Owner/trainer King Leatherbury with his 10-year-old star, Ben's Cat, who will try this weekend at Pimlico to win the Jim Mc Kay Turf Sprint for the fifth time. Photo by Jon Kral/Pimlico
Nyquist is a solid favorite to add the Preakness to his undefeated record on Saturday at Pimlico and set himself up for a shot at the Triple Crown -- the brightest light in the marquee of weekend racing.
There's lots of other activity at "Old Hilltop" both on Friday and Saturday. Arlington, Belmont, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs all have graded stakes, too.
Internationally, Hong Kong's final Group 1 race of the season goes Sunday at Sha Tin with Werther seeking to set himself up as the promising star for the 2016-17 campaign; it's Guineas weekend in Ireland with a lovely Group 1 Gold Cup thrown in for spice; and in Japan, the Yushun Himba, or Japanese Oaks, continues Group 1 action.
But, first things first:
Nyquist is the odds-on favorite to win Saturday's $1.5 million, Grade I Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. And why not? He's undefeated in eight previous starts, including the Kentucky Derby. He already has four wins over his main rival, Exaggerator. He has been training lights-out at Pimlico. And his trainer, Doug O'Neill, said his No. 3 post position is "perfect" for his likely pace-stalking trip. There are 10 rivals including Derby runner-up Exaggerator. Among them, only Japanese-trained Lani returns from the Kentucky Derby.
O'Neill has been beaming all week about Nyquist's training. And after joining the conditioner to watch the Uncle Mo colt gallop on Thursday morning, jockey Mario Gutierrez could only agree. "We're very, very optimistic. I think we're very confident," Gutierrez said. "Watching him gallop today, it's hard not to be confident."
The weather forecast for the Preakness is not ideal -- a high of 57 with rain totaling as much as 1/2 inch during the day. Exaggerator's trainer, Keith Desormeaux, noted his colt is experienced with mud after winning the Grade I Santa Anita Derby in it. But Nyquist won the Grade I Florida Derby over a track rated "good" so any advantage might be illusory.
Other than that, Desormeaux said he hangs his hopes for finally beating Nyquist on his own colt's recuperative skills. Exaggerator, Desormeaux said, bounced back to full strength within 24 hours of his Derby run. "That's where I hang my hopes, that his (Nyquist's) energy level won't be at its best and obviously he has to be at his best to beat Exaggerator," the trainer said. "He's tough to beat but it's fun trying."
The other trainers agreed Nyquist will be a tough nut to crack. "I would be surprised if he didn't win," said Bob Baffert, who won last year's Triple Crown with American Pharoah and will saddle Collected on Saturday. "The only way we can beat him is for him to not bring his "A game" or he has poor racing luck."
Trainer Steve Asmussen on Tuesday ruled out Gun Runner, Louisiana Derby winner and the third-place finisher in Louisville. "We're going to pass on the Preakness," said Asmussen, who will be inducted into the Hall of Fame this summer. "We're going to continue to train at Churchill and plan on a serious summer of 3-year-old races with him. He's been in tremendous physical condition going into the Derby and coming out of it, and we expect for him to continue to physically develop."
As always, if you can't make it out to the track, follow all the Triple Crown doings on Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net). And if you're confused about whom to back, consult the Pontiff (www.popejude.com) for pointers.
Also at Pimlico
Land Over Sea came up just short of giving "Team Reddam" the Oaks-Derby double two weeks ago at Churchill Downs when she finished second, 2 3/4 lengths behind Cathryn Sophia, in the Grade I Kentucky Oaks. She won't have that rival to contend with in the Grade II Black-Eyed Susan at the same 1 1/8 miles distance and the Grade II Fair Grounds Oaks winner looks well positioned to get back to the winner's circle. Her chief rival may be Go Maggie Go, winner of the Gulfstream Park Oaks over a sloppy Florida track and a traffic-troubled fourth at Churchill Downs. The full field also includes one maiden and two just off their first wins.
Stanford and Page McKenney finished 1-2 last month in the Grade II Charles Town Classic and that duo were the favorites in the $300,000, Grade III Pimlico Special at 1 3/16 miles on the main track -- until Stanford was scratched on Thursday. Both horses have been ATMs for their owners, seldom out of the money and both millionaires. With the scratch, look to Page McKenney. Noble Bird, winner of the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs last spring, is no slouch but hasn't won since that effort. The other five need to show more.
Mei Ling is the luke-warm morning-line favorite for the $150,000, Grade III Allaire DuPont Distaff at 9 furlongs. The 5-year-old Empire Maker mare finished a close second to Carrumba in the Grade III Top Flight at Aqueduct in her last race and Carrumba returned to finish second behind Cavorting in the Grade II Ruffian. Also fancied are Savings Account, Ahh Chocolate, Engaging Lee and Theogony. Don't discount Bobby Flay's 5-year-old mare, America, who defeated Mei Ling in a frontrunning effort in the Turnback the Alarm at Aqueduct last October.
