The Gold Cup at Santa Anita and important turf races right across North America provide a holiday sparkle as Memorial Day weekend rings in summertime.
On the international front, it's Guineas weekend in Ireland with the prospect of Kentucky Derby sideshow Thunder Snow facing the talented Churchill. Hong Kong stages its final Group 1 race of the season, Tokyo hosts the Japanese Derby, Argentina has a Group 1 Breeders' Cup qualifying event and South Africa adds several top-level events to the festivities.
And speaking of South Africa and Hong Kong, South African jockey Callan Murray, just 20 years old, has quickly made his mark in a third country, winning on his first ride at iconic Happy Valley in Hong Kong.
After a suitable pause to remember and honor those who gave their lives to preserve our liberty ...
We move right on with ...
The Classic Division
If Midnight Storm can replicate his performance in the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap some 10 weeks ago, he should be a handful in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I "The Gold Cup at Santa Anita". The 6-year-old son of Pioneerof the Nile led almost all the way that day, caught in the stretch by Shaman Ghost, who has gone on to be the next-best older horse in America after Arrogate. But the 1 1/4 miles appears to be the outer limits of Midnight Storm's ability and there's a lot more talent in the nine-horse field.
Bob Baffert will saddle American Freedom and Cupid, both with the distance question lingering. Big John B and Texas Ryano both are proven as far as 1 1/2 miles but may not be able to keep Midnight Storm within range.
Baffert is famous for raiding the big Texas races and Sunday's $200,000 Grade III Lone Star Park Handicap is no exception. Baffert sends Danzig Candy, who drew the rail in a five-horse field and is listed as the narrow morning-line favorite over Texas Chrome, who drew outside.
Danzig Candy, a 4-year-old Twirling Candy colt, winner of the Grade II San Felipe last year, comes off a front-running allowance win going 1 mile at Santa Anita. Texas Chrome, last year's Super Derby and Oklahoma Derby winner, has been working at Lone Star since finishing second in the Grade III Steve Sexton Mile three weeks ago. Neck 'n Neck and Shotgun Kowboy are potential upsetters in this 1 1/16-miles race.
Sunday's $125,000 Grade III Marine Stakes for 3-year-olds is run on the Woodbine all-weather track. Seven are set including Montu, a Kentucky-bred who won the Rushaway Stakes at Turfway Park two starts back. All seven, though, are seeking their level.
Owner Kendall Hansen and his partners paid a $200,000 supplement fee to get Fast and Accurate into the Kentucky Derby after the colt won the Grade III Spiral Stakes on the Turfway Park all-weather course. The gray son of Hansen finished 17th in the Run for the Roses, earning nothing. But he can start to repay some of that sunk cost as he faces nine rivals in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Arlington Classic for 3-year-olds while returning to the grass where he scored an earlier stakes victory in Florida.
Fast and Accurate's trainer, Mike Maker, also fields Gorgeous Kitten, fresh off a Keeneland turf win, and Prize Fight, who ran well on Florida grass. Never ignore trainer Chris Block, who saddles Don't Split Tens. This race points to the Grade I Secretariat Stakes on Arlington Million Day.
Sunday, the action turns to the $200,000 Grade II Charles Whittingham at Santa Anita.
Filly & Mare Turf
It's a tough field of six for Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Gamely at Santa Anita. Lady Eli, who has had "second-itis" since returning from her near-fatal injury and illness, makes her second start of the year after losing to Dickinson by a head in the Grade I Jenny Wiley at Keeneland. Avenge makes her first start since finishing third behind Queen's Trust and Lady Eli in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf after leading that superb field into the stretch. September Stars, a 4-year-old Sea the Stars filly previously raced in England, is 2-for-2 in California and gets a major class test. The others are Goodyearforroses Mokat and Pretty Girl -- each capable of an upset performance.
