Churchill Downs moves back to center stage in U.S. racing action this weekend with a stakes-heavy program that includes the likes of Gun Runner and Forever Unbridled in two Breeders' Cup qualifying races.
Santa Anita, Monmouth Park and Belmont also chip in with graded stakes action.
On the international front, all eyes turn to Ascot and the Royal meeting starting Tuesday with a stellar international cast. Before that, it's Prix Diane-Longines weekend at Chantilly in France.
Let's cast our eyes first to the more immediate action:
The Classic Division
Gun Runner is the big gun in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs, a 9-furlongs "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Classic. The 4-year-old Candy Ride colt makes his first start since the Dubai World Cup in March, where he was caught and passed in the stretch by Arrogate and finished second. Trainer Steve Asmussen has eased him back into training over the Louisville surface and he is the 4-5 morning line favorite. Others include Texas Chrome, who was second to Mor Spirit in the Grade III Steve Sexton Mile two races back, is improving by leaps and bounds and proven at the distance. Stanford, Bird Song, Honorable Duty and Breaking Lucky all are in with a chance in a really nice race. Arrogate, meanwhile, is training for his comeback in California.
If you can't make it to Churchill Downs (headed to Ascot, for example), Horse Racing Radio Network will broadcast and stream the Stephen Foster live Saturday evening (www.horseracingradio.net). See if analyst Jude Feld likes Gun Runner at www.popejude.com.
McCracken resurfaces in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Matt Winn Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs. The Ghostzapper colt made his first three starts last year under the Twin Spires, winning them all including the Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club. After two preps, he finished a respectable eighth in the Kentucky Derby in his last outing. There are five others for this 1 1/16 miles on the main track, all with something yet to prove at this level. McCracken is the 4-5 morning line favorite.
Chad Brown will saddle the undefeated Timeline in search of his fourth win in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III betfair.com Pegasus for 3-year-olds at Monmouth Park at 1 1/16 miles. The Hard Spun colt won at first asking at Gulfstream Park, took an allowance event at Aqueduct and then jumped right into the Grade III Peter Pan at Belmont last month, winning by 3 1/2 lengths as the odds-on favorite. He definitely is one to watch. There are only four rivals for Sunday's race and the most likely of those is Talk Logistics, a High Cotton colt who was on the fringes of the Triple Crown preps in Florida but will need a big step forward to compete here.
Those paying attention to "Bob's Bets" last November realized a worthwhile profit ($6 returned $80.80) by including Forever Unbridled with Beholder and Songbird in a $1 trifecta box in the Breeders' Cup Distaff. Songbird made a successful return from that race last weekend at Belmont. Saturday, it's Forever Unbridled's turn in the $200,000 Grade II Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs, a 9-furlongs qualifier for this year's Breeders' Cup Distaff. She has run well off a layoff in the past and her best race is better than any of the other eight in this field have displayed. But if she's rusty, there are other options including Big World, winner of four straight including the Grade I La Troienne on Oaks Day, and Romantic Vision, second in the La Troienne. Walkabout won the Grade III Matron in her last start and Weep No More might be returning to the form that produced a dramatic last-to-first win in the Grade I Ashland at Keeneland last fall.
There are several wide-open big races this weekend and one of them is Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita. Only a few of the nine entrants can be ruled out with any confidence in the 1 1/16-miles spin around the main track. Noted and Quoted, a Grade I winner last year, is the 3-1 morning line favorite, probably because she's trained by Bob Baffert, who hasn't yet descended from the high of last weekend's Belmont Park tour de force. Faypien, who defeated Noted and Quoted last month in the 7-furlongs Angels Flight Stakes, and It Tiz Well are pegged at 7-2.
Another coming back for the first time since the Breeders' Cup is Yellow Agate, who suffered her first career defeat in the Juvenile Fillies last fall and emerges in Saturday's $75,000 Alma North at Laurel Park, a 7-furlongs test that kicks off a run of 21 stakes scheduled for the Maryland track's 33-day summer meeting.
