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Churchill Downs, Santa Anita back in action

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
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Churchill Downs, Santa Anita back in action
Almond Eye romps in Sunday's Grade 1 Victoria Mile in Tokyo. Photo courtesy of Japan Racing Association

May 18 (UPI) -- Racing returned to Churchill Downs and Santa Anita this weekend with Monomoy Girl and Bellafina posting big wins, while Almond Eye romped in Sunday's Victoria Mile in Tokyo.

The revised schedule for the U.S. Triple Crown also started to take shape with Pimlico Race Course announcing the Preakness will be run Oct. 3 -- four weeks after the Kentucky Derby.

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Step right up and read all about it.

The Road to the Triple Crown

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This segment henceforth will cede the name "The Road to the Roses" since we still don't know the full order of the Triple Crown races.

Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Belinda Stronach, chairman and president of 1/ST, which includes Pimlico Racecourse, announced Saturday the Preakness will be run Saturday, Oct. 3 -- four weeks after the rescheduled Run for the Roses.

The Preakness winner is draped with a blanket of black-eyed susans, but, obviously, we can't call the section "The Road to the Black-Eyed Susans."

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But it probably won't be the "Road to the Roses," either, because it seems the only logical slot for the Belmont Stakes will be early in September at Belmont Park or even late in the Saratoga meeting -- in either case, leading off the Triple Crown series rather an anchoring it.

When and if that announcement is made, we'll switch to the Belmont's floral winner's tribute and call our segment "The Road to the Carnations."

Talk about your basic flowery prose.

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On the track, only one weekend race might have a bearing on the series and that seems a remote chance, given the outcome.

Double Crown got first run to the lead in Saturday's $75,000 Roar Stakes for 3-year-olds at Gulfstream Park and held off the odds-on favorite, Green Light Go, winning by 1/2 length. It was another 1 length to Verve in third. Double Crown, a Bourbon Courage gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.57 with Cristian Torres up.

It was just the third career start for Double Crown and trainer Kathy Ritvo said, "We were just hoping he'd run to how he was training. He's been doing so good. It was a big improvement last time and I'm not really sure he loved the mud, but he still ran good. He just loves to run."

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Green Light Go, a Hard Spun colt, won last year's Grade II Saratoga Special and finished second to one of the current top Derby contenders, Tiz the Law, in the Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park. He was third in the Grade III Swale in his 3-year-old debut and the Roar was to have tipped his potential for the remainder of the year.

The Road to the Kentucky Oaks

Tonalist's Shape raced by an embattled pace pair midway around the turn in Friday's $75,000 Hollywood Wildcat for 3-year-old fillies at Gulfstream Park and ran on to score a 3 3/4 lengths victory. With Irad Ortiz Jr. in the irons, the filly reported in 1:44.57 over a sloppy track. Dream Marie edged Pleasant Orb for second.

The Tonalist filly suffered her first loss after six career-opening wins when she finished seventh in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Oaks on March 28.

That race, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. said, "was a mystery. It was a slow pace and she was wide, but that's an excuse and in this game an excuse is easy to make. She had to come and do it today."

"Everything pointed that we had to give her a go," Joseph said. "If she got beat today, we were wrong. For her to justify herself and come back to show what she's capable of, we're very thankful for that."

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Even better, he added, the timing of the race is perfect in the leadup to an expected run in the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks.

"That's what's great about this race. It gives us seven weeks to her next race and then seven weeks to the [Kentucky] Oaks," Joseph said, not specifying where the intervening race might occur.

Coincidentally, the same type of schedule is in mind for another top Oaks contender, Swiss Skydiver. Trainer Kenny McPeek had pondered sending her to England to contest the English Classics but Blood-Horse reported Sunday logistics were too complicated to bring that plan to fruition.

Now, with the Santa Anita Oaks back on the schedule, McPeek sees that race as a more suitable stepping stone to Louisville.

"Of course, we can dream, but I think if she can win the Santa Anita Oaks, comes back and wins the Ashland [as yet not rescheduled from Keeneland's lost spring], and then the Kentucky Oaks, we could pretty much make her 3-year-old champion," McPeek told Blood-Horse. "We will have to see how it all goes."

Around the ovals:

Churchill Downs

Kentucky racing finally resumed with all the now-normal pandemic precautions in place and a big schedule of stakes races to make up. The opening-day feature wasn't a stakes event, but it certainly had a Grade I-caliber winner.

