Among the first horses to test Keeneland's new dirt track, installed for the fall race meeting. (Keeneland photo)
There's no rest for weary handicappers this weekend as Labor Day brings a raft of big races from coast to coast and across the divisions.
The youngsters rev things up from Monmouth and Saratoga all the way west to Del Mar on the main track and the turf.
Saratoga has yet another stellar card on Saturday, featuring the return of Wise Dan. Del Mar counters with a Sunday card that includes the Del Mar Derby on the grass.
There's plenty more. And that's not even considering Monday's holiday card. We'll get to that later but, for now:
This division is an evolving mix with last weekend's Pacific Classic winner, Shared Belief, emerging as the current favorite over Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome and the early-season pick, Palace Malice. Various racebooks, including Bovada (bovada.lv) and Britain's Coral, Ladbrokes and Paddy Power, have Shared Belief on top, as does NBC-TV analyst Randy Moss, who notes the 3-year-old gelding "is one step ahead" of California Chrome in his Classic preparation. And the way things are going, unless Wise Dan runs the table and three-peats in the Breeders' Cup Mile, Shared Belief as the Classic winner would have a strong case for Horse of the Year honors.
Maybe another candidate or two will surface in Saturday's $600,000, Grade I Woodward at Saratoga, a 9-furlongs event that got a field of 10. Moreno is the 122-pound highweight after winning the Grade I Whitney with a front-running effort in his last outing. That, however, was the first win in more than a year for the 4-year-old Ghostzapper gelding, who finished 10th in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic. He faces some of the same rivals as in the Whitney. Itsmyluckyday is an improving sort who showed three straight wins earlier this year before settling for second in the Whitney after Moreno was allowed to get away with a moderate early pace. Prayer for Relief was fourth and Last Gunfighter was fifth in the Whitney, as he was in last year's Breeders' Cup. Romansh finished seventh. Stretch-running Zivo comes off an upset victory -- over Moreno, no less -- in the Grade II Suburban nearly two months ago and is riding a six-race winning streak.
Six signed on for Saturday's $150,000, Grade III Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park. Mister Marti Gras, who has been short on wins of late for Team Block, was assigned highweight of 122 pounds and will try to improve on his fifth-place showing in the Grade III Arlington Handicap nearly two months ago. "He is kind of like what I call a blue-collar horse and goes out there and performs on any surface and tries as hard as he can," said trainer Chris Block. Avanzare has raced well on dirt but finished fourth in his first try on the Arlington all-weather surface. Lacking anything demonstrably better, cast an eye on Gimmeadrink, a 7-year-old gelding by Gimmeawink who has won eight of his last nine starts at Suffolk Downs, Tampa Bay and Arlington.
On Monday, it's 3-year-olds in the $300,000, Grade III Smarty Jones Stakes at Parx Racing.
Fashion Plate, winner of the Santa Anita Oaks way back in the springtime, will try to get back on track going 1 mile on the Del Mar all-weather in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Torrey Pines Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. The daughter of Old Fashioned put together a three-race winning streak in California before finishing 11th in the Kentucky Oaks and ninth in the Grade I Acorn at Belmont Park. Among six rivals, Jojo Warrior and Thegirlinthatsong have more recent successes.
Who's going to beat Wise Dan in Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Bernard Baruch Handicap at Saratoga -- the first race back from May colic surgery for the two-time and reigning Horse of the Year? Well, on paper, no one is going to do that. There's plenty of speed to ensure an honest pace and none of the nine rivals has done anything to indicate he has what it takes to beat the champ. That, of course, assumes Wise Dan, a 7-year-old Wiseman's Ferry gelding, is back on his game. Trainer Charlie LoPresti indicated after his Sunday workout that all systems are green, the same way the "Christmas tree" turns green for a start at the drag strip. We shall see. One note of caution: If the race comes off the turf, Lea stays in the lineup, making his first start since winning the Grade I Donn Handicap. Wise Dan has beaten Lea twice on the grass and the champ certainly can handle the main track. But, at his best, Lea would be a threat on the dirt so watch the weather before investing.
Wallyanna is fresh off a big upset win in the Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame Stakes and tries to repeat against eight rivals in Monday's $300,000, Grade IIII Sarnac for 3-year-olds at 9 furlongs on the lawn. Although he won at long odds in the last race, the Langfuhr colt is no slouch, with four wins from his last five starts. Beyond Smart has won three straight races at Presque Isle, Parx and Delaware but seems a step behind Wallyanna in his progress. Cabo Cat, Storm and Ring Weekend all have claims. Two others are in for main-track-only.
