The "Horse of the Year" discussion didn't get any easier this weekend as Shared Belief won a tough renewal of the Grade I Malibu Stakes on opening day at Santa Anita.
In Japan, there's no doubt that Gentildonna retires as a superstar after she dispatched a field including most of her nation's top rivals in Sunday's Group 1 Arima Kinen. She will be missed. See more below.
And there was plenty of 2-year-old action on the last weekend before all Thoroughbreds add a year to their age.
Here's the question for Horse of the Year voters: If he hadn't been roughed up at the start and steadied twice during the running of the Breeders' Cup Classic, would Shared Belief have won that race and now be undefeated in nine starts and the undisputed champ? Unknowable. We do know he has won eight of nine starts with four of the wins in Grade I events, and beat older horses in the Pacific Classic.
Trainer Jerry Hollendorfer took a chance entering Shared Belief in the 7-furlongs Malibu -- 5 furlongs shorter than the Classic. How much reward does that risk deserve? He's not saying. But jockey Mike Smith isn't shy about voicing an opinion.
Meanwhile, there was plenty of other action around the ovals, starting right here, right now:
Shared Belief sat just off a pace battle between Chitu and Indianapolis through the early furlongs in Friday's $300,000, Grade I Malibu Stakes, stuck his head in front inside the final furlong and held off Conquest Two Step by a neck. Chitu finished 1/2 length farther back in third and Indianapolis tired to finish fourth. Shared Belief, who would be undefeated but for his Breeders' Cup Classic misadventures, ran 7 furlongs in 1:20.69 -- just a second off the track record. Conquest Two Step was totally overlooked, starting at odds of 73-1. Jockey Mike Smith said Shared Belief's effort was special. "This race proved what a great horse he is, just by doing what he did," Smith said. "To run route races, then to come back to seven eighths against top sprinters ... To me, that puts a big feather in his cap and puts him in front for Horse of the Year." Shared Belief's trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer, said the Malibu had nothing to do with the colt's troubled trip in the Classic. "We put all that behind us and just concentrated on winning this race," he said. "Now we'll start concentrating on what we want to do next and getting him ready for his next endeavor." Asked about Horse of the Year honors, he added, "I don't vote on Horse of the Year but all the other folks can take a look and see what they think." Added part owner Alex Solis III, "They run the race (Breeders' Cup Classic) again next year. Don't worry."
Taris looked like a sure winner halfway down the stretch in Friday's $300,000, Grade I La Brea Stakes for 3-year-old fillies. But then the seventh furlong started to take its toll and long shot Sam's Sister rolled right on by to win by 1/2 length at 12-1 odds. Thank You Marylou also ran well late but could muster no better than a third-place showing. Sam's Sister, a daughter of Brother Derek out of the Include mare Kittery Point, finished in 1:22.53 with Elvis Trujillo steering as Hollendorfer swept the day's Grade I events. The result shouldn't have been too much of a shock as Sam's Sister had won three straight races during the summer and early fall, including one over the course and distance, before a bad start cost her all chance in her most recent run. "I had a perfect trip," Trujillo said. "I saw a lot of speed in the race when I looked at it and three or four horses went to the lead. I sat covered up and in the stretch, I was in the clear." It was the first Grade I winner for Brother Derek, the 2006 Santa Anita Derby winner. Taris had won four of five starts, including the Grade II Raven Run at Keeneland in her last outing.
Alert Bay, Home Run Kitten and Awesome Return all came running late in Friday's $200,000, Grade II Mathis Brothers Mile for 3-year-olds and finished in that order. The favorite, Heart to Heart, settled for fourth after taking the lead briefly at the top of the lane. Alert Bay, a City Zip gelding, was let go at 9-1 odds and won by a neck in 1:35.06 over firm turf with Tyler Baze up. He came into the race with six wins, four seconds and a third from 12 starts. The victories included the Grade III British Columbia Derby and the Grade III BC Premier's Handicap, both at Hastings Park, and the $200,000 Zia Park Derby in New Mexico in his last previous outing. "We found out that he's a good shipper," said winning trainer Blaine Wright. "We're based at Golden Gate so when there's a good race, we've got to go." Added Baze, "This horse never gets the respect he deserves. He's a really talented horse." Heart to Heart was coming off back-to-back wins in the Grade III Jefferson Cup and the Grade III Commonwealth Turf, both at Churchill Downs.
