Mr. Misunderstood, seen winning last year's Commonwealth Turf, is the favorite for Saturday's Grade III River City Handicap at Churchill Downs. Photo courtesy of Churchill Downs
Two-year-olds take center stage this weekend as the racing season winds down, providing a glimpse of the year that will be, while the initial returns of the awards season invite us to look back at the year that was.
And, frankly, if 2019 can match 2018, it will be tough to complain. How about a year when a second straight win in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe PLUS a victory in the Breeders' Cup Turf wasn't good enough for European Horse of the Year? Or when a Triple Crown sweep doesn't guarantee the same distinction in the United States?
Meanwhile, there are a couple of fascinating graded stakes for the older set this weekend. Japan's Autumn Festival continues with the Mile Championship. And Hong Kong will be sorting out its contenders for the Dec. 9 Longines-sponsored international races at Sha Tin.
Let's rock and/or roll.
The big deal here is Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Bob Hope Stakes at Del Mar, 7 furlongs on the main track. The field of seven includes recent Sunny Slopes Stakes first and second Sparky Ville and Savagery and a few impressive maiden winners.
Also worth a look are some state- or province-bred races. To wit, Sunday's $225,000 (Canadian) Coronation Stakes at Woodbine and Saturday's $100,000 Louisiana Legacy at Delta Downs.
Only three went to the post in Monday's $100,000 Desi Arnaz at Del Mar and they ran virtually as a team until mid-stretch. At that point, Chasing Yesterday stopped chasing the other two, took over and went on to win by 1 1/2 lengths. Itsjustanillusion was second with Boujie Girl another 1 1/4 length in arrears in third. Chasing Yesterday, a sister to Triple Crown champ American Pharoah, ran 7 furlongs on a fast track in 1:23.81 with Drayden Van Dyke at the controls.
The Bob Baffert trainee now is 3-for-4 with all three wins coming in California. She finished seventh in the Grade I Spinaway at Saratoga after a rough start in her only roadtrip -- a misstep for which Baffert shouldered the blame. "I sent her back east when I should have kept her here for the Debutante," he said." But hey, sometimes you call the play and it's a fumble."
The weekend brings Friday's $100,000 Louisiana Jewel at Delta Downs, Saturday's $75,000 Glacial Princess Stakes at Mahoning Valley and Saturday's $100,000 (Canadian) South Ocean Stakes at Woodbine.
Limited action for the older horses this weekend is on the grass at Churchill Downs and Aqueduct.
Zula Alpha and Call Provision are morning-line favorites in a massively oversubscribed field for Saturday's $200,000 Grade III Red Smith at 11 furlongs on the Big A's greensward. Ten are set with three also-eligibles and another three listed for "main track only," a good bet given the weather forecast.
Zulu Alpha has won three of his last four outings for trainer Mike Maker. Call Provision, a Chad Brown charge, has broken the hearts of some trifecta bettors with four fourth-place finishes in his last six starts.
Eight turned out for Saturday's $100,000 Grade III River City Handicap, 9 furlongs under the Twin Spires, and Mike Battaglia pegs Mr. Misunderstood the 8-5 favorite. The 4-year-old Archarcharch colt is looking for a rebound after finishing sixth in the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in October. Oscar Nominated also needs a restart after a nearly year-long slump.
Nine are set for Sunday's feature at Del Mar, the $100,000 Cary Grant, 7 furlongs on the main track. The highweight, at 124 pounds and conceding weight to all his rivals, is Brandothebartender. He won the California Flag Handicap in his last outing. Touching Rainbows and Edwards Going Left also have claims.
On the international front:
Group 2 events at Sha Tin on Sunday will sort out the local favorites for three of the four Group 1 Longines Hong Kong International Races Dec. 9. As usual, the home team promises to be tough.
The BOCHK Jockey Club Cup at 2,000 meters previews the Longines Hong Kong Cup and features Werther and Eagle Way from the John Size stable and Pakistan Star, Time Warp and Exultant from the Tony Cruz string. Time Warp finished second to Werther in this race last year and went on to win the big race in December. Cruz said he is pointing Exultant toward the Group 1 Longines Hong Kong Vase, a 2,400-meters test for which few Hong Kong horses are trained. Pakistan Star also could be a Vase candidate if he can shake his bad habit of stopping in the middle of races.
The BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Mile sets the stage for the Longines Hong Kong Mile. This one should be a scramble with essentially all of Hong Kong's premier milers in the mix. That mix includes Beauty Generation, who was third in this last year before winning the December Group 1. Also in Sunday's field are last year's winner, Season's Bloom, who went on to finish fourth in December; Singapore Sling, second to Beauty Generation in the Oriental Watch Sha Tin Trophy in October; and the hulking Pingwu Spark, one of the heaviest steeds on the grounds but packed with talent.
The BOCHK Wealth Management Jockey Club Sprint is a 1,200-meters preview of the Longines Hong Kong Sprint. Here we find the three top finishers from the Group 1 Chairman's Sprint Prize in April -- Ivictory, Mr. Stunning and Beat the Clock. Japan's top sprinter, Fine Needle, was fourth in that race and could be back for redemption in December. Hot King Prawn already is 2-for-2 this season, looking impressive last time out in the Group 2 Premier Bowl, and could be heard from on Sunday.
Sunday's Grade 1 Champions Mile at Kyoto features last year's winner, Persian Knight, against a tough field that includes the up-and-coming 4-year-old filly Aerolithe and the Frankel colt Mozu Ascot.
Persian Knight exits a fifth-place finish in the Grade 3 Fuji Stakes at Tokyo, a defeat trainer Yasutoshi Ikee lays to traffic issues in the late going. Aerolithe comes off a victory in the Grade 2 Mainichi Okan at Tokyo Racecourse in October and Ryan Moore will handle the reins. Mozu Ascot won the Grade 1 Yasuda Kinen over a mile at Tokyo in June, and has finished first or second on the six occasions jockey Christophe Lemaire has ridden him.
The awards begin
The Cartier Racing Awards are turning into the John Gosden Racing Awards. The well-provided trainer had four of the five finalists for Cartier Horse of the Year honors -- Enable, Cracksman, Stradivarius and the winner, announced Tuesday night in a glittering ceremony in London, Roaring Lion. Alpha Centauri was the fifth.
But wait, there's more! This was the fourth year in five that the top honor went to a horse trained by Gosden, following Kingman in 2014, Golden Horn in 2015 and Enable in 2016.
Roaring Lion, a Kitten's Joy colt owned by Qatar Racing, knocked down consecutive Group 1 wins this season in the Coral-Eclipse at Sandown, the Juddmonte International at York, the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. Given a sporting chance in the Breeders' Cup Classic, the campaign and switch to dirt caught up with Roaring Lion, who jogged home last of 14.
Despite the fizzle at the end, Roaring Lion edged 4-year-old filly Enable, whose injury-shortened campaign of just three races included her second win in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and a thrilling triumph over Magical in the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf.
Qatar Racing Limited's Chairman, HE Sheikh Fahad Al Thani, said, "Her Majesty The Queen has been a great supporter of our operation from day one. I was trying to keep my calm when Roaring Lion won at Ascot and she turned to me and said, 'I think you are allowed to scream and enjoy.' I hope I am allowed back at Ascot after that!"