Saturday's 12-furlongs Keertana Stakes offers only $65,000 but a race at the distance at Churchill Downs is always worth noting for future reference. Quiet Business and Daring Duchess were the first two home in the Grade III Bewitch at Keeneland going the same trip last month. Geovanna Blues, a 4-year-old Geo Ponti filly, has won three straight but her pedigree does not scream "mile and a half."
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Red Bank Stakes at Monmouth Park drew a field of 10 including All Included, a Todd Pletcher trainee, and Synchrony, from Mike Stidham's barn. All Included won the Grade III Appleton at Gulfstream Park on April 1 with a big late move. Synchrony also is an off-the-pace type so the race could hinge on how fast they go -- or don't go -- in the early furlongs.
Catch a Glimpse won the 2015 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and looked invincible through the summer of her 3-year-old season. In August, she appeared to hit the wall and hasn't really been competitive in three of her last four starts. Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Nassau for fillies and mares at Woodbine gives the City Zip filly a chance to regain her zip over the course where she scored her first two victories, at the same time facing easier competition and cutting back to the 1-mile distance that might best suit her front-running style. Others to watch are Stormy Victoria and Caren.
Saturday's $100,000 Paradise Creek for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park doesn't have any monsters although Kitten's Cat did run well in Florida during the winter. A few others appear to be working their way up the class ladder.
Enola Gray looks tough in Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Monrovia for fillies and mares on the Santa Anita hillside turf course after winning four in a row, including two at the same trip. Those were against fellow California-breds but the 4-year-old Grazen filly has held her own in open company, too. Illuminant is a Grade I winner going longer but also is 2-for-4 at this unique trip. Anita Partner also has won four straight, three of those down the hill. Paquita Coqueta and Coniah were the first two finishers in the Mizdirection Stakes last month. Irish import Spy Ring gets Mike Smith's attention. This should be a good one.
Three of the six entered for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Daytona down the Santa Anita hill finished 1-2-3 in their last start over the same trip April 23. Stormy Liberal won that day, scoring his third straight win. Ambitious Brew was a close second and an improving Eddie Haskell finished third. Home Run Kitten returns from a 10-months absence while getting a major class break.
Sunday's feature at Monmouth Park is the $60,000 Blue Sparkler for fillies and mares at 5 furlongs.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Winning Colors at Churchill Downs features Finley'sluckycharm. The Twirling Candy filly is the winner of four of her last five starts sandwiched around a second in the Grade I La Brea at Santa Anita.
There's a shortage of graded stakes on Memorial Day itself. Golden Gate Fields offers the Grade III All American at 1 mile on the all-weather. Belmont Park and Santa Anita have some rich races for state-bred steeds. Those usually are worth a look, for betting opportunities, future stakes contenders or both.
On the international front:
Sunday's Group 1 Standard Chartered Champions and Chater Cup is one of the few 2,400-meters events on the Hong Kong calendar and also the final Group 1 event of the season. There are seven contestants but only two trainers as John Moore saddles five and Tony Cruz will send out the other two.
Prominent in Moore's string is reigning Hong Kong Horse of the Year Werther. The 4-year-old was third in this event last year after a long campaign. This year, he started late after an injury and Moore declares him a more rested horse. Several of the others are capable of turning the trick here.
During the off season, this race will be dissected for clues to the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Vase on Dec. 10 -- another 2,400-meters affair that historically draws a strong international field.
Let's also pause to note that Callan Murray, the fresh-faced 20-year-old South African rider, is on his way to success -- at least in the short term -- in Hong Kong. Murray is a graduate of the South African Jockey Academy and less than a year ago was an aspiring apprentice. In the interim he has had a successful stint in Australia, returned home to ride three Group 1 winners on a single card earlier this month, and signed on for a short-term license to ride in the ultra-tough Hong Kong environs.
After five rides without a win Sunday at Sha Tin, Murray booted home Master Viking in his first shot at the iconic Happy Valley course Wednesday night for trainer Tony Millard. "It looks like he's got the ability but it's early days yet," said fellow South African Millard. "Hong Kong is Hong Kong. It's tough here and he is very young. But as long as he carries on like this, I think he can handle it."
