Almond Eye, shown winning the 2018 Japan Cup, is the favorite for Sunday's Grade 1 Victoria Mile at Tokyo Racecourse. Photo Courtesy of Japan Racing Association
May 15 (UPI) -- Things are looking up in horse racing this weekend as action resumes Friday at Santa Anita and Saturday at Churchill Downs, while Almond Eye's return is the headliner in Japan.
There's still more good news as the discombobulated recovery from the coronavirus lockdowns continues:
Oaklawn Park is reopening its purse-fueling casino, Belmont Park has reopened its main track for training and Churchill Downs announced a very tentative schedule of new Road to the Kentucky Derby points races.
A new reopening schedule approved Thursday by Ontario officials gives Woodbine the go-ahead to resume Thoroughbred racing June 6.
On the down side of things, Penn National Race Course on Thursday announced cancellation of the Penn Mile, Penn Oaks and associated stakes set for two weeks from now. Four state-bred races scheduled for the undercard will be reslated when the track gets approval to restart racing.
And on the international front, British racing continues to adjust its proposed schedule for late fall and summer as the government on Monday pushed back the earliest possible date for resumption of sport to June 1.
The BHA had hoped to hold several top-rung events in the final two weeks of May, leading up to the Qipco 2,000 and 1,000 Guineas, but now will scramble to pack in as many events as possible as soon as possible.
The compressed schedule runs right up on Royal Ascot, which still is set for June 16-20.
By the way, did you catch ace horse owner Bobby Flay's little segment on CBS Sunday Morning about cooking Mother's Day brunch? It's worth a look. Mom got first call over a Yankees game back in the day.
But first, look at this:
The Road to the Roses
When the painful decision was taken to push the Kentucky Derby back to Sept. 5, Churchill Downs said it would add races to all of its "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series.
That's proved tougher than it might have been since neither Pimlico Race Course, the host of the Preakness Stakes, nor Belmont Park, the site of the Belmont Stakes, has yet received a go-ahead to race and neither has announced a revised stakes schedule.
How to designate qualifying races when two thirds of the Triple Crown is up in the air?
"Should those races be scheduled in advance of the Sept. 5 Kentucky Derby, points to the top four finishers will be worth 150-60-30-15," Churchill Downs said in its Tuesday announcement, effectively making the first two legs of the Triple Crown qualifying races for the Run for the Roses.
Other potential qualifying races, grouped by region, with points on offer:
East: Haskell (100-40-20-10) and Pegasus (20-8-4-2), both at Monmouth Park, with New York races to be added if and when available.
Midwest: Matt Winn (50-20-10-5) at Churchill Downs; Indiana Derby (20-8-4-2) at Indiana Grand; Blue Grass (100-40-20-10) at Keeneland; and Ellis Park Derby (50-20-10-5).
West: Santa Anita Derby (100-40-20-10); Los Alamitos Derby (20-8-4-2); and Del Mar's Shared Belief (50-20-10-5).
"Adjustments also will be made to the European Road to the Kentucky Derby and Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby in the coming weeks," the announcement said.
"There are a lot of moving parts and there are still a lot of unanswered questions, including who will be running and when," said Mike Ziegler, executive director of racing. "This will continue to evolve, including date placement, as host tracks firm up their plans."
So, basically, stay tuned and don't book any non-refundable Tex Sutton charter flights.
The current top nine in the main Road to the Kentucky Derby, with points held, are:
Arkansas Derby division winner Nadal (150), Florida Derby winner Tiz the Law (122), Louisiana Derby winner Wells Bayou (104), Arkansas Derby division winner Charlatan (100), Tampa Bay Derby winner King Guillermo (90), Fountain of Youth winner Ete Indien (74), Risen Star Stakes winner Modernist (70), San Filepe Stakes winner Authentic (60), and Risen Star Stakes winner Mr. Monomoy (52).
Tied for the No. 10 spot with 50 points apiece are Arkansas Derby division runner-up Basin, Gotham Stakes winner Mischevious Alex and Louisiana Derby runner-up Ny Traffic are tied for the No. 10 spot with 50 points apiece.
One race on the weekend program conceivably could impact the Triple Crown picture. Saturday's $75,000 Roar Stakes at Gulfstream Park is certainly not among the points races and it's only 6 1/2 furlongs. But it does have Green Light Go, a Hard Spun colt who easily could benefit from the four months' delay of Derby Day.
Green Light Go, trained by Jimmy Jernens, was an easy winner of his first two races last summer, including the Grade II Saratoga Special. He then was second behind Tiz the Law in the Grade I Champagne. He disappointed in his 3-year-old debut, finishing third in the Grade III Swale.
"He didn't do well after the race," Jerkens said. "Nothing soundness-wise, but he just didn't go on and develop the way we wanted. He got a little sick and it was a long time getting over it.
"But he looks like he's on the way. I didn't want to start him out in something that would knock him out. It'll be over three months since he ran so this should be a good spot to start him back."
