With some little question marks now surrounding this fall's Breeders' Cup Classic, all eyes will be on Gun Runner in Saturday's Whitney at Saratoga.
Arrogate, ranked the world's No. 1 horse and considered a cinch for his second straight Classic victory, was shockingly beaten in his last race, the Grade II San Diego Handicap. That second-ever loss came in the colt's first start since he won the Dubai World Cup in March, with Gun Runner his closest pursuer.
So, if Gun Runner ... well, we'll get there in a bit. But there's much more to the weekend than that.
Also on this weekend's schedule are the West Virginia Derby, the Grade I Test Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga, some interesting turf races, including a very tough turf sprint, also at the Spa, and a smattering of contests for the 2-year-olds.
And we have results from the Qatar Goodwood Festival, nee Glorious Goodwood, in England, which was damply glorious this year amid heavy early-week rains.
Away we go.
There are some really good horses in Saturday's $1.2 million, Grade I Whitney at Saratoga, a 9-furlongs Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" race. But Gun Runner will be the big favorite. The 4-year-old Candy Ride colt finished second to Arrogate after leading the way in that remarkable Group 1 Dubai World Cup at Meydan in March, then returned nearly three months later to win the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs by a commanding 7 lengths.
Gun Runner appears to be getting better as he goes along for trainer Steve Asmussen and there's no telling where he would be if he hadn't been trapped in New Orleans at a crucial time early this year because of a Fair Grounds barn quarantine. That prevented him from running in the Grade I Pegasus World Cup, won by Arrogate. His "consolation prize" was a romping victory in the Grade III Razorback at Oaklawn Park as his Dubai prep.
The competition in the Whitney includes Keen Ice, who was seventh in Dubai but came back to win the Grade I Suburban at Belmont Park -- his first win since he beat American Pharoah in the Grade I Travers at the Spa two years ago. Breaking Lucky, War Story and Tu Brutus also could be in the mix although likely behind Gun Runner if he fires (pun intended).
The bottom line: The outlook for the Breeders' Cup Classic Nov. 4 at Del Mar likely will be shaped, for now, by Gun Runner's performance in the Whitney and whether Arrogate can bounce back to his dominant form in the Grade I Pacific Classic.
Noted: Arrogate is proven multiple times at the 1 1/4-miles distance of the Classic while Gun Runner has yet to hang on going that long. And, Arrogate will have home-field advantage in California.
For the 3-year-olds:
Eleven entered for Saturday's $750,000 Grade III West Virginia Derby at Mountaineer with Lookin at Lee and Patch the morning-line favorites. Lookin at Lee, a Lookin at Lucky colt, was second in the Kentucky Derby, fourth in the Preakness and seventh in the Belmont in his most recent start. Patch, a Union Rags colt, was 14th in the Run for the Roses, skipped the Preakness and finished third in the Belmont. The oddsmaker also has an eye on California invader B Squared, who finished second in the Grade III Affirmed at Santa Anita and third in the Grade II Los Alamitos Derby in his last outing. Another to watch is Colonelsdarktemper, who has finished second in the Grade III Matt Winn at Churchill Downs and the Grade III Indiana Derby in his last two starts and might bring a more generous return if he performs.
As always, if you can't make it to the track, tune in Horse Racing Radio Network (www.horseracingradio.net), live or streaming, with Mike Penna and Jude Feld presiding. Jude's invaluable insights are available at www.popejude.com.
Filly & Mare Sprint
American Gal and Vertical Oak square off again in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Test Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga going 7 furlongs. American Gal edged clear of Vertical Oak in the Grade III Victory Ride at Belmont last month going 6 1/2 furlongs in her first start of the year. She was second in the Grade I Starlet at Los Alamitos in December. Those two will have all they can handle, though, from Faypien, a Ghostzapper filly shipped in from California by trainer Bob Baffert. She has won three in a row, including the Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita. A few others are worth a look, too.
