Vela Azul wins Sunday's Grade 1 Japan Cup. Photo courtesy of Katsumi Saito
Nov. 28 (UPI) -- It was a weekend of breakthroughs in horse racing with Proxy winning the Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs at the expense of Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike and Vela Azul upsetting the Japan Cup over 2021 Japanese Derby winner Shahryar.
It was the first top-level win for both Proxy and Vela Azul.
While two Derby winners were going down to defeat, hopefuls for the 2023 Run for the Roses were on the track in Louisville and Tokyo. Instant Coffee and Continuar earned points toward a spot in the Churchill Downs starting gate May 6.
And that action was supported by some classy racing on both turf and dirt from coast to coast.
As usual, there's lots of ground to cover so let's get these horses into the gate and get going with:
Proxy landed his first Grade I score in Friday's $700,000 Grade I Clark Stakes at Churchill Downs with a determined stretch run that saw him get by pacesetting favorite West Will Power in the final half furlong for a 3/4-length victory. Kentucky Derby winner Rich Strike came up empty, finishing last of six.
Proxy, a 4-year-old Godolphin homebred colt by Tapit, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:48.89 with Joel Rosario up for trainer Michael Stidham.
The win was not only his first at the top level, but his first in any stakes race. He had not raced since finishing Grade II Stephen Foster over the same course and distance.
"He's always been a horse who's been a little bit behind and immature," Stidham said. "He's finally grown up now and it's pretty satisfying to get his first graded stakes victory in a Grade I.
"There are a lot of options now going forward. I'd love to get back to the Dubai World Cup but going into 2023 there's a lot still on the table after a win like today."
Rich Strike's trainer, Eric Reed, wheeled the Derby winner back on three weeks' rest after finishing fourth in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
He hoped a win could earn the colt for the 3-year-old male championship despite the fact his only career victory other than the Run for the Roses was the maiden claiming race in September 2021, when Reed took him for $30,000.
"We knew it was a big risk running him back in three weeks," Reed said. "Sometimes you're the hero and sometimes you're the goat."
Important races in Kentucky and Japan pushed some new names toward the top of the list for the 2023 Kentucky Derby.
Instant Coffee started near the back of the nine-horse field in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes at Churchill Downs, rallied four-, then five-wide and made up the ground in the final sixteenth to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
Curley Jack, Hayes Strike, Red Route One and Denington finished in that order, separated by a further head and two noses.
Instant Coffee, coming off a fourth-place finish in the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.25 with Luis Saez riding for trainer Brad Cox.
"This is one of the biggest reasons why we do this -- to be on the Road to the Kentucky Derby," Cox said.
"We're extremely proud of this colt to win like that in just his third start. He really does whatever you ask of him in the morning. It was a pretty slow pace but Luis kept after him and he was able to keep grinding out the win."
The "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" got off and running Saturday at Tokyo Racecourse with Japanese-bred colts by American-trained sprinters finishing first and second.
Continuar, by Drefong, took the lead inside the 200-meters mark in the 1,600-meters race and held off Mirror of Mind, a son of Mind Your Biscuits, to win by 1/2 length.
Continuar earned 10 points to secure the early lead in the four-race series that awards the top points-getter an invitation to the Louisville starting gate.
The "Japan Road" has yet to make much impression on the actual Run for the Roses but, despite the strong top-line sprint influence in the pedigree of the winner, trainer Yoshito Yahagi outlined ambitious plans for Continuar.
"I think I want to take him to Saudi, then Dubai and then maybe Kentucky," Yahagi said.
Other 2-year-old action:
On Friday at Aqueduct, Acoustic Ave chased down pacesetting favorite D'ont Lose Cruz in the stretch run of Friday's $100,000 Notebook Stakes for New York-breds and eked out a 1/2-length victory over that rival. Starquist was a head farther back in third.
Acoustic Ave, a Maclean's Music colt, got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:13.68, winning for the fourth time in five starts. Trainer Christophe Clement said he will give the colt the winter off "and bring him back in the spring and see what happens."
Bat Flip was a bit of a flop before trainer Todd Pletcher put the Good Magic colt on the grass. Since, he's posted a second and now two wins, the most recent coming Saturday in the $120,000 Central Park Stakes at Aqueduct.