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When Monomoy Girl walked onto the track Saturday for a carefully designed allowance feature, she hadn't raced since Nov. 3, 2018, when she won the Breeders' Cup Distaff over that very same track.

Showing no ill effects from the long absence or the physical issues that caused it, the 5-year-old Tapizar mare performed perfectly. After tracking the pace, she quickly got by the leading trio, shot to a big lead in the lane and coasted home first by 2 1/2 lengths.

Long shots Red Dane and Miss Bigly were second and third. With Florent Geroux at the controls, Monomoy Girl got 1 mile over a sloppy track in 1:36.51.

Monomoy Girl won five Grade I races in 2018 and finished second in another en route to the divisional Eclipse Award.

"I felt very confident when she came off the turn in front," trainer Brad Cox said. "It was a great race off the layoff. It was very positive seeing her be able to rate behind horses like that."

Geroux agreed, saying, "She was able to rate a lot easier today than when she was 3 years old. She gave us all the signs in the morning that she was ready. I think it is on to bigger things."

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Santa Anita

The Great Race Place, too, is back in business.

Big Sweep trailed most of the field early in Saturday's $150,000 Echo Eddie Stakes for California-bred 3-year-olds, swept three-wide to the lead while rounding the turn and scooted home first by a head over Rookie Mistake.

Club Aspen was third. Big Sweep, a Mr. Big filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.23 with Flavien Prat in the irons.

The companion $125,000 Evening Jewel Stakes was restricted to state-bred 3-year-old fillies and went to Smiling Shirlee. The daughter of Smiling Tiger rallied from well back to reach contention in the stretch, then outfinished Bella Vita, winning by 1/2 length. Mike Smith booted her home in 1:10.49.

Last year's Grade I Santa Anita Oaks winner, Bellafina, was back in action in Sunday's $100,000 Desert Stormer Stakes. With Flavien Prat up for his fifth win on the day,

Bellafina let Fighting Mad and Artistic Diva duel it out on the front end. She collared that pair exiting the stretch turn, had the lead inside the furlong marker and won by 1 length, geared down in the final strides. She finished 6 furlongs in 1:09.85.

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Hang a Star was along for second, 2 1/4 lengths in front of Fighting Mad, who then was set down to fourth for interference shortly after the start. That promoted Mother Mother to show money.

Bellafina, a Quality Road filly, had not won since the Santa Anita Oaks triumph April 6 of last year. She was fifth in the Kentucky Oaks, second in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint and second in the Grade I La Brea to round out the year. She started 2020 running third in the Carousel Stakes at Oaklawn Park in April.

"We had decent speed and Flavien had her in a great position to stalk and gave us a really good performance," winning trainer Simon Callaghan said. "It shows how much she loves Santa Anita and we're glad to get her back in the winner's circle."

Gulfstream Park

A promising turf feature took a hit Saturday when the $75,000 Powder Break Stakes was rained off the turf and onto the main track.

With prerace favorite Got Stormy among four scratches, Jakarta, at odds of better than 11-1, set a pressured pace in the $75,000 Powder Break Stakes, then found another gear in deep stretch, winning off by 2 1/4 lengths.

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Bella Ciao was second, 1/2 length in front of Valedictorian. Jakarta, a 5-year-old Bustin Stones mare, ran 1 mile on the fast main track in 1:36.37 under Edgard Zayas.

"I knew she was going to be on the lead," Zayas said. "It was a matter of if they let her go comfortable enough that she could hold on. At the three-eighths pole she got a little pressure, and I thought at the quarter pole she was about to be done and I started riding her and she kept digging in. It was an off-the-turf race and a lot of horses didn't finish, and she got lucky."

Lady's Island made the early going in Saturday's $100,000 Musical Romance Stakes for Florida-bred fillies and mares, extended the advantage down the lane and won by 3 3/4 lengths.

Even-money favorite Wildwood's Beauty rallied four-wide to secure second, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Bellera. Lady's Island, a 6-year-old daughter of Greatness, got 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:22.86 for jockey Emisael Jaramillo.

Lady's Island, claimed in 2018 for $16,000, scored her 16th victory from 30 career starts and seventh from 10 starts at Gulfstream Park but was tacking on a furlong to her usual distance.

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"We were worried, trainer Georgina Baxter said. "Seven furlongs, we thought she might be vulnerable. We're very happy. She's improved and improved. It's been a progression."

