Dawn breaks over "Old Hilltop" just two days before Always Dreaming tries to win the second jewel of the US Triple Crown -- the Preakness Stakes at Pimlico. Photo courtesy of Jim McCue/MJC
Thirty-five horses have won both the Kentucky Derby and the Preakness Stakes and only 12 of them have gone on to Triple Crown glory. On Saturday at Pimlico, Always Dreaming has the chance to advance those numbers and a quirk of history says he might just succeed.
The Derby winner drew gate No. 4 for the Preakness, right next door to his anticipated main rival, Classic Empire. With the experts calling for nice weather, it should be a classic rematch.
There's plenty of other action all weekend at Pimlico. Among the questions: Can Ben's Cat win the Jim McKay Turf Sprint for the sixth time?
Read in the "International" section about an important but under-the-radar race in the north of England involving a Breeders' Cup winner and a long-absent South African star. And Thursday's Dante Stakes churned up another pair of candidates for onrushing Investec Derby.
Yet to come on the international front, the standout weekend races are the Group 1 Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes at Newbury in England and the Group 1 Yushun Himba or Japanese Oaks at Tokyo Racecourse.
Lets get right to "Old Hilltop" and see how our Derby winner is doing.
"I think it's fine," trainer Todd Pletcher said after Always Dreaming drew gate No. 4 for Saturday's Preakness. "He was 4 in the Florida Derby and 5 in the Kentucky Derby. He's generally a very good horse away from the gate. We'll just come away and try to establish some position and see what some other horses are doing."
Classic Empire, who finished fourth in the Derby after a rough trip, drew post No. 5 and is the 3-1 second choice on the Pimlico morning line. Kentucky Derby runner-up Lookin At Lee also makes the quick turnaround from Louisville, as do Gunevera and Hence.
There are five "new shooters" -- horses who did not contest the Kentucky Derby -- Wood Memorial third Cloud Computing, Arkansas Derby runner-up Conquest Mo Money, Illinois Derby winner Multiplier, Lexington Stakes winner Senior Investment and Term of Art.
Classic Empire's trainer, Mark Casse, sees a struggle for the lead in the Preakness, especially with the favorites starting side-by-side.
"It's nice for the fans, for everybody. Hopefully they both have good trips, break well. It could be interesting. They might go right at it from the start," Casse said.
And Scott Blasi, assistant trainer for Lookin At Lee and Hence, noted the Derby runner-up is a closer and should not be dismissed, especially if the favorites do too much too early.
"We just need a few things to go our way and for there to be some good pace in the race," Blasi said. "He's a blue-collar horse and probably easy to overlook. But not for us."
Now for that quirk of history:
For those not paying strict attention, Triple Crown winners several times have come in pairs, most frequently two years apart. Omaha won all three races in 1935 and War Admiral turned the trick in 1937. Whirlaway won in 1941 and Count Fleet in 1943. Assault won in 1946 and Citation in 1948. Seattle Slew was the Triple Crown champ in 1977 and Affirmed in 1978.
A 37-year gap ensued before American Pharoah swept the series ... wait for it ... two years ago. It's all coincidence (probably) but nothing goes unnoticed on the superstitious race track.
Not a single one of the 14 fillies who ran in the Kentucky Oaks returns for the Pimlico counterpart, Friday's $250,000 Grade III Black-Eyed Susan. Eleven others will tackle the 9 furlongs on the main track. With all "new shooters" in the field, the morning-line favorite is Moana, an Uncle Mo filly coming off a maiden win at Keeneland for trainer Todd Pletcher.
Also fancied are Laurel Park three-time winner Shimmering Aspen and Summer Luck, who gets a class break looking for her second win. Dancing Rags, a Grade I winner last year, tries to get back on track. Yorkiepoo Princess and Full House were tough in New York. Trainer Mark Casse, ever dangerous, brings Corporate Queen from New Orleans. Successful handicappers should be well rewarded here.