Distinctiv Passion led all the way in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Midnight Lute Stakes, winning by 1 3/4 length. Long shots Heir of Storm and Appealing Tale filled the trifecta slots with the odds-on favorite, Secret Circle, finishing fourth after seconds in his last two races -- the Breeders' Cup Sprint and the Cigar Mile. Some apparent bridge-jumper money bet on Secret Circle swelled the show payoffs. Distinctiv Passion, a 4-year-old With Distinction colt, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.55 with Mike Smith riding, picking up his first graded stakes win. "Believe it or not, they went in forty two, but he rated," Smith said. "Rating doesn't necessarily mean that you have to go slow." Trainer Jeff Bonde said he has "never trained a horse that's quicker up the backside. He wants to lock on the bridle like an alligator, and over the last six months in the mornings, he started to relax and then kick and run late."
Lady Pimpernel won a four-way dash to the wire in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Robert J Frankel Stakes for fillies and mares. The photo found Diversy Harbor a nose in arrears, with Three Hearts and Lady of Gold a pair of necks farther back in third and fourth. Lady Pimpernel, a 4-year-old, British-bred filly by Sir Percy, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.96 under Victor Espinoza. She shipped to the United States off two straight wins in England this summer and finished third in the Grade III Red Carpet Stakes at Del Mar in her first U.S. start. "She had a tough trip at Del Mar," said winning trainer Carla Gaines. "She was bottled up today, but at least he (Espinoza) snuck through. He went a bit wide but they got the job done. I'm so excited."
Betty's Bambino outfinished Lil Bit O'Fun in Sunday's $100,000, Grade III Daytona Stakes down the grassy hill, winning by 1/2 length. The favorite, Sweet Swap, led briefly and salvaged third. Betty's Bambino, a 4-year-old Unusual Heat gelding, got about 6 1/2 gravity-assisted furlongs in 1:12.49 under Martin Garcia.
Harlington's Rose came three-wide into the lane in Sunday's $75,000 Kalookan Queen Stakes for fillies and mares, found another gear and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Tribal Gal. Doinghardtimeagain was third and the favorite, Awesome Baby, faded from the lead to finish fifth. Harlington's Rose, a 3-year-old daughter of Harlington, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on the fast main track in 1:15.48 with Joe Talamo riding.
Gentildonna raced close to the pace in Sunday's Group 1 Arima Kinen at Nakayama, then dueled last month's Japan Cup winner, Epiphineia into submission with 100 yards to go. That done, she then had to hold off rising 3-year-old To the World before scoring by 3/4 length. It was her career finale and her seventh Group 1 victory. The winner's share of the purse put her second on the earnings list in Japan, behind only T M Opera O. Gold Ship finished third. Just A Way, ranked the top horse in the world early this year, finished fourth. Epiphineia faded to finish fifth and 2013 Japan Cup runner-up Denim and Ruby finished ninth. "I was really glad she was able to show her best performance in the last race of her career," said winning jockey Keita Tosaki. "I was able to race her just as I had imagined, settling her towards the front and using her persistent late charge. She responded well to the end." The 5-year-old daughter of Deep Impact covered 2,500 meters, or about 12 1/2 furlongs, in 2:35.3 over firm turf. Some 40,000 fans stuck around after the day's racing for the retirement ceremony for Gentildonna, the 2012 Fillies Triple Crown winner and Horse of the Year and winner of the Japan Cup in both 2012 and 2013. The race also was a finale for Just A Way. Last year, international champion Orfevre called it a career after winning the Arima Kinen by 8 lengths.
