UPI Horse Racing Weekend Preview

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer  |  June 18, 2014 at 9:38 PM
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This is one of those magical racing weekends when even the most hard-core bettors might decide to sit back, take a break and watch history unfold.

On the same day, Australia will try to live up to his regal heritage in the Investec Derby at Epsom Downs in England. And California Chrome will try to end a 36-year Triple Crown drought by taking the Belmont Stakes in New York.

Both colts will be odds-on favorites so "come" bets will have limited rewards. And who wants to be a "wrong way" bettor when history is being written?

Anyway, there is no shortage of betting opportunity elsewhere during the weekend -- particularly on a Saturday card at Belmont Park that includes 10 stakes races, five of them Grade I affairs. And Epsom offers up the Group 1 Coronation Stakes, featuring ageless French globetrotter Cirrus Des Aigles, who also will be an odds-on favorite.

Let's take a closer look, starting with the big ones:

The Belmont Stakes

California Chrome will start from the No. 2 gate against 10 opponents in Saturday's Belmont Stakes as he tries to end a Triple Crown drought stretching back to Affirmed's triumph in 1978. Both the trainer and the rider of the modestly bred colt said they are happy with the post position, which arguably is less important in the 1 1/2-miles Belmont than in the shorter earlier legs of the Triple Crown -- the Kentucky Derby and Peakness Stakes. California Chrome drew No. 5 for the Derby and No. 3 in the Preakness.

"I think it's going to be a jockey's race anyhow," said Allan Sherman, son and assistant to trainer Art Sherman. "It gives you a chance to see who's going to have the speed and where you land going into the first turn." Jockey Victor Espinoza added, "I'm very excited. I like No. 2. I think, hopefully, it's my lucky number."

This is Espinoza's second chance at the Triple Crown. He won the Derby and Preakness on War Emblem 12 years ago but that colt stumbled at the start of the Belmont and never reached contention.

Wicked Strong is second favorite on the morning line. He won the Grade I Wood Memorial at Aqueduct, finished fourth with a strong late move in the Kentucky Derby, then skipped the Preakness. Earlier, he finished ninth in the Holy Bull Stakes at Gulfstream Park -- a race that produced a raft of later stakes winners.

Tonalist, the oddsmaker's third choice, is making only his fourth career start but comes off a victory in the Grade II Peter Pan Stakes over the Belmont oval, accelerating at the end of the 1 1/8 miles like he could handed more distance.

Commanding Curve finished second to California Chrome in the Kentucky Derby, gaining a huge amount of ground in the long Churchill Downs stretch after running next-last of the 19 starters through the first 3/4 mile.

Epsom Derby

Sixteen are entered for Saturday's Group 1 Investec Epsom Derby with Australia still listed as the favorite.

Snow Sky the only no-show at the time of entries on Thursday. Snow Sky, winner of the Lingfield Derby three weeks ago, "banged a joint" Wednesday morning and trainer Sir Michael Stoute said he had not recovered sufficiently to make the big event.

Australia is bred for the race. His sire, Galileo, won the Derby in 2001 and has gone on to become one of the world's top sires. His dam, Ouija Board, won the 2004 Epsom Oaks and subsequently was a multiple Group 1 and Grade I winner internationally.

Australia was last seen finishing a close third in the Qipco 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket for trainer Aidan O'Brien, who is looking for his third straight win in the Derby, following Camelot in 2012 and Ruler of the World last year. No trainer has won three in a row in the history of the storied race. O'Brien's son, Joseph, is set to ride Australia.

O'Brien also will saddle the second choice in early betting, Geoffrey Chaucer, as well as Orchestra and Kingfisher.

Also in Saturday's field are Arod and True Story, the second- and third-place finishers from the Dante Stakes at York; Romsdal, who finished second to Orchestra in the Chester Vase and was supplemented to the Derby at a cost of 75,000 pounds sterling by owner Princess Haya of Jordan, wife of Sheik Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum, ruler of Dubai and master of Godolphin Racing. Godolphin, under its own banner, will support True Story's effort with long shots Pinzolo and Sudden Wonder.

While Australia long has been the favorite for the Derby, his support has been weakening in the past few days according to Coral, the official bookmaker of the event.

"There has been market opposition to Australia this week," said Coral's David Stevens. "And, with further rain possible over Epsom, his price could yet drift even further, with Ryan Moore's presence on board Geoffrey Chaucer ensuring that colt has regained second favoritism from Kingston Hill."

