It's Derby weekend on Epsom Downs and a week out from the finale of the U.S. Triple Crown -- a weekend of Thoroughbred racing to relish.
Saxon Warrior, a Japanese-bred colt trained by Irish master Aidan O'Brien, is the heavy favorite to land the Investec Derby spoils Saturday despite drawing the inside gate in a field of 12 in Thursday's ceremony.
Belmont Park, meanwhile, awaits the arrival of Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner Justify for the June 9 Belmont Stakes. While O'Brien seeks his seventh Derby victory, Justify's trainer, Bob Baffert, seeks his second Triple Crown.
There's much more to the weekend, including the Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby), the Yasuda Kinen in Japan and some last-minute positioning for the rapidly approaching Royal meeting at Ascot.
In North America, a full slate of racing includes a talent-packed Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita and the $500,000 Penn Mile. Pink Lloyd shoots for his 11th straight stakes win Sunday at Woodbine.
Let's go racing, shall we?
Saxon Warrior remains the nearly odds-on favorite for Saturday's Investec Derby despite drawing stall No. 1, which has not been productive of winners, and despite the likelihood of turf on the soft side of good.
The Deep Impact colt will be reunited with jockey Ryan Moore, who was aboard for his victory in the Group 1 Racing Post Trophy in his 2-year-old finale in October. Saxon Warrior returned to battle in the Group 1 Qipco 2000 Guineas at Newmarket May 5, ridden by Donnacha O'Brien.
Since Epsom inaugurated the use of starting stalls in 1967, only three horses have won the Derby from the inside gate -- Blakeney in 1969, Roberto in 1972 and Oath in 1999. But as the old racing maxim has it: A good horse trumps a bad draw.
Ed Nicholson, spokesman for the official Derby wagering sponsor, Unibet, said after the draw his firm upped the odds on Saxon Warrior to 11-10, "the first time he's been odds-against since winning the 2000 Guineas. We should temper that by saying that there are only 12 runners, so it might not be the biggest hindrance."
Saxon Warrior is one of five in the Classic for O'Brien, also including Delano Roosevelt, The Pentagon, Kew Gardens and Zabriskie.
Second-favorite with Unibet and others is Roaring Lion, winner of the Grade II Dante Stakes at York and one of two trained by John Gosden. Gosden's other chance, Sevenna Star, is a far longer risk.
Godolphin, which has yet to win either the Epsom Classic or its colonial clone in Kentucky, fields Masar, winner of the Craven stakes but third in the 2000 Guineas.
Also set to line up for the Derby is Hazapour, a close relative in the Aga Khan's breeding line to 2016 winner Harzand. Hazapour won the Group 3 Derrinstown Stud Derby Trial at Leopardstown and is not to be dismissed lightly with Frankie Dettori set to ride. Young Rascal and Dee Ex Bee, first and second in the Group 3 Chester Vase, also represent solid chances to contend. Knight to Behold won the Betfred Derby Trial at Lingfield.
With Aidan O'Brien's scratch of Magical, the favorite's role in Friday's Group 1 Investec Oaks falls to Wild Illusion, a Dubawi filly trained by Charlie Appleby for Godolphin. Magical sustained what O'Brien termed "a knock" on a joint while training Tuesday and, while the injury did not seem serious, the yard was not prepared to take a chance. Anyway, O'Brien still has five of the nine left in the field for the 1 1/2-miles test on the Epsom Downs.
Wild Illusion earned her spot in the top ranks winning the Group 1 Total Prix Marcel Boussac at Chantilly in her final start as a 2-year-old. Into the bargain, that race was contested over soft turf -- a condition expected at Epsom this weekend. She returned with a fourth in the Qipco 1000 Guineas.
O'Brien's remaining squad is led by Magic Wand and Forever Together, the 1-2 finishers from the Cheshire Oaks at Chester May 9. Ryan Moore opts to ride Magic Wand, as he did at Chester, while O'Brien's son Donnacha keeps the mount on Forever Together.
Bye Bye Baby, I Can Fly and Flattering round out the Ballydoyle contingent. All are by Galileo bar I Can Fly, a daughter of Fastnet Rock. Flattering, available in antepost wagering at close on 30-1, will be ridden by Padraig Beggy, last year's 40-1 winner of the Investec Derby.
More international action after:
The U.S. Triple Crown
"I wish the race was this week," trainer Bob Baffert said about the June 9 Belmont Stakes after Justify worked a half mile in 46 4/5 seconds Tuesday morning at Churchill Downs.
Baffert is keeping Justify happy in Louisville pending a trip to New York for Belmont -- the final jewel of the Triple Crown.
