WASHINGTON, Nov. 27 (UPI) -- The last big weekend of U.S. racing kicked off with a bang on Thanksgiving Day with lots more to come through the weekend, climaxing with the Japan Cup on Sunday in Tokyo.
It all fits together, like turkey and stuffing, as The Pizza Man, who missed the Japan Cup trip after a minor malady, instead was a dramatic come-from-behind winner on Thursday at Del Mar.
The rest of the long weekend feast includes several Breeders' Cup competitors looking for redemption, a lot of classy 2-year-olds looking to start their climb toward May in Louisville and some incredibly tough fields in the Cigar Mile at Aqueduct, the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and other top-shelf, late-year stakes, including the annual fall feature at Hawthorne Race Course, the Hawthorne Gold Cup.
And, not to look past Japan, but the fields assembled for the Longines Hong Kong International Races in two weeks' time read like a "Who's Who" of international racing, including even more Breeders' Cup runners.
We're grateful for all we're given. And this weekend, that's plenty. Gobble, gobble.
The Pizza Man bounced back from a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup to win Thursday's $250,000, Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup with his typical, from-the-clouds stretch rally. The Illinois-bred English Channel gelding with Mike Smith up, raced near the back of the 14-horse field until they hit the stretch turn. Going wide, he started his one, big trademark rally, got by them all and won going away, by 2 lengths. Big John B also rallied late but settled for second, 1/2 length in front of Power Foot and another neck better than Power Ped. The Pizza Man ran 1 1/2 miles on firm turf in 2:31.75.
"He was actually supposed to go to Japan after the Breeders' Cup but he got a little lung infection," said owner Richard Papiese of Midwest Thoroughbreds. "We were excited to go and represent American racing and racing in general, but coming to Del Mar is great ... Mike let him run his race and when he gets to run his race he's tough to beat. I was absolutely not worried about where he was during the race. Mike said he was going to be eight to 10 (lengths) off of it and I said, 'You're going to love the afterburners when they kick in.'" Smith agreed. "That's some stride on that horse, I'll tell you," Smith said. "The Pizza Man for Thanksgiving. I like it."
The Japan Cup
Despite the absence of The Pizza Man, the 35th running of the Japan Cup has plenty of potential for this year's visitors. The 2,400-meters event at Tokyo Racecourse has been the exclusive preserve of local runners for the past 10 years. But with a rash of retirements and injuries, this field seems a tad less imposing. The primary contenders appear to be Gold Ship, an enigmatic 6-year-old who is great when he offers his best but is capable of doing a lot less. In his last start, for example, Gold Ship was fractious at the gate, missed the start badly and seemed disinterested in running, finishing next-last in the Group 1 Takarazuka Kinen in June. But he is a multiple Group 1 winner and can't be dismissed after encouraging recent workouts. By contrast, Lovely Day, a 5-year-old, has been a model of consistency in a breakthrough year, winning his last four starts, two of them Group 1 events and will be well backed locally.
The overseas contingent includes Trip to Paris, whose trip from England to Japan took him through Australia, where he finished a smashing second in the Group 1 Caulfield Cup and fourth with a troubled trip I the Group 1 Melbourne Cup. "We couldn't be happier with him," assistant trainer Robin Trevor-Jones said of the 4-year-old Champs Elysees gelding, who won the Gold Cup at Ascot earlier in the year. Erupt finished fifth in this year's Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe but has targeted the Japan Cup since winning the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris in July. "Erupt has been a horse that has matured throughout the racing season," said Alan Cooper, racing manager for the owners, the Niarchos family. Erupt is a 3-year-old Dubawi colt. Ito and Nightflower represent Germany. Ito, a 4-year-old colt by Adlerflug, won the Grosser Preis von Bayern at Munich in his last start, defeating Prince Gibraltar. Nightflower, a 3-year-old Dylan Thomas filly, won the Group 1 Preis von Europa at Cologne in her last outing.
The four events comprising the Longines Hong Kong International Races on Dec. 13 have drawn 56 entries, including 33 international Group 1 or Grade I winners -- a lineup strong enough to possibly challenge the stellar record local horses have posted in these events. Among the participants are Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe runner-up and defending Hong Kong Vase champ Flintshire, Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday, Japan Mile Championship winner Maurice, French-based star Esoterique, Australia's Criterion and Ireland's Free Eagle. The home team is, as usual, well represented with Able Friend and Designs On Rome at the top of the list.
"Here in Hong Kong we have a strong contingent of talented, international-caliber horses, notably the outstanding Able Friend," said William Nader, executive director of racing for the Hong Kong Jockey Club. "But at this year's HKIR, our home team will face perhaps its toughest test of recent times. Looking at the 33 talented overseas challengers - horses of the class of Flintshire, Maurice, Esoterique and Free Eagle, to name a few - we have some of the most exciting horses in the world heading for Sha Tin on the second Sunday in December. This is international racing at the highest level and everyone is in for a real treat."
