Champions and potential champs clash in weekend racing

Ben's Cat wins Fabulous Strike Handicap at Penn National for second straight year. (Photo courtesy B&D Photography)
Ben's Cat wins Fabulous Strike Handicap at Penn National for second straight year. (Photo courtesy B&D Photography)

Will Take Charge tries to cement the 3-year-old crown in Kentucky and champions clash in New York as a long weekend of racing rolls on.

Two-year-old races abound again. And in Japan, action shifts from Tokyo to Hanshin and from the turf to the Group 1 Japan Cup Dirt where Pants On Fire will tackle the local runners.


Meanwhile, plenty of action already is on the books as Thanksgiving provides one of the year's biggest cornucopias of racing. Emerge from the tryptophan haze and consider:


A pair of recent Breeders' Cup winners -- Mile victor Goldencents and two-time Filly & Mare Sprint champ Groupie Doll -- are the early picks for Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Cigar Mile. Eleven are entered in a super-tough field, including Flat Out, Verrazano, Clearly Now and Forty Tales. Goldencents, a 3-year-old Into Mischief colt, scored three straight graded stakes seconds before jumping up in the Breeders' Cup. Although Groupie Doll is best known for her exploits sprinting in the Breeders' Cup, she also is an accomplished miler who, in fact, finished second to Stay Thirsty as the favorite in this race last year. This should be a good one.


Honor Code, an A.P. Indy colt who passed up the Breeders' Cup Juvenile after a second-place finish in the Grade I Champagne, is the morning-line favorite among nine entered for Saturday's $400,000, Grade II Remsen Stakes. Trainer Shug McGaughey said he hopes Honor Cold will be a good Triple Crown contender and never considered shipping to California to do battle with more precocious rivals in the Breeders' Cup. McGaughey, of course, won the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb. The main competition appears to be Cairo Prince, a Pioneer of the Nile colt who is undefeated in two starts, including the Grade II Nashua Stakes in his last outing.

Wedding Toast and My Happy Face are the early picks for Saturday's $400,000 Grade III Comely Stakes for 3-year-old fillies going 9 furlongs. Wedding Toast, a Street Sense filly, has won three straight. My Happy Face, a daughter of Tiz Wonderful, hasn't been worse than fourth in nine career outings.

Centring, My Pal Chrisy and Executiveprivilege are the morning-line favorites for Friday's $300,000, Grade II Go For Wand Handicap. The 1-mile event drew a field of eight distaffers. Centring has not won in some 13 months -- a period that encompasses eight starts. But she has consistently been in the mix in those races, most of them Grade I stakes. My Pal Chrisy comes off three straight stakes wins at Gulfstream Park but makes only her second start outside the Sunshine State. Executiveprivilege is hoping a change in scenery will help as trainer Bob Baffert ships from California.


In earlier races:

Palace, without malice, rallied from near the back of a compact group in Thursday's $300,000, Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap and got clear late, winning by 1 1/2 lengths over Strapping Groom. The Lumber Guy lumbered home third. Palace, a 4-year-old City Zip colt, ran 6 furlongs on a good track in 1:09.82 while toting 129 pounds, including Cornelio Velasquez. Strapping Groom was conceding 6 pounds; The Lumber Guy, 4. Palace, who was claimed from $20,000 last fall, scored his third straight stakes win. "Perfect trip," summarized Velasquez. "My horse broke good, good position. He's better outside. Winning trainer Linda Rice also trained City Zip -- a connection which, she said, "Makes it really cool."

Churchill Downs

Will Take Charge won the Grade I Travers at Saratoga and the Grade I Pennsylvania Derby. Even his narrow loss to Mucho Macho Man in the Breeders' Cup Classic may have been enough to earn him the 3-year-old Eclipse Award. But trainer D. Wayne Lukas has opted to roll the dice again in Friday's $500,000, Grade I Clark Handicap -- against Game On Dude, no less. In a year when no other 3-year-old stood out over the long run, even a decent showing could be enough to earn the hardware. But Game On Dude, excepting his back-to-back Breeders' Cup flops, has nine wins and a second from his last 10 races. And he did run second in the Breeders' Cup Classic over the Churchill Downs strip in 2011, caught by Drosselmeyer in the final sixteenth. Bourbon Courage, Golden Ticket and Prayer for Relief also merit a look, if only for a place on the bottom of a trifecta ticket.


Almost Famous has won two of three starts -- all under the Twin Spires -- and is the heavy favorite for Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club for 2-year-olds. The last start for the Unbridled's Song colt produced a 6-lengths victory in an optional claimer going 1 1/16 miles. That's the same distance the field of 10 will negotiated in the Golden Rod. Others with credentials in this perennial bellwether for the Kentucky Derby include Culprit, Tapiture and Dobra Historia. This is one to watch for future futures pools.

