Pavel took a step forward with a win in the Stephen Foster, Blue Prize took the Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs and Oscar Performance gave a performance worthy of an award at Belmont Park in highlights of weekend racing action.
On the international front, Laurens was the gutsiest of winners in Sunday's Group 1 Prix du Diane or French Oaks. And they're lining up for Tuesday's opening day of Royal Ascot.
Before Her Majesty's carriage rolls, attend to this:
While the 3-year-olds dominate attention in this division, the scramble continues among the older set. Case in point: Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs -- a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Pavel, sporting only two previous wins on his record, shot to the lead entering the stretch run in the Stephen Foster, quickly distanced his competition and won by 3 3/4 lengths over Honorable Duty. Matrooh, a $25,000 claim at Oaklawn Park this spring, was only a neck back of that one with a late run, at odds of nearly 70-1. The favorite, Backyard Heaven, faded through the stretch and Irish War Cry stopped badly before hitting the turn and was pulled up but later reported fine in his barn.
Pavel, a 4-year-old Creative Cause colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:49.21 with Mario Gutierrez up. In his two previous starts, the Doug O'Neill trainee was fourth in both the Dubai World Cup and the Grade I Gold Cup at Santa Anita.
"We were very optimistic with him all along and to see him put it together was great," O'Neill said. "We went through a bit of a funky phase with him and had some traffic troubles in his last couple of races."
The trainer said Pavel had been worked up before his last few starts and credited his stable staff for traveling with the colt to keep him calm before the Foster. "I see myself nudging up to some adult beverage tonight, then thinking about where we go next," O'Neill said.
King Zachary saved ground while racing third down the backstretch in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Matt Winn Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs, came around the leaders exiting the stretch turn and blitzed right to lead, winning off by 4 3/4 lengths. Tiz Mischief showed the way under pressure from Ax Man and held on for second, 8 lengths ahead of that rival. King Zachary, a Curlin colt, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.86 with Robby Albarado up for trainer Dale Romans, who also conditions Tiz Mischief.
King Zachary, Romans said, "just keeps getting better every time we see him. I was confident entering the race that he'd run a big effort. I know Ax Man was the horse to beat but was confident with my horses. Tiz Mischief was a real surprise. He proved himself tonight that he can compete with some of the best 3-year-olds in the country."
Blue Prize drove by pacesetting Farrell in the stretch run to win Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs by 1 1/2 lengths. Mopotism finished third, another 3 lengths in arrears. Blue Prize, a 5-year-old Argentine-bred mare by Pure Prize, finished 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.02 with Jose Ortiz up. The race was a "Win and You're In" for the Breeders' Cup Distaff.
Blue Prize now has three wins, five seconds and a third from 10 starts since arriving from South America. "This filly absolutely loves it here at Churchill Downs, as do I," said winning trainer Ignacio Correas IV. "It was a great race from her and it sets her up for a good year with the Breeders' Cup back here in November. She's improved since we got her from Argentina and I think she's just getting better."
Ollie's Candy shadowed pacesetting favorite Thirteen Squared through most of Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita, then hooked that rival in a long stretch duel before prevailing by a neck. It was another 4 1/4 lengths back to Chocolate Martini in third. Ollie's Candy, a Candy Ride filly, got 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.72 with Kent Desormeaux riding.
Ollie's Candy remains undefeated after three starts, the first two coming on the Golden Gate Fields all-weather course. "Looking forward, through the rest of the year, all the big races for 3-year-old fillies are going a route of ground, so we decided to try it today," said winning trainer William Morey.
Teresa Z waited behind the pace in Saturday's $100,000 Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park, rallied outside the leaders at the top of the stretch and drew off to win by 2 3/4 lengths. You Know Too contested the early lead and stuck around to finish second, 1/2 length in front of late-running long shot Sneaky Betty. The favorite, Tequilita, ran evenly to finish fourth. Teresa Z, a 4-year-old Smart Strike filly, covered 9 furlongs over a fast track in 1:49.33 with Daniel Centino up. It was her first win since last year's Grade III Monmouth Oaks. The Obeah is a prep for the $750,000 Grade II Delaware Handicap on Bastille Day.
Gamble's Ghost rallied from last of eight to win Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Trillium stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course, driving by Ickymasho in the final strides to score by 1/2 length. My Arch Enemy was another 3/4 length back in third. Gamble's Ghost, a 5-year-old mare by Ghostzapper, finished 1 1/16 miles in 1:43.61 with Eurico Da Silva in the irons.
"We had a wonderful trip," said Da Silva. "I was able to save a lot of ground. In the turn, when we turned home, I had a chance to shift her out and she kicked from there."
