The $1.25 million Charles Town Classic in West Virginia and the Group 1 QE II in Hong Kong provide a yin-and-yang focus for weekend Thoroughbred racing.
There's a tough turf test at Keeneland and a serious set of speedball fillies and mares at Los Alamitos.
On the European front, the entries for Royal Ascot promise some juicy competition as that meeting increases its global outreach and stature.
And, kudos to Oaklawn Park and Canterbury Park. See "News and Notes".
Hong Kong (By Richard Gross)
The 42nd running of the $2.6 million, 1 1/4-miles Group 1 Audemars Piguet Queen Elizabeth II Cup to be run on the turf this Sunday at Hong Kong's Sha Tin racecourse held its post-position draw Thursday morning. Appropriately named reigning champion Blazing Speed learned he will defend his crown from the number 3 post position against 12 competitors from five countries.
"The 3 post was given to us, but I'm very happy with it," said trainer Tony Cruz, referring to his last position in the draw. The race features an early first turn, potentially presenting a tactical advantage to speed horses with an inside position. "It's the post I would have chosen because it's sure there will be some speed," added Cruz. "Still, the weather forecasts a storm for Sunday, so anything can happen."
Cruz is also saddling Group 1-winning gelding Helene Super Star in post 13. The former jockey-turned-trainer pointed to the three Japanese entries as chief competitors: Lovely Day on the rail, 2014 Japan Oaks winner Nuovo Record running from post No. 7, and multiple graded stakes-winner Satono Crown in No. 8.
The 2014 QEII champion Designs on Rome and 2013 winner Military Attack seek to regain their former glory from the 2 and 9 posts respectively.
Leading Hong Kong-based trainer John Moore is leading the QE II assault with three runners. Highest-rated at 119 Designs on Rome will be joined by stablemate geldings Werther, running out of gate 5, and Helene Happy Star in post 12. "I'm very, very happy with our draws," said Moore. "Designs on Rome is going to go back, we know. Helene Happy Star has led and Werther has drawn the perfect gate."
Completing the field will be 2014 Australian Oaks winner, Rising Romance, in the number 4 position; Ireland's Highland Reel, winner of the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park last year, rolling from the 6 gate; and Hong Kong's Horse of Fortune, trying to win one from the 10 post alongside the UAE's Ertijaal, who will be running for South African trainer Mike de Kock out of gate 11.
The QE II is international racing's No. 9-rated race and will be followed May 1 by two more Group 1 events -- the Champions Mile and the Chairman's Sprint Prize, the latter featuring a much-anticipated contest pitting 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner Mongolian Saturday against Australian multiple graded stakes-winning stars Buffering and Chautauqua in a leg of the Global Sprint Challenge.
As befits a $1.25 million race, Saturday's Group II Charles Town Classic drew a full, classy and competitive field. The 3-1 morning-line favorite for the 9-furlongs event around three turns is the promising 4-year-old Donworth, who lost all chance when he clipped heels late in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap in his last outing but otherwise has not run a bad race. He was third in the Grade II San Anonio at Santa Anita, trailing only Hoppertunity and Imperative and beaten only 1/2 length for it all. Imperative is listed at 7-2 on the morning line for Saturday's race after finishing fourth in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap behind Melatonin, Hard Aces and Effinex. Effinex and Melatonin returned from that effort to run 1-2 in the Grade I Oaklawn Handicap last weekend. Hard Aces is back in the Charles Town field. So are the first- and third-place finishers from the Grade II New Orleans Handicap a Fair Grounds a month ago -- S'maverlous and International Star. S'maverlous, a $25,000 claimer a year ago, has made great strides as a 6-year-old while International Star has been running well at the top level throughout his 13-race career. If those don't appeal, perhaps it's Stanford, who finished a close second to Blofeld in the Grade II Gulfstream Park Handicap in his most recent effort. Or Page McKenney, riding a four-race win streak including the Grade III General George at Laurel. Imperative and Page McKenney finished second and third in this rich event last year, behind Moreno.
The stakes-filled undercard includes popular local runner Russell Road making his 10-year-old debut in the 7-furlongs Confucius Say Stakes. He's been on the board in 48 of his 58 career starts and won 30 of those. The Wheaton gelding could nudge right up under $2 million in earnings with a win.
And if you can't get out to the track, Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net) will have all the action for you direct from West Virginia trackside. Looking for help in sorting things out? That's www.popejude.com.
Saturday's $250,000, Grade II Dixiana Elkhorn is a top-shelf turf throwdown with Da Big Hoss, Up With the Birds, Twilight Eclipse and Kaigun all having claims in the 1 1/2-miles heat. Da Big Hoss was sixth in last year's Breeders' Cup Turf with a late run and took the Grade III John B. Connally at Sam Houston earlier this season. Up With the Birds was second to English raider Cannock Chase in last season's Grade I Pattison Canadian International at Woodbine and fourth in the Grade I Arlington Million. Twilight Eclipse rarely misses the frame in graded stakes company but struggled in his first start as a 7-year-old, finishing last in the Grade II Mac Diarmida at Gulfstream. Kaigun was second in that heat but returned to win the Grade II Pan American. Among the others, watch Idolo Portendo, an Argentine-bred who finished third in last month's Razorback Handicap on the dirt at Oaklawn Park in his first U.S. start.
