Woodbine's lush turf and generous purses drew an international crowd for weekend racing, Churchill Downs fires up its fall meet and Breeders' Cup berths are on the line.
Ken Ramsey had a good day Thursday at Kentucky Downs.
Across the seas, the St Leger is the final Classic of the English flat season and, in Australia, Winx shoots for her 20th straight victory and Chautauqua is back in action.
The "Road to the Kentucky Derby" series kicks off at Churchill Downs -- a process made even more complex this season by the addition of a European qualifying program.
But that's for another discussion. Meanwhile:
Saturday's $800,000 (Canadian) Ricoh Woodbine Mile, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", promises to be a cracker with a tough and competitive lineup.
Trainer Aidan O'Brien, fresh off a triumphant weekend back home, arrives with Deauville, a 4-year-old Galileo colt who was barely beaten in third as the favorite in the Grade I Arlington Million in August and an even narrower third in the Million in 2016. O'Brien also has Lancaster Bomber, second in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf and second only to Barney Roy in the Group 1 St James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot. He's by War Front.
The winner of the 2016 Million and the 2015 Woodbine Mile, Mondialiste, a 7-year-old son of Galileo, also reappears in this but has been going through a rough patch so far this year for trainer David O'Meara.
Arod was fifth in last year's Woodbine Mile, beaten only 2 lengths. The 6-year-old son of Teofilo then went to Australia where he suffered a series of thumping defeats. He has not raced since April.
The North American "home team" is headed by World Approval, fresh off a win in the Fourstardave at Saratoga. The 5-year-old Northern Afleet gelding was third, beaten 1/2 length, in the Grade I Northern Dancer on this program last year. Tower of Texas was second in this last year and Conquest Panthera is 2-for-2 over the course.
In other action in this division, Sunday's $200,000 Presque Isle Mile, run on the all-weather track, got a field of eight. War Correspondent is the morning-line favorite despite not having raced since winning the Grade III Miami Mile at Gulfstream Park in April. Ghost Hunter won the Grade III Arlington Handicap in July.
Hawkbill has been having his troubles finding the winners' circle this season but the 4-year-old Kitten's Joy colt is the odds-on favorite to do just that in Saturday's $300,000 (Canadian) Grade I Northern Dancer Turf at Woodbine. Hawkbill, owned by Godolphin and trained by Charlie Appleby, comes off a tough runner-up finish behind Dschingis Secret in the Group 1 Grosser Preis von Berlin. Before that, he won the Group 2 Princess of Wales's Stakes at Newmarket and a Group 3 at Newbury. Colm O'Donohue takes over the mount and will face seven rivals who bring lesser credentials.
Eleven signed up to go 12 furlongs in Saturday's $100,000 Laurel Turf Cup. Manitoulin is the favorite, but only narrowly over Infinite Wisdom and recent French import Canessar. All 11 have something to prove here.
Filly & Mare Turf
Ken Ramsey handed the winner's trophy to himself after Thursday's $350,000 Ramsey Farm Stakes for fillies and mares at Kentucky Downs. Kitten's Roar, a 5-year-old mare by Ramsey's star stallion Kitten's Joy, blew by the leaders in the stretch and coasted home a winner by 2 1/4 lengths over Tricky Escape. Queen Blossom was third. Kitten's Roar, with Jose Ortiz on board, ran 1 5/16 miles on the yielding ground in 2:17.19 as Kentucky Downs closed the books on yet another wildly successful season.
Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Sands Point Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park features La Coronel, Uni, several potential upsetters and a dash of international interest. La Coronel, by Colonel John, was a good fifth in the Group 1 Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot, then fourth in the Grade II Lake Placid at Saratoga. Uni, formerly raced in France, was second in the Lake Placid. Vue Fantastique comes directly from France where she won the Group 3 Prix de Psyche at Deauville two starts back. A case could be made for any of the 10, even including Empressof the Nile, a Pioneerof the Nile filly who recently scored her first win in her seventh race. Bonita Bianca, a Curlin filly, is a "main-track only" entrant. Amid all the talent, the eye is drawn to the two daughter of Blame -- Fault and Chastise.
Since coming to North America from Germany, Quidura has three wins, a second and a third from five starts. The runner-up finish came in her last race, by a head to Lady Eli in the Grade I Diana at Saratoga. All of that makes her the even-money pick against six rivals in Saturday's $250,000 (Canadian) Grade II Canadian going a one-turn 9 furlongs over the sweeping Woodbine turf course.