The going at Epsom on Thursday was listed as "good to soft." The Met Office, however, predicts the chance of heavy rain on Saturday, which would significantly impact the running. O'Brien has said Australia could be compromised by a very soft course.

Also at Epsom

Seventeen fillies are entered for Friday's Investec Oaks (In Memory of Sir Henry Cecil) with Marvelous the general pick. The Galileo filly, trained by Aidan O'Brien and ridden by son Joseph O'Brien, comes off a daylight victory in the Group 1 Irish Oaks. There's plenty of competition, though, including the Sheik Hamdan duo of Taghrooda and Tarfasha and Godolphin Racing's UAE Oaks winner Ihtamil.

The 2013 Derby winner, Ruler of the World, has been ruled out of Saturday's Group 1 Coronation Cup (In Commemoration of St Nicholas Abbey), leaving Cirrus Des Aigles as the heavy favorite. Talent, Empoli, Joshua Tree and Ambivalent are among those left to try to derail the French-based invader, who has bumped off Treve and Olympic Glory in his last two starts.

Also at Belmont Park

There are so many top-shelf stakes races at Belmont on Saturday that it's hard to keep track of them.

The $1 million, Grade I Knob Creek Manhattan at 1 1/4 miles on the grass features the top three finishers from the recent Grade I Man o' War -- Imagining, Real Solution and Grandeur, as well as the second- and third-place finishers (behind Wise Dan) in the Grade I Turf Classic at Churchill Downs -- Seek Again and Boisterous.

Last year's Belmont Stakes winner, Palace Malice, rides a three-race winning streak into $1.25 million, Grade I Metropolitan Handicap, or Met Mile. Declan's Warrior and Normandy Invasion, the runners up in Palace Malice's last two starts, are back to try again. Also here are the first four finishers from the Grade II Churchill Downs Handicap last month -- Central Banker, Shakin It Up, Clearly Now and Broadway Empire. Watch for Goldencents, winner of last fall's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, who makes his first start of 2014.

Fillies and mares go 1 mile on the turf in the $750,000, Grade I Longines Just A Game Stakes. Discreet Marq, Better Lucky, Stephanie's Kitten and Somali Lemonade all look viable with Waterway Run poised to take a step forward in her fourth U.S. start after racing in England and France.

If it weren't for a second-place finish behind Beholder in the Breeders' Cup, Close Hatches would be looking for her sixth straight win Saturday's $1 million, Grade I Ogden Phipps, at 1 1/16 miles around one turn on the main track. She gets a chance for revenge as Beholder is in from California to try for her 10th win in 14 starts. But this is no match race as the six-horse field also includes Princess of Sylmar, who kicked off a four-race winning skein of her own with a victory in last year's Kentucky Oaks -- beating Beholder by 1/2 length. This will be one to watch.

Speaking of the Kentucky Oaks, the second- and third-place finishers from this year's running, My Miss Sophia and Unbridled Forever, hook up again in the $750,000, Grade I TVG Acorn at 1 mile on the main track. Oaks winner Untapable is sitting it out. A couple others are interesting. Artemis Agrotera won her first two starts last year, including the Grade I Frizette at Belmont, then finished a distant fifth in the Breeders' Cup and hasn't raced since. She has been working well. Fashion Plate won three straight in California, including the Grade I Santa Anita Oaks, before finishing 11th in the Kentucky Oaks after a bad start.

The late trainer Woody Stephens saddled five straight Belmont Stakes winners from 1982 through 1986 but he's not putting up sponsorship money so the race named for him on Saturday's card is "only" a $500,000, Grade II event. It drew a fascinating field of 13 3-year-olds to go 7 furlongs on the main track, including Breeders' Cup Juvenile runner-up Havana; Grade III Derby Trial winner (by DQ) Embellishing Bob and the horse who beat him to the wire, Bayern; a bunch from the hard-fought Gold Fever Stakes over the track last month; the undefeated Meadowood, who won on the Preakness Stakes undercard three weeks ago; and Coup de Grace. The latter finished 10th in the Grade II Holy Bull in January (see above), then came back to win the Grade III Bay Shore at Aqueduct in April.

