Saturday's Travers Stakes at Saratoga shapes up as one of the best races of the year, even without Triple Crown winner Justify, and highlights a weekend replete with "Win and You're In" Breeders' Cup races from the north of England to the south of California.
Roaring Lion and Sea of Class -- two of best on the other side of the Atlantic -- already have earned Breeders' Cup berths with mid-week wins at York. Del Mar and Saratoga have a lot more of those freebies on offer.
The action spans dirt and turf, from sprints to the odd marathon. So, no reason to wait. Dive right in.
Saturday's $1.25 million Travers for 3-year-olds at Saratoga doesn't feature the Kentucky Derby winner and lacks any horse trained by Bob Baffert. Despite all that, it's one heck of a race.
What it does have: One of North America's top 3-year-old fillies in Wonder Gadot; a pair who started the year among Europe's top Kentucky Derby hopefuls in Mendelssohn and Belmont Stakes runner-up Gronkowski; last year's 2-year-old champ and recent Haskell winner, Good Magic; Belmont Derby winner Catholic Boy; Jim Dandy winner Tenfold; and Preakness and Haskell runner-up Bravazo.
Wonder Gadot, a Medaglia d'Oro filly, won the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown after finishing second in the Kentucky Oaks. Trainer Mark Casse passed up the chance at the Canadian hat trick -- and the Grade I Alabama against other 3-year-old fillies -- in favor of this assignment.
Good Magic, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile, enters the "Midsummer Derby" off a victory in the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth and has every opportunity to take the lead in the 3-year-old division (excluding retired Triple Crown champ Justify, of course). In this field, his 2-1 morning line odds look a bit short but he could prove otherwise.
Gronkowski was a bear on the British all-weather courses this spring and, after a slow start, was closing ground on Justify in the final furlong of the Belmont Stakes before settling for second.
Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien has a lot riding on Mendelssohn's race. After the Scat Daddy colt, a $3 million yearling purchase, was wiped out at the start of the Kentucky Derby, eventually finishing last, O'Brien said he'd try to get him back for the Breeders' Cup -- with a better understanding of how to deal with America's biggest races. Still, Mendelssohn ran a flat race in the Grade III Dwyer July 7 and hasn't won since his romp in the UAE Derby back in March at Meydan.
(As an aside, here, in part, is what O'Brien told Racing Post after the Kentucky Derby experience: "It's life or death in America when the gates open. You cannot miss it. It becomes so mad, it's everyone for themselves. It was a different world, very aggressive ... It was the most brutal thing I've ever seen anywhere in the world.").
There are one or two who might not belong in the 11-horse Travers field. But, with all due respect to Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont Park, this is by far the best field of 3-year-olds, top to bottom, assembled this year anywhere in the country.
Abel Tasman, Elate and Farrell look like the ones to reckon with among six entered for Saturday's $700,000 Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga. Abel Tasman, the 2017 Kentucky Oaks winner and champion 3-year-old filly, comes off a dominating win in the Grade I Ogden Phipps at Belmont June 9 -- an effort that earned the Quality Road filly a career-best 100 Beyer Speed Figure and the 6-5 favorite's role on the morning line for Saturday's race.
Elate, 7-5 on the morning line, last year won the Grade I Alabama at Saratoga and the Grade I Beldame at Belmont. She won the Grade II Delaware Handicap in her only previous outing this year against a less accomplished field. Farrell won the Grade III Shuvee over the Saratoga course July 29 at the same 9 furlongs. If any of those falter, look to Chilean import Wow Cat, who was a close second in the Shuvee in her first U.S. start. The other two -- She Takes Heart and Fuhriously Kissed -- would have to improve to figure.
Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Torrey Pines Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Del Mar drew a field of 11. The Bob Baffert-trained Thirteen Squared has been close in some big ones, including a second in the Grade II Summertime Oaks in June. Just Grazed Me is 2-for-2 with a win in the Fleet Treat Stakes over the course. The race is 1 mile on the main track.
This week's action at the Ebor Meeting in York, England, could have a major bearing on this division. See the international section for details.
Saturday's $1 million Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", brings together the first three finishers from the Grade I Manhattan -- Spring Quality, Sadler's Joy and Hi Happy; the top three from last month's Grade II Bowling Green over the Spa turf -- Channel Maker, Glorious Empire (dead heat) and Sadler's Joy; the first- and third-place finishers from the Grade I United Nations -- Funtastic and Bigger Picture; and the narrowly defeated second from the Grade III Arlington Handicap, Revved up.
