Pakistan Star races to victory in Sunday's Champions & Chater Cup at Sha Tin, entering the discussion for Hong Kong Horse of the Year. (HKJC photo)
Top-level races around the world produced some stunning results during the holiday weekend as fans kept one eye on preparations for the Derby at Epsom and the third leg of the U.S. Triple Crown at Belmont Park.
Accelerate won the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, Hunt earned a Breeders' Cup berth winning the Shoemaker Mile and Sophie P won the Grade I Gamely Stakes by a whisker.
Action was hot and heavy in England and Ireland during the weekend while 14 3-year-olds, headed by undefeated Saxon Warrior, were confirmed for Saturday's Investec Derby at Epsom -- the Classic of all English Classics.
If it was a stellar weekend of racing around the globe, which it was, of course Pakistan Star and Alpha Centuri were Group 1 winners.
The Triple Crown
Trainer Bob Baffert, in search of his second Triple Crown, was at Churchill Downs Sunday morning to watch Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify gallop 1 1/2 miles.
"Right now it seems everything is going smoothly," Baffert said after the light exercise. "I'm very happy with how he's doing training for the Belmont. I think to win the Triple Crown you have to be a big, strong horse and be able to handle a lot of different situations. This horse is just that ...
"Justify looks really happy for a horse that's done a lot in just a few months," Baffert added. "It just shows the quality he has."
Things probably will change but Churchill Downs staff -- who keep track of these things for the whole Triple Crown series -- list at least 11 horses in the mix for the Belmont Stakes in addition to the 1-2-3 finishers in the Preakness -- Justify, Bravazo and Tenfold. Others are Jeff Ruby Steaks and Peter Pan winner Blended Citizen; Kentucky Derby seventh Hofburg; Kentucky Derby 17th Noble Indy; Kentucky Derby 16th Free Drop Billy; Kentucky Derby ninth Vino Rosso; and Restoring Hope, a stablemate of Justify in the Bob Baffert barn who was third in the Wood Memorial.
Two Europeans are listed as potential Belmont contestants: Bandua, a gray colt by The Factor out of a Seattle Slew mare who is 2-for-2 at Cork in Ireland for trainer Dermot Weld, and Gronkowski, winner of the European Road to the Kentucky Derby series who was forced to miss the Run for the Roses when he spiked a fever at an inopportune time.
The Investec Derby
It's tough to look past undefeated Saxon Warrior among the 14 left in for Saturday's Derby. Yet, more than a few of the potential rivals seem perfectly capable of jumping up to land the spoils.
Saxon Warrior bids to become the third horse this century to complete the QIPCO 2000 Guineas/Investec Derby double after Sea The Stars in 2009 and Camelot in 2012. Saxon Warrior, like Camelot, is trained by Aidan O'Brien.
Much more on this in the coming week. But one note now: Saxon Warrior is by star Japanese stallion Deep Impact, who also sired the winner of Sunday's Japanese Derby, Wagnerian. Deep Impact also has a runner, Study of Man, in the Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club, or French Derby, which would make a nice trifecta.
Moving along to results:
Accelerate might be ready to stake a claim in this division, which has been seeking a leader, after winning Saturday's $500,000 Gold Cup at Santa Anita rather emphatically. After Dr. Dorr and City of Light knocked heads most of the way around the track, Accelerate lived up to his name in the lane, easily going by the leaders and winning by 4 1/4 lengths. Dr. Dorr and City of Light were second and third as Accelerate got home in 2:01.38 with Victor Espinoza up.
Accelerate earned a 111 Beyer Speed Figure for the Gold Cup win and trainer John Sadler reported Sunday he came out of the race "really well. He looks super, not tired at all." Sadler said he now will point the 5-year-old son of Lookin At Lucky to the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar Aug 18.
Since finishing ninth in last year's Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, Accelerate has recorded three wins and two seconds with the victories including the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap. But if he is to make a name for himself while heading for the Breeders' Cup Classic this fall at Churchill Downs, he will have to prove he can travel. In his only start outside California, Accelerate was second in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap in March.
