Big guns lured from barns for big Memorial Day weekend of horse racing

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Country Grammer, shown winning the 2022 Dubai World Cup, features in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup on Memorial Day at Santa Anita. Photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club
1 of 2 | Country Grammer, shown winning the 2022 Dubai World Cup, features in the Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup on Memorial Day at Santa Anita. Photo courtesy of Dubai Racing Club

May 26 (UPI) -- The Memorial Day weekend summoned from their barns some of racing's heavyweights, including Country Grammer, C Z Rocket and Echo Zulu, to tackle competition from coast to coast, with much of the action concentrated on the Monday holiday.

Two of the Memorial Day heats are "Win and You're In" races Monday for the FanDuel Breeders' Cup Mile, one at Santa Anita and the other in Chile.


And speaking of the global scene, the weekend also has the Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby, the final Group 1 race of the Hong Kong season, both Irish Guineas and the Prix d'Ispahan in France.

Let's get right down to it, bearing in mind the fields for the Monday races are not yet final.

Classic / Dirt Mile

Trainer Bob Baffert has all guns blazing in Monday's $400,000 Grade I Hollywood Gold Cup at Santa Anita.


With final entries yet to be taken, Baffert has nominated Country Grammer, Taiba and Defunded for the 1 1/4-mile event.

This will be the first start for Country Grammer since he finished seventh in the Dubai World Cup, which he won in 2022, and a victory would push his career earnings past the $15 million mark.

Country Grammer, a 6-year-old son of Tonalist, is no snail himself but Defunded, who just missed a front-running victory in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap two starts back, and others should give him plenty of pace to chase in the stretch.

Country Grammer and Taiba were second and eighth in the $20 million Saudi Cup in February.

A caution: The race shapes up with quite a few runners looking to make stretch moves around tiring pacesetters and that can lead to some traffic issues.

Monday's $400,000 Grade III Steve Sexton Mile at Lone Star Park drew a tough 12-horse field. The 3-1 favorite on the morning line is Louisiana-bred Touchuponastar, a 4-year-old Star Guitar gelding who exits a victory in the EVD Classic at Evangeline Downs.

That was his sixth straight win, all in the land of gators and gumbo. Monday's chief rival, Endorsed, had three consecutive victories at Gulfstream Park this winter, including the Grade II Gulfstream Park Mile, but could only rank second on the morning line at 3-1 odds.


This race should offer some juicy chances at the betting windows.


Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita has a really nice field. C Z Rocket has mixed it up with the best on them in Dubai, two editions of the Breeders' Cup Sprint and multiple graded stakes in California, albeit with a distinct shortage of recent wins.

Forbidden Kingdom was second in both the Grade I Malibu and the Grade III San Carlos in his last two starts. Spirit of Makena has three wins and a second from four starts and won the San Carlos in his last outing.

Positivity, who didn't have much luck for trainer Doug O'Neill in Dubai this winter, returns after sounding a positive note with a third-place showing in the Grade III Kona Gold Stakes in his most recent start.

Filly & Mare Sprint

Monday's $225,000 Winning Colors Stakes at Churchill Downs has Echo Zulu making her first start since finishing second in November's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprit. She's been working steadily over the Churchill track since early April.

The other five are nice enough but not quite that nice.

Turf Mile

Monday's $500,000 Grade I Shoemaker Mile at Santa Anita, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" event, is another with entries yet to be finalized, but a potentially dominant trio of trainer nominations -- three from the Phil D'Amato shed row.


Balnikhov won the Grade III San Francisco Mile April 29 and the Santa Anita Mathis Mile last December but was seventh in the Frank E. Kilroe Mile on March 4.

Hong Kong Harry was last seen finishing second in the Grade I Turf Classic going 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs on Derby Day, his only try at a Grade I. He owns three graded wins, but none at the top.

Gold Phoenix won the Kilroe Mile, the only one of the three with a grade 1 score to his credit.

It's definitely not a one-trainer show so check out the entries sometime Friday.


Sparkle Blue and Sinfiltre are the early picks among 12 fillies and mares set to go 1 1/2 miles in Saturday's $225,000 Keertana Stakes at Churchill Downs.

Sparkle Blue, a 4-year-old Hard Spun filly from the Graham Motion barn, has been inconsistent but does have four wins to show for nine starts.

Todd Pletcher sends Sinfiltre, an Uncle Mo 4-year-old who seeks her third straight win.

Big Everest and Public Sector top a field of seven for Saturday's $100,000 Cliff Hanger Stakes at Monmouth Park at 1 1/16 miles.

Big Everest has won three straight and five of his last six starts, dating back almost exactly one year. Public Sector was a force two years ago, but has tailed off since while competing at much higher levels than his rivals here.


Filly & Mare Turf

A dynamite nominations list promises some holiday fireworks in Monday's $400,000 Grade I Gamely Stakes at Santa Anita including three trained by aforementioned turf powerhouse D'Amato.

With entries yet to be finalized, D'Amato has entered Rhea Moon, winner of three in a row including the Grade I American Oaks; Macadamia, winner of the Grade III Wilshire Stakes in her last; and School Dance, second in the American Oaks.

Also in the mix are Queen of the Temple, Closing Remarks, Queen Goddess and Quattrolle, all of whom have been slugging it out in local graded stakes during the past year.

Add in recent imports Atomic Blonde, Viareggio and Seisai, who arguably are still getting acclimated, and it should be a race to enjoy.

Sunday's $100,000 Miss Liberty Stakes at Monmouth Park drew a field of seven with two standing out. Scotish Star was a Group 1 winner in Argentina before she was sent north to trainer Todd Pletcher.