And then there's Seahenge popping up in the Sword Dancer for the first time since a dismal effort in the Grade III Dwyer on July 7. Early in his career, the 3-year-old was running on the British turf and all-weather courses against the likes of Saxon Warrior, Mendelssohn and Roaring Lion. Then he fell on hard times in assignments on the dirt in Dubai, Churchill Downs and the Dwyer at Belmont Park. Here, he returns to the green course, which -- who knows? -- could be a wakeup call for the Coolmore-owned, Aidan O'Brien-trained son of Scat Daddy. Wayne Lordan has the mount.
Sadler's Joy is the 7-2 morning line favorite in the Sword Dancer but the race is just about anyone's for the taking.
Filly & Mare Turf
Again, see the international section for action at the Ebor Meeting in the 'loverly' north of England.
A Raving Beauty is the 7-5 morning line favorite among six entered for Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa at Saratoga. The German-bred 5-year-old, previously raced in Germany and Italy, has two wins and a just-missed third in three U.S. starts for Chad Brown -- all graded stakes on the New York circuit. British-bred Quidura, also from the Brown barn, looks possible at 4-1 on the line, especially if the rains stay away.
Mr Havercamp and La Sardane are the oddsmaker's picks among nine set for Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Play the King at Woodbine, 7 furlongs on the grass. Mr Havercamp won the Steady Growth Stakes over the course in June before venturing to New York to finish fourth in the Forbidden Apple Stakes last month. La Sardane, previously campaigned in France, is riding a three-race win streak including the Grade III Intercontinental at Belmont Park in June.
City of Light was good enough to win the Grade Malibu in December and Grade I Triple Bend at Santa Anita in March, going 7 furlongs each time, then step up to win the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap going 9 furlongs in April. He cuts back to 7 furlongs as the 9-5 favorite in Saturday's $600,000 Grade I Forego at Saratoga, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". But he has been idle since the end of May, drew the outside gate in a field of eight and faces fierce competition from the likes of Limousine Liberal, Whitmore and Warrior's Club. In addition, No Dozing, C Z Rocket and Awesome Slew get a break in the weights and have run well enough to make an impression here. Chalk players, beware.
Saturday's $500,000 Grade I H. Allen Jerkens for 3-year-olds at Saratoga drew a diverse field including the 1-2 finishers from the Grade III Dwyer July 7 -- Firenze Fire and Seven Trumpets -- and the 1-2-3 from the Grade II Woody Stephens on June 9 -- Still Having Fun, Engage and Promises Fulfilled. Promises Fulfilled and Engage returned to run 1-2 in the Grade II Amsterdam a month ago at the Spa and Promises Fulfilled is the 8-5 morning line pick here. Gidu, a close sixth in the Group 1 Commonwealth Cup at Royal Ascot, tries the brown track for the first time. Telekinesis cuts back to 7 furlongs after fading badly in the 1 1/4-mile Queen's Plate in his last start.
Reigning Breeders' Cup Sprint winner Roy H and recent Grade I Bing Crosby winner Ransom the Moon both figure in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Pat O'Brien Stakes at Del Mar, also a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". But neither is the favorite on the morning line. That honor goes to the undefeated 4-year-old Union Rags colt, Catalina Cruiser. The John Sadler trainee won at first asking last October at Santa Anita, returned to win over the same track in May and then jumped right up to score by 6 3/4 lengths in the Grade II San Diego on July 21, defeating Dr. Dorr and Dabster, among others. This figures to be a sterner test and a somewhat risky 8-5 investment.
Flameaway, Axelrod, Title Ready and First Mondays highlight an eight-horse field for Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Smarty Jones for 3-year-olds at Parx Racing. The race is 1 1/16 miles.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Finley'sluckycharm is among the favorites in Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Ketel One Ballerina at Saratoga, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In". The 5-year-old Twirling Candy mare has won 11 of 17 starts, most recently the Grade II Honorable Miss over the Saratoga Strip, going a furlong shorter than Saturday's 7-furlong distance. She'll have plenty of competition in that last furlong in the Ballerina. Lewis Bay won the Grade III Bed o' Roses at 7 furlongs in her last start. Marley's Freedom is riding a three-race win streak in California. Ivy Bell and Tequilita are proven at the distance. And lightly raced Still There may have found her niche after a handy win in the 7-furlongs Twixt at Laurel Park in her last start.