The British All-Weather Championships crossed the Channel Sunday as Fresles won the Prix Miss Sadamixa by a nose over Caointiorn. The 7 1/2-furlongs race over the Deauville Polytrack course qualified Fresles for a spot in the All-Weather Championships finals on Good Friday at Lingfield Park. "I thought 6 furlongs was her trip before today," said winning trainer Pia Brandt. "But she has proved she stays further and 7 furlongs should be perfect on Good Friday."
Irish Mission stalked a dawdling pace in Saturday's $100,000 La Prevoyante Handicap for fillies and mares, made her bid with a furlong left and got there first by 3/4 length over deep closer Tabreed. Photo Call was third, a neck farther back. Irish Mission, a 5-year-old Giant's Causeway mare, ran 1 1/2 miles on good turf in 2:35.85 with John Velazquez up. That's more than 13 seconds slower than the course record. Trainer Christophe Clement, who handles both Irish Mission and Tabreed, said the slow pace was not a worry. "It was the same for all of us," Clement said. "As long as we all compete and it's the same for all of us, I'm okay with it." Irish Mission had been running with authority on the East Coast, including a win in the Grade III Glen Falls at Saratoga, but finished last of 11 in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf in her last previous start. Clement said both Irish Mission and Tabreed are headed for the breeding shed -- the former after one more start and the latter to the promising first-year sire Australia.
Divine Oath surged from a pace-stalking position in Saturday's $100,000 W.L. McKnight Handicap, got a clear lead in the lane and held off long shot Fixador to win by 1/2 length Manchurian High was along for show money with a late rush and the favorite, Slumber, got home seventh. Divine Oath, a 3-year-old Broken Vow colt, got the same 1 1/2 miles in 2:34.25 so the "good" turf might have been pretty tiring. He won the Grade III American Derby at Arlington this summer and also took the Grade III Kent Stakes at Delaware. A West Coast sojourn earned him a close third in the Grade II Twilight Derby on Breeders' Cup Friday. The McKnight was his first race against older horses and his first at the distance. "When you come down here this time of year, there's only so many opportunities," said Tristan Berry, assistant to winning trainer Todd Pletcher. "Sometimes you have to take a shot. The horse was training well and doing really well. You can't just leave them in the stall all winter."
Speechify parked outside and behind the early speed in Saturday's $100,000 Mr. Prospector Stakes, launched a bid passing the 3/16ths pole and finally edged clear in deep stretch to win by 1 1/4 length over Risk Factor. The early leader, Mongolian Saturday, faded to finish third. Speechify, a 4-year-old Harlan's Holiday colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.54 for jockey Paco Lopez. He has won three of his last four starts, also including the Kenny Noe Jr. Stakes at Gulfstream West. "He's come a long way," said winning trainer Ralph Nicks. "He's so straightforward. He's a horse that enjoys what he does." Nicks added Speechify will get a break.
Salutos Amigos had no trouble dispatching a quartet of would-be rivals in Friday's $100,000 Gravesend Handicap. After letting others show the way, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. sent the 4-year-old Salute the Sarge gelding to the lead entering the lane and quickly got clear, winning by 2 1/2 lengths. Mewannarose was second with Dads Caps third. Salutos Amigos ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:09.51. He won the Grade III Bold Ruler and the Grade III Fall Highweight in his last two New York starts, sandwiching a respectable seventh-place showing in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Winning trainer David Jacobson said Salutos Amigos "went into the race as good as he's ever gone into a race. It was a great performance and a great ride by Irad."
Kiss to Remember stalked the pace in Saturday's $60,000, off-the-turf Pago Hop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, then kissed her rivals goodbye in the lane, winning off by 1 1/4 lengths. Cali Star came late to take second with Divine Beauty third. Kiss to Remember, a Big Brown filly, ran 1 mile on a sloppy track in 1:40.29 with James Graham in the irons.
