the lawn. The 123-pound highweights are Starstruck, who won the Grade III Matchmaker over the course and distance last time out, and Overheard, who comes off a win in the Grade II Dance Smartly Stakes over the Woodbine green.
And, speaking of Woodbine, 10 3-year-old fillies will try 1 mile on that track's turf in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian), Grade II Ontario Colleen. Trainer Mark Casse's duo of Ready to Act and Madly Truly drew positions No. 1 and No. 10, respectively, so we hope he stayed out of the casino after the draw. Sushi Empire is in from California after a couple recent disappointments there. Daring Kathy, Cactus Kris and Executive Allure all have some allure off recent form.