World Approval, Projected, Ring Weekend and Blacktype top a field of 10 for Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Longines Dixie at Pimlico. None has been a model of consistency but World Approval, a Grade I winner at Monmouth Park last year, was an easy winner in his seasonal debut at Tampa Bay Downs last month. Projected, a Juddmonte Farms homebred, has made progress in each of his two U.S. starts since coming from France, winning last month at Keeneland. Blacktype comes off a close fifth in the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland and Ring Weekend was last seen finishing fourth in the Grade I Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita in March.
You know them. You love them (or hate them, depending). And many of the 12 contestants in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Louisville Handicap at Churchill Downs have been knocking heads for a while now with thoroughly mixed results. As a result, Danish Dynaformer is the lukewarm 4-1 morning-line favorite in the 12 furlongs marathon despite posting only a single victory in his last 12 outings. Horse for the course? Nope. He's 0-for-1 under the Twin Spires. Uninspired? Reporting Star could take them all the way. Check out Twilight Eclipse, Bullards Alley, Kaigun or Generous Kitten. Or fall back on the old handicapping technique: Stab the program with a hatpin.
Turf Mile/Turf Sprint
Saturday's $100,000 James W. Murphy at 1 mile on the Pimlico lawn has a very interesting cast of 3-year-olds, if only because Yoshida's presence. The Japanese-bred son of Heart's Cry was second in his first career start last November at Aqueduct, then returned to win going away on April 9 at Keeneland at 9 furlongs. Bill Mott trains Yoshida for the China Horse Club, which is having an excellent spring. Dover Cliffs, Berks County and Adonis Creed also have claims.
Friday's $100,000, 5-furlongs Jim McKay Turf Sprint at Pimlico couldn't be much more wide open. Fourteen plus two also-eligibles are set for the dash with Pay Any Price, Richard's Boy and Amelia's Wild Ride at the top of the morning line. They -- and others -- have their claims. But on the Maryland circuit, it's never safe to ignore 9-year-old Ben's Cat, owner-trainer King Leatherbury's pride and joy. It's true the old boy hasn't won in a while. But his last victory was in this race a year ago. And that was the fifth time he won the Jim McKay Turf Sprint.
It would be tough to find a more evenly matched bunch than the nine 3-year-old fillies who make up the body of the field for Saturday's $100,000 Soaring Softly at 7 furlongs at Belmont. In the unlikely event the race comes off the turf, the "main track only" entrant, Jamyson 'n Ginger, fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies, might be the logical choice. But the professional weather-guessers are calling for dry conditions.
Pretty Perfection, Everything Lovely and Most Beautiful make a gorgeous trifecta hunch bet for Saturday's $100,000, 5-furlongs The Very One Stakes for fillies and mares at Pimlico. Toss in Animal Appeal and Nite Delite because this is another really wide-open affair so, why not?
Saturday's $100,000 Crystal Water Stakes for Cal-breds, 1 mile at Santa Anita, drew a field of five including Smokey Image. The Southern Image colt was a 2-year-old sensation on the local circuit, then faltered when leaving state-bred company. Now 4, he makes his second start back from an eight-months layoff. More accomplished are Grazen Sky and especially What A View, a proven graded stakes performer. Pee Wee Reece has won four straight and could be ready for a step up -- and/or a cross-sport promotion with the Dodgers.
Filly & Mare Turf
Friday's $100,000, 1-mile Hilltop Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Pimlico is pretty much a "you pick 'em" event with 14 fillies looking to make a mark. The oddsmaker settled on Victory to Victory, winner of last year's Grade I Natalma Stakes at Woodbine, and Compelled, third in the Grade III Florida Oaks at Tampa Bay earlier this year. Don't overlook Dynatail.
Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Stella Artois Gallorette Stakes at Pimlico has some good ones in a field of 10. Zipessa was a closing fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf after a poor start. On Leave makes her 4-year-old debut after winning four straight races last year. And Elysea's World was second only to Dickinson in two graded stakes in Florida this winter for trainer Chad Brown.
A.P. Indian and Whitmore -- two of the best American sprinters -- will line up side-by-side for Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Maryland Sprint at Pimlico. A.P. Indian, a 7-year-old by Indian Charlie, won five straight races last season and finished fourth in a classic running of the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Whitmore finished 19th in last year's Kentucky Derby, was converted to sprinting and has won all four races since then. Don't ignore Holy Boss, who could try to steal this 6-furlongs event with Mike Smith riding.