Shotgun Kowboy shot right to the lead in Sunday's $200,000 Grade III Lone Star Handicap at Lone Star Park and held off the odds-on favorite, Mubtaahij, by 1 1/2 lengths at the wire. Fear the Cowboy and South Beach eventually were along for third and fourth. Shotgun Kowboy, a 6-year-old Oklahoma-bred gelding by Kodiak Kowboy, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.84 with Luis Quinonez up.
"He's easy to train and we let him do his deal today, let him be where he wanted to be," owner, breeder and trainer C.R Trout told The Blood-Horse. "We had a good field today, and I'm proud to win one of those."
Shotgun Kowboy posted his 12th win from 29 starts, all of which, bar one trip to Louisville, have come on the Iowa-Oklahoma-Arkansas-Texas circuit. Mubtaahij has earned $5.78 million with only five career wins while traveling from England to Dubai and back and forth to various U.S. jurisdictions.
Are You Kidding Me got the classic winning trip in Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Eclipse Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course, saving ground while stalking the pace, then rallying between rivals to win by 3/4 length. Melmich put up a valiant fight in the stretch run but settled for second, 3/4 length in front of Gigantic Breeze.
Are You Kidding Me, an 8-year-old son of Run Away and Hide, got 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.14 with Rafael Hernandez up. It was his third victory in this event, following wins in 2015 and 2016. He missed by just a neck last year. "I was loaded so I just didn't want to keep holding him inside," Hernandez said. "I had to make a move early to make sure he got a clear trip."
Itsinthepost was along in the stretch run to take Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Charles Whittingham Stakes at Santa Anita by 1 1/4 lengths from Kenjisstorm. Frank Conversation was another 2 1/4 lengths back in third. Itsinthepost, a 6-year-old French-bred gelding by American Post, posted his fifth victory from his last seven starts while finishing 1 1/4 miles on firm going in 2:02.10 for jockey Julien Leparoux, subbing for the injured Tyler Baze.
"The horse puts himself where he needs to be in a race," said Itsinthepost's trainer, Jeff Mullins. "And if the pace is quick enough, he can get it done. And even when the pace isn't quick enough, sometimes."
Ezmosh, the odds-on favorite, settled into a pace-stalking spot in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Arlington Classic for 3-year-olds, saved ground while gaining through the stretch and got clear to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Pont Du Gard was next best, followed closely by Cuestion de Tiempo and Alternative Route. Ezmosh, an Oklahoma-bred Tizway colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on yielding turf in 1:45.52. Winning rider Jose Valdivia Jr. said he and trainer Brad Cox were in agreement "and whether he was on the lead, second, third -- as long as he was comfortable he shut it off, and when I called on him he was there for me."
In January at Oaklawn Park, Ezmosh finished second to Bravazzo, who last weekend was a close second behind Justify in the Preakness Stakes. He has blossomed on the turf now in two straight starts.
Money Multiplier, making his first start since late February in Doha, Qatar, tracked the pace in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Monmouth Stakes, then outfinished Divisidero and Projected for the victory. The favorite, Frostmourne, led most of the way and finished fourth, beaten less than 2 lengths. Money Multiplier, a 5-year-old Lookin At Lucky ridgling, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:47.79 with Jersey Joe Bravo riding for trainer Chad Brown. He also won this race last year but had been blanked in five intervening starts.
"He's a beast, Bravo said of Money Multiplier. "Turning for home, he just ran away with it." Bravo said Brown warned him, "You might be on the lead. Don't be shocked. He's fresh. Let him run his race."
On Friday in Buenos Aires, La Extrana Dama took the measure of a dozen male rivals in winning the Group 1 Gran Premio 25 de Mayo at San Isidoro by 4 lengths. The only filly in the race, she earned an automatic starting berth in November's $4 million Longines Breeders' Cup Turf through the international Breeders' Cup Challenge.