Mr. Misunderstood was along in the late going to land Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Wise Dan at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs as reigning U.S. Male Turf champ World Approval wilted through the stretch, finishing next-last of seven in his second straight disappointing finish. Inspector Lynley and pacesetter Mr Cub were second and third with Dividero and Parlor in close attendance behind them. Mr. Misunderstood, a 4-year-old Archarcharch gelding, finished 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.83 with Florent Geroux in the irons.
"He proved today that he's right up there with some of the best turf horses in the country," Geroux said of Mr. Misunderstood.
World Approval's trainer, Mark Casse, said jockey John Velazquez reported he had trouble handling the turf. But Casse acknowledged the question marks raised by two subpar efforts. "Well, he trains and looks as good, but so far his last two performances haven't looked it, so I don't know. It's our job to figure that out," Casse said.
River Boyne stalked the pace made by Blame the Rider in Saturday's $100,000 Rainbow Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita, took the point leaving the turn and drew off to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Blame the Rider, Arawak and Respect the Hustle completed the order of finish. River Boyne, an Irish-bred Dandy Man colt, hustled 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:49.19 with Flavien Prat at the controls.
River Boyne scored his fourth win from his last five starts. He was fifth over yielding turf in the Grade II American Turf a Churchill Downs on Derby Day. "He likes firm ground. That's the main thing," said winning trainer Jeff Mullins.
Filly & Mare Turf
Beyond Blame secured a choice spot on the hedge behind the early speed in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Regret for 3-year-old fillies on the Churchill Downs turf, looped around pacesetting Go Noni Go a furlong out and drove home first by 1 1/2 lengths. Go Noni Go held second by a nose over Heavenly Love, who was flying at the finish. Beyond Blame, a Blame filly out of the Forest Wildcat mare Quippery, ran 9 furlongs on firm turf in 1:48.94 with Florent Geroux in the irons.
"If you just simply cross off her last race, she hasn't run a bad race in her life," said Beyond Blame's trainer, Brian Cox. "She proved tonight she was very versatile and could have some nice races in her future this summer."
Multiple Grade I winner Oscar Performance enjoyed his return to Belmont Park for Sunday's $300,000 Grade III Poker Stakes. Not only did the 4-year-old Kitten's Joy colt win by 1 1/2 lengths, he also set the course record at 1:31.23, which also ties the world record for the distance on turf.
With Jose Ortiz up, Oscar Performance tracked the pace while racing wide down the backstretch, came four-wide around the turn and took command in the stretch. It was his fourth win in as many tries at Belmont Park.
"He did it with authority and came back with a very fast time," said winning trainer Brian Lynch. "That's a long-standing track record to break so to have him do that off the layoff makes you look forward to the rest of the year."
Bombard stalked the pace in Sunday's $100,000 Siren Lure Stakes down the hillside turf course, moved to a short lead after crossing the dirt and held on to win by 1/2 length. Cistron was second, 1/2 length back and 1/2 length ahead of Perfectly Majestic. Bombard, a 5-year-old War Front gelding, finished the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:13.38 with Flavien Prat up.
On the international front:
Laurens took a narrow lead more than 400 meters out in Sunday's Group 1 Prix du Diane (French Oaks) at Chantilly and bravely defended every inch of the remaining ground against a phalanx of challengers.
With rivals on both sides, the Siyouni filly got to the line a neck in front of Godolphin's hope, Musis Amica, who rallied up the middle of the track from way back in the field. After those, it was only noses and heads separating Homerique, Happily and With You in the first five slots.
Laurens, owned by John Dance and trained by Karl Burke, now has five wins from seven starts, three of them at the Group 1 level. She has yet to finish worse than second and oddsmakers quickly slotted her into the mid levels of consideration for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
"She's talented and she's gutsy, she's so gutsy," Dance told Racing Post. "She just bats them away, doesn't she?"
Back in North America:
Pico Uno went right to the front in Saturday's $100,000 Dancin Renee Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares and kicked away in the lane, winning by 4 lengths from Cozzy Spring. The odds-on favorite, Holiday Disguise, could make up no ground through the final furlong and settled for third. Pico Uno, a 5-year-old Macho Uno mare, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.60 with Manny Francoup.
Strollin the Bayou came from last of eight in Saturday's $75,000 Purple Violet Stakes for Illinois-bred 3-year-old fillies, collared pacesetting favorite Jean Elizabeth inside the final furlong and ran on to win by 1 length over that rival. Hayworth was third. Carlos Marquez Jr. booted home Strollin the Bayou, a daughter of Stroll out of the Storm Boot mare Bayou Boots, in 1:36.07 over the all-weather track.