Ten also signed on for Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Golden Rod Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. The balanced field includes the likes of lukewarm favorite Stonetastic, Vexed, Madly Truly, Daddy's Memory and Bird Maker.

Races already in the books:

Wine Princess shadowed the pace in Thursday's $150,000, Grade II Falls City Handicap for fillies and mares, got to the lead in the lane and held off the favorite, Don't Tell Sophia, winning by 2 3/4 lengths Flashy American finished third. Wine Princess is a 4-year-old Ghostzapper filly out of Azeri -- the U.S. horses of the year in 2004 and 2002, respectively. She ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.12 with Shaun Bridgmohan handling the reins. "I thought when Don't Tell Sophia came to us, we'd have to fight it out," said winning trainer Steve Margolis. "But she just had another gear today." The Falls City was Wine Princess's last race. She retires with five wins, five seconds and one third from 13 career starts. Among her other wins was the Grade III Monmouth Oaks.


Hollywood Park

Nine are entered for Sunday's $250,000, Grade I Matriarch Stakes for fillies and mares at 1 mile on the lawn. Dayatthespa, Better Lucky and Pianist all invade from New York after doing battle in graded stakes there. Egg Drop has two straight wins coming into this. Discreet Marq makes her second California trip of the year after landing the Grade I Del Mar Oaks in her last invasion. Wishing Gate was second in that Oaks and returns. Tiz Flirtatious won the Grade I Rodeo Drive at Santa Anita before running out of the money in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. That was her first off-the-board showing in 13 career starts.

An interesting and contentious field of 10 is in prospect for Sunday's $250,000, Grade I Hollywood Derby. Among them are Admiral Kitten and Amen Kitten, Jack Milton, Gervinho, Dice Flavor, Infinite Magic, English invader Seek Again, and Rookie Sensation. This is one to sort out for a payoff.

Two-year-olds on the turf are the featured attraction Saturday.

Six are set for the $100,000, Grade III Generous Stakes at 1 mile on the grass. Among them is Aoteaora, who won at both Santa Anita and Del Mar before finishing seventh in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Ontology returns from a 10th-place finish in that event. Royal Banker ships in off a win in England. One to watch is Global View, a Galileo colt out of the Storm Cat mare Egyptian Queen who won in his second race at Santa Anita last month. Only three of the six will run with Lasix.


A matching set of six fillies is entered for the $100,000, Grade III Miesque Stakes, also at 1 mile on the lawn. Irish-bred Clenor had three straight wins, including two stakes, before settling for eighth in the Breeders' Cup. Nesso hopes to rebound from a 10th-place showing in that race. The others need to move forward.

Silentio, Winning Prize and Summer Front headline a cast of seven for Friday's $250,000, Grade III Citation Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Silentio comes off a third-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Mile, only 1 length behind potential Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Winning Prize and Summer Front were fourth and seventh in the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland -- a race that was run on the all-weather track.

You can no longer bet on these:

Majestic Stride shadowed the early pace in Thursday's $100,000, Grade III Vernon O. Underwood Stakes, then got clear in the final furlong to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Color of Courage was second, followed by Handsome Mike. Majestic Stride, a 4-yeasr-old Trippi gelding, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:08.87 for jockey Edwin Maldonado. He came into the race off a fourth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. "I knew he was going to win today," Maldonado said, "because he had a little trouble in the Breeders' Cup. He's a nice horse."


Hawthorne Race Course

Last Gunfighter heads a nice cast entered for Saturday's $350,000, Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup at the suburban Chicago oval. The 4-year-old First Samurai colt won the Grade III Pimlico Special and the Grade III Iselin Handicap at Monmouth before getting home fifth in both the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and the Breeders' Cup Classic. Potential competitors include Alpha, who won the Grade I Woodward before a couple recent disappointments, and Suns Out Guns Out, who finished fourth in the Breeders' Cup Marathon. Prayer for Relief is cross-entered here and in the Clark at Churchill Downs.


Phil's Dream, the winner of four straight and seven of his last eight, is the morning-line pick in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian), Grade II Kennedy Road Stakes at 6 furlongs on the all-weather track. The Philanthropist gelding Grade I Neartic Stakes two starts back along the current win skein.

A dozen distaffers are set for Sunday's $150,000 (Canadian) Bessarabian Stakes at 7 furlongs on the all-weather course.

