With just four weeks to go before the big event, a baker's dozen Breeders' Cup slots are on the line in weekend racing at Belmont Park, Keeneland and Santa Anita.
On the international front, between the excitement of Arc weekend at Chantilly and the anticipation of the British Champions Day at Ascot, things are quieter. Filly and mare milers get a chance in the Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket.
Once the action starts, keep track with Horse Racing Radio Network's live coverage (www.horseracingradio.net). And for analysis of all the top races, Jude Feld's thoughts are at www.popejude.com.
For now: Step right up and take a look at:
At first blush, Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park doesn't have the usual firepower you expect from this Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". The favorites, after all, already are in California. But the seven set to line up for this 10 furlongs are not bums. And, frankly, there are question marks about those aforementioned favorites (well, okay, not so much about Gun Runner). The Gold Cup runners might not be candidates for multirace exotic wagers on Breeders' Cup day but they certainly deserve consideration in trifecta or superfecta tickets on the Classic itself. The lineup includes three trained by Todd Pletcher: Keen Ice, Rally Cry and Destin. Keen Ice beat American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers, finished third in last year's Breeders' Cup Classic at 32-1 odds and was second to Gun Runner in the Grade I Whitney in his last start. A distant third in that Breeders' Cup, yes. And a distant second in the Whitney. But still ... Good Samaritan and Pavel rate a look here, too.
Another full field graces Sunday's $500,000 Grade I Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". Among the proven graded stakes performers in this bunch we find Martini Glass, Tiger Moth, Bar of Gold, Kentucky Oaks third Lockdown, Argentine import Blue Prize, Romantic Vision and Mo d'Amour.
A tough field of nine signed on for Saturday's $500,000 Grade III Hill Prince for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park. Among them, Yoshida, Bricks and Mortar and Rocketry, second, third and fourth in the Grade III Sarnac at Saratoga; Frostmourne, 4-for-6 in his short career; and Ticonderoga, who can be forgiven his disappointing finish in the Grade I Belmont Derby after a late break and a wide trip.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $400,000 Grade I First Lady for fillies and mares at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", drew a field of seven. Dickinson has won three graded stakes so far in 2017 and enters the First Lady after a second-place finish in the Grade II Ballston Spa at Saratoga. The competition includes Dona Bruja, Roco Rojo and Hawksmoor, all solid graded stakes competitors. Delectation comes direct from Germany where she was a multiple group stakes winner earlier this year. Although it's run at 1 mile, the First Lady provides entry to the 1 1/8-miles Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf. Go figure.
Two of the top three from August's Grade I Beverly D. at Arlington Park are set to contest Sunday's $500,000 Grade I Flower Bowl for fillies and mares at Belmont Park, a Breeders's Cup "Win and You're In". Only six turned out but it's a tough field. Dacita, the Beverly D. winner, faces Grand Jete, who dead-heated with Dona Bruja for second and third in that heat. Zhukova, winner of the Grade I Man o' War Stakes over the course July 2, returns from England. War Flag, Guilty Twelve and Beauly all have shown promise but need to step up their game.
Miss Temple City will be looking for a repeat victory when she lines up against 13 rivals in Saturday's $1 million Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" event. Only two others -- Gio Ponti and Dumaani -- have back-to-back wins in the fall event. Last year's win gave the Temple City mare a first-ever sweep of Keeneland's bookend Group 1 grass miles. That honor would be shared if American Patriot, winner of the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile this spring, can overcome the No. 14 draw to win Saturday's race. Miss Temple City did not contest the Maker's 46 this year. Heart to Heart, runner-up in the Maker's 46 both this year and last, also is back for another try in a field worthy of the purse and grade.
