Pencil in Harzand for the Arc and Melatonin for the Breeders' Cup Classic as weekend racing action points directly toward those late-season classics.
Meanwhile, Duramente was upset in the Takarazuka Kinen in Japan and may have suffered another injury, forcing him to miss the Arc for the second straight year. And Minding, clearly the best European-based filly, was an easy winner in Ireland.
Let's ease into this ...
Harzand scored his second Derby triumph Saturday at the Curragh, boldly taking the lead turning for home and holding off a persistent Idaho to score by 1/2 length. Harzand, owned by the Aga Khan and trained by Dermot Weld, defeated the Aidan O'Brien-trained Idaho by 2 3/4 lengths, with US Army Ranger between them, when Idaho took the lead in the lane in the Investec Derby at Epsom. The tactics were reversed in Saturday's Group 1 Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby, with Harzand showing plenty of grit to hold his rival safe under regular rider Pat Smullen. Stellar Mass ran to a non-threatening third.
Harzand, a homebred Sea the Stars colt, now has four straight wins and vaults into the top ranks of contenders for the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe at Chantilly Oct. 1.
"A lot of people thought Harzand didn't have speed but he showed today that he had," Weld said. "He's a proper horse ... Pat gave him a great ride. It's been a very special day. The horse will have a good break now and will be aimed at the Arc."
In 2000, another Aga Khan homebred, Sinndar, won both Derbies and went on to win the Arc. The races then were known as the Vodaphone Derby, Budweiser Irish Derby and Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Lucien Barriere. Not a Longines to be seen, then or now.
On Sunday, Minding took care of business as the heavy favorite in the Group 1 Pretty Polly Stakes at the Curragh. Quickening nicely down the stretch for jockey Ryan Moore, the Galileo filly reeled in the leader, Bodca Baciata, and went on to win by 4 1/2 lengths over that rival.
"We shut down the last furlong," Moore said. "There's more there if we need it."
The victory, in her first race against older rivals, was almost anticlimactic after her Epsom Oaks wins earlier in the year. British bookmakers are quoting her at roughly the same odds as Harzand for the Arc despite no signals in that direction from trainer Aidan O'Brien, who has plenty of other candidates. O'Brien did say the plan is to keep Minding in training for her 4-year-old year. Maybe then.
Marialite held off a late charge from the favorite, Duramente, to win Sunday's Grade I Takarazuka Kinen at Hanshin by a neck. Kitisan Black was just a nose farther in arrears in third, followed by Lovely Day and Staphanos. Marialite, a 5-year-old daughter of Deep Impact, became the first distaffer to win this event in 11 years. The 25-1 long shot, ridden by Masayoshi Ebina, raced in midfield until the final bend. Advancing widest of all, she caught pacesetting Kitisan Black in the shadow of the wire and just managed to survive the challenge of Duramente.
According to Japan Racing Association reports, Duramente "slipped after crossing the wire and was found to have lameness in his left foreleg." A representative of Sunday Racing, which owns Duramente, said, "No Arc." The colt also missed Europe's biggest race last year when he was injured after winning the Japanese Derby.
The injury extends Japan's long and growing frustration with the Arc, which took another hit when A Shin Hikari failed to perform in his race at Royal Ascot earlier in the month. For Marialite, it was her second Grade I win, following last season's Queen Elizabeth II Cup. She had a third and a second in a pair of Grade II events before Sunday's race.
"She was in her best form of her spring campaign," Ebina said. "Also, the somewhat soft going and the draw all worked well for her ... She ran a perfect race. I think that the patience of the connections to wait for her to mature has led to this success."
The win also was a ticket to the Breeders' Cup Turf via the Breeders' Cup Challenge series.
Back in North America:
Melatonin pressed the pace through the early furlongs of Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita, got the lead turning for home and won by 1 1/2 lengths after a long battle with Win the Space. Hard Aces finished third and Hoppertunity, who trainer Bob Baffert said might have been a couple works short after his Dubai trip, nonetheless made a late bid to finish fourth, beaten only 2 1/4 lengths. Melatonin, a 5-year-old Kodiak Kowboy gelding, ran 1 1/4 miles on a fast track in 1:59.79 with Joe Talamo up. He earned a guaranteed spot in the Breeders' Cup Classic in November over the same track, thanks to the "Win and You're In" program.
Melatonin took five tries to find the winner's circle, finally breaking through in February of 2014. He immediately went to the bench for 18 months with an illness, then ran well enough during the second half of 2015. He broke through this season, winning an allowance event, then the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap, following that with a runner-up showing in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap in April.
"I think mostly we gave him enough time to get rid of that awful thing in his body," trainer David Hofmans said of the disease that sidelined Melatonin for so long. "I think that held him back and since we got rid of that he's developed into such a nice horse ... We were gunning for the Breeders' Cup Classic anyway but to win this is quite a bonus."
