The Cigar Mile heads a rich card of four graded stakes on Saturday at Aqueduct while the Claiming Crown while the nine races of the Claiming Crown kick off the long Championship Meet Saturday at Gulfstream Park.
Aqueduct also hosts the Remsen and Demoiselle on the Saturday card. Those are important early stepping stones on the way to the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
On the international front, Japan's autumn extravaganza of Group 1 events comes to an end with Sunday's Champions Cup at Chukyo Racecourse. And England's All-Weather Championship has made its first stop of the season in France. We've got the results of that.
While we wouldn't mind stopping off in France, we'll soldier on with this:
Saturday's $750,000 Grade I Cigar Mile has three horses returning from Breeders' Cup races -- Sharp Azteca and Practical Joke, who finished second and fourth in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, and Mind Your Biscuits, who ran third in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Those wondering where this race was on the Saturday after Thanksgiving, it's traditional spot, will quickly grasp that the change in date achieved its goal, producing some top horses who might not have run on three weeks' rest.
The $200,000 Grade III Go For Wand, for fillies and mares at 1 mile, also attracted a Breeders' Cup runner, Highway Star. She was a fading 11th in the Filly & Mare Sprint after chasing a hot early pace. Six rivals in the Go For Wand include Jamyson 'n Ginger, who is 2-for-2 since being transferred to the care of Chad Brown and posted a 102 Beyer Speed figure in winning an optional claimer over the course and distance Nov. 9.
The other graded stakes on the Saturday card at the Big A are closely watched for hints to next year's Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks.
Daisy and Wonder Gadot stand out among eight in for the $250,000 Grade II Demoiselle. Daisy, a Blame filly, won both previous starts convincingly, most recently the Grade III Tempted over the Aqueduct surface. For the Demoiselle, she tacks on an additional furlong to that 1-mile victory. Wonder Gadot, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, won two of her first three starts at Woodbine, scoring on both the turf and the all-weather track. But in her first try on dirt, she finished sixth in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Del Mar. She did have some traffic issues in that race but still has the question to answer. Any of the others would have to step up to contend for the win.
The $250,000 Grade II Remsen, also at 9 furlongs, also drew one Breeders' Cup veteran -- Catholic Boy, who finished fourth, beaten just 1 1/2 lengths in the Juvenile Turf. That was his first start since a victory in the Grade III With Anticipation at Saratoga Aug. 30. The Remsen will be first main-track start for the More Than Ready colt. Sheikh Mohammed, still chasing a Kentucky Derby trophy, will be eager to see how Avery Island performs. The Street Sense colt, a Godolphin homebred, has won his last two starts by daylight margins, most recently the Grade II Nashua at the Big A, going 1 mile.
Most of the others in the 10-horse Remsen field are maiden winners but it wouldn't hurt to put a check mark by Tap Rap Strike, a Tapit colt who won his first start at Parx Racing Oct 14 with a nice pace-stalking trip. He drew the outside gate and Irad Ortiz Jr. takes the mount. Hunch players might like an exacta box of Catholic Boy and Biblical. The latter, owned by the China Horse Club and trained by Todd Pletcher, is another Tapit colt and the only starter in this race who already has run at the distance, winning nicely by 1 3/4 lengths over the course just more than two weeks ago.
Champagne Room, the 2016 juvenile filly champ, heads the cast in Sunday's $200,000 Grade II Bayakoa Stakes for fillies and mares. Her victory in that year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies -- at odds of 33-1 -- has been the pinnacle of her career to date. She is 1-for-2 this season, wiring four opponents as the prohibitive favorite in the Remington Park Oaks Sept. 24 before fading to sixth in the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
The Bayakoa field also includes Constellation, winner of the Grade I La Brea Stakes last Dec. 26, and Majestic Heat, an impressive winner of the seven-furlong Betty Grable Stakes Nov. 12 in her first try on dirt.
Saturday's $1.11 million Claiming Crown card comprises nine races at a range of distances on both turf and dirt for horses who have started for a designated claiming price at least once since Jan. 1, 2016. The fields are huge and handicapping for most of the races is a challenge, since they come from hither and yon. Since its debut in 1999, the Claiming Crown has moved around the country, from Canterbury Park in Minnesota to Parx Racing in Pennsylvania, Fair Grounds in New Orleans and Ellis Park in Kentucky.
So, how to figure it all out? Start with www.popejude.com, Horse Racing Radio Network analyst and former trainer Jude Feld's astute perspective. And then follow Jude and Mike Penna on HRRN's live coverage from Gulfstream Park. Check details at www.horseracingradio.net.
Now, off to Japan England and France:
Top-level racing action in Japan switches to Nagoya Sunday as Chukyo Racecourse stages the Group 1 Champions Cup -- the final top-level race in the Japan Autumn International Series -- at 1,800 meters on dirt. This race, formerly the Japan Cup Dirt, attracted last year's winner, Sound True, and runner-up, Awardee. Sound True, a 7-year-old French Deputy gelding, is tried and true, placing in the top three in 33 of his 44 career starts. Awardee, a 7-year-old by Jungle Pocket, stretched out to 2,000 meters to finish a respectable fifth in this year's Dubai World Cup.
Red Verdon came from well off the pace to win Wednesday's Wild Flower Stakes on the Kempton Park all-weather surface, defeating by 1/2 length. It was another 3/4 length back to Daphne, a 4-year-old filly bred and owned by Her Majesty the Queen. Red Verdon, trained by Ed Dunlop for Hong Kong-based owner Ronald Arculi, is a 4-year-old colt by Lemon Drop Kid. Red Verdon had not won in 11 starts stretching over the past 18 months. He did finish second in the Group 1 Juddmonte Grand Prix de Paris at Saint-Cloud behind Helene Charisma, who later was relocated to Hong Kong.
Astral Merit rallied from the rear echelons in Wednesday's Prix Lyphard over the Deauville Polytrack to win by a short neck over Syrita. Replenish was third and Caravagio finished fourth. Caravagio, a 4-year-old French-bred colt, is not the same as the 3-year-old Caravaggio who raced with distinction for the Coolmore partners early this season in the UK.
The race was the first of three All-Weather Championships Fast-Track Qualifying races scheduled to be run in France. With the victory, Astral Merit, a 7-year-old mare by Apsis, bred and owned by Bruno Foucher, earned a free start in the Betway Easter Classic at Lingfield Park on AWC Finals Day on March 30. However, she more likely is headed for the breeding shed in springtime. Jockey Stephane Pasquier said, "Everything went according to plan. She chose a good day to show her best form. She obviously likes the course and distance, and it is easier when you ride the best horse."
The favorite, Czech-based Subway Dancer, who was beaten a short neck in the Group 2 Prix Dollar at Chantilly Sept. 30, could do no better than sixth in the Lyphard.
News and notes
Hugh Bowman capped a year of riding Winx with a victory in Sunday's Group 1 Japan Cup in Association with Longines and cemented the title of 2017 Longines World's Best Jockey. It is the first time the Australian jockey has won the award. Bowman won 10 of the world's Top 100 Group or Grade 1 races, six on Winx. Besides those and the Japan Cup, he won three top-level races in Hong Kong -- the Citi Hong Kong Gold Cup and the Standard Chartered Champions and Chater Cup on Werther and the Chairman's Sprint Prize in Hong Kong on Lucky Bubbles. Bowman will be recognized during the Dec. 8 gala dinner at the Longines Hong Kong International Races.