Nine are set to face the starter in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Woodford presented by Keeneland Select at Keeneland. Among them is the 2015 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint winner, over the Keeneland course, Mongolian Saturday. The 7-year-old gelding has had his ups and downs elsewhere, from England to Hong Kong, but seldom runs a bad race at Keeneland. He was second in the 2015 Woodford before the Breeders' Cup triumph and won the event last year before finishing ninth in the big race at Santa Anita. He was sixth in the Grade II Shakertown during the Keeneland spring meeting. Others of note: Conquest Panthera, Commend and Hogy.
A well-matched field of five is set for Saturday's $150,000 Belmont Turf Sprint Invitational. Most of them have graded stakes placings and a couple are up-and-coming types. After the odds-on favorite, Disco Partner, it's of a program-stabber here.
Limousine Liberal and Whitmore are among 11 entered for Friday's $250,000 Grade II Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". Limousine Liberal is seeking a third trip to the big race and an improvement on last year's fourth-place finish at Santa Anita. Whitmore looks to rebound from a pair of third-place finishes that followed a five-race win streak. Awesome Banner, as usual, threatens a breakthrough in a contentious field.
Ransom the Moon jumped into the stakes ranks this spring with a victory in the Grade II Kona Gold at Santa Anita and followed that with a second in the Grade II San Carlos and then a victory in the Grade I Bing Crosby at Del Mar. He returns to Santa Anita for Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Santa Anita Sprint Championship, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". Five opponents include Roy H., second as the favorite in the Bing Crosby, and Giant Expectations, winner of the Grade II Pat O'Brien at Del Mar.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes for fillies and mares at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", has Finley'sluckycharm and Vertical Oak in a field of eight. Finley'sluckycharm, a 4-year-old Twirling Candy filly, has finished worse than second only once in 10 starts and that was the only time trainer Bret Calhoun tried her around two turns. She has three wins from her last four starts. Vertical Oak, a Giant Oak filly, exits a win in the Grade II Prioress at Saratoga. Bendable returns from California after finishing third in last year's TCA.
Unique Bella may be the standout of the entire weekend as she lines up against six rival fillies and mares in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III L.A. Woman at Santa Anita. The 3-year-old Tapit filly has won four straight races, the most recent three of them graded stakes. Jockey Mike Smith did not have to ask for her best in any of them. She has been on the shelf with sore shins since winning the Grade III Santa Ysabela in March -- defeating eventual Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman -- but has been working well for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Claiborne Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", has no shortage of potential talent in the 13-horse field. The second- and third-place finishers from the Grade I Hopeful at Saratoga, Free Drop Billy and Givemeaminit, are in the field. So, too, is Ten City, winner of the Grade II Bashford Manor at Churchill Downs in June and more recently third in the Grade III Iroquois under the Twin Spires. Captivating Moon, second in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, makes his first start on dirt. Ready Prospector, winner of two straight stakes at Evangeline Downs, tackles tougher opponents. There are many recent maiden winners and one still a maiden.
The favorite for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Champagne at Belmont Park, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", is Good Magic, still a maiden after finishing second in his career debut at Saratoga. The Curlin colt is 7-2 on the morning line with the horse who beat him at the Spa, Hazit, at 4-1. There are plenty of others in this 12-horse field, including Firenze Fire, winner of the Grade III Sanford at Saratoga, and Kowboy Karma, second in the Sapling at Monmouth. Impressive maiden winners come from as far afield as Del Mar and Gulfstream Park. This will be fun to watch and even more fun for those who solve the puzzle.
Fourteen plus one spare are entered for Sunday's $250,000 Grade III Dixiana Bourbon Stakes at Keeneland, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". The field is full of maiden winners from Kentucky Downs, illustrating the value of that meeting to the overall Bluegrass State product. Also here are the 1-2 finishers from the Sunday Silence Stakes at Louisiana Downs, Budro Talking and High Providence; Captivating Moon, cross-entered against Saturday's race on the main course; Flameaway, retreating to the grass for trainer Chad Brown; Admiralty Pier, third in the Summer Stakes at Woodbine; and Arawak, who flamed out for trainer Wesley Ward at Royal Ascot but has been progressing nicely back home.