Chief Oakie Dokie also rallied from the back of the pack in the companion $75,000 Springfield Stakes for state-bred 3-year-olds, outfinishing Sir Anthony by a neck and the favorite, Wile E Peyote, by another nose. Chief Oakie Dokie, a Giant Oak gelding out of the Point Given mare Lookn Even Finer, ran 1 mile in 1:37.05, also with Marquez at the controls.
Supreme Aura outfinished Roaming Union by a neck in Sunday's $100,000 Pegasus Stakes for 3-year-olds with a gap of another 12 1/4 lengths to Justaholic in third. Supreme Aura, a Candy Ride colt, had to make up significant ground to reach contention, then finished the 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:46.48 under Jersey Joe Bravo.
Chalon pressed the pace in Sunday's $75,000 Regret Stakes for fillies and mares, took the lead when prompted by jockey Paco Lopez and opened up, winning by 4 lengths over Jessica Krupnick. Liz's Cable Girl was a neck behind that one in third. Chalon, a 4-year-old filly by Dialed in, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.05
Chublicious did battle with Lewisfield most of the way in Sunday's $75,000 Mr. Prospector Stakes before finally prevailing by 1/2 length. Laki was 2 lengths farther back in third. Chublicious, a 7-year-old Hey Chub gelding, ran 6 furlongs in 1:09.92 under Antonio Gallardo.
Irish Strait opened a daylight lead in the stretch in Sunday's $60,000 Dan Horn Stakes for New Jersey-breds and held off Golden Brown in the final yards to win by 1/2 length. Fuzzy Muzzle came from last of nine to get show money. Irish Strait, a 6-year-old English Channel gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.42 with Gallardo in the irons.
Bitacora trailed the field in Saturday's $100,000 Ginger Punch Stakes for Florida-bred distaffers, moved up between horses on the turn and took over in the final sixteenth to win by 1/2 length from Unbridled Courage. The odds-on favorite, Madame Uno, held a brief lead and saved show money. Bitacora, a 4-year-old daughter of Dominus out of the Tejabo mare Shrimp Tempura, got 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:42.00 for jockey Tyler Gaffalione.
Alliford Bay stalked the pace in Saturday's $50,000 Washington State Legislatures Stakes for fillies and mares, made her bid a furlong from the finish and scored by 4 lengths over No Talking Back. Invested Prospect was third. Alliford Bay, a 4-year-old daughter of City Zip, zipped 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.86 with Julien Coulton in the kip.
Mr Havercamp swept past most of the field in the stretch run of Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) Steady Growth Stakes for Ontario-breds and went on to win by 4 3/4 lengths over Where's the Widget. Keen Gizmo finished third. Mr Havercamp, a 4-year-old Court Vision gelding, got 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:43.68 toting Eurico Da Silva.
Split Time was up just in time to capture Saturday's $75,000 Alma North Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by 3/4 length over Norma's Charm. Limited View was third and the favorite, Elevenses, faded to finish sixth and last. Split Time, a Take Charge Indy filly, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:24.42 with Horacio Karamanos up.
Theperfectvow opened a daylight lead in the stretch in Friday's $65,000 Hawkeyes Stakes for Iowa-bred fillies and mares, then held on to win by a neck over Mywomanfromtokyo. My Sister Madie was third. Theperfectvow, a 4-year-old daughter of Majestic Perfection, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.44 for jockey Floyd Wethey Jr.
No Holds Barred led early in Saturday's $65,000 Cyclones Stakes for state-breds, was headed by Han Sense and then kicked back into gear, winning by 3 1/2 lengths. One Fine Dream and Net Gain filled the trifecta slots as Han Sense, the favorite, faded to report fourth. No Holds Barred, a 5-year-old Hold Me Back gelding, toured 1 1/16 miles on a fast strip in 1:44.42 with Alex Birzer up.
Driller moved to challenge the leaders in the stretch run in Sunday's $50,000 (Canadian) John Longden 6000 Handicap, took a big lead and reported first by 2 lengths over Calgary Caper. Highway Boss was another 4 3/4 lengths in arrears in third. Driller, a 4-year-old gelding by Texas Wildcatter, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.43 with Silvino Morales in the irons.
Top Quality shadowed the leaders in Saturday's $50,000 (Canadian) Strawberry Morn Handicap for fillies and mares, challenged pacesetting Yukon Bell entering the stretch and defeated that one by 3/4 length. Curlish Figure was third. Top Quality, a 4-year-old Quality Road filly, finished 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:45.51 with Aaron Gryder aboard.
Anstrum emerged from the pack to win Saturday's $50,000 (Canadian) John Patrick Handicap for fillies and mares by 2 1/2 lengths over Port Protection. The favorite, Quality Lane, trailed the field, rallied around the turn but could do no better than third. Anstrum, a 4-year-old Rosberg filly, ran 1 mile on a slow track in 1:40.29 with Rigo Sarmiento in the irons.