The Kentucky Derby and Belmont winners are back in weekend racing, though neither is favored in Saturday's $1 million Travers Stakes.
Instead, it's Verrazano, a multiple Grade I winner, listed as the morning-line choice in the "Midsummer Derby" at Saratoga, where the best performers will be prime contenders for this November's $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
And, speaking of the Classic, the top older prospect for that event, Game On Dude, will be in action on Sunday at Del Mar in the $1 million Pacific Classic. Overseas, Declaration of War defeated a stellar field in Wednesday's Group 1 Juddmonte International at York in northern England and also could be ticketed for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Reigning filly & mare champ Royal Delta also has a role this weekend -- as the favorite in Sunday's Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga. There's a whole barn full of eye-catching 2-year-olds on parade at Calder Race Course on both dirt and turf.
Those are just the highest of the highlights of a weekend that includes several other high-priced, important steps toward the year-end showdowns, all of them recorded right below. Read on.
Kentucky Derby winner Orb, rested since failing to win either the Preakness Stakes or the Belmont, returns to action in the $1 million, Grade I Travers at Saratoga, as does Belmont Stakes winner Palace Malice. But the 2-1 favorite is Verrazano, winner of six of his seven career starts. The colt finished 14th in the Kentucky Derby, running over a sloppy track, then took time off before rebounding to easily win the Grade III Pegasus and the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth Park. Should he win the Travers, he would be the clear leader in the division. Todd Pletcher trains both Verazzano and Palace Malice and said there's no issue about having to contenders in the same race. "You always try to do what's best for each individual horse and each individual owner," Pletecher said at Wednesday's post position draw, "and I think the Travers is the right race for both horses. It's as simple as that. I'm as interested to see it as everybody else is. They're two horses doing unbelievably well and coming off really good races. It's going to be interesting." Orb, said trainer Shug McGaughey, is rested and ready to get back on track, literally and figuratively. "I'd like to get him back on the right track so we can have a positive fall with him," McGaughey said. "Obviously, we're in the race to win. But if we get a really good, solid effort, that would be fine, too, just so we can move on. But I think he'll be awfully tough." There's plenty more competition in the race. Palace Malice won the Jim Dandy earlier in the Saratoga meeting. Will Take Charge, who finished second in that race after competing in all three legs of the Triple Crown, will be looking to gain a few steps. Golden Soul, who spoiled many an exacta and trifecta ticket with a long shot second-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, also will tackle this tough bunch despite a couple recent disappointments. In all, nine 3-year-olds are set to go the 1 1/4 miles on the main track.
And if the Travers helps define a leader among the 3-year-olds heading toward the Breeders' Cup Classic, Sunday's $1 million, Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar might put the stamp of approval on the top older horse. That would be Game On Dude, the Bob Baffert trainee who has not lost in five trips since a bad start cost him last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. He took home a $1 million winner's share in the Grade II Charles Town Classic in April, then came back to win the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup in early July. Game On Dude, a 6-year-old Awesome Again gelding, needs to be on or at least near the lead to be effective, which could pose a problem Sunday for jockey Joel Rosario. No one was scared off by the big guy's reputation and he will be starting from the No. 11 gate in a field of 13. Why? Regular rider Mike Smith bailed out to ride Royal Delta at Saratoga on Sunday. The Del Mar Polytrack has never seemed to be Game On Dude's favorite footing. Finally, the competition include Dullahan -- the horse who caught and beat Game On Dude in last year's Pacific Classic. "Hopefully, we'll win this one and then take it one race at a time," Baffert said. "I never get ahead of myself. I don't even know if I'll run Dude before the Breeders' Cup." Other recognizable names in Sunday's contest include Richard's Kid, Jeranimo, Delegation, Kettle Corn, Liaison and Endorsement.