On Sunday, Just Whistle rallied on the far outside to nip odds-on favorite Spinoff by a neck in the $75,000 Sunday Silence Stakes. Eye of a Jedi was 2 lengths farther back in third. Just Whistle, a 5-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.71 with Luis Saez in the irons.

Just Whistle scored his third win from 12 starts. He finished second in the Grade III Hal's Hope at Gulfstream in his previous outing.

Japan

Almond Eye proved herself one of the world's top horses throughout her 3-year-old season and then last spring in Dubai.

Since, she had experienced more downs than ups, struggling to recover from the overseas trip, finishing ninth in her 4-year-old finale and then shipping back to Dubai this spring to defend her title in the Group 1 Dubai Turf -- only to have that race canceled along with the rest of the World Cup program.

So there were questions as the 5-year-old daughter of Lord Kanaloa lined up for Sunday's Grade 1 Victoria Mile at Tokyo Racecourse. She answered them all and with style, to boot.

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After tracking comfortably behind the early speed, jockey Christophe Lemaire give Almond Eye the go signal halfway down the long stretch. She immediately accelerated by the opposition and, when Lemaire looked over his shoulder about 150 meters out, he saw nothing but daylight.

Almond Eye won by 4 lengths and could have made it more had she not been geared down in the final strides. She finished in 1:30.6, just 0.1 second off the stakes record, and might have broken that mark if asked.

Sound Chiara (JPN) was second with last year's winner, Normcor, rallying to edge Trois Etoiles for third.

"I think she's matured well, as she was relaxed from the paddock to the start of the race," Lemaire said. "I was able to position her in good position behind Sound Chiara and race her in her own rhythm without getting any pressure from the outside. She felt good during the race and displayed her powerful strides at the end."

The Victoria Mile is the newest race in the Breeders' Cup Challenge series and Almond Eye's victory earned a berth in the Maker's Mark Filly & Mare Turf (G1T) on Nov. 7 at Keeneland. It also earned the top three finishers automatic starting positions in the Group 1 Prix Jacques le Marois at Deauville in August.

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"She's a legend horse and will surely win more Grade 1 races going forward," Lemaire said.

Almond Eye, out of the Sunday Silence mare Fusaichi Pandora, was bred by Northern Farm and races for Silk Racing Co. Ltd., won all three Grade 1 events in the 2018 Japanese filly Triple Crown.

She then defeated older male runners in that year's Japan Cup, lowering the course record for 1 1/2 miles, before posting a dramatic victory in the Dubai Turf.

Sunday's win will rekindle hopes Almond Eye will be the horse to finally break the jinx that has beset Japan's efforts to win the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. Her connections passed on the race last year and have made no commitments for this fall.

Australia

Trekking came with a rush in the final 50 meters to edge the favorite, Gytrash, in Saturday's Group 1 The Furphy Goodwood Stakes at Morphetville.

Lyre was third and Santa Ana Lane reported sixth. Trekking, a 5-year-old Street Cry gelding racing for Godolphin, got the 1,200 meters in 1:10.38 with John Allen up for trainer James Cummings, who had three wins on the day at three tracks.

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Trekking and Gytrash were two of five Group 1 winners in the tough field.

"He's a class horse and he needed to show it today," Cummings said of Trekking. "We've seen some good performances in the Godolphin colors today. The wind is in our sails."

Trekking was last seen finishing second in a Group 3 event at Randhill. He had not seen the inside of a winner's enclosure since last June 8, when he won the Group 1 Stradbroke Stakes at Eagle Farm.

Hong Kong

The Hong Kong Jockey Club slowly is edging out of the coronavirus precautionary stages -- just in time for its members and a few other guests to watch in person as Joao Moreira and Zac Purton duke it out for the jockey premiership.

While it will be a while yet before tens of thousands of fans return to the stands, intertrack betting was back Sunday and a few restaurants were open with strict limitations at Sha Tin Racecourse.

Those in attendance saw Moreira land three wins to Purton's one, lifting Moreira into a tie for the lead with 16 meetings to go in the season. Each has 117 victories and no one else is close. Both have won the premiership in past seasons.

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"Zac can't say he's going to be the winner and neither can I because we don't know what's going to happen in the next couple of weeks and months," Moreira said.

HKJC rules force jockeys to forge ever-shifting partnerships with trainers and those connections often make the difference in wins and losses. The battle is important to Hong Kong racing fans, too, with wagering on jockeys a popular feature at each race meeting.

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