Let It Ride Mom looks a likely suspect among 10 entered for Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Seaway Stakes on the Woodbine all-weather course. She comes off a pair of seconds in graded stakes. Code Warrior had a good one two starts back in winning the Grade III Hendrie, a diminishing 3/4 length in front of Let It Ride Mom.
Saturday's $50,000 Evangeline Downs Prince drew a field of seven, featuring Wakefield, undefeated in two starts including the Texas Thoroughbred Futurity at Lone Star in his last start.
Spanning the globe:
Ten months ago, Roaring Lion was among the leaders in the "Road to the Kentucky Derby." After Wednesday's tour de force victory in the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York, he's among the leaders in the European middle-distance ranks with an invitation to the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf.
The Kitten's Joy colt, trained by John Gosden for Qatar Racing, dominated a classy field in the York fixture, lengthening stride through the final furlong to win by 3 1/4 lengths. Poet's Word was second after some traffic issues but never looked like he could go with the winner. And Knavesmire specialist Thundering Blue made just enough noise late to edge Saxon Warrior for third, spoiling a lot of trifecta bets with his 50-1 odds.
Roaring Lion's presence on the Kentucky Derby leaderboard was an accident of circumstance. The fall races in the "European Road" series are on the grass, which all along has been the colt's intended home. When the series turned to the all-weather courses early this year, he was elsewhere occupied, despite the limited turf opportunities left by the nasty spring weather.
After a pair of disappointments at Newmarket in April and early May, Roaring Lion broke through with a win in the Group 2 Betfred Dante Stakes at York May 17 and followed that with a third in the Investec Derby. He bested Saxon Warrior by a neck in winning the Group 1 Coral Eclipse in his intervening start and now is poised for more -- much more if Gosden has his way.
"He's a big-framed horse and only a 3-year-old," Gosden told Racing Post. "So I see no reason that through the autumn and next year he can't get better. The truth is they reach their absolute zenith at 5 if you give them the time." Gosden might have a hard sell peddling that theme -- at least the 5-year-old part -- to Qatar Racing's Sheik Fahad Al Thani. The trainer added the Breeders' Cup "is a long way off."
In Thursday's action at York, Sea of Class was last with 2 furlongs to run in the Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks. But with 1 furlong to go, the Sea the Stars filly was in front and striding away to a 2 1/4-lengths victory, ridden confidently all the way by James Doyle. Coronet and Eziyra were second and third. The Aidan O'Brien-trained trio of Magic Wand, Bye Bye Baby and Flattering were fifth, seventh and eighth after racing prominently. Laurens, making her first start since winning the French Oaks, faded to finish sixth.
Sea of Class, trained by William Haggas, backed up her narrow victory over Investec Oaks winner Forever Together in the Group 1 Irish Oaks and now has four straight wins. The race was another "Win and You're In" -- this for the Breeder's Cup Filly & Mare Turf -- but Sea of Class looks likely for the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Oct. 7 at Longchamp -- at least in the interim.
"She's not in the Arc yet and I stress it's a 'yet'," Haggas told Racing Post. "A lot will depend on whether she stays in training at 4. The plan always was to keep her in training as she's young but if she wins everything this year, it might be different."
In the first event on the Thursday card, Fairyland salvaged something for the O'Brien-Coolmore team by eking out a bare nose victory over 25-1 shot The Mackem Bullet in the Group 2 Sky Bet Lowther Stakes for 2-year-old fillies. Fairyland, a Kodiac filly now is 3-for-4. O'Brien said his entire string from the various Ballydoyle yards has been fighting flu-like symptoms all year after a the nasty spring weather and just now is coming around.
News and Notes:
Breeders' Cup Wednesday announced a futures wagering program for this year's World Championships at Churchill Downs. The first pools, on the Classic and Distaff, will run from this Friday through Sunday afternoon. The second, covering the Sentient Jet Juvenile and the Juvenile Sire Futures Wager, will run from Aug. 31-Sept. 2. The final pools will reprise wagering on the Classic and add the Longines Turf and run from Oct. 5-7. The minimum wager is $2 -- win only. If they don't run, you lose. If they do and you win, the return should be better than on race day.
And speaking of good returns, Kentucky Downs has trimmed the takeout from its Pick Four wager from 19 percent to 14 percent for next month's meeting. The track already had a 14 percent impost on the Pick 5 wager. "We want to be known as the horseplayers' racetrack," said C.J. Johnsen, Kentucky Downs' director of broadcasting and interstate wagering. Lowering takeout will do that for you.