A nicely competitive field of eight assembles for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Wise Dan at Churchill Downs, 1 1/16 miles on the turf. Among them are the first three from last year's edition -- Pleuven, Kasaqui and Thatcher Street. Chocolate Ride and Bondurant return after finishing 1-2 in a tough allowance event over the course and distance on May 18. Pleuven and Thatcher Street finished first and third in the 1-mile Opening Verse early on Derby weekend. Adding to the interest are proven graded stakes performers Bondurant, Conquest Panthera and Blofeld. Security Risk drew the inside stall and looks sure to set an honest pace.
Catching up from last weekend: Voador Magee, a 3-year-old son of Irish-bred Roderic O'Connor, chased down Daffy Girl in the stretch run of Sunday's Group 1 Grande Premio de Brazil and earn a spot in this fall's $4 million Longines Breeders' Cup Turf at Del Mar. With Angelo Macio de Souza up for trainer Luis Esteves, Voador Magee raced well amid 16 rivals in the 1 1/2-miles event at Hippodromo de Gavea. Daffy Girl hit the lead on the inside and, with steady urging from de Souza, Voador Magee ran down the middle of the course to close the gap and win by 1/2 length. The favorite, Brazilian Filly Triple Crown winner No Regrets, finished ninth. The winner went to the post at odds of 21-1.
Filly & Mare Turf
Sircat Sally, undefeated in six starts, stands out among six signed on for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Honeymoon Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Santa Anita. The Jerry Hollendorfer-trained, Mike Smith-ridden Surf Cat filly won the Grade III Providencia in April and the Grade II Senorita in May. Beau Recall and Pacific Wind were second and third in the Senorita and return for another try.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Regret Stakes at Churchill Downs drew a dozen 3-year-old fillies and it's a real program-stabber. Mike Battaglia reckons Proctor's Ledge the 7-2 favorite on the morning line after two straight finishes behind Royal Ascot-bound La Coronel. Chubby Star and Sweeping Paddy also have been competitive in that company. Sameeha, a Shadwell homebred by Street Cry, comes off a nice win at Keeneland in her first time on the green course and can't be ignored, especially if she goes to the post at anything like her 8-1 morning-line odds. Fizzy Friday could have a sparkling Saturday in her second U.S. start after going 2-for-2 in Ireland.
It's six in the main field and one "main track only" for Sunday's $300,000 Grade III Poker Handicap at Belmont Park. In the body of the field is Projected, who was second to World Approval in the Longines Dixie at Pimlico in his last start. Catapault and 10-year-old Lubash have been running adequately. Let's see what the unfortunately named Bolting does in his first U.S. start after enjoying mixed success in France. The "MTO" is Weekend Hideaway, who's unlikely to make anyone run away and hide.
Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park drew a field of nine with nothing approaching a clear favorite. Six of those nine are single-digit odds on the morning line with Majestic Affair a narrow 7-2 favorite. And he hasn't won in four starts since January. To misappropriate a Gilbert & Sullivan line, "Here's a pretty kettle of fish."
Filly & Mare Sprint
Only five showed up in the entry box for Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Desert Stormer Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita. One is Pretty N Cool, another from the Baffert barn. The 4-year-old Scat Daddy filly is a multiple graded stakes winner and comes off a second behind By the Moon in the Grade III Vagrancy at Belmont Park. Bendable is intriguing. The Horse Greeley filly won three of four starts last summer, then finished third in the Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes at Keenland in October and hasn't been seen since. Her works are okay and Mike Smith will ride. Coniah always gives an honest effort but likely will find Pretty N Cool and maybe Bendable a bit too much. Ditto Bellamentary, who at this time last year was seen running second in the Summertime Oaks.
Here's yet another wide-open affair: Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Salvator Mile at Monmouth Park. Majestic Affair is the 7-2 favorite on the morning line. But right behind at 4-1 we find Classy Class, Far From Over and El Kabeir; Name Changer at 5-1; and Red Dragon Tattoo at 6-1.