Major preps for some of the big Breeders' Cup races highlight the weekend racing agenda, with Royal Ascot looming just around the corner.
Atop the list is Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. The 9-furlong affair over the main track is a "Win and You're In" event for the Breeders' Cup Classic and drew an appropriately tough field.
And since several of the Triple Crown refugees could be targeting the Haskell at Monmouth Park down the road, it won't hurt to sneak a peek at Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Pegasus Stakes at 1 1/8 miles for 3-year-olds at that Jersey track. The $100,000 Matt Winn at Churchill Downs could see a breakthrough among the younger handicap contenders, too.
Out east, Colonial Downs on Saturday features the $500,000 Colonial Turf Cup, also at 9 furlongs. While it's not a Breeders' Cup qualifier, it's usually a good indication of what could be coming for the Arlington Million, the big grass events at Saratoga and the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Since distaffers have been winning Horse of the Year honors with some regularity recently, we're all paying more attention to their races. Those would include three events on Saturday: The $250,000, Grade I Vanity Handicap at Hollywood Park; the $150,000, Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs; and the $150,000, Grade III Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park, each at 1 1/8 miles.
Overseas, Chantilly has the Group 1 Prix de Diane-Longines for 3-year-old fillies on Sunday. That's 10 1/2 furlongs on the grass.
Let's take a closer look.
The handicap division:
The Stephen Foster drew a field of nine, including the coupled entry of Wise Dan and Successful Dan from the Charles Lopresti barn. Wise Dan, off a track-record victory in the Ben Ali at Keeneland, and Alternation, victor in the Pimlico Special on Preakness day, should be among the favorites. But the competition will be tough as the race is contested for the first time under the lights. Nate's Mineshaft, Fort Larned, Mission Impazible and Rogue Romance all are graded stakes winners. And it's hard to believe but another major contender, Nehro, has never won a stakes race of any kind. He just missed catching Alternation at Pimlico -- the most recent in a long string of classy second-place finishes. Like the Chicago Cubs, he's way overdue.
"It's very good to see an older-horse Grade I this deep and talented," said Steve Asmussen, who will saddle Nehro. "There is a tremendous amount on the line, considering the depth of the field."
The race is not only a Breeders' Cup Classic qualifier but also an indicator. Black Tie Affair, Awesome Again, Saint Liam and Blame all have won this race en route to victory in the Classic.
A surprisingly light field of only five was entered for Saturday's $100,000 Matt Winn Stakes for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs. But most of them appear poised to break through into the top ranks -- or not. Right to Vote finished second to Mark Valeski in the Peter Pan at Belmont in his last start and was third in last year's Champagne at Saratoga, well behind Union Rags but only a neck back of Alpha. Stealcase finished third in the Derby Trial and came back to win an optional claimer by daylight over Morgan's Guerrilla. Neck 'n Neck -- a great name for a horse! -- was competitive in the Florida Triple Crown preps, then ran a big one in an allowance race at Churchill last time out. Master Rick won the Northern Spur at Oaklawn, defeating Drill, then bombed in the Peter Pan.
In Sunday's Pegasus at Monmouth Park,
At Churchill Downs, Saturday's Fleur de Lis found a field of a half dozen, featuring last year's Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic winner, Royal Delta. The latter is making her first start since finishing ninth in the Dubai World Cup March 31 -- no disgrace, based on how the other U.S. horses ran that night over the Meydan all-weather track. Mike Smith will ride for trainer Bill Mott. St. John's River comes to the race off a second-place effort in the La Troiene on Derby Day. The others will be hoping Royal Delta is still shaking off jet lag.
In the Vanity, on Saturday's Hollywood Park card, Include Me Out will put her streak of three graded stakes wins on the line, facing seven rivals. Jerry and Ann Moss, who won this race in 2008, 2009 and 2010 with an otherwise obscure mare named Zenyatta, will be back with another "Z horse" -- Zazu. Ellafitz will try to reverse a two-race losing streak that followed a skein of three stakes wins in a row.
At Delaware Park, Tiz Miz Sue is back from Oaklawn Park, where she had a successful winter, and could be the headliner in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Obeah Stakes.
"The Delaware Handicap is certainly in the plans, especially if she has a solid outing this Saturday," said trainer Steve Hobby.
She could have a significant roadblock to the win, however, if trainer Graham Motion starts Pachattack, who won the Grade II Doubledogdare Stakes in her only outing so far this year. Motion cross-entered the 6-year-old Pulpit mare in the Grade III All Along Stakes on the grass at Colonial.
"We are fortunate in that we have a lot of options with her because she has proven she can do so much," Motion said.
