Churchill Downs again focal point of racing action

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer
Rattle N Roll, shown winning the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland, is the favorite in Saturday's Grade III Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs. Photo courtesy of Keeneland
1 of 2 | Rattle N Roll, shown winning the Ben Ali Stakes at Keeneland, is the favorite in Saturday's Grade III Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs. Photo courtesy of Keeneland

June 2 (UPI) -- Horse racing's focus remains squarely on Churchill Downs this weekend with full fields slated to contest important stakes races, while regulators implement new safety measures to address recent horse fatalities.

On the world scene, the focus is equally squarely on Epsom Downs, south of London, where the Oaks and Coronation Cup highlight Friday's program and the Derby is on tap Saturday.


The Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly is Sunday and Japan concludes a long string of Grade 1 racing with the 1-mile Yasuda Kinen Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse.

Back in North America, Santa Anita, Belmont Park, Penn National and Woodbine all contribute graded stakes to the weekend action.

Horse safety

Churchill Downs resumed racing on schedule and without apparent incident Thursday evening while state and national authorities continued their investigation into the deaths of 12 horses at the track since March 30.


All runners finished safely in all eight "Downs after Dark" races as the track announced additional safety measures stemming in part from meetings involving veterinarians from the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission and national regulator the Horseracing Integrity and Safety Authority.

The authority had indicated earlier in the week it was considering recommending a "pause" in racing at Churchill Downs. Instead, the track announced new measures largely designed to keep unfit horses from racing.

Those include restricting the number of starts per horse to four during any rolling eight-week period; a "pause" in incentives designed to promote full fields, such as trainer start bonuses and purse pay-outs to every race finisher through last place; and ineligibility standards for recent poor performances.

The authority independently said it will conduct an additional layer of post-entry screening to identify horses potentially at risk for injury.

Turf Mile

Major Dude and Candidate are atop the morning line for Friday's $400,000 Grade II Penn Mile for 3-year-olds at Penn National.

Major Dude, a Bolt D'Oro colt, was last seen finishing third in the Grade II American Stakes at Churchill Downs and was second in the Grade III Jeff Ruby Steaks on the Turfway Park all-weather.

Candidate, by Exaggerator, was going great guns before finishing sixth in the Grade III Transylvania at Keeneland in his last outing.


Recruiter is worth a look. The Army Mule colt is 5-for-6 with the only loss an 11th-place finish in the Gotham Stakes on a muddy Aqueduct track.

Talk of the Nation is the talk of the Jersey shore as the 7-5 morning-line favorite in a big field for Saturday's $100,000 Jersey Derby at Monmouth Park.

The Quality Road colt, trained by Shug McGaughey, won his last two starts impressively at Tampa Bay Downs and is 3-for-4 overall.


Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Pennine Ridge Stakes at Belmont Park turned into a really fascinating, highly international heat with top-shelf 3-year-olds from England and Dubai on hand to challenge talented locals.

Silver Knott, a Godolphin homebred by Lope de Vega, reported 11th in the Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket in his last start, but he wasn't the only well-regarded colt who failed to fire in that.

He was second, beaten just a nose, in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf so the quality's there.

Dubai transplant Sharar, trained by the estimable Fawzi Nass to consecutive wins in the Stakes and Jumeirah Derby at Meydan, has had plenty of time to get used to Belmont, working on the training track and turf for more than a month.


Todd Pletcher now handles the Gun Runner colt, who is cross-entered in the Audubon Stakes on the turf at Churchill Downs, and also has Far Bridge, just a nose short of being perfect after three starts.

Chad Brown will saddle three, all of them showing promise to continue his East Coast turf dominance into the future.

Demolition equipment went to work on Arlington Park this week just as Churchill Downs, which shuttered and sold the Chicago-area showpiece track, took entries for Saturday's $225,000 Grade III Arlington Stakes.

Set Piece, a 7-year-old Juddmonte homebred gelding by Dansili, is the morning-line favorite. Royal Patronage will line up just one day short of the first anniversary of his 16th-place finish in the Epsom Derby.

That calls to mind Teleprompter's victory in the 1985 Arlington Million, the "Miracle Million", for his owner, Lord Derby, just three weeks after the old Arlington grandstand was lost in a fire.

That old facility was replaced by the iconic, award-winning structure with a signature cantilevered roof that now faces the wrecking ball.