The three morning-line favorites are drawn in the inside stalls for Friday's $200,000 Grade II National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame for 3-year-olds at Saratoga. Bricks and Mortar, a Giant's Causeway colt, is undefeated in three starts for trainer Chad Brown and starts No. 1. Big Handsome won three in a row before finishing second to Bricks and Mortar in the Manila Stakes at Belmont in their last start and drew No. 2 for trainer Tony Dutrow. And the Japanese-bred Yoshida won at Keeneland and Pimlico before a fifth-place finish in the Grade I Belmont Derby Invitational -- a much tougher race than this one. Ten are entered and if the race comes off the turf, look at Caviar Czar, entered for "main track only" with a nice record.
Saturday's $100,000 Fasig-Tipton De La Rose at 1 mile over the Saratoga inner turf drew a feisty dozen fillies and mares. Among the likely are Sassy Little Lila, French import Boreale, On Leave and Bar of Gold.
Fashion Business, a Frankel colt, tries again for his second career win in Sunday's $150,000 Grade III La Jolla for 3-year-olds at Del Mar. He hasn't made much impact in the United States but did get up for second in his last outing, beaten only a head. There are no world-beaters among the rivals here although Sharp Samurai did win the Rainbow Stakes at Santa Anita in his last outing. In truth, this event is wide open.
Saturday's $100,000 Fasig-Tipton Lure at Saratoga is restricted to runners who have not posted a stakes win yet this year. That doesn't preclude the presence of such as Projected, who has done everything but win his last two starts, Takeover Target, Blacktype, Ring Weekend, Camelot Kitten, Macagone and some other talented runners. Should the race come off the turf, it would include Mohaymen and Red Rifle, both entered for "main track only".
Filly & Mare Turf
Avenge highlights a field of eight set for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Yellow Ribbon Handicap at Del Mar. The 5-year-old War Front mare, handled by Richard Mandella, finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup filly & Mare Turf and returned to action with a similar finish in the Grade I Gamely Stakes at Santa Anita in May. She has not raced since that effort. Starting to her inside is another 5-year-old daughter of War Front, Cambodia, who travels west after winning the Grade III Gallorette at Pimlico and finishing third in the Grade III Dr. James Penny Memorial at Parx. Hillhouse High has a respectable record over California grass and deserves a look.
Eight are on for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Waya Stakes for fillies and mares, going 1 1/2 miles on the Saratoga lawn. The field includes the top three from the $100,000 River Memories at Belmont over the same distance on July 9 -- Apple Betty, Summersault and Lottie. Also here are the first and third finishers from the Grade III Robert G. Dick at Delaware Park last month -- Guilty Twelve and Gone Away. Suffused returns to what looks like her best distance for trainer Bill Mott.
Sunday's $250,000 Troy Handicap at Saratoga attracted a superior field of nine, including 2015 Breeders' Cup winner Mongolian Saturday, who has not had much success since that day. He does come off a second-place finish in the Grade III Parx Dash. Long On Value returns from his journeys to Dubai and England. At Meydan, the 6-year-old finished second in the Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint. Pure Sensation, who won the Parx Dash the past two years, is in this field, as is Bold Thunder, who was third in that heat. Green Mask has been first or second in each of six straight races. Holding Gold is a Grade II winner. This is a great field, especially for a race that is not (yet) graded.
Friday's $75,000 Daisycutter Handicap at Del Mar has a well-balanced half dozen fillies and mares and bears watching if only because it's at Del Mar. Woodacouldadid makes her first start outside her native New Mexico, a turf-deprived racing venue, and is the extreme longshot here.
Already in the books: Morticia pressed the pace in Monday's $100,000 Coronation Cup for 3-year-old fillies at Saratoga, took over when asked and held off Epping Forest to win by 3/4 length. Morticia, a Twirling Candy filly trained by Rusty Arnold, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:01.27 with Jose Lezcano in the irons. She has won five of her last six starts and finished second in the Grade III Appalachian at Keeneland in the other.
Eight are set for Saturday's $100,000 Dr. Fager Division of the Florida Sire Stakes at Gulfstream Park. Dunk is the morning-line favorite after breaking his maiden impressively in his third try over the Gulfstream strip on July 15. He is by Brethren, a half-brother to Kentucky Derby winner Super Saver, a first-crop sire whose progeny are showing promise in the Sunshine State.