The $60,000 Woodchopper Stakes for 3-year-olds also came off the grass and Rise Up didn't seem to mind much, leading by plenty all the way and coasting home first by 3 3/4 lengths. Highball made steady progress from the rear to take second and Pumpkin Rumble rolled home third. Rise Up, a Rockport Harbor colt, finished in 1:40.35 with Brian Hernandez Jr. aboard.
Proceed proceeded to grab a huge lead at the top of the lane in Sunday's $85,000 Albert Dominguez Memorial Handicap for New Mexico-breds, then survived a late rally by Thunder Agard to post a 1 3/4-lengths victory. That's Who finished third. Proceed, a 3-year-old Desert God colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.50 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. in the irons.
Not much in the way of graded stakes action this weekend for the youngsters. But, as we all know, the eventual stars may be yet to emerge. So ...
Catalina Red could be one of those starts, judging by his track-record winning time in Saturday's $100,000 Pasco Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs. The Munnings colt tracked the fast pace set by X Y Jet, then wore down that one to win by a neck, covering 7 furlongs in 1:21.40 with Daniel Centeno up. Charlie's Brother was a well-beaten third. The victory backed up a win in the Inaugural Stakes earlier this month. Before that, Catalina Red was third, third and second in maiden events at Gulfstream and Gulfstream West. Centeno said X Y Jet "was going fast up front and I had to use my horse a little sooner than I wanted. We were really in stride getting into the stretch and I expected to get past easily, but he battled with us every step and it was only at the wire we edged clear. My horse had to be game to win today, and he can only get better." Trainer Chad Stewart said he will huddle with the owner before deciding what's next for Catalina Red.
Chasing Bubbles let the others chase him in Sunday's $150,000 New York Stallion Stakes Great White Way Division. The Posse colt led from the start, opened a daylight lead in the lane and held off odds-on favorite Disco Partner for a 1 1/2-lengths win. Clockwork chimed in third. Chasing Bubbles, with Israel Rodriguez in the irons, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:12.65. He had made four starts without a win before breaking through earlier this month for a $40,000 tag -- but no takers. Jeff Odintz, assistant to winning trainer Ken McPeek, said the colt has caught some off tracks and thrown in a clunker or two. "Then we put him in an easier spot and he got his confidence back."
Ghost Bay had nothing but traffic for most of Saturday's $125,000 Maryland Juvenile Futurity at Laurel Park until the field hit the stretch, suddenly found room and went on about his business, winning by 4 1/2 lengths. Gin Fizz, who also trailed much of the field early, rallied to finish second and Sunrise Sunset finished third. The favorite, Stonebriar, was eighth under the wire. Ghost Bay, a Ghostzapper colt out of a Smart Strike mare, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.73 for jockey Forest Boyce. He entered the race a maiden after running third in each of his first two starts. "Forest rode him great," said winning trainer Larry Murray. "It was a great, ground-saving trip to the top of the lane but then I wasn't sure where he was going to go. All of a sudden, there were nine horses across the track. When room opened up, he went through there like a good horse ... I think he'll be all right going two turns."
Overcontrol, a Todd Pletcher-trained Tapit colt, won easily at first asking Saturday at Gulfstream Park, building up a big lead in the stretch and cruising to a 4 1/4-lengths victory. John Velazquez didn't ask for much and the time for 6 1/2 furlongs was an unremarkable 1:18.20. The colt is out of the More Than Ready mare Ready for Fortune.
Bolo shadowed the pacesetter in Saturday's $75,000 Eddie Logan Stakes on the Santa Anita turf, took over when prompted by jockey Mike Smith and went on to score by 4 1/2 length over Soul Driver. Daddy D T finished third. Bolo, a Temple City colt, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:34.92.
Liberty Lover prevailed by a neck over Lux after a long stretch drive climaxing Saturday's $85,000 Red Hedeman Mile for New Mexico-breds at Sunland Park. Desert Gambler faded from the early lead to finish third. Liberty Lover, a Diabolical colt, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:40.28 with Ry Eikleberry in the irons.