Filly & Mare Turf
Ten have turned out for Sunday's $150,000, Grade III Glens Falls at Saratoga, an 11-furlongs race on the grass. Aigue Marine comes from a victory in the Grade III Robert G. Dick Memorial at Delaware. Irish Mission has two consecutive runner-up slots, the latest in the Grade III Matchmaker at Monmouth Park. Cat's Claw, a Dynaformer filly, has won three straight against lesser rivals with the two most recent victories coming at 1 1/2 miles on the lawn. The others are less inspiring.
Out west, on Monday the $200,000, Grade II Yellow Ribbon Handicap at Del Mar sends fillies and mares 1 1/16 miles on the grass.
Parx Racing is the place for the speedy grass runners on the holiday weekend. Monday's card includes the $300,000, Grade III Turf Monster Handicap and the $200,000 Turf Amazon, with the latter restricted to fillies and mares. Each is run at 5 furlongs.
Clearly Now looks like the logical choice in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Forego at Saratoga. His Beyer Speed Figures are a cut above anyone else's and he has not finished worse than third in seven starts at the 7-furlongs trip. He also won the Grade III Belmont Sprint Handicap by 6 1/2 lengths over his top rival for Saturday's race -- Palace. That's the American Palace, not the filly of the same name currently running in England. Caution is advised, though. Palace won the Grade I Alfred G. Vanderbilt earlier this month while Clearly Now loafed in his barn and is a much more frequent winner than that rival. Zee Bros makes just his second start since finishing a respectable sixth in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan on World Cup night and ranks as a "let's take a look." The others in the 10-horse field need to take a step forward.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Prioress at Saratoga is a puzzle, with several of the 3-year-old fillies making their first or second start off a layoff. They all will be looking, however, at Miss Behaviour, who has been running regularly and well since April and comes off a second-place finish behind Sweet Reason in the Grade I Test Stakes at the Spa. Among the returnees are Princess Violet, who finished behind only Untapable in the Grade I Mother Goose in her last outing, and Stonetastic, who demolished an allowance field at Monmouth a month ago in her first start since January. Southern Honey misfired in the Test in her first start back after a short rest but looked sweet before that.
Monday's $200,000, Grade III Greenwood Cup at Parx Racing is for 3-year-olds and up at 1 1/2 miles on the dirt.
I Spent It has won both his starts, including the Grade II Saratoga Special earlier in the meeting, and has been rewarded with the 122-pound highweight assignment for Monday's $350,000, Grade I Hopeful. The Super Saver colt, trained by Tony Dutrow, faces six rivals in the 7-furlongs event. Three of them have yet to win a race. The others are maiden winners only.
Enterprising enters Sunday's $300,000, Grade II Del Mar Derby on the grass, following a win in the Grade III La Jolla Handicap and earlier in the meeting won the Oceanside Stakes -- all over the same course. Early in the year, he was second in the California Derby and then third in the Grade III El Camino Real Derby over the Golden Gate all-weather track. Flamboyant finished third in his last start in the Grade I Belmont Derby Invitational on the lawn, beaten only by Mr Speaker and Adelaide. He earlier raced in the French minor leagues. Two others in this field are fresh from France. Talco finished second in a listed race at Deauville in his last start while Aventador comes off a victory in a listed event at Compiegne.
Seven are in for Sunday's $100,000 Sapling at Monmouth, going 1 mile on the main track. Souper Colossal stands out as the winner of both his previous starts, including the Tyro Stakes over the course earlier this month. The Tyro was run at 5 furlongs on a fast main track after being detoured from the turf. Souper Colossal will be asked to go an additional 3 furlongs on Sunday against mostly recent maiden winners.
Gotta Get Paid and Four Leaf Chief are the morning-line favorites in a field of 12 for Saturday's $100,000 Evangeline Downs Star for 2-year-old colts and geldings. Gotta Get Paid, a Florida-bred colt by Pomeroy, finished second in the Mountaineer Juvenile. Four Leaf Chief, a Louisiana-bred colt by Lookin at Lucky, is 2-for-2 with a win in the Louisiana Cup Juvenile at Louisiana Downs.
Monday's $150,000 I'm Smokin Stakes at Del Mar is for California-bred 2-year-olds.
Already in and on the grass: Startup Nation got started a little late in Thursday's $200,000, Grade II With Anticipation Stakes at Saratoga. But once jockey Joel Rosario got the Temple City colt rolling, he advanced from last of eight to the lead as the field hit the stretch run and drew off to win by 4 1/2 lengths. International Star finished second with Nutty Futty third and the favorite, Strong Coffee, fourth. Startup Nation, trained by Chad Brown, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.63. He now has two wins from as many starts, both coming from off the pace.