Since, she has been a consistent earner while winning only once. Kalifornia Queen's history is almost identical except she was a Group 2 winner in Germany before being sent to Chad Brown, for whom she's won only once.

Monday's $100,000, 1-mile Ouija Board Stakes at Lone Star Park has a field of 11 with Juncture the morning-line favorite. The 4-year-old Dark Angel filly, trained by Brad Cox, makes her second U.S. start after finishing sixth, beaten just 2 lengths, in a good allowance start at Keeneland.


That race was won by Viareggio, entered for Monday's Gamely Stakes at Santa Anita (see above). Those two also met in the Group 3 Snow Fairy Stakes at the Curragh in Ireland on Aug. 27 with Viareggio finishing first and Juncture third.

Turf Sprint

The oddsmaker found Love Appeals most appealing of six largely inexperienced 3-year-old fillies entered for Saturday's $175,000 Grade III Soaring Softly Stakes at Belmont Park -- but not by much.

The Speightstown filly, winner of two from three starts, is 6-5 on the morning line with the others held closely behind. American Apple won the Grade III Matron last season, but hasn't won since.

Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Daytona Stakes at Santa Anita has seven takers. Whatmakessammyrun exits a victory in the Siren Lure stakes, which makes him a rarity in this field.

Restrainedvengeance was good enough a year and a half ago to finish third in the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, albeit well back of winner Life Is Good. Prince Lancelot makes his U.S. debut after an inauspicious career in France.

Around the world, around the clock


There are lots of ways to go in Saturday's Group 1 Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh. Aidan O'Brien puts Paddington's three-race win streak on the line.


His son, Donnacha, has Proud and Regal, winner of the Group 1 Criterium International at Saint-Cloud in his 2-year-old finale but only third in the Group 3 Derby Trial at Leopardstown in his 3-year-old starter.

Hi Royal and Royal Scotsman were second and third behind Chaldean in the Group 1 Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket and could make it an all-Royal exacta.

There are some fine fillies in Sunday's Group 1 Irish 1,000 Guineas but trainer Dermot Weld looks to have the high hand with the Aga Khan's pair of Tahiyra and Tarawa.

Tahiyra, by Siyouni, is the ace showing on the board despite her second-place finish behind Mawj in the Qipco 1000 Guineas in her last trip to the racecourse.

None of the others in that field could stay with the winner, who now is headed to the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot. Tahiyra was 2-for-2 at 2, including a win in the Group 1 Moyglare Stud Stakes, and is odds-on to return to the winner's enclosure.

Bay Bridge, last seen finishing third in the Group 1 Prix Ganay, is a solid antepost pick in Sunday's Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at 2,100 meters at the Curragh, but it's a competitive field also featuring Luxembourg and Anmaat.



Little Big Bear, the budding sprint star from Ballydoyle, is the hot favorite in a field of eight drawn for Saturday's 6-furlongs Betfred Nifty Fifty Sandy Lane Stakes at Haydock.

The 3-year-old No Nay Never colt was 3-for-3 in his juvenile season for trainer Aidan O'Brien but was eased out of the 2000 Guineas in his only previous start this year.

O'Brien said the race went against the colt in the early stages and called the result "a non-event". There are some other talented runners in this, including Al Dasim, who ran off three consecutive wins this winter in Dubai before finishing seventh, beaten 3 lengths, in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night.


Pending final declarations, Monday's Group 1 Prix d'Ispahan at Lonchamp shapes up as a competitive heat despite a small field. Buckaroo from Ireland and Anmaat and Light Infantry from England could provide some international competition for the talented local entrants.


The battle for supremacy among Japanese 3-year-olds climaxes Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse in the Grade 1 Tokyo Yushun or Japanese Derby with a field that includes the top finishers from the major prep, the Grade 1 Satsuki Sho or Japanese 2,000 Guineas.


Chief among those is Sol Oriens, a Kitasan Black colt who won the Guineas and remains undefeated after three starts. The name means "Rising Sun" in Latin.

Skilfing, whose name comes from Norse mythology, enters with three straight wins following a career-starting second. The wins include the Grade 2 TV Tokyo Hai Aoba Sho over the course and distance of the Derby.

But that also means he carries the "curse" that no winner of that race has ever won the Derby.

Tastiera was second in the Satsuki Sho. Phantom Thief was third despite throwing a show on the backstretch. Metal Speed was fourth despite starting from the No. 17 gate. All return for the Tokyo Yushun. Satono Glanz enters off a victory in the Grade 2 Kyoto Shimbun Hai.

Hong Kong

Romantic Warrior is the unquestioned star of Sunday's Group 1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup, the final Group 1 race of the Hong Kong season.

The question is whether he can extend to the 2,400-meter distance of the race? He has never gone farther than 2,000 meters, leaving that question to be answered.

"Going to 2,400 meters is a bit of test for him," admitted his slated rider, Zac Purton. "He hasn't run over it before. He did win over 1,200 meters [for three consecutive wins at the start of his career in 2021]. Not many horses can win over 1,200 meters and 2,400 meters, so the distance is a question mark, really.


"He's obviously got the class. It depends on how on the race will be run."

A threat, then, is last year's winner, Russian Emperor. He's made eight starts in the interim with with only one win to show for it, that coming in the H H The Emir Trophy in Qatar in February.


The second Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" on Monday's schedule is the Group 1 Gran Premio Club Hipico Falabella for 3-year-olds and up in Santiago, Chile. The winner gets an Annie Oakley for the Breeders' Cup Mile on the Santa Anita turf in November.

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