I'm a Chatterbox makes her first start of the year in Friday's $100,000, Grade III Hilliard Lyons Doubledogdare Stakes at 1 1/16 miles. The Munnings filly last year won the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks and the Grade I Cotillion at Delaware Park and finished second in two other Grade I event before posting a traffic-plagued eighth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. She goes as the odds-on favorite in the morning line against eight rivals.
Keep an eye on the Ontario track Sunday for hints to this summer's Queen's Plate. Seven Ontario-bred 3-year-olds will tackle 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in the $100,000 (Canadian) Wando Stakes. Amis Gizmo enters this fray undefeated in four starts, all last year over the old all-weather course and including the 1 1/16-miles Kingarvie Stakes. We, as Chicago-area residents, love Conquest Windycity, who won two in the row before finishing eighth in the Louisiana Derby. He tries the all-weather for the first time. Perhaps more likely is Conquest Daddyo, who broke his maiden on the old course at Woodbine, then finished second on the same surface in the Vandal Stakes before shifting to turf during the winter. The others have some work to do but, given the nature of the event, a surprise would be, really, no surprise.
Thirteen Arrows started her career in 2014 in Florida, worked her way up the East Coast, moved west last fall through Keeneland and New Mexico and, after a stop in New Orleans, finds herself Saturday in the $200,000, Grade II Great Lady M. Stakes at Los Alamitos in California going 6 1/2 furlongs. Through her odyssey, the Indian Charlie filly has run out of the money only twice in 11 starts and won three of her last four outings. She meets some toughies in her new venue, including last year's winner, Fantastic Style, who is coming off a victory in the Grade III Las Flores; Lost Bus, winner of the Grade II Santa Monica in January; and Ben's Duchess, second in the Las Flores.
On the international front:
Royal Ascot looks like having a record number of overseas entries this June, with 164 of the 394 entries for the eight Group 1 events coming from other jurisdictions. Among them is Tepin, trained by Mark Casse, who trains a slew of excellent North American horses and would be making his first foray into Royal Ascot. Tepin, the reigning Breeders' Cup Mile winner, essentially has run out of competition at home and Casse says she is under consideration for the Queen Anne Stakes at a straight mile. That could find her head-to-head with the formidable Solow and France's Ervedya. Considering the taxing, uphill run in the Queen Anne, Casse said he might start Tepin in the 9-furlongs Woodford Reserve on Kentucky Derby Day at Churchill Downs.
"That would probably be a little more equal to a mile at Royal Ascot," he said. "I have never been to Ascot so I am only guessing."
Tepin is among the most-ever 18 entries from the United States. The other foreign nominees include 81 from Ireland, 44 from France, nine from Australia, four each from Germany and Hong Kong and two each from Japan and Singapore.
The Group 1 Diamond Jubilee Stakes could feature a clash between top Australian sprinter Chautauqua and last year's winner, American-trained Undrafted. The Diamond Jubilee and the King's Stand Stakes -- the bookend sprints of the Royal Meeting -- also are the first two British legs of the Global Sprint Challenge. Chautauqua won the opening leg, the Lightning Stakes in Melbourne, and runs next in the Chairman's Sprint Prize in Hong Kong on May 1, another leg in the series. A victory in Hong Kong, therefore, could find Chautauqua running for the $1 million Global Sprint Challenge bonus available to any horse winning three legs in three different jurisdictions.
The Grade 2 Yomiuri Milers Cup on Sunday at Nakayama has attracted some quality participants, including Fiero and Danon Shark, both previously competitive at the top level against the likes of Maurice, who is seeking international Group 1 glory in Hong Kong in a week's time.
News and notes:
Canterbury Park racing Tuesday announced a reduction in pari-mutuel takeout for its 69-day meeting starting May 20. Win, place and show takeout will be 15 percent and all exotic wagers, 18 percent. During the 2015 season, the takeout was 17 percent on win, place and show and 23 percent on exotics other than the Pick 4. "
Canterbury Park has long strived to be the most horsemen-friendly track in the country, said Eric Halstrom, vice president of racing operations. "Now, we want to be the most horseplayer-friendly racetrack in America. ... By changing our takeout to the lowest in the United States, we're giving horseplayers worldwide great value and drawing attention to what is sure to be the finest racing season in Minnesota history."
While Canterbury looks forward to its season with great anticipation, Oaklawn Park in Hot Springs, Ark., looks back on its recently concluded meeting with tremendous satisfaction. Blessed with excellent weather, Oaklawn saw all-sources handle grow 4 percent to $180.6 million and attendance swell 12 percent to 559,650. Three purse increases during the season helped swell the average field size to 9.62 horses per race. A record 492 horses were claimed for more than $7 million. Circle Friday, Jan. 13, 2017, when racing will return to the Ozarks.
Meanwhile, the ongoing dispute between Arlington Park and the Illinois Thoroughbred Horsemen's Association bubbled over to U.S. District Court, where the horsemen sought a declaratory judgment forcing the track to negotiate a contract with them rather than a rival organization. With just two weeks until scheduled opening day May 6, Arlington's backstretch remained closed Thursday pending an agreement.