Hopes abound in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Del Mar Debutante. Sunset Glow won the Grade II Sorrento Stakes over the course in her last outing, rebounding nicely from a second-place finish in the Group 3 Albany Stakes at Royal Ascot for trainer Wesley Ward. The winner of that one, Cursory Glance, returned this past weekend to run a good second to Tiggy Wiggy in the Group II Lowther Stakes at York. Seduire comes off a win in the Wine Country Debutante at Santa Rosa. The others have no more than maiden wins -- and a few, not even that.
Angela Renee comes to Sunday's $350,000, Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga off a second-place finish to Cavorting in the Grade II Adirondack. That followed a win at first asking. Cavorting isn't in this field, which is composed mainly of recent maiden winners -- and a couple who haven't even accomplished that feat yet. There are some promising fillies so this is a good one to watch and learn.
On Monday at Del Mar, grass-running juvenile fillies tackle 8 furlongs in the $100,000 Oak Tree Juvenile Turf.
Joy of the Saints and Theyplayingoursong are the early picks in Saturday's $100,000 Evangeline Downs Starlet at the Louisiana oval. Joy of the Saints, a Louisiana-bred Saint Afleet filly, is undefeated in three starts, two of them stakes. Theyplayingoursong was second in the latter of those stakes -- but by 5 3/4 lengths.
Eight are entered for Sunday's $75,000 Sorority at Monmouth Park. Coco's Wildcat won both her previous starts at Gulfstream Park and has been working at Monmouth for a month. Perpetual Novena won at first asking, then finished second as the favorite in the Colleen Stakes on the turf. She is back on the main track, going 6 furlongs. The others are maiden winners.
Long Hot Summer rallied four-wide from near the rear to take Wednesday's $150,000 Generous Portion Stakes for California-breds at Del Mar by 3/4 length over My Fiona. Lost Bus found her way home third, just a nose farther back. Long Hot Summer, a Street Boss filly, ran 6 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:10.94 under Joe Talamo. She's now 2-for-2. Winning trainer Phil D'Amato noted his filly had a bit of a torturous path in the race. "Once she got in the clear, she just took off and she wasn't blowing afterwards," he said. "The longer the better with her."
On the turf: Partisan Politics settled behind the leaders down the backstretch in Wednesday's $100,000 P.G. Johnson Stakes at Saratoga, came around the leaders turning for home and led for the final furlong. At the wire, the More Than Ready filly was 2 3/4 lengths to the good of runner-up Sunday Sonnet. Ancient Goddess finished third and the favorite, Flying Tipat, checked in fifth. Javier Castellano guided the winner over 1 1/16 miles of firm turf in 1:43.13. It was her second start and followed a narrow loss earlier in the Spa season. "I'm really proud of this horse, for her to go wide the whole way and still power home and win convincingly," said trainer Chad Brown. "I wasn't positive she wanted to go a mile and a sixteenth quite yet."
News and notes:
Keeneland has completed the conversion of its main track from Polytrack to real dirt in preparation for the fall meeting -- and the 2015 Breeders' Cup World Championship races. Track officials said the new surface and underlying drainage system are designed to be state of the art, providing safety and reliability, as well as serving as a proving ground for the industry. Del Mar also plans to switch back to dirt after its current meeting. That conversion will leave Woodbine, Presque Isle, Turfway Park, Arlington Park and Golden Gate Fields as the only remaining North American tracks with all-weather surfaces. Meydan in Dubai also switched back to dirt this summer in preparation for the 2014-15 Carnival and 2015 World Cup night.
Illinois Racing Board member Kathy Byrne is proposing the IRB authorize Instant Racing terminals at the state's tracks while the wait goes on for legislative relief. Why? Here's why: The Oaklawn Jockey Club Thursday announced a projected record purse distribution of $23.5 million for its 2015 racing season, starting Jan. 9. Maiden Special Weight races will have purses of $60,000, which is $5,000 per race higher than the start of last season. Open allowance races will have purses up to $65,000 and the minimum purse will be $18,000. Since 2008, Oaklawn purses have increased by 33 percent. Director of Racing David Longinotti says the spike in purse distribution is the result of a strong racing product, fueled by the success of Instant Racing and other electronic gaming. Hot Springs, admittedly, is a special case. But other states tell similar success stories relative to Instant Racing.