Effinex, seen winning last year's Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, is back in Saturday's Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park. (Churchill Downs photo)
Keeneland's opening programs, Belmont Park's second Super Saturday and a trio of graded stakes at Santa Anita fill the weekend racing schedule with previews of next month's Breeders' Cup World Championship races.
Meanwhile, Australians get a virtual match race between Winx and Black Heart Bart, Dubai announces some changes in its schedule and next year's Derby prospects are on show in England.
It's all on show right here, right now:
Saturday's Ladbrokes Caulfield Stakes at 2,000 meters features a showdown between Winx and Black Heart Bart for bragging rights throughout the Island Continent.
Winx rides an 11-race winning streak into this confrontation, including a victory in last year's Cox Plate. Black Heart Bart has been first or second in each of his last nine starts, including three straight Group 1 events this season.
From seven prospects, only He Or She remains to challenge the dueling stars. He Or She finished second to Black Heart Bart in the Group 1 Underwood last time out 2 1/2 lengths back.
Saturday's card also includes the Ladbrokes Caulfield Guineas and the Schweppes Thousand Guineas, plus the IG Markets Toorak Handicap, all at 1,600 meters.
Two-year-olds are the focus at Newmarket in Friday's Group 1 Dubai Fillies' Mile and Saturday's Group 1 Dubai Dewhurst. The Fillies' Mile features a quintet from the bottomless Aidan O'Brien well. Among them are the 2, 3 and 5 finishers from the Moyglare Stud Stakes at the Curragh -- Hydrangea, Rhododendron and Promise to be True.
O'Brien also has the likely favorite in the Dewhurst in Churchill, already a relatively short price for the 2017 Guineas and Derby. South Seas, Seven Heavens and Rivet look poised to contest that claim.
The Conglomerate makes his first appearance on the track since winning the Group 1 Durban July in Saturday's Group 2 Joburg Spring Challenge at Turffontein. The champ's camp, however, warns the trip is too sharp for The Conglomerate, the outside draw is a handicap and he likely needs the race.
The 2016-17 Dubai World Cup Carnival is just around the corner and the Dubai Racing Club has announced some changes -- including purse increases across the board.
Most notably, the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup night has been lengthened from 1,000 meters to 1,200. Also, the 2,000-meters Curlin Handicap, used as a World Cup prep last year by California Chrome, has acquired Listed status.
The club also has tweaked the schedule for stayers, providing some options on the run-up to the big night. Overall, total purses for the 61 Thoroughbred and four Purebred Arabian races outside World Cup night will total US$10,925,000, up $467,500. The minimum purse rises to $100,000.
Back in North America:
Hoppertunity, Effinex and Mubtaahij are top of the heap for the Saturday's $1 million Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" race for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Hoppertunity hasn't won much in the past few years but that's partly because he has been chasing the likes of California Chrome.
"He needs the mile and a quarter," said trainer Bob Baffert. "He's doing well and he's overdue for a big one." Effinex, fourth in the Grade I Whitney two months ago, "is sitting on ready," according to trainer Jimmy Jerkens.
And Mubtaahij, second by a head in the Grade I Woodward a month ago, "is training great and the mile and a quarter is a great distance for him," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. Todd Pletcher hopes to saddle an upsetter in Protonico, who won going 1 mile on opening day in his 2016 debut.
I'm a Chatterbox faded from the lead to finish fourth in her last start, the Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga. She won't have to face anything like those who beat her then when she reappears in Sunday's $500,000 Grade I Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland, a "Win and You're In" opportunity for the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Instead of Cavorting, Curalina and Forever Unbridled, I'm a Chatterbox, a multiple Grade I winner in her own right, faces four rivals.
Paid Up Subscriber has chased her home in a couple recent heats. The others, Engaginglee, Genre and Miss Pink Diva all have some credentials but not at this level.
Beach Patrol, winner of the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington in his last outing, returns to action in a field of 10 for Saturday's $500,000 Grade III Hill Prince for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park. The Lemon Drop Kid colt was an excellent third in the Grade I Belmont Derby Invitational two starts back over the course.
Inspector Lynley and Camelot Kitten, separated by just a head at the end of last month's Grade III Sarnack at Saratoga, will face off again. The field is rife with other graded stakes winners: American Patriot, Conquest Daddyo and Dressed in Hermes.
Filly & Mare Turf
Lady Eli returns from her lone career defeat to tackle another tough field in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Flower Bowl at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" proposition for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint.
Lady Eli, after a long absence recovering from near-fatal laminitis, was just nipped in the Ballston Spa at Saratoga in her return race last month. "She should be fitter and stronger for this race. I think she will take a step forward," said trainer Chad Brown. The field also includes Ballston Spa winner Strike Charmer; Grade I Beverly D. winner Sea Calisi, also a Brown trainee; Ballston Spa third Sentiero Italia; and French invader Ame Bleue.
Lord Nelson looks to lord it over four rivals in Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship, a "Win and You're In" proceeding for the Breeders' Cup Sprint. The 4-year-old Pulpit colt has accounted for the Grade I Triple Bend and the Grade I Bing Crosby in his last two starts -- the latter by 4 lengths. The others have more modest resumes but all get significant weight from the likely odds-on favorite.
A.P. Indian is the odds-on morning-line choice among seven in for Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland. The 4-year-old Indian Charlie gelding has won all five starts this year, including the Grade I Vanderbilt and Grade I Forego at Saratoga. He's been idle since Aug. 27, however, and finished sixth in last year's edition of this race. This is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" event.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Sprint at Keeneland, a "Win and You're In" heat for the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, got eight takers. Graded stakes winners here include Sarah Sis, Stonetastic, Fioretti, I'm a Looker and Spelling Again. Trainer Richard Mandella brings a dangerous-looking, lightly raced filly named Bendable who beat odds-on favorite Enola Gray in the Beverly Lewis at Los Alamitos last month.
