International events again have center stage in weekend horse racing with Almond Eye returning to action in Japan, the Cox Plate in Australia and the final Group 1 events of the English and French flat seasons offering a glimpse of next year's Classics.
The list of nominations is out for the Dec. 8 Longines Hong Kong International Races, and if even a fraction of that stellar list shows up to race, it will be a fine day, indeed.
On the North American front, next week's Breeders' Cup World Championships soak up the attention -- pre-entries were announced Wednesday with final fields due on Monday -- while Keeneland gives way to Churchill Downs and Ohio and New Mexico offer state-bred festivals.
However, note that Maximum Security, the New Year's Day colt disqualified from victory in the Kentucky Derby, resurfaces as a sprinter at Belmont Park. See below.
Next week, it's all Breeders' Cup, all the time. This week, we start across the waters:
After four straight years of dominance by Winx, Saturday's renewal of the Group 1 Ladbrokes Cox Plate boasts a competitive, international field with runners whose recent experience includes Arlington Park, Saratoga, Leopardstown, Hanshin, Sha Tin and Munich, as well as the major Aussie tracks.
The field includes the first four from the Group 1 Caulfield Stakes -- Cape of Good Hope, Black Heart Bart, Harlem and Avilius -- as well as Group 1 Turnbull Stakes winner Kings Will Dream, fully recovered from a near-fatal injury in last year's Cox Plate. Trainer Chris Waller and jockey Hugh Bowman -- the Winx connections -- team up with Kings Will Dream.
Magic Wand appears after finishing second to Magical in the Grade I Irish Champion Stakes in her most recent start and second to Bricks and Mortar in the Grade I Arlington Million before that. Incredibly, the 4-year-old Galileo filly has finished second six times in Grade I or Group 1 races but has not yet won at the highest level.
Danceteria enters on the back of victory in the Group 1 Grosser Dallmayr-Preis Bayerisches Zuchtrennen in Munich. Kluger returns from Japan with the distinction of having finished second in Winx's final race, the Group 1 Longines Queen Elizabeth Stakes in April. But Japan's better chance may be Lys Gracieux, a 5-year-old Heart's Cry mare who won the Grade 1 Takarazuka Kinen in June at Hanshin.
Taking nothing away from Winx, this is a much deeper and more talented field than the seven rivals she faced a year ago in beating Benbatl by 2 lengths with Humidor third.
Sunday's Grade 1 Tenno Sho (Autumn) is a race dedicated to the Japanese Emperor -- appropriate as a new Emperor ascended the Chrysanthemum Thone just this week. And the field for the race is equally regal, featuring reigning Japanese Horse of the Year Almond Eye, along with such other luminaries as 2018 Tokyo Yushun (Japanese Derby) winner Wagnerian and his year's Grade 1 Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2,000 Guineas) winner Saturnalia.
A big field is expected for the race, one of the year's most prestigious. It will be Almond Eye's first start since her six-race winning streak ended in her last outing, a trip plagued by a troubled start. Hopes are high the Lord Kanaloa filly can start a new run that might end next fall in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
Saturday's Vertem Trophy for 2-year-olds at Doncaster is the final Group 1 of the English flat season and usually a pointer toward some good things for the coming year. This year's running, however, could be imperiled by a deluge of rain that, according to Racing Post, had clerk of the course Roderick Duncan saying on Thursday, "I'm optimistic we'll be able to race."
Assuming they do, trainer Aidan O'Brien would be worth a flutter as he will saddle five of the six confirmed starters. Of those, the most fancied are Mogul, winner of the Group 2 Champions Juvenile at Leopardstown, and Innisfree, who won the Group 2 Beresford Stakes at the Curragh in his most recent start. Those two are by Galileo, as are two of the other three O'Brien charges -- Louisiana and Iberia. Royal County Down is by freshman sire Gleneagles, himself a son of Galileo.
The non-O'Brien starter is not to be overlooked, though. Kameko, a Kentucky-bred colt by Kitten's Joy, trained by Andrew Balding for Qatar Racing, exits a second in the Group 2 Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket.
As the flat season winds to a close on the grass, the 2019-20 All-Weather Championships are under way as Temple of Heaven on Tuesday at Newcastsle landed the first of 24 Fast-Track Qualifiers for the Good Friday Championships. The Iffraaj colt, trained by Richard Hannon and partnered by Sean Leavy, was making his first start since disappointing as joint favorite in the Windsor Castle Stakes at Royal Ascot. Tuesday, he easily cruised by pacesetting favorite Desert Safari and ran on to a 5-lengths victory in the 6-furlongs Ladbrokes Home of the Odds Boost Conditions Stakes. "I'm not sure where he will go next," Leavy said. "I'm sure the owners and Richard will sit down and make a plan."