Golden Gate Fields

Summer Hill and Majestic City are the morning-line picks among six for Friday's $100,000, Grade III Berkeley Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track. Neither has been a model of consistency but both have shown enough to win this one.


Penn National

Ben's Cat came to challenge pacesetting Ribo Bobo in the stretch run in Wednesday's $250,000 Fabulous Strike Handicap and prevailed after a prolonged drive by 1/2 length. Good Morning Diva finished well back in third. Ben's Cat, a 7-year-old gelding by Parker's Storm Cat, ran 6 furlongs on a good track in 1:09.74 with Julian Pimentel up. "He is truly a remarkable horse," said winning owner/trainer King Leatherbury. Wednesday's victory was his 19th stakes win and second straight in the $250,000 Fabulous Strike. "As long as everything goes okay, we'll be back next year for the Mister Diz in the spring at Pimlico to try to win that race five years in a row." That would be remarkable.

Taptowne stalked the pace in Wednesday's $150,000 Swatara Stakes, then kicked clear in the lane to win by 5 1/4 lengths. A.P. Cinco finished second and Ponzi Scheme was third. Taptowne, a 5-year-old Tapit gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.09 with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the irons for trainer Tim Glyshaw.

Five Star Mama led from the start in Wednesday's $150,000 Lady In Waiting Stakes for fillies and mares and held off She's Ordained in long stretch battle before winning by a neck. Sweet Cassiopeia got home third. Five Star Mama, a 4-year-old Five Star Day filly, ran 6 furlongs on a good track in 1:11.78 with Pimentel up.


Zia Park

For Cash was up in the final stride to win a three-horse photo in Tuesday's $200,000 Zia Park Derby. Carve was second and I Stand Alone finished third. For Cash, an Alberta-bred gelding by Stephen Got Even, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.17 with Aldo Arboleda in the irons. The race had been scheduled to run during the weekend but icy conditions forced a delay.

Likewise for Tuesday's $300,000 Zia Park Oaks. In that event, Unusual Way led all the way to a 6-lengths win over Gold Medal Dancer with Oscar Party third. Unusual Way, a Cal-bred filly by Unusual Heat, got home in 1:44.01 with Edwin Maldonado up.

Wine Thief took over in the stretch run in Tuesday's $55,000 Zia Park Distaff and won off by 4 lengths over pacesetting long shot Joyful Tap. Lady Contender settled for third. The winner, a 4-year-old Benchmark filly, ran 6 furlongs in 1:10.31 for jockey Ry Eikleberry.

Lady Genius blew by the odds-on favorite, That's the Idea, late in Tuesday's $140,000 New Mexico Eddy County Stakes for state-bred 2-year-olds and won by 4 1/4 lengths over that one. Reaper and Explosively Fast completed the order of finish. Lady Genius, a Quinton's Gold filly running against males, got 1 mile on a fast track in 1:41.88 under Carlos Madeira.


Fair Grounds

Gantry survived a bump at the break of Thursday's $100,000 Thanksgiving Handicap, turned back a pair of challenges and went on to win by a neck as the odds-on favorite. Central Banker was second, with Mico Margarita and Strong and Tough completing the order of finish. Delaunay and Foreign Production were scratched. Gantry, a 6-year-old Pulpit gelding, ran 6 furlogns on a fast track in 1:10.32 with Richard Eramia up. The win could foreshadow greater things to come. "He's a very nice horse," Eramia said. "But he can run better than he did today."


Pants On Fire will represent the United States Sunday against Japan's top dirt runners in the Group I Japan Cup Dirt at Kyoto, the dirt-track companion race to last weekend's Group 1 Japan Cup. Sixteen are set for the $2.5 million race at 1,800 meters. Pants On Fire, with Gary Stevens in for the ride, will start from gate No. 10. He won the Grade II Monmouth Cup and the Grade III Ack Ack Stakes before a seventh-place finish behind Goldencents in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. The race also includes the defending champion, Nihonpiro Ours, and the winner of Japan's other Group 1 dirt race, February Stakes champion Grape Brandy. This is the final running of the Japan Cup Dirt, which next year shifts to Chukyo Racecourse as the Champion Cup.


A first-ever home-and-home series between Japanese and Korean horses wound up in a tie. In Tuesday's Interaction Cup at Ohi Racecourse, Korea's Watts Village avenged his loss to Tosen Archer three months earlier at Seoul Park in Korea. Watts Village, a 3-year-old, American-bred son of Forestry, led all the way. Tosen Archer finished 10th in the renewal. Korean rider Seo Seung Un said, "Overall, Japan is at a much higher (racing) level than Korea. But I hope this victory tonight will help lead to future developments in Korean racing."

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