La Extrana Dama ("The Strange Lady"), trained by Jose Blanco and ridden by Eduardo Ortega, suddenly surged to the front as the field turned for home and none of her rivals could keep pace. Marcus Aurelius was best of the rest with Must Go On and Stivers finishing third and fourth La Extrana Dama, a 4-year-old daughter of Catcher in the Rye, scored her second career Group 1 following he Clasico Gilberto Lerena at Palmero April 7.
It was her second Breeders' Cup Challenge race. She finished fourth as the favorite against fillies and mares in the Group 1 Gran Premio Criadores on dirt at Palermo May 1, a "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Filly & Mare Turf
Sophie P saved ground while stalking the pace through the early furlongs of Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Gamely Stakes for fillies and mares on the Santa Anita green course, came out to find daylight and won a three-way battle to the wire. Madam Dancealot also found late speed but missed by a nose. Pacesetter Madame Stripes was just a neck farther back in third.
The Gamely finish was so tight that Desormeaux said, "The photo finish describes it completely. My horse is completely stretched out and the (second) horse is completely coiled up. So it was a very fortunate win and we were lucky to get the head bob." Trainer Jim Cassidy added, "If they put up dead heat I would not have been surprised."
Sophie P, a 5-year-old British-bred mare by Bushranger, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.53 with Kent Desormeaux up. It was her second U.S. start following an earlier career in England.
Creative Thinking rated nicely through much of Saturday's $70,000 Keertana Stakes at Churchill Downs, then blew by the leaders when jockey Adam Beschizza got her outside for running room. At the line, the 4-year-old Creative Cause filly was first by 5 lengths over the odds-on favorite, Daring Duchess. She finished the 1 1/2 miles on firm going in 2:31.13.
Dark Artist came from well back in Saturday's $80,000 Boiling Springs Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Monmouth Park and outfinished the favorite, Reversethedecision, winning by 3/4 length. Dark Artist, a Paynter filly, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm going in 1:41.81 with Trevor McCArthy riding.
While one well-fancied son of Frankel flopped Saturday in Ireland (see below), another was the star in Saturday's $100,000 Paradise Creek for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park. Gidu, a Frankel colt out of the Unbridled's Song mare Manerbe, worked to a 1-length lead in the lane of the 7-furlongs feature, then held on to win by a neck over Curlin's Honor. Masked led the way early and got show money for his trouble. Gidu, with John Velazquez up, finished in 1:20.44 over firm going.
Gidu now has three wins and two seconds from five starts and trainer Todd Pletcher said he soon will test the waters in the big time. "Coming into this, we were thinking about going to Ascot if this went well," Pletcher said. "And it went well enough to continue to pursue that."
Belvoir Bay rallied between rivals at mid-stretch in Monday's $200,000 Grade II Monrovia after racing down the Santa Anita hillside course, then went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Ancient Secret was best of the rest in the filly-mare contest with Compelled third. Belvoir Bay, a 5-year-old British-bred Equiano mare, ran about 6 1/2 furlongs on firm going in 1:12.80 with Victor Espinoza up. It was her third win in a row and fourth from her last five.
Hunt rallied three-wide down the stretch in Monday's $400,000 Grade I Shoemaker Mile at Santa Anita and prevailed by a neck over Heart to Heart. Next Shares was third and the early leader, Om, faded to get home fourth. Hunt, a 6-year-old Irish-bred gelding by Dark Angel, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:34.07 with Flavien Prat in the irons for trainer Phil D'Amato.
Hunt won the Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap at Del Mar going 1 1/16 miles in his 2017 finale. The Shoemaker was his seasonal debut and earned him a "Win and You're In" spot in November's Breeders' Cup Mile at Churchill Downs. "This is two years in a row that he's won a 'Win and You're In' now," said Hunt's owner, Michael House. "Now I don't have to worry about it and it's just a great day to be able to see him win. He's such a cool horse."