Back to Del Mar
Om looks to be a clear choice in Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Hollywood Derby. The Munnings colt won the Grade II Del Mar Derby and the Grade II Twilight Derby at Santa Anita over the same distance in his last two starts and has never been worse than second in four starts on the grass. The only horse who has beaten Om on the turf, Royal Albert Hall, also is in this field. Mister Brightside finished second, between those two, in the Twilight Derby after shipping from England. Sharla Rae ran well enough against fillies earlier in California but was swamped in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Closing Bell looks to be a live long shot after winning the Dueling Grounds Derby at Kentucky Downs and finishing second in the Bryan Station at Keeneland. Offering Plan improved to win the English Channel Stakes at Belmont in his last race.
Dortmund heads the cast for the $150,000, Grade III Native Diver Stakes at 9 furlongs on the lawn. The Santa Anita Derby winner finished third in the Run for the Roses and fourth in the Preakness, then got some time off before returning to win the Big Bear Stakes at Santa Anita last month and has been working like a champ for trainer Bob Baffert. Iron Fist finished second behind Frosted in the Grade II Pennsylvania Derby, then won an optional claimer at Del Mar in preparation for this race. Others include Imperative, Big Cazanova and Yahila, all capable of big efforts.
Thirteen 2-year-old fillies are entered for Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Jimmy Durante Stakes at 1 mile on the turf. Riri is undefeated in two starts on the Southern California turf. Jeremy's Legacy won in her first start after shipping from Ireland. Optimism and Hope, another Irish-bred and raced filly, offers some hope for owner Michael House. The others are a well-matched field, likely to challenge trifecta bettors.
Sunday's features are the $300,000, Grade I Matriarch for fillies and mares on the turf and the $100,000, Grade III Cecil B. DeMille for 2-year-olds, also on the green course.
Green Gratto took the lead in Thursday's $250,000, Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap, raced unchallenged into the stretch and held on to post a major upset, beating Palace by a head with the favorites, Salutos Amigos and La Verdad, finishing fifth and sixth. With Kendrick Carmouche up, Green Gratto covered 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09. 95. I knew all along he was the kind of horse to win a graded stakes race because he always showed it in the mornings," said winning trainer Gatson Grant. "It was just a matter of putting it together in the afternoon. He's just one tough guy and there's no quit in him."
Constellation continued to shine with a dominating victory in Thursday's $150,000 Furlough Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. The Bellamy Road miss battled to the lead and drew off as much superior to a trio of rivals, winning by 8 1/4 lengths and finishing 6 furlongs in 1:10.39 with jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. not pressing for her best. Tonasah was second, followed by Wave of Glory and Summer Reading. "Drawing the outside post helped us out a little bit being able to see how things would play out," said Toby Sheets, assistant to winning trainer Steve Asmussen. "But she's a really nice filly. I don't think it would've mattered today where we drew." She won at first asking at Saratoga, then finished third in the Grade I Spinaway and second in the Grade II Matron at Belmont Park.
Taris and America are the morning-line picks among seven for Friday's $300,000, Grade III Go For Wand Handicap for fillies and mares. Taris, a 4-year-old Flatter filly, bounces back from a third-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. America stayed home in New York and won the Grade III Turnback the Alarm at Belmont on Breeders' Cup weekend.
Private Zone had a four-race winning streak snapped when Runhappy outfinished him in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. He gets another chance in Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Cigar Mile but it's no easy task. Among the six rivals are Tonalist, fifth in the Breeders' Cup Classic but a proven performer at 1 mile; English import Matrooh, who earned a 105 Beyer in winning the Grade III Bold Ruler in his previous outing; Red Vine, third in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile behind Liam's Map and Lea; Mshawish, third in the Group 1 Dubai Turf on World Cup night and looking to re-establish himself in a rare dirt start; and Marking, a Godolphin Racing colt by Bernardini who has run twice, won twice and will be a price. You never know at the end of the year whether the warriors have enough left to cope with the newcomers. Tough race.
Saturday's $300,000, Grade III Comely for 3-year-old fillies has a mixed bag of 10 successful and promising contenders. The morning-line favorite, Carrumba, has moved quickly through her conditions with three straight wins and tackles stakes company for the first time. The Phipps Stable homebred by Bernardini could be a late-blooming monster. Forever Unbridled was off for five months after a poor showing in the Kentucky Oaks and, with a nice effort in the Grade II Raven Run at Keeneland under her belt, could be a handful. Peace and War has been competitive in most of her efforts despite a flop in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Wonder Gal, Pangburn and Temper Mint Patty all deserve a look.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Remsen for 2-year-olds stretches the youngsters out to 9 furlongs. Among the nine contenders are the 1-2-3 finishers from the Grade II Nashua eaerlier this month -- Mohaymen, Flexibility and Sail Ahoy. There are a couple promising recent maiden winners and Maryland shipper Marengo Road comes off an impressive off-the-turf win at Laurel Park.