Eight are entered for Sunday's $100,000 Grade III L.A. Woman Sprint at Santa Anita going 6 1/2 furlongs. It's a program-stabber.
Mongolian Saturday returns from abroad to the scene of his triumph in last year's Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint to contest Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Woodford Presented by Keeneland Select, at 5 1/2 furlongs. The Any Given Saturday gelding was second in this race last year but since the Breeders' Cup has been trounced in four starts -- two in Hong Kong and two in England.
Saturday's rivals won't be of the caliber on display at Ascot or Sha Tin. But they are a hard-knocking bunch. Undrafted has had his issues recently but is a proven commodity at this level. Alsvid won the Grade III Aristides at Churchill Downs in June and was third in the Grade I Bing Crosby at Del Mar in his last start.
Saturday's $150,000 Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational picked up a powerful field of 10 including Pure Sensation, winner of the Grade III Parx Dash and Grade III Jaipur Invitational in his last two outings.
Tepin, ranked high among the world's top milers, is the standout in Saturday's $400,000 Grade I First Lady for fillies and mares at Keeneland. She has won eight straight races, starting with last year's First Lady and continuing through the Breeders' Cup Mile, the Group 1 Queen Anne at Royal Ascot and the Grade I Woodbine Mile in her last start. Still, she didn't scare many away as nine other fillies and mares will line up for a try against the champ.
Last year's winner, Grand Arch, will seek a repeat against 10 rivals in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, a "Win and You're In" offering for the Breeders' Cup Turf Mile. Miss Temple City also lands here, as opposed to taking on Tepin in the First Lady. This is not much easier, though, also boasting the likes of Mondialiste, Ring Weekend, Tourist and What a View.
A diverse cast with some familiar names is set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II City of Hope Mile at Santa Anita. Hootenanny, a Group 1 winner in France and victor in the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, will try to get untracked after a recent confidence-builder at Belterra Park and a scratch at Kentucky Downs.
Eight-year-old Obviously won the Grade III Poker at Belmont in his last start after a drought. Vyjack seems to have found new life with two recent seconds. Om makes his second start after an extended break and is always in the mix. Perfectly Majestic just missed in the Old Friends Stakes at Kentucky Downs -- a meeting which has been sending out some good return runners.
Saturday's $350,000 Grade II Kelso Handicap at Belmont Park attracted seven including Grade I Forego Stakes runner-up Tamarkuz, Grade III Iselin Stakes winner Baccelo, Grade III Longacres Mile winner Point Piper, Grade III Westchester winner Anchor Down, Grade III Razorback Handicap winner Upstart and Grade III Fred W Hooper winner Tommy Machado, who returns from an eight-months layoff.
Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park, a "Win and You're In" prospect for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, has two trained by Chad Brown, two by Todd Pletcher and one by Bob Baffert. Nick Zito has the other, Lookin at Blessing.
Brown's A game is Practical Joke, unbeaten in two starts including the Grade I Hopeful at the Spa. Pletcher's duo features Syndergaard, also a two-time winner including the Funny Cide at Saratoga.
Noah Syndergaard couldn't carry the Mets on his back in Wednesday's National League wild cards game. Maybe his equine equivalent can do better with John Velazquez on his back. Baffert ships in Big Gray Rocket, a Tapit colt who broke his maiden at Del Mar a month ago. This is one to watch closely.
Three graded stakes winners grace the 12-horse field for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, a "Win and You're In" deal for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Classic Empire won the Grade III Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs. Bitumen accounted for the Grade III Sanford at Saratoga. Gunaverra took the Grade II Sanford at the Spa.
Sunday's $150,000 Grade III Grey Stakes at Woodbine features Han Sense, another Hansen offspring. The grey colt won the Iowa Cradle in his career debut, then finished fifth in the Kentucky Downs Juvenile on the grass. He tackles his third surface type for this one on the all-weather, facing just four rivals.
Fourteen plus two also-eligibles are entered for Sunday's $250,000 Grade III Dixiana Bourbon at Keeneland, a "Win and You're In" thingamabob for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf. Sorting this one out correctly should pay big dividends.
A full field of 14 is set for Friday's $400,000 Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland. The very lukewarm morning-line co-favorite, Daddys Lil Darling, drew the outside gate for the 1 1/16-miles tour of two turns. She has won her last two, including the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs.
The other 5-1 co-favorite, Diadura, arrives undefeated in two starts including the Arlington-Washington Lassie. Both of those wins were on the Arlington all-weather course. It's a tossup but watch for Lady Hansen at a square price. The winner secures a place in the Breeders' Cup field through the "Win and You're In" widget.
Only one of the six entrants for Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park has a previous graded stakes win to her credit. That's the Todd Pletcher-trained Nonna Mela, who accounted for the Grade II Adirondack at Saratoga on Aug. 19. "It was better than expected," Pletcher said of that effort.
The others are promising, including Yellow Agate, owned by the China Horse Club and trained by Christophe Clement. "She's doing well and it's that time of the year when you can take a shot," said assistant Christophe Lorieul. "If she runs good, our options are open." True, especially since the race is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies.
Just Be Kind enters Saturday's $150,000 (Canadian) grade III Mazarine Stakes at Woodbine with a record of two wins from as many starts, the latter being the Ontario Debutante. Let It Ride Mom was second in the Debutante and tries again. Spring Tempest broke her maiden in a minor stakes last time out and the others have much to prove.
In other action:
Charles Town has a card full of stakes for West Virginia-breds on Saturday with the $500,000 Breeders' Classic as the marquee attraction.