Niigon's Eclipse went right to the lead in Sunday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Nassau for fillies and mares at Woodbine, repelled a bid by Ghostly Presence and held off Blechley at the end to win by 1/2 length. It was another 3 1/4 lengths back to Gianna's Dream in third. Niigon's Eclipse, a 5-year-old mare by Niigon, ran 1 mile on firm going in 1:32.74 with Gary Boulanger in the irons.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Miss Kentucky bravely battled for the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Winning Colors at Churchill Downs, survived some rough tactics on the turn and prevailed by 3/4 length over Treble. Golden Domer was third. The odds-on favorite, Golden Mischief, exchanged bumps with the winner and wilted late, finishing fifth. Miss Kentucky, a Blame filly, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.35 with Brian Hernandez Jr. in the irons. It was her fifth win from 12 starts and first try in stakes company.
Marley's Freedom came from well off the pace to win Sunday's $100,000 Desert Stormer Stakes for fillies and mares at Santa Anita by 7 1/4 lengths. Miss Sunset and Yuvetsi were second and third. Marley's Freedom, a 4-year-old daughter of Blame, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.32 with Drayden Van Dyke up for trainer Bob Baffert. It was her first stakes win.
Page McKenney was up in the final strides to upset Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Salvator Mile at Monmouth, winning by 1/2 length over pacesetting Shaft of Light. The favorite, Sunny Ridge, checked in third. Page McKenney, an 8-year-old gelding by Eavesdropper, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:36.49 with Horacio Karamanos in the irons. The veteran took 13 tries to find the winner's circle for the first time, finally turning the trick at Colonial Downs in 2013. From that, he evolved to a multiple graded stakes winner with earnings of more than $1.8 million. "He just tries so hard," said winning trainer Mary Eppler. "He's all heart. Just an amazing horse."
The Lieutenant had to weave through traffic to get there but nonetheless prevailed in Monday's $100,000 Grade III All American on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather. With Tyler Connor up, the 5-year-old son of Street Sense finally got clear sailing late in the stretch run and won off by 1 length over the pacemaker, My Friend Emma. Grecian Fire was in close attendance for show money. The Lieutenant reported in 1:30.60.
Around the world, around the clock:
Order of St George, heartbreaking runner-up to Big Orange in last year's Gold Cup at Royal Ascot, tuned up for this year's renewal with a comfortable victory over old rival Twilight Payment in Thursday's Saval Beg Levmoss Stakes at Leopardstown, a race he also won the two previous years. With Big Orange sidelined for the season, Order of St George is a likely favorite for the Gold Cup. His only defeat in five starts since last year's Gold Cup was a fourth placing in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe -- hardly an embarrassment given he trailed only Enable, Cloth of Stars and Ulysses.
A potential rival for the Gold Cup emerged Thursday at Sandown as Magic Circle romped home a winner in the Group 3 Matchbook Henry II Stakes, backing up his last-out win in the Chester Cup. His connections already were eyeing the Melbourne Cup but now are having another think about supplementing to the Gold Cup next month at the Royal meeting.
Poet's Word swept to victory, as expected, in Thursday's Group 3 Matchbook Brigadier Gerard Stakes at Sandown. But trainer Sir Michael Stoute said it's undecided which Royal Ascot door that opens: the Group 1 Prince of Wales's Stakes or the Group 2 Hardwicke.
On Saturday at Hadock, Battaash, last year the highest-rated sprinter in the world, was all out to win the Group 2 Armstrong Aggregates Temple Stakes by a head over Washington DC with Kachy a short head farther back. It was the first run for Battaash since victory in the Prix de l'Abbaye de Longchamp last Oct. 1. As a Group 1 winner in a Group 2, he also toted a 5-pound penalty. With that under his girth, Battaash likely will face Washington DC again in the King's Stand at the Royal meeting.