Mo Tom, fourth in the Louisiana Derby and eighth in the Kentucky Derby, made an impressive return to action in Saturday's $500,000 Ohio Derby at Thistledown. After racing well off the pace for jockey Javier Castellano, the Uncle Mo colt circled most of his rivals on the second turn and showed them his heels in the stretch, winning by a comfortable 3 lengths and obviously enjoying the rare clean trip. Adventist also got a wide trip to finish second and 88-1 chance Discreet Lover held on to spoil a bunch of trifecta tickets after looming boldly at the head of the stretch. Mo Tom ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:51.82. It was his fourth career win for trainer Tom Amoss.
Far From Over, last year's Withers winner, made a triumphant return from a 16-months layoff on Friday at Belmont Park, winning a 1 1/16-miles optional claimer by 1 1/2 lengths, in convincing fashion. The victory improved his record to 3-for-3 and leaves Black Rock Thoroughbreds and trainer Todd Pletcher with another potential top-level runner.
"The talent is there," said jockey John Velazquez. "He just needs to put it together."
Far From Over won the 2015 Withers by 1 3/4 lengths over El Kabeir despite stumbling badly at the start and trailing the field early. He is a Blame ridgling, out of the A.P. Indy mare Alchemist.
Lord Nelson tracked pacesetting Subtle Indian through the first 6 furlongs of Saturday's $300,000, Grade I Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita, then took over in the last panel, winning by 1/2 length. Subtle Indian held second, 1 3/4 lengths in front of the favorite, Kobe's Back, who closed with a rush from last of eight.
Lord Nelson, a 4-year-old Pulpit colt, finished 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.04 with Rafael Bejarano up. He took the first five months of 2016 off, then returned to win an allowance race on June 3 in his comeback effort.
"That was pretty game," said winning trainer Bob Baffert. "I didn't think he was going to get there. He was trying so hard there at the end. It was pretty exciting to watch, more exciting to win. He's come back so strong this year. That break really helped him. I think this is his distance. Sprinting might be too short for him."
Chublicious got by stablemate Shaft of Light in the stretch run to take Sunday's $95,000 Mr. Prospector Stakes at Monmouth Park by 1 1/4 lengths. Visionary Ruler was third, giving trainer Jorge Navarro a sweep of the placings. The favorite, Always Sunshine, finished fourth. Chublicious, a 5-year-old gelding by Hey Chub, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.68 with Antonio Gallardo up. He now has won two in a row and three of his last four.
Filly & Mare Sprint
By the Moon got first run to the lead in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Bed o' Roses Handicap at Belmont Park and had no trouble holding on to win by 1 1/2 lengths over Breeders' Cup champ Wavell Avenue. Bar of Gold was 3/4 length farther back in third. By the Moon, a 4-year-old Indian Charlie filly, toured 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:21.98 with Jose Ortiz up. By the Moon won the Grade I Frizette at Belmont in the fall of 2014 but hasn't entirely lived up to that promise, posting only one intervening victory. That was in the Caesar's Wish at Laurel Park some 15 months ago.
"The way the race set up today," said winning trainer Michelle Nevin, "there was a lot of speed in the race and we were in the one-hole. We were either going to have to gun her or sit back. Jose gave her a great ride."
Nevin said she will wait a bit before deciding what's next for By the Moon, adding, "I think she can go further."
Sarah Sis bounced back nicely from a string of defeats to take Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Chicago Handicap at Arlington Park in front-running fashion. The 4-year-old Sharp Humor filly was shadowed by Kathballu throughout but held her safe at the end by a length. You Bought Her ranged up from well back to get show money. Sarah Sis, with Jose Valdivia Jr. in the irons, ran 7 furlongs on the all-weather track on a hot summer day in Chicago in 1:23.16. She won the Grade III Iowa Oaks at Prairie Meadows and the Grade II Lexus Raven Run at Keeneland last fall but had been going in the wrong direction in four successive starts.
"She's a ready-made product, a very nice filly," Valdivia said. "I pretty much was a passenger. She was ready to go, broke out of there and just rated so kind under pressure. I felt like I was loaded. I knew when I called on her she would be tough to beat."
Trainer Ingrid Mason added, "We're going to try to get a Grade I this year."
Filly & Mare Turf
Isabella Sings, the odds-on favorite, led throughout Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Eatontown Stakes at Monmouth Park and went on to win by 3 lengths over Sea Coast. Bureau de Change was third. Isabella Sings, a 4-year-old daughter of Eskendereya, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:40.57 with Paco Lopez in the irons. She now has back-to-back wins for the first time in her career after taking the Miss Liberty Stakes over the same course in late May.
Pachi Cruze led from the start in Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Frost King Stakes for Ontario-sired 2-year-olds at Woodbine, fell back to third and came again to win by a head. Lokinforpursemonee got place money and Silent Flash was third. Pachi Cruze, a Valid N Bold colt, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:05.78 with Eurico Da Silva riding. Pachi Cruze won at first asking at Laurel Park, then finished third in the Tremont Stakes at Belmont two weeks ago.
"It was a tough race," Da Silva said. "I think I took away his style, but he broke so sharp and I went to the lead. Hopefully next time there's some speed for him to run at, and I can take him back and he will run a much better race."