Ten-year-old Ben's Cat will try to win the $100,000 Jim McKay Turf Sprint for the fifth time in his illustrious career. The Parker's Storm Cat gelding won the event in 2011, finished fifth the following year and then posed for pictures in 2013, 2014 and again last year. "He doesn't seem to get older, that's the amazing thing," said owner and trainer King Leatherbury. "We have the same exercise boy galloping him now as when he first got to the track and he keeps saying he's as good as ever." But the veteran has plenty of competition in the 5-furlongs dash, including Rapid Dan, who came within 1/2 length of victory in their last meeting on May 1. Night Officer was third in that allowance event and tries again. And, were it not for home-town sentimentality, the favorite might be Rocket Heat, who comes off a win in the Grade III Turf Sprint at Churchill Downs, albeit after being left alone on the lead. Don't blink or you'll miss this one.
A full field with also-eligibles is tough enough in the $100,000 Hilltop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at 1 1/16 miles on the lawn. But the picture is clouded further with the presence of several starters with mainly European experience. Family Meeting is the morning-line favorite at 4-1 odds, possibly helped by Gary Stevens taking the mount.
The $100,000 Skipat Stakes at 6 furlongs has nine fillies and mares with graded stakes winner Fantastic Style, a Bob Baffert trainee, a standout favorite.
The $150,000, Grade III Maryland Sprint is 6 furlongs on the main track, with Salutos Amigos the even-money pick among seven on the morning line. The 6-year-old Salute the Sarge gelding not only is the class of the field but also is undefeated in seven starts on wet tracks, should that be an issue. Oddly, Always Sunshine is 2-for-2 on rain-soaked tracks and appears to be progressing nicely. Cinco Charlie always must be considered with a record of 13-of-16 in-the-money finishes.
The $100,000 James W. Murphy is carded for 1 mile on the turf. Ousby, claimed for $35,000 at Gulfstream Park in December, already has earned twice that amount this year and is the favorite among nine here. Aquaphobia is second choice on the morning line despite a name that might not fit the weather.
The $100,000 The Very One is a 5-furlongs turf sprint for fillies and mares with Lady Shipman the odds-on pick among a dozen. She finished seventh, beaten less than 3 lengths, in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint in Dubai in March, then returned to win the License Fee at Belmont Park on May 1. Last fall she was second in the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, only 1/2 length behind Mongolian Saturday. Among the others, Exaggerated has won three of her last four starts and would make a good parlay with Exaggerator in the Preakness later on the card. Maybe a place parlay, upon further reflection.
The 6-furlongs Chick Lang for 3-year-olds is an interesting tussle involving several promising mainland types -- Justin Squared, Quijote, Never Gone South, Counterforce and Big Louie D -- against Puerto Rican star Discreet Angel. The latter posted five wins, two seconds and a third from nine starts at Camarero. In his last outing, he won by 17 lengths in the Grade III George Washington but he's unlikely to get an easy lead in this speedy field.
A well-matched dozen entered for the $150,000, Grade III Gallorette Handicap for fillies and mares on the turf. Tiger Ride, Mizz Money, Josdesanimaux, Ol' Fashion Gal and Tiger Ride would seem to have the major claims with Tiger Ride a narrow pick on the morning line. However, it would be wise to watch for Nisharora, an Irish-bred filly owned by Valor Ladies LLC who is knocking on the door and easily could have won the Dahlia at Laurel Park last month with a clean trip.
The $100,000 Larc Sir Barton for 3-year-olds is a mix of late-bloomers and refugees from the Triple Crown trail. The former category includes the morning-line favorite, American Freedom, who was sixth in the Grade III Pat Day Mile at Churchill Downs in just his second starts. The vets include Donegal Moon, a fading eighth in the Grade I Blue Grass at Keeneland; Dazzling Gem, third in the Grade II Louisiana Derby and fourth in the Grade I Arkansas Derby; and Gettysburg, fifth in the Arkansas Derby.
There's a lot to consider in handicapping the $250,000, Grade II Longines Dixie at 1 1/16 miles on the turf. There's no clear favorite although Grand Arch is a narrow, 9-2 choice on the morning line. He hasn't raced since finishing third in the Breeders' Cup Mile last fall but he does have a history of firing fresh and running well on wet turf. Ring Weekend, Force the Pass, Takeover Target, Za Approval and Take the Stand all seem to be in good form. Wild cards: El Kabeir makes his first start on the turf and Prince Gagarin returns from winning his first U.S. start last month at Keeneland after tailing off during the last half of 2015 in England.