U S Navy Flag was out flapping in the breeze under Ryan Moore with 200 yards to run in Saturday's Group 1 Tattersalls Irish 2,000 Guineas at The Curragh. But then Romanised, under Shane Foley, came rolling up on her outside and ran right by to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Gustav Klimt was another 1 1/4 lengths adrift in third, followed by Threeandfourpence, last seen finishing 11th in the American Turf on Kentucky Derby weekend at Churchill Downs. The favorite, Elarqam, a vaunted Frankel colt, struggled in the late going and finished sixth.
Romanised, a Holy Roman Emperor colt, is nominated to the St James's Palace Stakes and the Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot by trainer Ken Condon said he will let the victory settle in before making plans
Sunday, Alpha Centuri upset the Group 1 Tattersalls Irish 1,000 Guineas, rallying from mid-pack to win by 1 3/4 lenghs under Colm O'Donohuge. Could It Be Love, the longest-priced of four saddled by Aidan O'Brien, led the way and held on for second, 3/4 length ahead of her stablemate and the race favorite, Happily. Alpha Centuri, a Mastercraftsman filly from the Rahy mare Alpha Lupi, rebounded from a 10th-place finish in her seasonal debut, run over heavy going last month at Leopardstown.
"Today is the first time since Alpha Centauri ran second in the Albany at Royal Ascot that she got fast ground and that would seem to be the key to her," said winning trainer Jessica Harrington. "She's a lovely filly and a very big one." Harrington said the Coronation Stakes at Royal Ascot is a logical next race.
In Sunday's Group 1 Tattersall's Gold Cup, Lancaster Bomber surged quickly to a good lead and easily turned back a quartet of rivals, finishing first by 2 lengths over stablemate Cliffs of Moher. Seamie Heffernan measured the colt's speed over the 1 1/4 miles, previously beyond his scope. The heavy favorite, Defoe, had no late kick and finished third. Lancaster Bomber, a 4-year-old colt by War Front, is another in the long line of Coolmore globetrotters. He finished second in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf two seasons back, fourth in the Group 2 UAE Derby, second in both the Group 1 Woodbine Mile and the Breeders' Cup Mile last year and then a disappointing 11th in the Group 1 Dubai Turf this season. His record is so impressive it's hard to grasp Sunday's victory was only the second of his career from 17 starts.
"He's been running at the top level all the time," said winning trainer Aidan O'Brien. "We didn't think he'd get a mile and a quarter the first time we did it with him, but it was beautiful ground, we let him roll and Seamus gave him in a great ride." He said Lancaster Bomber had been targeted for the 1-mile Queen Anne at Royal Ascot "and that's probably what's going to happen. But he has the option of the Prince of Wales's now."
The Group 2 Lanwades Stud at the Curragh was almost a carbon copy of the race preceding it, the 1,000 Guineas. Moore had Hydrangea out and flying from the start, seemed to have a good lead mid-stretch, then was caught and passed by Opal Tiara, who won by 1 3/4 lengths. Despite all that, Moore had three winners on the program and trainer Aidan O'Brien had four.
Laurens continued her impressive march into the season with a hard-fought victory over With You in Sunday's Group 1 The Gurka Coolmore Prix Saint-Alary for 3-year-old fillies at ParisLongchamp. Laurens, a Siyouni filly, dueled for the lead early then withstood the late challenge by only a short head. She had two wins and a second as a juvenile and was bridesmaid again in her seasonal debut May 6 at Newmarket.
Recoletos, the odds-on favorite, did not disappoint in Sunday's Group 1 Churchill Coolmore Prix d'Ispahan, rallying from last of six to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Almodovar. Trais Fluors was third, Taareff was fourth. Recoletos, a 4-year-old Whipper colt, wound up 2017 with a fourth in the Group 1 British Champion Stakes and started this campaign with a win in a Group 2 at Saint-Cloud May 1.
Pakistan Star may have got his act together just in time to land Horse of the Year honors in Hong Kong. The 5-year-old Sharmardal gelding scored his second straight Group 2 win in Sunday's Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup at Sha Tin, rather easily turning back Exultant by 1 1/2 lengths. Gold Mount ran well from last in the five-horse field to finish third, giving trainer Tony Cruz a sweep of the placings. The only foreign entrant, Chemical Charge, never figured in the proceedings and finished last.