With Jose Ortiz up, Bat Flip stalked the pace before surging to a 1 1/2-length win over Dandy Handyman.
"I just decided to give it a try," Pletcher said of the surface switch. "Looks like a promising colt."
Powerful dueled to the lead in Saturday's $200,000 Ed Brown Stakes at Churchill Downs and outfinished Mr Bob, winning by a head. Powerful, a Nyquist colt from Steve Asmussen's operation, ran 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:17.12 with Tyler Gaffalione riding.
He was last seen finishing 10th in the aforementioned Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland after a slow start.
Bluebirds Over stalked the pace in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Grey Stakes at Woodbine, rallied to the late lead and won by 1 1/2 lengths from One Bay Hemingway. Bluebirds Over, an English Channel colt, got home in 1:45.32 with Edgard Zayas up.
Forte, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner, continues to lead the main "Road to the Kentucky Derby" standings with 40 points. Curly Jack, winner of the Grade III Iroquois in September, earned 4 points for Saturday's runner-up finish and is second with 17. Next up is Saturday's Grade II Remsen at Aqueduct.
Hoosier Filly ran to her odds-on favorite status in Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs. After tracking the early speed, the Into Mischief filly went into overdrive in the stretch, drawing off to a 5-length victory -- her third from as many starts.
Knockyoursocksoff rallied sharply from well back to finish second, a neck in front of Pretty Mischievous.
Edgar Morales rode for trainer Tom Amoss as Hoosier Filly finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.94 and Amoss sees enough potential to think thoughts bigger than the Kentucky Oaks.
"I've never seen any horse like her," Amoss said. "Now, she'll get a break by design and we'll bring her back as a 3-year-old. She's a filly but I have entertained the thought of putting her on the Road to the Kentucky Derby."
Also on Saturday's program at Churchill Downs, Red Carpet Ready took charge in the stretch run of the $200,000 Fern Creek Stakes and kicked away to win by 3 1/4 lengths from Twirled. The odds-on favorite, Key of Life, settled for third.
Red Carpet Ready, a daughter of Oscar Performance, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.72 for jockey Brian Hernandez Jr. It was her second win from as many starts. She won her debut by 10 lengths Oct. 30 over a sloppy Churchill Downs strip.
Flor de Sombra rallied by pacesetting favorite Late Frost and drew off in the final furlong to win Friday's $200,000 Shamrock Rose Stakes at Penn National by 4 3/4 lengths.
The Social Inclusion filly, trained by Guadalupe Preciado for owner-trainer Joseph Imbesi, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.01 with Mychel Sanchez up. Flor de Sombra now is 4-for-5.
At Golden Gate Fields, Sally's Sassy was along in the final strides to win Friday's $75,000 Golden Gate Debutante by a nose over Always at Ease. Sally's Sassy, a West Coast filly, won on the turf at Del Mar at first asking but was 10th in the Del Mar Juvenile Fillies.
Saturday at Woodbine, Renegade Rebel led all the way in the $150,000 (Canadian) Grade III Mazarine Stakes and held on to win by a neck over Ryder Ryder Ryder. Renegade Rebel, a Kentucky-bred filly by Nyquist, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.80 with Rafael Hernandez up for her second straight win.
Sweetlou'sgotaces led most of the way to a 4-lengths victory in Sunday's $120,000 Tepin Stakes at 1 mile on the Aqueduct turf, followed home by Smokie Eyes and Alluring Angel.
Sweetlou'sgotaces, a Constitution filly, finished in 1:38.49 with Joel Rosario up, getting her first win in her fourth start.
While the Clark was the marquee race in the division, there were some nice 3-year-olds in Sunday's $150,000 Discovery Stakes at Aqueduct, including the upset winner, Eloquist.
The Nyquist gelding, with Paco Lopez up, led the way, pressured by the favorite, Barese, then held that rival safe to win by a nose. Naval Aviator was third.
Eloquist ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:53.33. He was not taken for $40,000 Aug. 12 at Saratoga and now has pieced together three straight wins.