The makeup of Saturday's $225,000 Audubon Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs will depend on whether trainer Pletcher sends Dubai import Sharar in this race or opts for the sterner challenge of the Belmont Park race.


If he stays home in New York, the clear favorite here will be Webslinger, who exits a victory in the Grade II American Turf over the course on Derby Day. It will be interesting to see what Mendelssohns March can do if he gets a clean trip.

Filly & Mare Turf / Turf Mile

Princess Bettina and Royalty Interest are of most interest to the Penn National oddsmaker for Friday's $150,000 Penn Oaks. Princess Bettina, a Will Take Charge filly, switches coasts from West to East and trainers from Peter Eurton to Todd Pletcher after winning the China Doll Stakes at Santa Anita in her most recent start.

Royalty Interest, by Le Havre, makes just her second start. Trained by Chad Brown, she won her career debut by 3 1/4 lengths at Tampa Bay Downs in March.

Mission of Joy and Papilio finished third and fourth in the Grade II Edgewood on Oaks Day and, not facing the two who finished ahead of them in that race, they're the morning-line picks for Saturday's $225,000 Grade III Regret Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Churchill Downs.

Turf Sprint

Our Flash Drive won the Grade II Bessarabian Stakes to wrap up her 2022 season and won the Grade III Whimsical Stakes to open 2023 so it's little wonder she's the solid morning-line favorite among 11 entered for Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Royal North Stakes for fillies and mares at Woodbine.


The 5-year-old Ghostzapper filly, out of the Dynaformer mare Dynamotor, a Live Oak Plantation homebred, is trained by Mark Casse.


A solid, eight-horse field is set for Saturday's $225,000 Grade III Blame Stakes at Churchill Downs. Rattle N Roll has been on a roll for trainer Kenny McPeek since he swerved last year's Kentucky Derby, winning half of 10 starts since then.

He comes off wins in the Grade III Ben Ali at Keeneland and the Grade III Pimlico Special and is the 2-1 favorite on the morning line. Rivals include Pioneer of Medina, Barber Road and off-the-turf Santin.

Artie's Storm will defend his title in Sunday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Eclipse Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course. The opposition, 10-strong, includes Wolfie's Dynaghost, Rondure and War Bomber.


Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita has a tough and competitive little field. And Tell Me Nolies won the Grade I Del Mar Debutante and was second in the Santa Anita Oaks, among other nice results, but finished 12th in the Kentucky Oaks in her most recent start.

Trainer Chris Davis brings The Alys Look west after she finished third in the Kentucky Oaks while under Brad Cox's care. Doinitthehardway won her last start at Santa Anita for Bob Baffert.


John Sadler saddles Anywho, undefeated after wins at Belmont and Santa Anita. Santa Anita Oaks third Window Shopping is not out of it.

Frost Point and Pauline's Pearl are the morning-line picks among eight in for Saturday's $225,000 Grade III Shawnee Stakes at Churchill Downs. Frost Point, a 5-year-old Frosted mare, won the Grade III Doubledogdare on the Keeneland turf in her 2023 debut.

Pauline's Pearl, a 5-year-old by Tapit, won the Grade I La Troienne over the track 13 months ago but finished up the track in the same race last month in her second straight disappointing start.

Last year's Queen's Plate and Woodbine Oaks winner Moira makes her first start as a 4-year-old heavily favored in Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) Grade III Belle Mahone Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course.

That's despite her last two races of 2022 producing an eighth-place finish in the Grade I E.P. Taylor Stakes and a fifth in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf.

A return to the main track could be just what the Ghostzapper filly needs to get off on the right foot. Among the others, note Super Hoity Toity and Il Malocchio.


When last seen, Sibelius was edging Switzerland by a nose to win the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen at Meydan Racecourse on World Cup night.


That was a bit of a shocker and not quite enough evidence to make the 5-year-old Not This Time gelding the morning-line favorite in a field of five set for Saturday's $225,000 Aristides Stakes at Churchill Downs.

That honor goes to Bango, a 6-year-old entire son of Congrats who not only won this race in both 2021 and 2022, but also is 10-for-17 overall at Churchill Downs and 8-for-14 at this 6-furlongs distance.

Fun fact: Ryan Moore hopped on Sibelius for the Dubai ride. Regular rider Junior Alvarado is back for the Aristides.

