A pair of important Grade I races nicely fill the weekend Thoroughbred schedule slot between the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness.
Some of the nation's top turf runners tackle the historic Group I Man o' War at Belmont while two-time Eclipse Award winner Beholder returns to action in the Grade I Vanity at Santa Anita. Both programs include more graded stakes action.
Monmouth Park brings the action back to the Jersey shore.
On the international front, there are some major 3-year-old races in France, Ireland and England. Tokyo Racecourse on Sunday hosts the Group 1 NHK Mile for 3-year-olds. And Singapore is gearing up for its big international weekend a week down the road.
We'll get to the Preakness doings directly. But first, this word from this weekend's racing:
With a couple of the big guns still on the sidelines, Saturday's $400,000, Grade I Man o' War at Belmont Park takes on added significance. Main Sequence, last year's Eclipse Award champ, hasn't recorded a workout since his seventh-place finish in Dubai. And the 2013 and 2012 U.S. turf champion, Wise Dan, is jogging but still isn't back in official training after the injury that sidelined him before last year's Breeders' Cup. The 7-horse Man o' War field does include one returnee -- Hyper, who has not raced since November of 2013. Before that, the 8-year-old son of Victory Gallop was pretty tough. But it's a challenging spot for a comeback against the likes of last year's Man o' War winner, Imagining; Main Sequence's frequent foe, Twilight Eclipse; Grade I Arlington Million winner Hardest Core; Grade III Louisville Handicap winner War Dancer; and Grade III Red Smith winner Dynamic Sky. The race is 1 3/8 miles on the inner turf course.
Beholder missed last fall's Breeders' Cup with a nasty illness, capping a year where misfortune limited her chances. Other than that, the 5-year-old Henny Hughes mare has been as consistent as they come at the highest level since she was 2. She showed she's not done yet by winning the Santa Lucia Stakes with ease in her only previous race this year. The competition in Saturday's Grade I Vanity Stakes at 9 furlongs at Santa Anita comes chiefly from Warren's Veneda, who has blossomed in her 5-year-old season with three straight stakes wins. On paper, the other three in the field seem to be vying for show money. But, as the saying goes, they run the races for a reason.
Also at Belmont on Saturday:
Discreet Marq makes her 2015 debut in the $150,000, Grade III Beaugay, going 1 1/16 miles on the inner turf. The 5-year-old Discreet Cat mare was in the money in five of seven starts last year, racing against top company. The seven-horse field also includes four European imports with varying levels of U.S. experience, all of whom look capable.
Seven distaffers are in for the $250,000, Grade II Ruffian, including the Godolphin entry of Wedding Toast and the undefeated Via Strata. The tough field also includes Princess Violet, the last-out winner of the Grade I Madison at Keeneland and House Rules, victor in the Grade III Top Flight Handicap at Aqueduct in her last afternoon at the races.
The Grade II Peter Pan, a one-turn, 9-furlongs test for 3-year-olds, has Conquest Curlinate, the runner-up in the Grade III Illinois Derby; Wolf Man Rocket, victor in the Northern Spur at Oaklawn Park; and Madefromlucky, who finished second to Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah in the Grade II Rebel at Oaklawn before a fourth-place showing in the Grade I Arkansas Derby. Two Weeks Off comes to this after a blazing allowance win at Keeneland in his 2015 bow. Watch this for clues to later events.
Also at Santa Anita:
Saturday's $100,000, Grade III American Stakes is for 3-year-olds and up at 1 mile on the grass. Bal a Bali is making his first start up from Brazil where won 11 of his 12 starts. Richard Mandella takes control of the 5-year-old son of Put It Back, who shows a steady stream of solid works. The opposition includes Argentine-bred Winning Prize and French-bred Talco. Home Run Kitten has been third in three straight graded stakes at Santa Anita.
On Sunday, seven 3-year-olds go 7 furlongs in the $100,000, Grade III Laz Barrera Stakes. Yiannis has won both his starts, including the San Pedro, and faces the second- and third-place finishers from that race, Serbian and Kentuckian. St. Joe Bay has been a frequent graded stakes competitor but has yet to win one. A couple of recent maiden winners show promise.