Conquest Vivi pressed the pace in Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Nandi Stakes for Ontario-sired 2-year-old fillies at Woodbine, then drew off in the lane to defeat pacesetter Raglan Road by 2 1/2 lengths. Ring in the Nite was third. Conquest Vivi, a daughter of Court Vision out of the Victory Gallop mare Keen Victory, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:04.98 with Patrick Husbands at the controls.
Athena found another gear in the stretch run of Saturday's $68,000 Roxelana Stakes for fillies and mares and scooted home first by 1 1/2 lengths over I'm a Looker. Ramona's Wildcat was third and the odds-on favorite, Diva Express, faded from the lead to finish fourth. Athena, a 4-year-old Street Sense filly, was let go at 18-1 odds and finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.67 with Brian Hernandez Jr. up.
Justalittlesmoke emerged from a pace-stalking position, took a big lead in the stretch in the held on to win Saturday's $75,000 J. William Petro Memorial for Ohio-bred fillies and mares by 3/4 length over Tune Up. Needmore Flattery was running well late but finished third. Justalittlesmoke, a 4-year-old Smoke Glacken filly, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:47.44.
Cloud Control outfinished Bust Another to take Sunday's $100,000 Spectacular Bid Division of the New York Stallion Stakes for 3-year-olds, winning by 1 length over that rival with Go Go Lucky third. Cloud Control, a Freud colt, ran 7 furlongs on firm turf in 1:21.85 with Angel Arroyo riding. Winning trainer John Kimmel said Cloud Control was injured as a 2-year-old, delaying his development. "To see him move forward like he did today, I think he'll have a nice future," Kimmel added.
Louisville First finished first in Sunday's $100,000 Cupecoy's Joy Division of the NYSS for state-bred 3-year-old fillies, edging Little Bear Cat by 1/2 length. Frosty Margarita was only a nose behind that one in third. Louisville First, a Girolamo filly, finished in 1:21.79 with Eric Cancel in the irons.
Saturday's closing-day card was a tasty stew of events, some for Maryland-bred, others for Virginia-breds, and all on the grass.
Among the Virginia-breds: Rose Brier stalked the pace in the $60,000 Edward P. Evans Stakes, then went on to win by a length from Special Envoy at 1 1/16 miles; Two Notch Road won a four-way photo in the $60,000 White Oak Farm Stakes at 5 furlongs, beating Moon River by a head while heavy favorite Exaggerated finished last; and Queen Caroline rallied to win the $60,000 Nellie Mae Cox Stakes at 1 1/16 miles by 1 length over Secret or Not;
In the Maryland contingent: Debbie's Tude upset the $75,000 All Brandy Stakes at 9 furlongs for fillies and mares, holding on to defeat the favorite, Ginger N Rye, by a head; Eyeplayeveryday just held on to win by a neck over English Minister and another neck over Phlash Phelps in the $75,000 Find Stakes at 9 furlongs.
Citizen Geller eased by the early leader, Not My Note, in deep stretch to win Saturday's $60,000 O.D. McDonald Stakes for New Mexico-breds by 1 length. The favorite, Attillas Gift, finished third, beaten another 2 3/4 lengths. Citizen Geller, a 4-year-old Pro Prado gelding, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in course-record time of 1:20.81 under Alfredo Sigala.
After turning for home in Saturday's $100,000 Turning For Home Stakes, Encryption and Majestic Affair hooked up in a long stretch duel with Encryption prevailing by a neck. Saffron Hall finished third, 1 1/2 lengths farther back. Encryption, a 5-year-old son of Exchange Rate, ran 1 mile and 70 yards on a fast track in 1:43.29 under Nik Juarez.
We're All Set got to the lead in the lane in Sunday's $75,000 Sea of Grass Stakes for Florida-breds and held on to win by 1/2 length over Yourdreamsormine, who had traffic problems. Abounding Legacy led into the stretch and salvaged third. We're All Set, a 4-year-old With Distinction gelding, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:16.33. Rafael Hernandez had the mount.
Moment of Delight provided same for her backers with a 5 1/4-lengths victory in Saturday's $75,000 Boca Chica Stakes for Florida-bred distaffers. After shadowing the early leader, the 4-year-old A.P. Warrior filly responded sharply when asked by jockey Eddie Castro. Winning for Sarah rallied from well back to finish second, 2 lengths ahead of Savingtime. Moment of Delight finished 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:17.05.
Oak Tree at Pleasanton
Bronze Star led from the start in Saturday's $50,000 Oak Tree Handicap and got home first by 1 1/4 lengths over Crittenden. He's a Pepper was third and the favorite, Eagle Screams, beat only 2013 Grade I Del Mar Futurity winner Tamarando. Bronze Star, a 4-year-old Tapit colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.87 with Ricardo Gonzalez in the irons.
Find Joy came wide into the stretch in Sunday's $50,000 Kent Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, put in her bid for the lead at the sixteenth pole and got home first by 1 1/4 lengths. Princess Kennedy was second with Brookys Star taking third. Find Joy, a Drosselmeyer filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.40 with Isaias Enriquez up.