In other action:
Saturday's opening day program doesn't include any stakes races but it does have champion Monomoy Girl starring in the featured fourth race, an $85,000 allowance contest at 1 mile. Overall, the 11-race program has an average field size, bar scratches, of 11.3 horses, reflecting the pent-up demand for racing opportunities.
Monomoy Girl's trainer, Brad Cox, summed things up, saying: "It's been a long time coming but we are thrilled for her to return to the races."
In Monomoy Girl's case, though, the wait has been much more than the COVID-19 shutdown. The 2018 Eclipse Award top 3-year-old filly missed her entire 4-year-old season while dealing with a minor hamstring pull and then a bout of colic. She has not raced since taking the Breeder's Cup Distaff at Churchill Downs in November 2018.
She nonetheless is the 4-5 favorite on the morning line, even though the six rivals are far from pushovers. Among them, Talk Veuve to Me and Lady Kate seem biggest threats.
Racing officials tempted the devil by taking Friday's entries on Tuesday, before getting governmental permission to resume racing. But it all worked out as the OK came through Wednesday afternoon -- with some stringent provisions beyond the now-normal no-spectator rule. Among those, jockeys will be quarantined on the premises.
The approval allows for two state-bred stakes sprints on Saturday and the $100,000 Grade III Desert Stormer on Sunday. The latter is a 6-furlongs sprint on the dirt.
The remainder of the truncated season will feature two major days of racing -- the May 25 Memorial Day program has two Grade I turf races worth $300,000 -- the Shoemaker Mile and the Gamely Stakes for fillies and mare at 1 1/8 miles.
The June 6 program has seven stakes, led by two Grade I races on the main track -- the $400,000 Santa Anita Derby at 1 1/8 miles and the $300,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita at 1 1/4 miles.
The go-ahead to resume racing came over the opposition of animal-rights activists who have waged a long campaign to shut down racing entirely and counted on the pandemic to give them an edge. They were not pleased.
"Now that gambling has been prioritized over public health, the death toll -- for horses and humans -- must not rise, PETA official Kathy Guillermo said.
"Horses died during training at Santa Anita Park, even after the Los Angeles County Department of Public Health had suspended racing. If another Thoroughbred is killed, racing should be ended for equine health, regardless of COVID-19."
Saturday's card has two other stakes races to go with the Roar Stakes (see the "Road to the Roses" section).
Got Stormy stays home for the $75,000 Powder Break Stakes rather than shipping west for the Grade I Shoemaker Mile at Santa Anita. Trainer Mark Casse, recently elected to the Hall of Fame, instead tapped War of Will for that assignment.
Got Stormy already has Grade I credentials, earned in the Fourstardave at Saratoga last season before finishing second in the Grade I Woodbine Mile and the Breeders' Cup Mile -- all against males. She finished the season with a victory in the Grade I Matriarch at Santa Anita. She was last seen finishing second in the Grade I Frank E. Kilroe Mile, also at The Great Race Place.
"She's training extremely well," Casse said. "She went out and ran a great race in California her last start. It's tough when you ship all the way to California. You're taking a disadvantage there. She got beat a neck. She ran her rear end off in their house. I'm very proud of her."
Ten others signed on for the Powder Break, one for main track only.
The third event is the $100,000 Musical Romance Stakes for fillies and mares at 7 furlongs. That drew a field of nine with Lady's Island as the 7-5 favorite on the morning line. The 6-year-old Greatness mare won the Grade 3 Sugar Swirl over the course in December and exits back-to-back wins at Tampa Bay Downs. She has 15 wins from 29 career starts.
On foreign shores:
Super mare Almond Eye is the star in Sunday's Grade 1 Victoria Mile for fillies and mares at Tokyo Racecourse. The daughter of Lord Kanaloa already has six wins at the highest level -- two of them against older male foes. But, at this point, she needs a race -- any race.
Almond Eye hasn't raced since finishing ninth in the Grade 1 Arima Kinen in December. She was to have defended her crown in the Dubai Turf in March but that race was canceled only days before it was to run as part of the World Cup program.
Trainer Sakae Kunieda said the long break has Almond Eye ready for her return to the track.
"She came back to the stable on April 30 and, not having had a recent race, she's not tired at all and is in good condition," Kunieda said.
Three others in the full field have Grade 1 wins to their credit including last year's winner, Normcor, and the winner of the 2019 Yushun Himba or Japanese Oaks, Loves Only You.
Santa Ana Lane hasn't done much winning of late but the 7-year-old Lope de Vega gelding has been competitive in top company and may have found a good spot in Saturday's Group 1 The Furfy Goodwood at Morphetville. Santa Ana Lane exits a sixth-place finish in the Group 1 All Aged Stakes at Randwick April 18 but before that was second in the Group 1 T J Smith.
The rest of the field is competitive, but most have been performing a bit farther down the class ladder.