On Leave, Light Up Our World and Juno are the early picks for Saturday's $150,000 All Along at 1 1/16 miles on the Laurel Park greensward. On Leave, winner of last year's Sands Point, is in from New York. Light Up Our World, formerly raced in England, is trained at Fair Hills. Juno, a Brazilian-bred, has been facing tougher rivals while racing in Southern California.
Master Merion took advantage of the long stretch run to rally from last of eight and win Thursday's $250,000 Franklin-Simpson Stakes for 3-year-olds at Kentucky Downs by 2 lengths over Secretary At War. The early leader, Holiday Stone, finished third and the favorite, Sonic Boom was distanced after contesting the early lead. Master Merion, a Quality Road gelding, ran 7 furlongs over yielding turf in 1:27.95 with Julio Garcia up.
Ginger N Rye and Miss Ella are the morning-line favorites in an overflow field for Saturday's $100,000 Sensible Lady Turf Dash for fillies and mares going 6 furlongs at Laurel Park. Ginger N Rye, a More Than Ready filly, has won her last two starts, including a 1 3/4-lengths score over Miss Ella in the Smart N Fancy Stakes at Saratoga.
Hollywood Star was second in the Grade II Saratoga Special last month and that was enough to rank him the morning-line pick in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Iroquois Stakes at Churchill Downs. Hollywood Star is a Malibu Moon colt out of the Wild Rush mare Hollywood Story. We note Wild Rush dead-heated with Silver Charm for the win in the 1998 Kentucky Cup Classic at Turfway Park. Also well-regarded for the Iroquois is Ten City, a Run Away and Hide colt who won the Grade III Bashford Manor under the Twin Spires in June but could do no better than third in the Ellis Park Juvenile in his comeback race. Ten are entered and few if any would be a shock winner.
The 1 1/16-miles Iroquois is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" race. But wait! There's more! The Iroquois also is the first race in the 2017-18 "Road to the Kentucky Derby," offering 10 points to the winner, 4, 2 and 1 to the next three finishers. The points are used to determine the field for the May 5 Run for the Roses if more than the maximum 20 are entered. The long list of races on the "Road" runs through the Lexington at Keeneland April 14. The "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" adds a race to the previous two-event schedule and offers one spot in the starting gate to the 3-year-old accumulating the most points. And Churchill Downs this year kicks off the "Europe Road to the Kentucky Derby" with four races this fall on the turf and three in the springtime on the all-weather. Another spot in the Derby field is available for the top horse after that series.
Pay attention now! There will be a short quiz next period.
Majestic Dunhill improved steadily through his first three races to break his maiden last month at Saratoga -- enough to make the Majesticperfection colt the favorite for the $100,000 Laurel Futurity on Saturday. Close on his heels in the oddsmaker's estimation is Battle Station, a Warrior's Reward colt trained by Wesley Ward for Ken and Sarah Ramsey who won at first asking at Saratoga. Eleven are set for this.
Sunday's $200,000 (Canadian) Grade II Summer Stakes at Woodbine, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", drew a field of eight. The 2-1 morning-line pick is Hemp Hemp Hurray, an Artie Schiller colt trained by Wesley Ward for Ken and Sarah Ramsey. Hemp Hemp Hurray is unbeaten in two starts, most recently the Tyro at Monmouth. El Dulce, a Twirling Candy colt handled by Todd Pletcher, was second in the Skidmore Stakes at Saratoga in his last outing. And Untamed Domain comes off a third in the Grade III With Anticipation Stakes at the Spa. He's by Animal Kingdom.
Looking for a favorite in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs? Good luck as the field of 12 is truly a "you pick 'em" bunch. The 1 1/16 mile is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". Sunny Skies is the 4-1 morning-line favorite even though she again faces the two fillies who beat her in the Ellis Park Debutante -- Kelly's Humor and Upset Brewing. An upset indeed could be brewing and don't overlook the fillies with long odds.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
Sunday's $250,000 (Canadian) Grade I Natalma Stakes at Woodbine, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", has a well-matched field of nine. March X Press won both her starts at Saratoga for Todd Pletcher, including the Bolton Landing. Wonder Gadot heads a two-filly team for Mark Casse. Golden Orb was an impressive Saratoga winner for Christophe Clement. This one is tough to figure but should be worth watching.
Seven well-matched fillies and mares are set to contest Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Locust Grove at Churchill Downs going 1 1/16 miles. Six of the seven are listed at single-digit odds on the morning line, headed by Tiger Moth, winner of the Grade III Groupie Doll at Ellis Park in her last afternoon appearance.