Ben's Cat makes a rare detour off the Maryland-Pennsylvania circuit to take on 10 rivals in Saturday's $300,000, Grade III Jaipur Stakes at 6 furlongs over the inner turf course. It will be a stern test as there are some tough, graded-stakes competitors in the field. Ben's Cat, an 8-year-old gelding, has won 26 of 39 starts, including three straight, and earned just shy of $2 million. But owner-trainer King Leatherbury has only brought him to New York once before -- for a second-place finish in the Forty Niner Stakes at Aqueduct in 2010.

Eight signed on for the $500,000, Grade II Brooklyn Invitational -- a 1 1/2-miles marathon that would be an early pointer to the Breeders' Cup Marathon if that race hadn't been dropped from this fall's Championship card. Only a few of the eight have ever tried this distance, including Golden Soul, who has never been able to match his second-place finish behind Orb in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Argentine-bred Ever Rider is a proven commodity with recent success.

The first stakes race of the day, and second race on the card, is the $150,000 Easy Goer, named for the 1989 Belmont Stakes winner. It's 1 1/16 miles on the main track and attracted a field of nine, ranging from recent maiden winners to graded stakes flops seeking a more appropriate level.

And that's just on Saturday.

On Friday, 12 are entered for the $200,000 Belmont Gold Cup at 2 miles on the grass. Of note is Auld Alliance, an Irish-bred and English-raced Montjeu filly who won her first U.S. start at 1 1/4 miles over the Belmont lawn last month. Graham Motion takes over training duties from Sir Michael Stoute and celebrity chef and restaurateur Bobby Flay now owns the 4-year-old. Mambo Man comes off a win in the 1 7/8-miles Hasta La Vista Handicap at Turf Paradise.

There's no shortage of speed or of last-out winners among the nine entrants for Friday's $250,000, Grade II True North at 6 furlongs on the main track. Dads Caps comes off a victory in the Grade I Carter Handicap at Aqueduct in his last start but the morning-line pick is the lightly raced Bakken.

Other action:

A couple other races around the country are named for former Triple Crown contenders.

Eight are set to face the starter in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Affirmed Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita, going 1 1/16 miles. None is likely to be confused with Affirmed -- or with Alydar, for that matter. Big Tire does have the distinction of finishing fifth behind California Chrome in the Santa Anita Derby. Can the Man makes his 2014 debut for Bob Baffert off some strong works and a respectable 2-year-old record. Rebranded was competitive in New Mexico.

Sunday's $100,000 Silky Sullivan Stakes at Golden Gate fields is for 3-year-olds going 1 mile on the lawn. Silky Sullivan ran from so far back that he appeared to be in a different race -- usually making up 25 or more lengths, sometimes 40. He won the 1957 Golden State Futurity and the 1958 Santa Anita Derby but finished 12th under the Twin Spires. There are no Silky Sullivans in Sunday's field although Awesome Return came from off the pace to win the Snow Chief Stakes on the Santa Anita grass in his last start. He again faces the 2-3 finishers from that race, Patriots Rule and Alert Bay. Pathway to Yes comes off two front-running wins on the Southern California circuit. G.G. Ryder has won four of his last five, all at Golden Gate, all on or near the lead. The Mad Hungarian hasn't run very well but gets bonus points for the baseball connection to his name (see end of story if you don't know).

Back at Churchill Downs, eight distaffers are entered for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Early Times Mint Julep Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. The field is very competitive, with six of the eight listed at single digits on the morning line. The narrow favorite is I'm Already Sexy, winner of the Grade III Pucker Up Stakes at Arlington Park last September but winless since against much tougher foes. Miz Ida, last year's winner, returns. But she also is winless in the interim.

An overflow field is entered for Sunday's $200,000, Grade II Monmouth Stakes at 9 furlongs on the Monmouth Park grass. Tannery has two wins from his last three starts, including victories in the Grade I E.P. Taylor at Woodbine last fall and in his 2014 debut. Hard Enough was the upset winner of the local Grade III Red Bank Stakes in his last outing. Among the rest, Admiral Kitten, Speaking of Which, Guys Reward, Finnegans Wake, Slim Shadey, Lochte, Hangover Kid and Tetradrachm all will try to reverse recent graded stakes losing streaks -- some of them quite lengthy.

Quiz answer

Al Hrabosky, a.k.a "The Mad Hungarian," pitched for the Cardinals, Royals and Braves in the 1970s and early 1980s. He posted 65 wins and 35 losses. In 1976, he was 13-3 with a 1.66 ERA and 22 saves. The nickname derives from his last name, his exuberant facial hair and his somewhat crazed mound demeanor. The horse should only be so good.

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