On the grass, six are in for Sunday's $60,000 Tyro at Monmouth Park, with a seventh for "main track only". With a bunch of recent maiden winners, and one still a maiden, in the field, it's a "You pick 'em" event.
Diamondsandpearls and Surrender Now are the oddsmaker's top picks among seven in for Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Sorrento at Del Mar. Surrender Now won at first asking at Santa Anita in June, then returned to win the Landaluce Stakes a month later. She is by Morning Line. Diamondsandpearls, a Congrats filly, comes off an easy career-opening win at Santa Anita July 2.
Awesome Mass is the even-money favorite on the morning line for Saturday's $100,000 Desert Vixen Division of the Florida Sire Stakes at Gulfstream Park. The Brethren filly took three tries to find the winner's circle but got there with an 11 3/4-lengths romp July 20. Don't overlook Pantyhose, a daughter of Awesome of Course out of the Anasheed mare Garter Belt. Credit or blame owner-breeder Jacks or Better Farm for the name.
Also on tap around the ovals:
Louisiana Downs on Saturday hosts the Louisiana Cup for state-bred steeds. Six races, each worth $50,000, are contested on both turf and dirt.
Mountaineer's Saturday program features six stakes races to support the West Virginia Derby. All are interesting and a few may be worth watching for information of use later.
As promised, on the international front:
It used to be Glorious Goodwood. Now it's the Qatar Goodwood Festival. It's still the same glorious midsummer weekend of racing.
Stradivarius kicked things off Tuesday with an off-the pace win over Big Orange in the Group 1 Goodwood Cup at 2 miles. Both were winners at Royal Ascot but Stradivarius, a 3-year-old, had a 13-pound weight advantage over his 6-year-old rival -- and dealt better with slightly soft going. Big Orange made the pace with Andrea Atzeni keeping Stradivarius well back. As they turned for home, jockey Frankie Dettori steered Big Orange to the middle of the course while Stradivarius found an opening and headed down to the rail. At the end, Stradivarius simply ran by the leader, winning by 1 3/4 lengths, denying Big Orange his third straight win in the race.
"The main plan was to keep away from Big Orange," said Atzeni, who won all three Group races on the day. "You can't get near him because he's a fighter. You have to race away from him. At the two-furlong marker, he was ahead of me but not going away and I knew I had him."
Big Orange's trainer, Michael Bell, saluted the winner but added, "Let's meet him again next year at level weights and see what happens."
Wednesday the rains came. And kept coming. The soggy going washed out the planned confrontation of the generations with 3-year-old Churchill taking on 4-year-old Ribchester in the Group 1 Qatar Sussex Stakes. Trainer Aidan O'Brien scratched Churchill, the dual Guineas winner, and Ribchester, a 4-year-old riding a pair of Group 1 wins, went to the post as the heavy favorite.
The race was oddly run with Ribchester leading, then giving way with about a furlong to run in heavy ran over soggy footing. Here Comes When, a 20-1 long shot by Danehill Dancer, took the lead and looked a sure winner. But then William Buick found another gear in Ribchester's box, he surged again and just missed catching Here Comes When by a narrowing neck. Lightning Spear was third.
Here Comes When earned a guaranteed spot in the Breeders' Cup Mile thanks to the Sussex win.
Things were still wet on Thursday but that did nothing to deter Winter, a 3-year-old Galileo filly, also the dual Guineas winner and also from the Coolmore-O'Brien-Ryan Moore triumvirate. After tracking the pace in the Group 1 Qatar Nassau Stakes, Moore sent Winter to the lead in the final furlong and she won professionally despite soft footing and despite going 1 1/4 miles for the first time. Blond Me was second and Sobetsu, the early leader held on for third.
O'Brien said Winter, now the winner of four straight Group 1 races, could go to York against either fillies and mares or open company in late August or wait until September for similar Group 1 choices at Leopardstown in Ireland. Ultimately, O'Brien could see if she can extend her reach still farther in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Oct. 1 at Chantilly -- a 1 1/2-miles test.
Sunday's international programme includes the Group 1 Larc Prix Maurice de Gheest at Deauville, for 3-year-olds and up going 6 1/2 furlongs, and the Group 1 Henkel Preis der Diana (or German Oaks) at Dusseldorf.