On Sunday at Del Mar, odds-on favorite Defunded pressed the pace in the $150,000 Native Diver Stakes, took charge turning into the stretch and kicked away to win by 4 3/4 lengths over Azul Coast. Newgrange was another 3/4 length back in third.
Defunded, a 4-year-old Dialed In gelding, and Azul Coast are both trained by Bob Baffert. Defunded, winner of the Grade I Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita in his last start, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:50.12 for jockey Edwin Maldonado.
Sixtythreecaliber stalked the pace in Friday's $175,000 Comely Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Aqueduct, got the lead in the stretch and held off the favorite, Kathleen O., by 1/2 length under the wire. Morning Matcha was third.
Sixtythreecaliber, a Gun Runner filly, ran 1 1/8 miles on a fast track in 1:53.89 under Kendrick Carmouche, scoring her third straight win and fifth from seven starts. Trainer Tom Amoss said the winner will make her way to Fair Grounds, where he and the owners will chart a 2023 campaign.
Turf / Turf Mile
Astronaut led from gate to wire in Saturday's $300,000 Grade II Red Smith Stakes at Aqueduct and kicked away to win by 3 lengths at the end of 1 3/8 miles of firm turf. Highest Honors was second, 1 1/4 lengths to the good of Cold Hard Cash.
A 5-year-old son of Quality Road, Astronaut was dismissed at odds of 15-1, despite finishing third in the Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic in his last start and reported in 2:14.00 with Kendrick Carmouche riding for trainer Tom Albertrani.
Prince Abama shook free of six rivals entering the stretch run in Friday's $250,000 Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup at Del Mar and held off late bids by The Grey Wizard and Avenue, winning by 3/4 length.
Prince Abama, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred gelding by Tamayuz, ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:29.42. Flavien Prat rode for trainer Phil D'Amato and owner Michael House. He has been in the money consistently through his career, but Friday's win was the first in any stakes event.
"He has just matured and got better," D'Amato said of the breakthrough effort.
Hong Kong Harry, with a beautifully timed ride by Flavien Prat, was just up in time to win Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar by a neck over Beyond Brilliant and another head from Masteroffoxhounds.
Hong Kong Harry, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred gelding, has developed beautifully for trainer Phil D'Amato, winning five of six U.S. starts. D'Amato said the gelding "has a heart of gold" but will need to win some gold to make it to the 2023 Breeders' Cup Mile as he is not nominated to the program.
Sunday's $300,000 Commonwealth Turf for 3-year-olds came off the Churchill Downs turf and onto a sloppy main track with five resulting scratches.
Trademark took advantage, stalking the pace, then dominating the stretch run to win by 4 lengths from Stolen Base. It was another 11 3/4 lengths to Red Danger in third.
Trademark, an Upstart gelding trained by Victoria Oliver, splashed 1 1/16 miles in 1:46.39 while toting Martin Garcia.
Filly & Mare Turf
Bubble Rock shot right to the lead in Friday's $300,000 Grade II Mrs. Revere Stakes at Churchill Downs and wasn't for catching.
With Joel Rosario rationing out her speed, the 4-year-old More Than Ready filly held nine rivals safe, opened up a daylight lead in the lane and got home first by 1 1/4 lengths. Joyful Applause and Take a Stand filled out the trifecta at long odds.
Bubble Rock, bred by her owner, John Ed Anthony's Shortleaf Stable, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:45.05. Trainer Brad Cox said she may stay in Kentucky to chase the generous purses at Turfway Park, where she has run well.
Odds-on favorite Temple City Terror rallied strongly from the back of the pack to win Friday's $300,000 Grade III Long Island Stakes at Aqueduct by 1 1/2 lengths from Rocky Sky.
Temple City Terror, a 6-year-old Temple City mare, ran 1 3/8 miles on firm turf in 2:15.56 with Jose Ortiz in the irons. It was her second straight Grade III win following the Dowager at Keeneland Oct. 23.
She was sold to Town & Country Farms at the November Keeneland Sale for $500,000 as a broodmare prospect, but T&C's CEO Shannon Potter said, "She showed us today that she's not done. We'll continue to see what happens. Running her as a 7-year-old is not out of the question now."