Lewis Bay is the morning-line pick among seven set for Saturday's $300,000, Grade II Demoiselle for 2-year-old fillies in what looks like a wide-open race. The Bernardini filly won last time out over the course. But Flora Dora looked impressive running second in the Grade III Tempted just three weeks ago. Thrilled faded badly in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies after a bad start but otherwise has been impressive. Lost Raven is undefeated in two starts, including the Smart Halo Stakes at Laurel.
Ahh Chocolate pressed the pace in Thursday's $200,000, Grade II Falls City Handicap for fillies and mares, moved to the lead in the stretch and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Theogony. Call Pat was third and Birdathewire, the favorite, roosted fourth. Ahh Chocolate, a 3-year-old daughter of Candy Ride, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.68 with Brian Hernandez Jr. up. "We've always thought highly of her and are thinking that she's going to be a lot better with age and as she gets older," said winning trainer Neil Howard. "We'll target the Fair Grounds races in the winter, but we're going to give her a little bit of a break right now."
Heart to Heart was left alone on an easy lead in Thursday's $100,000, Grade III River City Handicap and wasn't caught, winning by 2 lengths over Thatcher Street. Perfect Title was third and the favorite, Messi, checked in fifth. Heart to Heart, a 4-year-old English Channel colt, ran 9 furlongs on good turf in 1:52.16 with Julien Leparoux in the irons. "He's a tough little bugger when they leave him alone on the lead," said wining trainer Brian Lynch. "This was a nice little win coming back against older horses this time."
Saturday's $500,000, Grade I Clark Handicap should pry your attention away from the NFL and even the leftover turkey. Key 3-year-old player Keen Ice takes on the likes of Effinex, Race Day and Hoppertunity in the 9-furlongs test that has become a major late-season stop. Keen Ice, of course, defeated American Pharoah in the Grade I Travers this summer before finishing fourth behind that rival in the Breeders' Cup Classic. He wouldn't take any Eclipse Awards away from American Pharoah with a win here but it still would be an important clue to 2016. Effinex was fourth in the Grade I Woodward, third in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup and second in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Race Day, a terror in Arkansas this spring, bounced back from two poor starts to win the Grade II Fayette on Breeders' Cup Friday at Keeneland. Hoppertunity won this race last year but has had a hard time finding the winner's circle since then. He finished second in the Fayette.
A bakers dozen will contest Friday's $100,000, Grade III Commonwealth Turf and it's a "you pick 'em" event. Among the fancied by oddsmaker Mike Battaglia are Saham, Granny's Kitten, Nun the Less, One Go All Go, Almasty and Nucifera. Good luck.
A colt making his first start the dirt and a California shipper fresh off a maiden win are the morning-line picks for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club. Airoforce won the Grade III Bourbon on the Keeneland grass, then finished second a neck to the impressive Hit It a Bomb in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Now trainer Mark Casse puts the Colonel John colt on the main track, adding blinkers but keeping Julien Leparoux and getting the nod from oddsmaker Mike Battaglia. Bob Baffert has brought Mor Spirit, an Eskendereya ridgling, from California where he finished second in his first effort, then won easily when stretched out to 1 mile. Among the others, Annual Report has won both his starts for Godolphin, including the Grade II Futurity at Belmont, Gun Runner is undefeated in two starts, Mo Tom won the Street Sense Stakes over the course earlier in the month, and Rated R Superstar has been tough except for a misadventure in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile.
Carina Maria, Stageplay and Dothraki Queen are solid morning-line picks among nine 2-year-old fillies set for Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Golden Rod at Churchill Downs. Carina Maria finished second to Stageplay in her career debut at Keeneland, then came back to win by 9 3/4 lengths on Breeders' Cup weekend. Stageplay went on from her first-out victory to win the Rags to Riches Stakes at Churchill Downs on Nov. 1. Dothraki Queen won the Grade II Pocahontas under the twin spires, then closed to finish third in the Breeders' Cup after being roughed up at the start. Dream Dance finished second in the Rags to Riches and could be improving enough to figure in this.
Hawthorne Race Course
Commissioner, a reliable graded stakes performer, will represent trainer Todd Pletcher's barn as the favorite among eight in for Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Hawthorne Gold Cup. The 2014 Belmont Stakes runner-up won the Grade III Skip Away and the Grade II Pimlico Special earlier this year and comes off a fourth-place effort in the tough Grade II Fayette at Keeneland on Breeders' Cup weekend. His rivals include the 1-2 finishers from the Marathon at Keeneland -- Neck 'n Neck and Majestic Harbor -- and local favorite Mr. Marti Gras, who finished second in this race last year for trainer Chris Block.