Lord Simba gets a narrow nod from the Santa Anita oddsmaker for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Kona Gold at 6 1/2 furlongs after winning the Grade III Los Angeles Stakes in his last start. There's plenty of competition in the nine-horse field though, with Kobe's Back, Calculator, Ransom the Moon, Eastwood and others.
Ten are set to go 7 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Big Drama at Gulfstream Park and, again, there's not a lot to separate them. Half the field is 6-1 or less on the morning line.
Recruiting Ready and Three Rules are the morning-line favorites among nine for Saturday's $200,000 Maker's Mark Chick Lang at Pimlico. Recruiting Ready won the Bachelor at Oaklawn Park in his last outing and Three Rules will hope to regain the form that saw him sweep the Florida Sire Stakes series last year at Gulfstream Park.
Filly & Mare Sprint
There's an overflow field for Friday's $150,000 Adena Springs Miss Preakness for 3-year-old fillies at Pimlico. Some are shortening up after chasing the Oaks dream. Others are just coming into their own and could use this as a stepping stone to bigger and better. Among the former are Nona Bella, R Angel Katelyn and Pretty City Dancer. In the latter category we find the likes of Our Majesty, a Majesticperfection filly who comes off an allowance win at Keeneland. This is the third race in a sequence that starts with the Pimlico Special, where Shaman Ghost will be a heavy favorite, so it's a tempting "Pick 3" target.
Clipthecouponannie and Chanteline are the morning-line picks among nine set for Friday's $100,000 Skipat Stakes at Pimlico. The former, an Uncle Mo 4-year-old, has won four of five starts. The latter, a 5-year-old Majestic Perfection mare, comes off a second-place finish in the Carousel at Oaklawn.
Terra Promessa, whose promised land so far has been Oaklawn Park in Arkansas, nonetheless is the morning-line favorite among eight entered for Friday's $150,000 Grade III Allaire DuPont Distaff at Pimlico. The Curlin filly comes off a second-place finish in the Grade I Apple Blossom at the Hot Springs track, behind only Stellar Wind. She has five wins and a second from seven starts at Oaklawn but is 1-for-4 at other venues. Still, the Apple Blossom performance was impressive. Others of note in Friday's 9-furlongs event include Carrumba and Mo' Green.
Curlin's Approval concedes four pounds to all of her rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Matron at Churchill Downs, thanks to a pair of graded stakes wins this winter at Gulfstream Park. The Curlin filly, trained by Marty Wolfson, won the Grade III Hurricane Bertie and Grade II Royal Delta before a fifth-place finish in the Grade II Inside Information in March. The big field for the Matron also includes Weep No More, winner of the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland last fall with a dramatic last-to-first surge. She has not raced since last August. Tiger Moth, Lady Fog Horn and Walkabout all could be dangerous.
Ten are entered for Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Selene Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Woodbine. The 121-pound highweights for the 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather course are Cindervella, Ghostly Presence and Gale Force.
Shaman Ghost is the standout and odds-on morning-line favorite among 10 entered for Friday's $300,000 Grade III Pimlico Special going 9 1/2 furlongs. The Ontario-bred Ghostzapper 5-year-old, winner of the 2015 Queen's Plate, has turned into a monster -- as long as he's not facing Arrogate. He finished second to that one in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup in January, then returned to win the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap in his last start. Noble Bird, Watershed, Dolphus and Eagle are among those who should be vying for place money if Javier Castellano can keep the gray favorite pointed in the right direction. Arrogate, by the way, has not returned to the worktab since his remarkable victory in the Dubai World Cup at Meydan in March.
Are You Kidding Me is the 8-5 morning-line favorite among nine for Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Eclipse Stakes at Woodbine, 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track. The 7-year-old Kentucky-bred won the Grade III Durham Cup and the Grade II Autumn Stakes at Woodbine as last year drew to a close and got off to a good start this year with an allowance win last month over the track.