On the green course:
Despite an eighth-place fade job in his last start, the Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Derby Day, Turbo Compressor is the 2-1 morning-line favorite for Saturday's Colonial Turf Cup. The 4-year-old son of Halo's Image won last year's Curlin Stakes at Saratoga. Rahystrada, Air Support, Casino Host and Smart Bid all figure to play a role. Also, there aren't many Black Tie Affairs left running in the stakes ranks, so be sure to notice the No. 8 -- Silver Tie Affair, a 6-year-old Black Tie Affair gelding out of the Cozzene mare Silver Design. And don't forget to support Black Tie Affair for the Hall of Fame!
Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Hill Prince Stakes is for 3-year-olds going 1 mile on the grass at Belmont Park. Among the 11 scheduled to go is Howe Great. Remember him? He whupped Dullahan fair and square by 1 length in the Grade II Palm Beach Stakes at Gulfstream three months ago. Since, he's been fifth in the Grade I Blue Grass and third in the Grade II American Turf. Also on the list are Summer Front, Margano and Our Entourage. The latter, you'll recall, was fifth in the pivotal Illinois Derby at Hawthorne.
And speaking of fillies and mares on the grass:
Also Saturday at Churchill, 11 3-year-old fillies are set to line up for the $100,000, Grade III Regret Stakes at 9 furlongs on the Matt Winn Turf Course. Coup, winner of the Hilltop at Pimlico in her most recent start, likely will be among the favorites.
Colonial Downs supports Saturday's Turf Cup with the $100,000, Grade III Edward P. Evans All Along Stakes for fillies and mares going 9 furlongs on the lawn. Pachattack would be the pick if she goes here instead of at Delaware Park.
Ben's Cat will try to atone for a couple recent subpar efforts in Sunday's $150,000 Parx Dash at 5 furlongs on the turf. He was second in this race last year and bounced back with wins in the Grade III Turf Monster, Maryland Million Turf Sprint and Laurel Dash before trainer King Leatherbury was unable to put together a syndicate to nominate him to the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. Perfect Officer was second in last year's Turf Monster, then third in the Breeders' Cup. He comes off a victory in the Grade III Shakertown at Keeneland. Bridgetown, who at this time last year was seen finishing 12th at Ascot in England, comes into the race off a runner-up spot in the Grade III Twin Spires Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs.
The Diamond Jubilee edition of Royal Ascot kicks off Tuesday in the grandest possible fashion. First up on the card is the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at 1 mile, featuring none other than the undefeated Frankel, seeking his 11th straight win. The five-day list of runners has some other toughies as well, including former Aussie champs So You Think and Helmet; three-time runner-up to Frankel, Excelebration; as well as Red Jazz, Windsor Palace and Premio Loco. If Frankel is up to his usual form, the others should be running for place money but there's a reason they run these races. So You Think is also entered in Wednesday's 150th Anniversary Prince of Wales's Stakes at 1 1/4 miles.
The Group 1 King's Stand at 5 furlongs includes a pair in from Hong Kong -- Joy and Fun and Little Bridge. Ortensia will carry the Aussie flag. Bated Breath, Sole Power and Ortensia figure majorly. This race is a leg of the Global Sprint Challenge.
The third Group 1 of opening day is the St. James's Palace Stakes for 3-year-olds over the Old Mile. Aidan O'Brien named six to this, including Wrote and Power.
And, not to look too far ahead -- because there's a lot of racing in the middle three days -- but the meeting's final Group 1 event Saturday, the 6-furlong Diamond Jubilee Stakes, is expected to include the undefeated Australian super mare, Black Caviar. More about that next week.
-- Arlington's Prairie State Festival Saturday includes six stakes, each worth $125,000 for Illinois-registered steeds on both the all-weather and the grass.
-- The 2-year-old races are ratcheting up with only five months until the Breeders' Cup. Golden Gate Fields sends the juveniles 5 furlongs on the all-weather in Saturday's $50,000 Lost in the Fog Stakes. Hollywood Saturday offers the $100,000 Willard L. Proctor Memorial Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather. Lone Star Park's Saturday card includes 5-furlong, $100,000 heats for both filly and male 2-year-olds. And never forgetting New Mexico, SunRay Park on Saturday has the $75,000 C.O. "Ken Kendrick Memorial at 4 1/2 furlongs for state-bred youngsters.
News and notes:
Speaking of juveniles, Churchill Downs Inc., announced Thursday it has changed the procedure for ranking contenders for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks. Instead of basing the list on graded stakes earnings, Derby and Oaks contenders now will earn points in officially designated prep races. The old way had its issues. The new one is guaranteed to cause some stir. Interestingly, the fall juvenile races at Arlington Park -- a CDI track -- are not on the list. The change also means 2-year-old races with giant purses like the Delta Jackpot and Cash Call Futurity no longer will be essentially "Win and You're In" tickets to the Run for the Roses. And, the new scheme allows for fillies to earn points along with the colts to win entry in the Derby but logistically that would seem almost impossible to do. Ah, change!