If there's to be a top foreign challenger in the big race at this year's Breeders' Cup World Championships, it could be Declaration of War. Declaration of War charged powerfully down the stretch in Thursday's Group 1 Juddmonte International at York, disposed of multiple Group 1 winner Al Kazeem and then held off a second effort by Irish Derby winner Trading Leather to get home first by 1 1/4 lengths over that one. Al Kazeem finished third while Sussex Stakes winner Toronado quickly dropped back to last and finished in that position. Declaration of War, winner of the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot, had seemed to be regressing in three intervening starts and trainer Aidan O'Brien had talked of dropping him back in distance. He had no trouble with Wednesday's 10 1/2 furlongs, however, making him a more likely candidate for the Breeders' Cup Classic at 10 furlongs on the Santa Anita main course than the Turf at 12 furlongs on the grass. "He's a big, powerful, strong traveller and you have got to have a horse that travels strong and stays a mile and a quarter for the Classic," O'Brien said. "I can't tell you what an amazing constitution this horse has got."
Already in the books at the Ebor meeting at York:
The Fugue rallied by Venus De Milo approaching the furlong grounds in Thursday's Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks and easily drew clear to win by 4 lengths over that rival. Secret Gesture was third in the 1 1/2-mile test, run over good to firm footing. The Fugue, a Dansili filly owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd-Webber, was bouncing back from a disappointment in the Coral Eclipse in her last outing back in June. Trainer John Gosden said she was nursing an illness before that race. Gosden added the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe is not out of the question if the ground at Longchamp should be on the firm side of good.
Telescope bounced back from a Group 3 defeat at Haydock to win Wednesday's Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes at York by 1 1/4 lengths over Foundary. "He's no world-beater but he is decent," winning rider Ryan Moore said of the one-time Derby hopeful Galileo colt.
The prestigious Ebor Festival continues into the weekend in the scenic northeast of England.
In the other divisions:
Reigning champion Royal Delta will have a chance in Sunday's $600,000, Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga to show she is truly back on her game after a rocky start to the year. The two-time Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic winner finished 10th in the Dubai World Cup, then lost to Funny Proposition in the Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs. In her last start, however, she romped by 10 3/4 lengths in the Grade I Delaware Handicap, putting a smile on trainer Bill Mott's face. "I'm hoping the last race was an indication of good things to come," Mott said. "Hopefully she can maintain her form through the end of the year. Only four signed on to challenger her at 9 furlongs over the Saratoga dirt in the Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" race. Centring was fourth in Royal Delta's Delaware tour de force. On Fire Baby won the Grade I Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park this spring, then finished second to Authenticity in the Grade II La Troienne at Churchill Downs in May -- and will face that rival again. Authenticity has a win and a place in two starts since then, the win coming in the Grade III Shuvee Handicap at Saratoga. Pletcher, who trains Authenticity, said she is in top form, adding, "Having a race over the track helps, I think." A small but tough field provides some betting interest.
Sunday's $100,000 (Canadian) Belle Mahone Stakes at 1 1/16 miles over the all-weather at Woodbine drew six entries. Sisterly Love and Eagle Hall come from a 1-2 finish in the Grade III Ontario Matron. The others will have to advance to compete.
Forty Tales heads a cast of 14 entered for the $500,000, Grade I Foxwoods King's Bishop Stakes at Saratoga on Saturday, carded at 7 furlongs on the dirt. Forty Tales, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, burst onto the scene with a victory in the Grade III Derby Trial, then reeled off consecutive wins in the Grade II Woody Stephens at Belmont and the Grade II Amsterdam earlier at the Spa. He is saddled by Pletcher, who also sends out Overanalyze and Capo Bastone.
Sunday's $250,000, Grade II Pat O'Brien at 7 furlongs on the Del Mar all-weather course picked up a baker's dozen, with some big names included. Bob Baffert will saddle Fed Biz and Drill against the likes of Goldencents, Great Hot, Handsome Mike and Batti Man.
Sunday's $200,000 (Canadian) Play the King Stakes at 7 furlongs over the Woodbine turf course drew a crowd of 13 entrants. Riding the River was assigned the high weight of 123 pounds off a win in the Grade II King Edward two starts back. Go Blue or Go Home has won three straight, culminating in the Grade III Highlander last month.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Del Mar Handicap, run at 11 furlongs on the grass at Del Mar, is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" race and drew an internationally tinged field of seven. Irish-bred Vagabond Shoes comes off a second-place finish behind Jeranimo in the Grade I Eddie Read earlier in the meet and seems to be rounding into form for trainer John Sadler. Brazilian runner Holding Glory makes his second U.S. start after a promising runner-up finish earlier at Del Mar in an allowance tilt. French-bred Lucayan needs to step it up a little bit for trainer Neil Drysdale. This could be a spot to do just that as there are no monsters here.