Sunday's card at Longchamp has the final two Group 1 events of the French season, the Criterium International for 2-year-olds at 1,400 meters and the Royal-Oak at 3,100 meters.
The O'Brien clan has the Criterium surrounded with Aiden saddling two of the five confirmed runners, Wichita and Armory, and son Joseph Patrick sending out Lady Penelope. Wichita exits a third-place finish in the Grade I Darley Dewhurst at Newmarket. German-bred Alson, a Group 3 winner at Baden-Baden, and Devil, a Group 3 winner at Maison-Laffitt, complete the field.
The nine set for the Royal-Oak include Delphinia, runner-up in the Group 2 British Champion Filly & Mare Stakes a week ago; Holdthaisgreen and Call The Wind, winner and runner-up in the Group 2 Qatar Prix du Cadran on Arc day at Longchamp; and Way to Paris, second to Waldgeist in the Group 2 Prix Foy in September.
All four of last year's winners are lined up to seek repeat victories in the Dec. I Longines Hong Kong International Races. None will have far to go as all are based at Sha Tin Racecourse. But if even a fraction of the talent nominated to this year's edition actually contest the events, the locals have their work cut out for them.
Among the 202 nominated horses, representing 12 racing jurisdictions, there are 66 individual Group 1 or Grade I winners. The superstars on the nominations list include Japan's Almond Eye, Magical, Cross Counter and Benbatl from England and Ireland and Aussie Santa Ana Lane.
Some talented 3-year-olds also are on the list including Investec Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck, Qipco 2000 Guineas winner Magna Grecia and Yushun Himba winner Loves Only You.
Nominated from the United States, infrequently represented in Hong Kong, are top-shelf sprinters Imperial Hint, Leinster and Shancelot.
"We are delighted to have more than 200 nominations for our four Group 1 races in December," said Andrew Harding, executive director, racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. "The Longines Hong Kong International Races is recognized the world over as one of the global sport's truly great events and this year we anticipate another incredible day of elite sport."
Yes, Dubai. The UAE season opened there for the first time with a Thursday night card. There was nothing of particular note internationally on the first program of he season but things obviously will heat up until World Cup night March 28.
Back in North America:
Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Bold Ruler at 7 furlongs on the main track features Maximum Security, winner of the Grade I Florida Derby and the Grade I Haskell and the first-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby. But for the disqualification to 17th at Churchill Downs, Maximum Security likely would be a consensus choice for 3-year-old honors. And, unless one of his generation steps up in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he still might get that nod with a win here. "I like the cutback (in distance)," said trainer Jason Servis. "He's won at this distance. All systems are go."
Chief among the seven opponents in the Bold Ruler would appear to be Prince Lucky, a miler who exits a second-place finish in the Grade II Kelso Handicap. Killybegs was second in the Grade III DeFrancis Dash at Laurel last time out.
Also Saturday at Belmont, 11 2-year-olds will tackle 1 mile on the turf in the $100,000 Awad Stakes. It's a program-stabber with lots of potential as turf racing quickly heats up, especially on the New York circuit. The name is significant as Awad won, among other events, the Arlington Million, Sword Dancer, Manhattan, Secretariat and Hialeah Turf Cup, earning well north of $3 million in an illustrious career that spanned much of the 1990s.
An overflow field signed up for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Autumn Miss for 3-year-old fillies at 1 mile on the turf. The 5-2 favorite on the morning line is Hidden Message, a daughter of Scat Daddy who raced earlier in England and France and makes her second U.S. start in the care of Simon Callaghan. She was second behind Cambier Parc in the Grade I Del Mar Oaks in the first outing. The rest of the field is, as they say, well matched.
Curlin's Voyage is the even-money favorite among seven entries for Saturday's $225,000 (Canadian) Princess Elizabeth Stakes for Canadian-foaled 2-year-old fillies. A daughter of Curlin, she has a modest, two-race win skein going -- a maiden win in her third start, then the Grade III Mazarine Stakes Oct. 5.
Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Grey Stakes for 2-year-olds, 1 1/16 miles on he all-weather course, features Muskoka Gold, winner of the Cup and Saucer Stakes in his last outing. Torres Del Paine exits a second in the Laurel Futurity. Inside Risk was last seen finishing sixth in the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga.
The Twin Spires track opens its 26-day autumn meeting Sunday with the "Stars of Tomorrow" program. All 11 races are for 2-year-olds. The features are the $120,000 Street Sense Stakes and the fillies-only companion, the $120,000 Rags to Riches.
Saturday's program features the "Best of Ohio" -- five $150,000 events for state-breds.
Sunday's "New Mexico Classic" program has eight races for horses bred in the Land of Enchantment.