Light Up the Town and Wise Gal both won in their first try and now land among the favorites for Saturday's $100,000 Selima at 6 furlongs on the Laurel Park turf. Also in the picture in the nine-filly field is Mel's Gone Wild, who won a first asking, then beat none in the Grade III Schuylerville at Saratoga.
Whitmore returned to sprinting after finishing 19th in last year's Kentucky Derby and promptly reeled off five straight wins before finishing third in the Grade III True North in June at Belmont Park. After a rest, the Pleasantly Perfect gelding is the solid favorite for Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash at Laurel Park. Awesome Banner, another refugee from the 2016 Triple Crown trail, tries Whitmore again after finishing third behind him in the Grade III Maryland Sprint on May 20. It might pay to look at Favorite Tale. The 6-year-old Tale of the Cat gelding was third in the 2015 Breeders' Cup Sprint and returned from a 19-month absence to finish second in a minor stakes at Parx Racing.
Good Bye Greg, a powerhouse on the Arlington all-weather, is the narrow favorite in Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Bold Venture at Woodbine, 6 1/2 furlongs on that all-weather surface. A class edge might go to Unbridled Juan, who has been in the mix without winning in all four of his starts this year -- three of those graded stakes. Circle of Friends saw a four-race win streak snapped in his last outing.
There's no shortage of speed in Saturday's $100,000 Laurel Dash. But there also are a few closers who might be along at the end of 6 furlongs if the rest go too fast early. The lukewarm favorite is Blu Moon Ace, a 4-year-old Malibu Moon gelding who looks to stalk the pace from the outside gate. Also well regarded by the oddsmaker: Snowday, a speedy type who was third in the Grade III Turf Monster in his last start; Dream Mover, a recent immigrant from England who won his only previous start in America with a stalking trip; and Class and Cash who steps up in class after winning five of his last six at Gulfstream Park and Monmouth.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Ivy Bell has been creeping her way up the ranks and figures as the morning-line favorite in a relatively soft field of six for Saturday's $100,000 Open Mind Stakes, a 6-furlongs dash at Churchill Downs. Ivy Bell, a 4-year-old Archarcharch filly, was second in the transplanted Grade III Chicago Handicap over the course in June and won her last start at Mountaineer. Athena and Mayla also figure here.
Winx shoots for her 20th straight win in Saturday's Group 1 George Main Stakes, now officially the Colgate Optic White Stakes, at Royal Randwick. The competition includes Red Excitement who put the excitement into the Group 2 Chelmsford Stakes two weeks ago, leading Winx into the final 100 meters before the super mare finally eked out the win. A win at Saturday's 1,600 meters will keep Winx on course in a campaign aimed at securing her third consecutive Cox Plate.
On the same program, Chautauqua makes his 7-year-old debut in the Bowerman's Office Furniture Shorts at 1,100 meters. The venerable gelding, once the world's top sprinter and a Group 1 winner in Hong Kong, went through a rough patch but ended last season with a win in the Group 1 T J Smith. If he's fully cranked, his eight rivals will have their hands full.
Some of Australia's top milers who aren't Winx will mix it up in Saturday's Group 1 PFD Food Services Makye Diva Stakes at Flemington, also 1,600 meters. Signed on for this contest are Hartnell, Black Heart Bart and Le Romain. As a marker, in the Group 1 China Horse Club George Ryder Stakes back in March, Winx won by nearly 7 1/2 lengths with Le Romain second and Chautauqua third. Hartnell and Black Heart Bart also have had good views of Winx' hindquarters during her long winning streak.
Saturday's Group 1 William Hill St Leger at Doncaster is the final Classic of the British flat racing season and gives 3-year-olds a chance to prove their place among the top stayers. The early co-favorites are Capri and Crystal Ocean. Capri, a Galileo colt trained by Aidan O'Brien, was sixth in the Investec Derby at Epsom but returned to win the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby at the Curragh and has been idle since. Crystal Ocean, by Sea the Stars, is trained by Sir Michael Stoute and comes off a victory in the Group 3 Qatar Gordon Stakes at Goodwood but is largely untested.
There's plenty more talent in the field of 11 including Group 1 Qatar Goodwood Cup Stakes winner (over Big Orange) Stradivarius; Defoe, riding a four-race win streak; and a lone filly, Coronet, who was second to Enable in the Darley Yorkshire Oaks. O'Brien's son, Joseph Patrick O'Brien, fields a live chance in Rekindling.