Summer Front, fresh off a win in the Grade III Miami Mile at Calder Race Course, drew the outside post position among seven in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Cliff Hanger Stakes at 1 1/16 miles on the grass at Monmouth Park. Howe Great has been second in two straight Grade II affairs.
Filly & Mare Turf
Hungry Island, Centre Court and Laughing all mix it up again in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Ketel One Balston Spa at Saratoga going 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Hungry Island and Centre Court finished third and fourth, respectively, last time out in the Grade I Just A Game at Belmont. Laughing won the Grade I Diana at Saratoga in her last outing in a tough battle. Somali Lemonade, Miz Ida and/or Pianist also could have something to say about this tough heat.
Obviously is the obvious choice -- and the highweight at 125 pounds -- among five starters set for Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Del Mar Mile. The 5-year-old, Irish-bred Choisir gelding gives 6 pounds or more to each rival. He earned the impost. After finishing third in last year's Breeders' Cup Mile behind Wise Dan and Animal Kingdom, he came back this year to win the Grade II American Handicap and the Grade I Shoemaker Mile, both at Hollywood Park. Among the others, Tigah owns a Grade III win in the San Francisco Mile at Golden Gate two starts back. Silentio has been close in several local graded stakes but makes his first start since April at Keeneland. El Commodore is graded stakes-placed, too, and if the race is run to form, he should be slugging it out with Obviously for the lead.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Book Review returns from California to Saratoga, where she broke her maiden two years ago, to try 7 furlongs in Friday's $500,000, Grade I Ballerina. The 4-year-old Giant's Causeway filly comes off a win in the Grade II A Gleem Handicap at Hollywood Park last month. Despite the maiden win at the Spa, her only two disappointing races have come in the Empire State, including a seventh-place showing in the Grade I Test Stakes at Saratoga last summer when she was compromised by a rough start. Friday's competition includes Dance to Bristol, who has won six straight this year, including the Grade III Bed o' Roses at Belmont and the Grade II Honorable Miss at the Spa in her last two outings. Also in the mix is Judy the Beauty, who has never finished worse than second in 10 career starts and gets a jockey upgrade to Joel Rosario.
Nine 3-year-old filly sprinters are set to go 7 furlongs in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Test Stakes at Saratoga. Morning-line favorite is Sweet Lulu, making just her fourth career start for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and the first outside California and first on a real dirt track. She is a daughter of Mr. Greeley. My Happy Face, Lighthouse Bay and Wildcat Lily all are in the mix here, too. Lighthouse Bay will be stretching out to 7 furlongs for the first time while My Happy Face cuts back from a second-place finish behind 3-year-old filly division leader Princess of Sylmar in the Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks.
The young 'uns
Calder Race Course mixes up the second leg of the Florida Stallion Stakes for 2-year-olds with four nice open juvenile races -- two on the grass going short and two on the main course at 1 mile. My Brown Eyed Guy won the Dr. Fager Division of the FSS convincingly at 6 furlongs. The With Distinction gelding now tackles six rivals, including several who chased in the Dr. Fager, and an additional furlong in the $125,000 Affirmed Division. In the $125,000 Susan's Girl Division, Scandalous Act will try to repeat her front-running, 7 1/2-length win in the Desert Vixen Division while taking on six others and the added eighth of a mile.
Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Swynford Stakes at 7 furlongs on the Woodbine all-weather course attracted seven, with the two morning-line favorites drawn on the outside of the starting gate. Tuscan Getaway, a Kentucky-bred Stroll gelding, will start No. 6 as the 5-2 early pick off a third-place finish in the local Colin Stakes last month. Spadina Road, an Ontario-bred colt by Where's the Ring, enters off a dominating maiden win over the course and has the outside stall at 3-1 on the morning line.