Outdated stalked the pace in Saturday's $35,000 Lost in the Fog Juvenile at Turf Paradise in Arizona, blasted to the lead and won off by 4 3/4 lengths over Highway Boss. The odds-on favorite, Grand Full Moon, was third, another 2 1/4 lengths back. Outdated, an Old Fashioned gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:15.47 with Jorge Carreno up.
Irish Jasper got by pacesetting Huasca in deep stretch to take Saturday's $100,000 Gasparilla Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs by 1/2 length. Coco's Wildcat was well back in third. Irish Jasper, a Kentucky-bred daughter of First Defence, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in a speedy 1:22.41 with Victor Lebron up for trainer Derek Ryan. She now has three wins from four starts. Ryan said he was "pretty confident" going into the race. Victor worked her a week ago and she came into this race really good," he said. "She is a very honest filly and we were hoping to get some black type with her, so we're in business."
The Lewis Dinner took command at the top of the stretch in Sunday's $150,000 New York Stallion Stakes Fifth Avenue Division at Aqueduct and won off by 4 3/4 lengths. Kathy's Humor was second and Saluda, who forced the early pace, held on for show money. The Lewis Dinner, a Posse filly, ran 6 furlongs on the fast inner track in 1:12.46 with Manuel Franco riding. She now has three straight wins and has not finished out of the money in six career starts. "She was a little difficult to work with at the beginning," said Gustavo Delgado, assistant to winning trainer Rudy Rodriguez. "But she showed us she was good. As she keeps running, she gets calmer and better."
Spotted Heart rallied from well back in Friday's $125,000 Maryland Juvenile Filly Championship for state-breds at Laurel Park, split rivals while swinging wide into the stretch, then took command late and won by 1 1/4 lengths. Miss Bullistic was second, a nose in front of Everything Lovely. The favorite, Candida H., checked in fourth, another 1/2 length back. Spotted Heart, a daughter of Lion Hearted, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:25.36 with Sheldon Russell up. It was her second straight win after several misfires and she was dispatched at odds of 23-1. "We were in great position, then we went from great position to a little tight," said Russell of his move to the front. "Mark (trainer Shuman) told me to try to get her in the clear at the top of the stretch. For a while it didn't look as if I would be able to as several of the horses were getting tired and drifting out. There were horses that were faster than her, so we really needed good position to win it."
Freakin Amazing started a tad slowly in Saturday's $35,000 Arizona Juvenile Fillies at Turf Paradise but went quickly to the lead and edged clear in the lane, winning by 2 1/2 lengths over S U M Racer. The odds-on favorite, Perfect Style, finished third. Freakin Amazing, a Zensational filly, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:16.05 under Geovanni Franco.
News and notes
Goodwood Racecourse has inked a new, 10-year partnership agreement with Qatar, making the 2015 Qatar Goodwood Festival one of the most valuable meetings in the world. The partnership results in over 2 million pounds sterling, or about US$3.1 million, being invested into prize money for eight key races during the festival, plus a commitment to increase purses year-on-year. Total prize money on offer for the week now totals 4.5 million pounds, or just more than US$7 million. The Group 1 Qatar Sussex Stakes, scheduled for July 29, has a total prize fund of 1 million pounds or about US$1.56 million, elevating it to one of the most valuable mile races in the world. "Goodwood has, for more than 200 years, been about the best racing in the most English of settings, accessible to everyone," said its owner, Lord March. "Our partnership with Qatar will make an enormous contribution to horseracing in the UK."
By comparison, the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile run earlier this month at Sha Tin has been upgraded to a purse of HK$23 million, or just under US$3 million, making it the richest mile in the world. The Group 1 Mile Championship in Japan is worth about US$2 million while the Breeders' Cup Mile offers US$2 million. The Group 2 Godolphin Mile, run on World Cup night, has a purse of US$1 million, and the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, sponsored by QIPCO, is run for 1 million pounds, or about US$1.56 million.