Kelly's Humor, winner of the Ellis Park Debutante and runner-up in the Grade II Pocahontas at Churchill Downs, tops a field of 10 2-year-old fillies entered for Friday's $400,000 Grade I Darley Alcibiades at Keeneland. The race is a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" for the $2 million 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Bet She Wins, trained by Chris Block, made her first two starts on turf at Arlington Park and got her first win -- by 9 1/2 lengths -- in the Arlington-Washington Lassie on the all-weather track. The Alcibiades will be her first outing on the dirt.
Wonder Gadot is the even-money favorite in a field of five for Saturday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Mazarine Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course. The Medaglia d'Oro filly comes off a third-place finish in the Grade I Natalma over the Woodbine turf and makes her first start off the greensward.
Ten juvenile fillies with a variety of backgrounds are pointed toward Sunday's $400,000 Grade I Frizette at Belmont Park, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". Maya Malibu and Separationofpowers were second and third in the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga in their last start. Go remains a maiden after one start. Several others are coming off ultra-impressive maiden victories.
Roly Poly and Persuasive are the big names in Saturday's Group 1 Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket, a 1,600-meters test for fillies and mares. Deservedly so as Roly Poly has held her own, more or less, against her big-name stablemates Rhododendron and Hydrangea all season and Persuasive looks poised to regain some honor for the French -- this time on British soil.
But there also is a bit of potential Breeders' Cup interest in the form of Usherette, a Godolphin-owned 5-year-old Shamardal mare who was third behind Qemah in the Group 2 Duke of Cambridge Stakes at Royal Ascot in June. Her trainer, Andre Fabre, has still more plans for the mare, who comes off a victory in a listed race at Maisons-Laffitte Sept 5.
"Usherette will run on Saturday and then hopefully she will go to Del Mar for the Breeders' Cup," Fabre said. "She has won on all types of ground. It was bottomless when she won at Ascot last year so that is not a concern. She had a nice, confidence-boosting win last time and we are looking forward to running her."
Also note: The fifth season of the All-Weather Championships is right over the horizon with the first races set for Oct. 24 at Newcastle and the finals, as usual, next Good Friday at Lingfield Park. This year, that's March 30. Not only have the All-Weather Championships significantly improved the quality and visibility of winter racing in the UK, they've also provided opportunities to horses who have gone on to glory on the green courses. Enable, the super filly who scored her fifth Group 1 win in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last weekend, begin her racing career with a win in a mile Tapeta maiden at Newcastle in late November, 2016. Decorated Knight followed victory in the Betway Winter Derby Trial on Polytrack at Lingfield in February with triumphs in the Jebel Hatta at Meydan, the Group 1 Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh in May and the G1 Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown. So ... it pays to pay attention to horses that are not jumping over things during the dreary months.
There are many mysteries in horse racing. But even former Daily Racing Form ace scribe John McEvoy, who has written a book about many of them, might be stumped by the puzzling antics of Pakistan Star. The 4-year-old Shamardal gelding was out for a trial Tuesday morning at Sha Tin -- or so thought trainer Tony Cruz and jockey Joao Moreira. Pakistan Star had other ideas. Shortly after the break, the Hong Kong Derby runner-up simply stopped and refused to move until the others in the heat had escaped from view -- an almost verbatim repeat of his performance last season in the Group 3 Premier Plate. "It's a shame," Moreira said. "He did it at the same place. I tried not to let him stop totally but, even when the other horses were gone, he was refusing to go. He'd go a couple of strides and speed up, slow down, speed up. And then once he got going he was fine." To make matters worse, Moreira was fined HK$10,000 for what the stewards reckoned was overuse of the whip in trying to restart Pakistan Star's engine in the Premier Plate debacle. ("Great Horse Racing Mysteries -- True Tales from the Track," by John McEvoy, published in 2000).