Pakistan Star, a fan favorite, has been a challenge for Cruz, his riders and the stewards for a full year. Last season, he pulled himself up midway thorough the Group 3 Premier Plate, refusing to move while standing on the backstretch. He repeated the eccentric behavior in a trial and needed several attempts to convince the stewards he was fit to run. He rewarded the effort with a victory in the Group 1 Audemars Piguet QE II Cup at 2,000 meters in April and Sunday's victory at 2,400 meters.
"I can't express how good a job Tony has done with this horse," said winning rider Tommy Berry. "To go from not racing at the start of the season, to miss December and then to win two Group 1s on end, and not just to win them but to smash them, it's a big effort."
Cruz said Pakistan Star is done for the season and will stay home in the fall and point to either the Longines Hong Kong Cup at 2,000 meters or the Longines Hong Kong Vase at 2,400 meters in December. After that, he said, international travel could be a consideration.
Wagnerian, a son and grandson of Japanese Derby winners, continued the family tradition with a victory in the 85th running of the Grade I race Sunday at Tokyo Racecourse.
Jockey Yuichi Fukunaga, who had ridden without victory in 18 previous editions of the Tokyo Yushun, gave the Deep Impact colt a perfect ride. Positioned in the clear and several lengths behind the leader, Wagnerian began his assault on the lead turning into the uphill climb in the stretch run. With perfect timing, Fukunaga produced him 1/2 length in front at the wire with Epocha d'Oro second and huge long shot Cosmic Force just a neck farther back in third. The favorite, previously undefeated Danon Premium, was bottled up in the stretch run and settled for an unlucky fourth.
Wagnerian is the record fourth Tokyo Yushun winner for owner and breeder Kaneko Makoto Holdings, following King Kamehameha in 2004, Deep Impact in 2005 and Makahiki in 2016. Wagnerian's dam, Miss Encore, is by King Kamehameha. Winning trainer Yasuo Tomomichi also trained Makahiki.
Wagnerian won all three starts as a 2-year-old and finished second in his 3-year-old debut, the Grade II Yayoi Sho at Nakayama when stretched out to 2,000 meters. He was the odds-on favorite in the Grade I Satsuki Sho (Japanese 2000 Guineas), but finished seventh over a soft course not suited to his late-running style.
The Singapore Turf Club put its toe back into international waters Saturday after a two-year break and found conditions just about as they'd left them -- with Hong Kong horses dominating.
Southern Legend showed the way in the Kranji Mile and held on with relative ease by 3 lengths over fellow Hong Kong traveler Horse of Fortune. Nova Strike finished third, earning the bonus offered by the Singapore Turf Club for first local horse past the winning post.
Southern Legend, a 5-year-old Australian-bred gelding by Not a Single Doubt, never gave jockey Zac Purton a moment's doubt in the race, contested over yielding turf.
Southern Legend, the highest-rated horse in the field, came to Singapore following a solid third-place finish in the Group 1 Champions Mile April 29 at Sha Tin. The 5-year-old Not a Single Doubt gelding never gave jockey Zac Purton a moment's doubt in the Singapore effort. "I didn't really have a plan," Purton said. "I wanted to be positive and just work it out."
Winning trainer Caspar Fownes said the victory puts Southern Legend "up there with the big boys now. History tells you that these horses come out and improve that little bit more the next season."
Singapore suspended its two international Group 1 after the 2015 running but last year announced its intent to return to full international participation in 2019. As a stepping-stone, the Kranji Mile was made an invitational race for 2018 and purses were boosted for that heat and for the supporting Lion City Cup, a 1,200-meter sprint.
"This year's Kranji Mile will be a window into the international races in 2019 to drum up early interest and anticipation among the local and international racing communities," said STC President B.C. Chong.