The silver-haired trainer said he visited his 2015 Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah, Monday at Coolmore's Versailles, Ky., stud. "He got really big and I was really emotional when I was there," Baffert said. "I asked him if it was okay if another horse broke his record and he didn't seem to have a problem with it."
Meanwhile, trainer D. Wayne Lukas said Tuesday he's pleased with the progress of Bravazo, whose stretch rally came 1/2 length short of ending Justify's Triple Crown hopes in the Preakness Stakes. "He's a much better horse than I took to the Preakness," Lukas said. "I know that. He'll have to be."
Wow. Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Beholder Mile at Santa Anita sure got some good ones. Unique Bella caught an off track in her last start in Arkansas, finishing second in the Grade I Apple Blossom but, before that, she won seven of eight. Vale Dori was second, just a neck back of Stellar Wind, in last year's Beholder Mile but less than impressive in her only previous start this year. Last year's Santa Anita Oaks winner, Paradise Woods, is in here. Mopotism has had her moments and La Force and Munny Spunt round out the six-horse field.
All eyes will be on Pink Lloyd in Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Achievement Stakes at Woodbine. Owned by Entourage Stable and campaigned by Hall of Fame trainer Robert Tiller, the 6-year-old sprint champion will pursue his 11th straight victory and millionaire status. There are only four rivals in the 6-furlongs dash, restricted to Ontario-breds.
Wilbo heads a field of seven for Saturday night's $100,000 Grade III Aristides Stakes in the "Downs After Dark" program at Churchill Downs. Wilbo, runner up to Limousine Liberal in last year's Aristides, exits a second behind Whitmore in the $400,000 Grade III Count Fleet Sprint Handicap at Oaklawn Park. There are no Limousine Liberals or Whitmores in this race and the opposition might be led by recent Churchill Downs allowance winner Mr. Crow.
Sunday's Grade I Yasuda Kinen at Tokyo Racecourse is a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Mile. See below.
Maraud, victorious in the Grade II American Turf at Churchill Downs in his last start, is the morning-line pick for Saturday's $500,000 Grade II Penn Mile for 3-year-olds at Penn National. The Todd Pletcher-trained Blame colt has four wins from seven starts but faces some tough ones. Therapist has won four of his five starts but did finish third behind Maraud in the Grade III Palm Beach at Gulfstream Park. He's Bankable has speed and comes off two wins in a row. Encumbered was overmatched in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf but has been rested since and could be dangerous fresh.
Seven, including an entry, are set for Saturday's $200,000 Penn Oaks at Penn National. The entry, Thewayiam and Classy Dancer, is the morning-line favorite, closely followed by Treasuring and Goodthingstaketime. Thewayiam, a French-bred filly by Thewayyouare, won a pair of Grade III events at Gulfstream Park and finished second in the Grade II Appalachian at Keeneland in her last start. Treasuring exits a victory in the Grade III Senorita at Santa Anita. Goodthingstaketime was second in the Florida Oaks and third in the Appalachian.
Analyze It is the 4-5 morning-line favorite among eight entered for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Pennine Ridge for 3-year-olds at Belmont Park. The Point of Entry colt is undefeated in three starts for trainer Chad Brown. He won at first asking at Belmont Park last October, shipped west to win the Grade III Cecil B. DeMille at Del Mar the following month and returned to win the Grade III Transylvania at Keeneland in his 3-year-old debut.
The ante goes up here as Analyze It faces Untamed Domain, who finished second to Mendelssohn, beaten just 1 length, in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf, and Catholic Boy, who was fourth in that Breeders' Cup shootout before being detoured to the Triple Crown trail. Oh ... Up the Ante also is in this field.
Saturday's $200,000 Pennsylvania Governor's Cup at 5 furlongs on the greensward lured a full field of 12 plus one also-eligible. The 2-1 morning-line favorite, Pure Sensation, has been fighting these wars for years with notable success including graded stakes victories at several tracks. The 7-year-old Zensational gelding also has contested the last three Breeders' Cup Turf Sprints, finishing third in 2016.
Tower of Texas defends his title against seven rivals in Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Connaught Cup at Woodbine. Tower of Texas finished eighth in the Grade I Maker's 46 Mile at Keeneland in his last start. But jockey Eurico Da Silva said he's locked and loaded now that he's back north of the border. "This horse is going to run big because he's feeling good. I've worked him the last three times and I could not be more happy," Da Silva said. He's not the morning-line favorite, though, outranked on that list by Conquest Panthera and Forge. Should be a good race.