The weekend card includes a clutch of important tests for the sophomores. At Longchamp in Paris on Saturday, it's the Poule d'Essai des Poulains for the 3-year-old colts and the Poule d'Essai des Pouliches for the 3-year-old fillies -- which might be redundant in a multilingual sense. Leopardstown in Ireland hosts the Derby Trial and the 1,000 Guineas Trial. The former includes John F Kennedy, a one-time favorite for the Epsom Derby who disappointed in his 2015 debut. In England, the Derby Trial Stakes at Lingfield includes the undefeated Christophermarlow in a big field. The Derby -- the original one -- is June 6.
Sunday's Group 1 NKH Mile at Tokyo looks like a wide-open affair, with several fillies in the mix trying to break through against their male counterparts. Among those is Albiano, an American-bred daughter of Harlan's Holiday out of the Unbridled mare Antics who has won all three of her starts with total ease. "I think she's capable," said trainer Tetsuya Kimura. "You only have to look at the way she's won her races so far."
Last year's Hong Kong-based winners are due back for another try in Singapore's two International Group 1 races on May 17. Dan Excel, who took last year's 2,000-meters Singapore Airlines International Cup, and Lucky Nine, who has won the last two editions of the 1,200-meters KrisFlyer International Sprint, both are expected back at Kranji. Hong Kong's strong contingent also is expected to include 2013 SIA Cup winner Military Attack and last December's Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Sprint winner Aerovelocity. So, too, is Rich Tapestry, who won the Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship last fall before flopping in the Breeders' Cup. He redeemed himself with a third-place finish in March in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup night. Two French runners are expected -- last year's SIA Cup runner-up Smoking Sun, and Free Port Lux, a Group 2 winner at home. British-based Sir Maximilian reports after winning the Group 2 Meydan Sprint in Dubai. Meiner Frost comes from Japan to contest the SIA Cup and Hototo, based in Bahrain, is set to try the KrisFlyer. The local contingent for the SIA Cup includes two recent imports, Cooptado, from Dubai, and Parranda, who comes from the United States. The latter, a 6-year-old English Channel mare, was a multiple graded stakes winner and shipped to Singapore after winning the Grade III Marshua's River Stakes at Gulfstream Park in January. She has a first and a third in Group events at Kranji. Singaporean hopes for the sprint include local champ Zac Spirit, Emperor Max and Kiwi Karma.
Hopes are higher than ever for an end to the Triple Crown drought, extending back to Affirmed's sweep in 1978. But plenty of opposition is preparing to take on Kentucky Derby winner American Pharoah in the Preakness at Pimlico on May 16. Divining Rod, winner of the Grade III Lexington at Keeneland, is on target for a start in the Preakness. "I think he's great," trainer Arnaud Delacourt said early this week. Wednesday, he indicated the Baltimore race is a go. Before the Lexington, the Tapit colt was second in the Grade III Sam F. Davis at Tampa Bay and third in the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby.
Other potential "new shooters" for the Preakness include Bodhisattva, winner of the Federico Tessio at Pimlico and fifth in the Grade II Remsen last year at Aqueduct, and Stanford, who was a late scratch from the Kentucky Derby field. They likely will join the top three from the Run for the Roses -- American Pharoah, Firing Line and Dortmund -- for the middle leg of the Triple Crown. Those three all jogged Thursday morning at Churchill Downs and all seemed in fine fettle. Also under consideration for the Preakness are Danzig Moon and Mr. Z, who finished fifth and 13th in the Derby, both with traffic issues. Trainer Todd Pletcher said Wednesday Materiality (6th in the Derby), Carpe Diem (10th) and Competitive Edge, undefeated in four starts and winner of the Grade III Pat Day Mile on Derby Day, have not been ruled out of the Preakness. "I wouldn't say they're probable, possible, unlikely or likely. We haven't excluded them from consideration," Pletcher said. Godolphin Racing's Mubtaahij, winner of the UAE Derby but eighth in Louisville, reportedly will stay in the United States but skip the Preakness and contest the 1 1/2-miles Belmont Stakes.
News and notes
NBC reports 16 million people watched Saturday's Kentucky Derby -- up 4 percent from last year and among the highest viewerships in the past two decades. NBC's coordinated cable broadcasts also posted increases. That, despite the fact that Ashley Judd narrated the opening segment entirely off-camera. Really?