Nothing Better set a pressured pace in Friday's $150,000 Aqueduct Turf Sprint Championship, then battled down the stretch with Anaconda before prevailing by 1/2 length.
Nothing Better, a 5-year-old Munnings gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:07.31, missing the track record by only 0.31 second while hitting the board for the ninth straight time.
Star Devine battled for the lead through most of Sunday's $150,000 Autumn Days Stakes for fillies and mares at Aqueduct, then finally edged clear to win by 1 1/4 lengths, finishing 6 furlongs on good turf in 1:11.78 with Jose Ortiz in the irons. Change of Control came from off the pace to finish second.
Star Devine, a 4-year-old, Irish-bred filly by Fastnet Rock, got her third win from 10 starts.
Greeley and Ben saved ground through the first several furlongs of Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap at Aqueduct, challenged for the lead early in the stretch run and got home first by a neck over Runninsonofagun and another head over Factor It In.
Greeley and Ben, an 8-year-old gelding by Greeley's Conquest, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.95 with Manny Franco in the irons for his first graded stakes win in his 39th start.
The veteran campaigner was claimed Sept. 4 for $40,000 by trainer Jeremiah Englehart and earned $96,250 for the win. As Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee is fond of saying, it's an easy game.
Golden Gate Fields
Lammas surged to the lead in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 Berkeley Handicap, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over I'mgonnabesomebody.
Lammas, a 5-year-old, British-bred gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:42.42 with Kevin Radke up.
Swayin to and Fro went only one direction in Saturday's $100,000 Safely Kept Stakes for 3-year-old fillies -- straight forward. Leading early, the South Carolina-bred daughter of Straight Talking shook off a challenge and went on to win by 3 1/2 lengths, covering 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.00 with Grant Whitacre up.
Little Vic got the best of the stretch run in Saturday's $100,000 City of Laurel Stakes for 3-year-olds, drawing off to score by 1 1/2 lengths over the favorite, Radical Right. With Carlos Olivero up, the Practical Joke colt was timed in 1:23.53.
Armando R was up in the final strides to take Saturday's $100,000 Richard W. Small Stakes by 1/2 length from Ournationonparade. The 6-year-old Blame gelding needed 1:50.57 to finish 1 1/8 miles under Horacio Karamonos.
Fille d'Esprit, the odds-on favorite, crushed four rivals in Friday's $75,000 Politely Stakes for Maryland-bred fillies and mares, kicking away in the lane to win by 5 3/4 lengths. The 6-year-old Great Notion mare got 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.77 with Xavier Perez up.
Alwaysinahurry took his time to get going in Friday's $75,000 Howard and Sondra Bender Memorial for state-breds but once revved up, the 4-year-old Great Notion gelding got by rivals to win by 1 1/2 lengths. With Angel Cruz at the controls, Alwaysinahurry covered 7 furlongs in 1:23.85.
Around the world, around the clock
Sunday's Grade 1 Japan Cup looked like a rare opportunity for international contenders to break the long dominance of local runners but, at the finish, it was all Japanese horses filling the frame, led by Vela Azul, a 5-year-old gelding making his first Grade 1 start.
The best finish by any of the four highly qualified foreigners was French-trained Grand Glory, who finished sixth after being badly blocked as the field bunched up in the stretch. A foreigner who did succeed, ironically, was Irish jockey Ryan Moore, who piloted Vela Azul.
"We had a nice spot," Moore said. "It wasn't too far off the pace and following a good horse. The horse in front was having to wait and I was having to wait and when he found a bit of room he quickened up very well. I suppose for today being toward the inside wasn't a disadvantage."
That bit of room allowed Vela Azul to squirt through between the favorite, Shahryar, and his closest pursuer, Weltreisende, in the closing strides to seal a 3/4-length victory. Those rivals finished second and third.
Vela Azul started his career on the dirt to protect fragile legs, trainer Kunihiko Watanabe explained, and did not make a start on the grass until this spring. His first run in any type of graded race came in his last start, the Grade II Kyoto Daishon on Oct. 10. He won that.
"He was in good condition coming into this race but he exceeded our expectation," Watanabe said. "He is 5 years old, but gets better and better and still has reason for improvement."