Saturday's $100,000 Penn Ladies Dash got a field of 12, headed by Morticia and Just Talkin. Morticia, a 4-year-old Twirling Candy filly, has been in the top three finishers in 11 straight races. Just Talkin, a 5-year-old Midshipman mare, comes north after a successful season in Florida.
Don't overlook Saturday night's $75,000 Mighty Beau Stakes at Churchill Downs, if only to see Hogy do his stuff at 5 furlongs on the green course. The 9-year-old, making his 52nd start in the Mighty Beau, started his season with a win at Sam Houston Jan. 28 and then won the Grade III Canadian Turf at Gulfstream Park by 3 3/4 lengths March 3. He tired while trying to stretch out at Keeneland in the Grade I Makers 46 Mile and should enjoy the shorter trip.
Around the world, around the clock:
Saxon Warrior will be a short price indeed for the Derby but not, by a long way, the shortest price of the weekend at Epsom. That honor goes to Cracksman, the early 1-3 chance in Friday's Group 1 Investec Coronation Cup -- despite facing some serious competition in the form of Hawkbill and Idaho.
Cracksman deserves the respect. The 4-year-old Frankel colt wound up 2017 with consecutive victories in the Group 2 Great Voltigeur Stakes at York, the Group 2 Prix Niel at Chantilly and the Group 1 British Champion Stakes -- all by huge margins. He easily won his seasonal debut April 29 at Longchamp and replaces his injured stablemate, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe winner Enable, in the Coronation Cup lineup for trainer John Gosden. Enable is out until at least late summer.
Hawkbill, a 5-year-old son of Kitten's Joy, toted the Godolphin blue silks to victory in the Group 2 Dubai City of Gold March 10 and followed that with an easy win in the Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic on World Cup night. Idaho, bearing the Coolmore purple and white stripes, finished eighth in the Sheema Classic -- his first start since a good fifth in the Grade I Japan Cup last November.
Hawkbill and Idaho finished third and sixth in last year's Coronation Cup, won by Highland Reel. Idaho is Highland Reel's full brother.
Top European 3-year-olds not at Epsom on Saturday can be found in Sunday's Group 1 Prix du Jockey Club (French Derby) at Chantilly. Olmedo, a Declaration of War colt trained by Jean-Claude Rouget, comes off a win in the Group 1 Poule d'Essai des Poulains (French 2000 Guineas). He again faces Hey Gaman and Dice Roll, second and third in that heat.
Aidan O'Brien sends Rostropovich, Hunting Horn, Kenya and Flag of Honour with Ryan Moore set to ride Rostropovich.
Study of Man, a Group 2 winner in his last outing, is by Japanese sire Deep Impact, who produced last Sunday's Japanese Derby winner, Wagnerian, and Saturday's Investec Derby favorite Saxon Warrior.
Japan's top milers, a Hong Kong invader and last year's Japanese Derby runner-up all are set for Sunday's Grade I Yasuda Kinen at Tokyo Racecourse -- one of the key races in determining a championship in this division and a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Mile in November at Churchill Downs.
The likes of Persian Knight, Red Falx, Aerolithe and Sungrazer have been battling for dominance in Japan's top mile races. Their lack of consistency leaves the field open for Suave Richard, runner-up in last year's Japanese Derby, who makes his first try at the mile distance and may go favorite at race time.
Also in the mix is Real Steel, who dead-heated for third in the Group 1 Dubai Turf in his last start. Hong Kong, which has a less-than-stellar record in this race despite fielding 37 previous runners, is represented by Western Express. The John Size trainee finished second to Beauty Generation in both the Group 1 Champions Mile April 29 and the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Mile last December.
Trainer Justin Snaith has favorites for both Grade I events Saturday, at Greyville, the Daily News 2000 for 3-year-olds and the Woolavington 2000.
Snaith is confident his Group 1 Sun Met winner, Oh Susanna, is fit and ready for theWoolavington 2000. The Street Cry filly is the heavy favorite despite drawing gate No. 9 in a field of 10. Still, Snaith told local media during the week he is uncertain about Oh Susanna's chances for the Group 1 Durban July, commenting, "I'm not certain she'll run in the July to be honest. It's 50-50 at the moment. We'll have to wait and see."
Do It Again comes to the Daily News 2000 off a victory in the Grade II Daisy Guineas, where overcame a bad draw and worse start. The Twice Over gelding came second in the Grade I Cape Derby, behind Eyes Wide Open.
The Snaith barn also has Made to Conquer in Saturday's 2,400-meters Grade III Lonsdale Stirrup Cup and stands ready to supplement that one to the July if he runs well.