With Oka Sho winner Jeweler sidelined by injury, Sunday's Group 1 Yushun Himba, or Japanese Oaks, appears a golden opportunity for Sinhalite. The Deep Impact filly lost her undefeated record by the narrowest of margins to Jeweler in the Oka Sho. She does face a change in distance, a switch to racing anticlockwise and a start in front of the massive, always-packed Tokyo Race Course grandstand. Still, jockey Kenichi Ikezoe says all systems are go. "She completed the last furlong (in the Oka Sho) strongly," he said. "Her reaction's good and she's relaxed as well. Everything's satisfactory in her training." Cecchino has three wins from four starts. And you'd have to like a filly named Rottenmeier even before learning Australian jockey Tommy Berry is expected to visit Tokyo to ride her on Sunday.
Sunday's Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup is the last Group 1 of the season for Hong Kong and a potential Group 1 hat trick for the SAR's latest star, Werther. The 4-year-old returns from victories in the HK Group 1 BMW Hong Kong Derby and the international Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup, both at 2,000 meters. In the latter, facing a tough international field that included Japan's Lovely Day, Werther won by a romping 4 1/2 lengths under Hugh Bowman. He steps up to 1 1/2 miles on Sunday. "I think the farther he goes, the better he goes because the way he relaxed with Hugh in the QE II the other day gave a good indication that he can go farther than 2,400 meters," said trainer John Moore. The race has had its share of upsets and then some but Moore said this is not the year for that. "I think this will be a year when the form works out," he said. There are seven rivals including Hong Kong Derby runner-up Victory Magic.
Saturday is the Group 1 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh. Sunday finds the Group 1 1,000 Guineas and the Group 1 Gold Cup at the same venue.
Aidan O'Brian has three of the eight in the colts' race, including Air Force Blue, who needs to make amends for his 12th-place finish in the Qipco 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket on April 30. No easy task since the winner of that race, Galileo Gold, also will line up here.
O'Brian also has Minding for the 1,000 Guineas. She comes off a win in the Qipco 1,000 Guineas -- her third straight Group 1 triumph.
Fascinating Rock, Found, The Grey Gatsby and Time Test head a field of eight for the Gold Cup, at just more than 1 1/4 miles. Found beat Golden Horn in a thrilling finish to last year's Breeders' Cup Turf at Keeneland and the four-year-old filly was a winner in her most recent outing, also at the Curragh. Fascinating Rock won the Group 1 Champion Stakes last fall at Ascot but finished third in his seasonal debut, albeit behind Found. The Grey Gatsby didn't win last year in six tries but did have three seconds, all behind top rivals. Time Test has had some time to rest since finishing 10th in the Breeders' Cup.
Also, Bobby's Kitten, winner of the 2014 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint and fourth in the same event last year, returns in the Group 2 Greenland Stakes at 6 furlongs with Cougar Mountain, Vancouver, Gordon Lord Byron, Strath Burn and others in opposition.
Meanwhile, back in North America:}
The Chicago-area oval opens its graded stakes season with Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Hanshin Stakes at 1 mile on the all-weather track. Midnight Cello, Recount and Go One Go All are the favorites among 11 entered for the event.
Only four signed up to tackle odds-on favorite Paulassilverlining in Saturday's $150,000, Grade II Vagrancy Handicap for fillies and mares at 6 1/2 furlongs. Paulassilverlining, a Ghostzapper filly, won the Grade III Distaff Handicap at Aqueduct last month and has missed the trifecta only twice in 12 career starts. The others have run well enough but mostly against lesser foes.
Dynamic Sky, Roman Approval and Aldous Snow are the favorites among seven in Saturday's $100,000, Grade III Louisville Handicap at 1 1/2 miles on the green course. None of the seven has exactly been setting the world alight, however, and the race provides some wagering potential.
Saturday's $200,000, Grade II Kona Gold Stakes at 6 1/2 furlongs attracted a field of 10. Wild Dude, Coastline, Subtle Indian, Sahara Sky and San Onofre all have run well recently. Cautious Giant has been promising for the past few starts and Kafister steps up in class after steady improvement through the allowance ranks.
Already in the books:
Will Rogers Downs
Bella Paella stalked the pace in Monday's $55,000 RPDC Distaff Classic for Oklahoma-bred fillies and mares, then asserted herself in the stretch, drawing off to win by 3 lengths. Vivid led for a time and held second, 2 1/2 lengths ahead of Copper Flash. Bella Paella, a 4-year-old Bellamy Road filly, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a sloppy track in 1:41 4/5 under Iram Diego.
Ibaka, the favorite, led from the start in Tuesday's $55,000 Cherokee Nation Classic Cup for state-bred colts and geldings and drew clear in the lane, winning by 3 1/4 lengths over Lingerlonger. Okey Dokey Kyle finished third. Ibaka, a 5-year-old Uncle Abbie gelding, finished 1 mile and 70 yards in the mud in 1:42.01 with C.J. McMahon aboard.