Retired Canadian sensation Pink Lloyd won't soon be forgotten, especially now that he has a race named in his honor. The first running of the 6-furlongs Pink Lloyd Stakes is Sunday at Woodbine.


The Best of Ohio program has five races for state-breds Friday at Belterra Park across the Ohio River from Kentucky, upstream of Cincinnati.

Evangeline Downs stages the marquee night of its Thoroughbred season Saturday with six Louisiana Legends races for state-breds. Each is worth $100,000.

Among them are two heats for juveniles, offering an early glimpse of what the Bayou State might have to offer for the historic 150th Kentucky Derby.

Around the world, around the clock



Judging Saturday's Betfred Derby at Epsom seems to come down to how much credence one gives to Irish maestro Aidan O'Brien's assessment of his main hope, Auguste Rodin.

Never shy about promoting his horses, the trainer has absolutely gushed about the Deep Impact colt, not pausing even after he beat only two rivals while finishing 22 lengths behind the winner in the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket.

Auguste Rodin was an easy winner in his 2-year-old finale, taking down the Group 1 Futurity Trophy at Doncaster by 3 1/2 lengths for his third straight win. But that Guineas trip! If one didn't know the colt's identity, a look at that replay would result in a quick "toss out" for the Derby.

But if we abandon faith in the master, with whom to side? Godolphin's Military Order and Juddmonte's Arrest (with Frankie Dettori riding his final Derby) are tempting prospects with questions to answer.

Nota bene: Trainer Sir Michael Stoute recommended after his last bit of work that the Niarchos family supplement Passenger to the race after a luckless dead-heat third in the Group 2 Dante Stakes at York.

Certainly the £85,000 fee is pocket change to the owners, but Sir Michael wouldn't stake his judgment on a hopeless cause.


The Derby has been moved up to the second race on Saturday's program to accommodate a football match that takes precedence on television time. That puts the race at 1:30 p.m. local time or 8:30 a.m. EDT.

Also, animal rights protestors plan to defy and injunction and invade the track in an effort to stop or at least delay the race so the post time might be pushed back while they're pushed off the course.

O'Brien's also very enthusiastic about the favorite for Friday's Group 1 Betfred Oaks -- Savethelastdance. Who wouldn't be after the Galileo filly won the Cheshire Oaks in her last start by 22 lengths?

She was getting stronger and running faster at the end of the nearly 1 1/2 miles, too, auguring well for basically the same distance at Epsom.

If there's a question, it's how she will handle firmer going than she's encountered in her first three starts. The main rival, Soul Sister, was an easy winner of the Group 3 Musidora Stakes at York for Dettori and the training team of John and Thady Gosden and owner/breeder Lady Bamford.

Friday's Group 1 Coronation Cup drew five confirmations, all of them really good horses. Westover, Emily Upjohn, Hurricane Lane and Point Lonsdale comprise the local squad.


Invading from Germany is Tunnes, who was good enough to finish sixth in the Japan Cup in November and returned with a runner-up showing in Cologne in April.


Sodashi, Songline, Serifos and Schnell Meister figure in Sunday's Yasuda Kinen, a 1-mile event at Tokyo Racecourse that winds up a five-week run of Grade 1 racing. There's a bit of an ongoing rivalry among this bunch.

Sodashi, the iconic white filly beloved of Japanese racing fans, finished second behind Songline in their last race, the Grade 1 Victoria Mile, and third behind Serifos before that in the Grade 1 Mile Championship.

Sodashi does own three Grade 1 victories, all at the mile, and would benefit from not being drawn in the outside gate, as she was in the last outing.

Serifos makes his first start back home after finishing an honorable fifth in the Group 1 Dubai Turf at Meydan Racecourse on World Cup night when he was unable to sustain a rally going 1,800 meters.

Jack d'Or and Schnell Meister both exits victories although both will have to show something more to figure in the outcome of this race.


Big Rock takes a step up to the favorite's role for Sunday's Prix du Jockey Club at Chantilly while facing 10 rivals. The Rock of Gibraltar colt is 4-for-4 since Christopher Head took over his training early in the year. While he has won easily, he has not raced above the Group 3 level.


The opposition includes Japanese-bred Continuous, trained by Aidan O'Brien with Ryan Moore up; Epictetus, with Frankie Dettori up for the Gosdens; and supplemental entry Feed the Flame.

Latest Headlines