Control Stake led from the break in Thursday's $60,000 Thanksgiving Handicap, then inched away in the stretch to win by 1 1/4 lengths over Officer Griffin. The odds-on favorite, Clearly Now, picked up show money. Control Stake, a 3-year-old colt by Discreetly Mine, ran 6 furongs on a fast track in 1:09.83 with Colby Hernandez riding.
Wednesday was a big day of stakes races with the track fast.
Lavender Chrissie collared pacesetting favorite Calamity Kate in the stretch run of the $300,000 Zia Park Oaks and went on to win by 3 lengths from that rival. Sweet Opportunity was third. Lavender Chrissie, a Scat Daddy filly trained by Dale Romans, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:44.92 with Corey Lanerie in the irons.
Mobile Bay won an all-out stretch battle with Pain and Misery in the $200,000 Zia Park Derby, scoring by a nose over that rival with Bold Conquest another 11 lengths in arrears in third. Mobile Bay, a Louisiana-bred Lone Star Special colt, ran 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.62 with Edgar Prado riding.
Thirteen Arrows, last seen winning at Keeneland, battled to the lead in the $100,000 Zia Park Distaff, then kicked away to a 2 1/4-lengths victory with Florent Geroux up. Lasting Bubbles and Call Me Sandy completed the trifecta. Thirteen Arrows, a 4-year-old Indian Charlie filly, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.78.
Smack Smack outfinished Point Piper and Whine for Wine in the $150,000 Zia Park Championship Handicap, with the margins only a pair of necks. Smack Smack, a 4-year-old Closing Argument gelding, finished 9 furlongs in 1:49.79 with Shane Laviolette up.
Dirt Monster broke a step slowly in the $150,000 Zia Park Sprint but quickly assumed the lead and drew off to win by 3 lengths. Forin Sea and Redneck Humor completed the trifecta. Dirt Monster, a 3-year-old Line of David colt, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.03 with Alfredo Juarez Jr. in the irons.
Gold Boundry led all the way to a 6 1/2-lengths victory over Ten Penny Cents in the $140,000 Eddy County Stakes for New Mexico-bred 2-year-olds, running 1 mile in 1:39.25 with Elvin Gonzalez up.
Kingsport stalked the pace in Wednesday's $125,000 (Canadian) Sir Barton Stakes for Ontario-sired 3-year-olds and up, took the lead when prompted by jockey Patrick Husbands and went on to win by 1 length over Born in a Breeze. Chris' Brew was third. Kingsport, a 3-year-old Milwaukee Brew colt, got 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.14.
Favorite Tale made all the going in Wednesday $200,000 Fabulous Strike and won handily as Ben's Cat, perhaps hinting he's about done with his fabulous career, beat only one of seven rivals although he did stumble out of the gate. Favorite Tale, a 4-year-old Tale of the Cat gelding, got home first by 2 lengths over Majestic Hussar with Galiana third. The 6 furlongs on a fast took 1:11.00 with Javier Castellano steering the winner.
Page McKenney ran by the leaders and won a long stretch battle to take Wednesday's $100,000 Swatara Stakes by 1/2 length. Kid Cruz was up for second, 2 lengths better than Catron. Page McKenny, a 5-year-old Eavesdropper gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.08l with Horacio Karamanos in the irons.
Behrnik's Bank, the prohibitive favorite, ran to her notices in Wednesday's $75,000 Blue Mountain for 2-year-old, Ohio-bred fillies. With Edwin Gonzales up, she put the matter to rest early and won by 13 lengths, well in hand, covering 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.22. The Bank Heist filly won for the second time in as many tries.
Lewys Vaporizor was out front early in Monday's $200,000 Steel Valley Sprint for 3-year-olds, opened up a daylight lead and lasted, finishing first by 1 1/2 lengths over Bayerd. Hebbronville was third, followed by Sharm and Tanner's Popsicle. Lewys Vaporizer, an Illinois-bred gelding by Michael Lewis, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.05 with Irad Ortiz Jr. in for the ride. "My game plan was to go to the lead. He broke sharp and really liked the track and was never challenged," Ortiz said. Last month's Perryville Stakes at Keeneland found the same top three in the reverse order -- Hebronville first, Bayerd second and Lewys Vaporizer third after fading from the lead.
The photo finish camera showed a dead heat for the win in Monday's $75,000 Hollywood Gaming Mahoning Distaff for fillies and mares. But the stewards said, "Not so fast," and demoted one of the winners, Donita's Ruler, to second for drifting out late and impeding Heykittykittykitty, the other winner. Helluva Notion was 8 1/4 lengths farther back in third. Heykittykittykitty, a 4-year-old Tactical Cat filly, was ridden by Ricardo Santana Jr. The 6 furlongs went in 1:12.51.