Hedge Fund, third behind Hence in the Grade III Sunland Park Derby and second to Multiplier in the Grade III Illinois Derby, tops a field of 10 in Saturday's $100,000 LARC Sir Barton Stakes at Pimlico, going 1 1/16 miles on the main track. Time to Travel gets first-time Lasix and is worth a look after a fading fourth to Senior Investment in the Lexington.
Now, let's set sail overseas:
Blond Me, a graded stakes performer in North America, Turkey and England, scored a late-running victory in Thursday's Group 2 Betfred Middleton Stakes at York, defeating a short field that nonetheless included long-absent South African star Smart Call and last fall's Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf winner Queen's Trust.
Blond Me, a 5-year-old mare by Tamayuz, trained by Andrew Balding, was held up until the final 2 furlongs of the 10 1/2-furlongs Middleton. At that point, when jockey Oisin Murphy called on her, Blond Me made steady progress, hit the lead 75 yards out and won by 1 1/4 lengths over favorite and pacesetter The Black Princess. Smart Call, also held up, made a promising move to finish third, only a neck farther out and 1 1/2 lengths in front of Queen's Trust, who tired in the final furlong.
Smart Call was making her first start since she thumped Legal Eagle by 3 1/2 lengths in the Group 1 J&B Met at Kenilworth in South Africa Jan. 20, 2016. Queen's Trust was on the track for the first time since the Breeders' Cup triumph. Blond Me, winner of the Group 2 Longines International Topkapi Trophy in Istanbul in September, had been idle since last October.
That wasn't the only top-shelf action Thursday at York.
Amongst the promising 3-year-olds, Permian and Benbati emerged in the final furlong of Thursday's Group 2 Betfred Dante Stakes with Permian taking over and holding on to win by 3/4 length. Crystal Ocean was in close pursuit of that pair but could do no better than third, another 1/2 length in arrears.
Permian, a Teofilo colt owned by Sheik Hamdan bin Mohammed al Maktoum and trained by Mark Johnson, posted his second straight victory after having edged Cracksman in the Epsom Derby Trial three weeks earlier. Cracksman was scratched after steady rain. Benbati, a Godolphin runner sired by Dubawi, was having just his third career run -- all within seven weeks time.
Racing Manager John Ferguson said Sheik Hamdan will supplement Permian to the Derby. Cracksman already has a spot in that Classic. Sir Michael Stoute, Crystal Ocean's trainer, said the Derby is not in that colt's plans -- unless his owner insists otherwise.
Saturday at Newbury, it's the Group 1 Al Shaqab Lockinge Stakes with Group 1 winners Galileo Gold and Ribchester heading a field of nine going a straight mile. Galileo Gold last year won the 2,000 Guineas at Newmarket and the Group 1 St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. He makes his first start as a 4-year-old. Ribchester comes to Newbury from his close third in the Group 1 Dubai Turf while wearing the home-team Godolphin blue on World Cup night. Last August, he accounted for the Group 1 Prix Jacques Le Marois at Deauville. At 2, he won the Group 2 Mill Reef Stakes over the Newbury greensward.
Godolphin also has Dutch Connection and Toscanini for the Lockinge while the Aidan O'Brien barn sends out the 4-year-old filly Somehow.
The day's card is powerful from top to bottom with the Group 3 Al Rayyan at 12 furlongs boasting My Dream Boat and Hawkbill; some potential Investec Oaks candidates in the Fillies' Trial at 10 furlongs; and the 6-furlongs Olympic Glory Conditions Race, which could throw up some contenders for Royal Ascot.
Sunday's Group 1 Yushun Himba, or Japanese Oaks, provides Reine Minoru a chance at the second jewel of the Japanese Filly Triple Crown. The daughter of Daiwa Major won the Oka Sho, or Japanese 1,000 Guineas, at Hanshin, last month -- her first win in three starts this season. The filly she defeated that day, Lys Gracieux, will try to reverse that outcome in the 2,400 meters around two turns of the Tokyo Racecourse turf. Also looking for revenge is Soul Stirring, a daughter of Frankel who suffered her first career loss when third in the Oka Sho.