As Murray's star rises, another Hong Kong star slips below the horizon -- at least for active duty -- as Moore announced Able Friend will be retired from racing after a farewell ceremony Sunday at Sha Tin. The Shamardal gelding, who raced in the silks of the late Dr. Cornel Li, at one was time the world's top-rated horse. He was the world champion sprinter in 2015, Hong Kong Horse of the Year and Champion Miler, and a four-time Group 1 winner.
"He was the equal of any horse on the planet at his peak," Moore said. "The public really took to him, he had them in awe with some of the things he did. He just obliterated the best here in Hong Kong." Able Friend will retire to the Turangga Farm in New South Wales in Australia, where he was foaled.
Thursday's Group 1 Gran Premio 25 de Mayo at San Isidro offers an automatic starting berth for the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf this fall at Del Mar. Sixties Song, a multiple Group 1 winner, was the antepost favorite for the 1 1/2 miles on the grass. Tune in to the weekend report for results of this tussle. Japan
The top six finishers from the Group 1 Satsuki Sho, or Japanese 2,000 Guineas, are nominated to face off again Sunday in the Group 1 Tokyo Yushun, or Japanese Derby. Trainer Yasutoshi Ikee said Satsuki Sho winner Al Ain has been improving and represents a good chance in the Derby. "While he's showed a lot of class in what he's done so far, the key will really be seeing out the 2,400 meters," the trainer said. In truth, the 3-year-olds are still in the sorting process. But the Satsuki Sho has been won by some of Japan's top horses throughout recent decades and is one of the most popular days on the calendar. It will be simulcast to Hong Kong, which is sure to even further inflate the always monstrous turnover.
Despite winning the Group 1 Qipco 2,000 Guineas in his first out of 2017, Churchill isn't going Derby-ing at Ascot. So Saturday's Tattersall's Irish 2,000 Guineas at the Curragh is a step toward making him another miler-plus in the mold of, may we say, Frankel. The Galileo colt faces only five others in the Guineas and his trainer, Aidan O'Brien, will saddle two of those, Lancaster Bomber and Spirit of Valor. One of his Saturdays rivals who do DID go Derby-ing -- in Dubai and in Kentucky -- is Thunder Snow. The Godolphin runner won the Group 2 UAE Derby but then, carrying high hopes to be Sheik Mohammed's first winner in the Run for the Roses, exited the Louisville starting gate bucking and jumping and was pulled up. Trainer Saeed bin Suroor says he still can't explain the colt's behavior but says he's been training well since. He has something to prove in this company.
Sunday attention turns to the Tattersall's Irish 1,000 Guineas at the same venue with Qipco 1,000 Guineas Winter as the featured attraction. The Galileo filly, yet another from the O'Brien Ballydoyle yard, finished second in her initial start of the year, beaten only a head by Hydrangea. Another of the likely for Sunday's race is Intricately, last year's Group 1 Moyglare Stud winner. She is trained by Joseph O'Brien, Aidan's son and former jockey.
At Sandown on Thursday, Frankie Dettori booted Big Orange home first in the Group 3 Matchbook VIP Henry II Stakes at 2 miles. The 6-year-old Duke of Marmalade gelding made all and kept going like the battery bunny, winning by 5 lengths from Higher Power.
One race later, going 10 furlongs at the same course, Autocratic registered a minor upset win in the Group 2 Matchbook Brigadier Gerard Stakes, rallying late to win by 1 1/4 lengths with Algometer, Steel of Madrid, Mondialiste, Red Verdon and the favorite, Chain of Daisies, in his wake in that order. Baydar completed the order of finish.
Scottsville hosts a trio of Group 1 events on Saturday: The Tsogo Sun Sprint, the City of Pietermaritzburg Fillies Sprint, the Tsogo Sun Gold Medallion for 2-year-olds and the Allan Robertson Championship for 2-year-old fillies. Each is run at 1,200 meters.