The Japan Cup brings together top international talent Sunday in Tokyo while U.S. racing enjoys a long Thanksgiving cornucopia of stakes that started mid-week.
The American festivities are topped by the Grade I Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs and a smattering of 2-year-old events including the Kentucky Jockey Club and Golden Rod -- indicators for the 2019 Derby and Oaks.
Del Mar, Aqueduct, Woodbine and Fair Grounds all contribute to the Thanksgiving feast.
Noteworthy: Illinois-breds won Thanksgiving Day graded stakes at both Churchill Downs and Fair Grounds. And jockey Gary Stevens is hanging up his tack for the third and final time.
First, the big doings in Asia.
The Japan Cup
A pair of international raiders -- Capri from the Coolmore operation in Ireland and Thundering Blue from England via Sweden and Canada -- will contest Sunday's Grade 1 event at Tokyo Racecourse.
Those two, however, face a formidable local bunch. Prominent among those are Almond Eye, winner of this year's Japanese filly Triple Crown and a fan favorite, and Cheval Grand, last year's Japan Cup winner for his owner, former Seattle Mariners pitcher Kazuhiro Sasaki.
Almond Eye, a daughter of Lord Kanaloa and granddaughter of Sunday Silence, finished second in her career debut last year but has won all five starts since then. The last three of those were Grade 1 events. Her challenge in the Japan Cup is going against older and more experienced rivals for the first time.
Cheval Grand, a 6-year-old son of Heart's Cry, seeks to become only the second two-time Japan Cup winner after Gentildonna, who turned the trick as a 3-year-old filly in 2012 and a 4-year-old in 2013. Cheval Grand has not won since last year's Japan Cup and finished fourth in his most recent start behind Satono Diamond, another of Sunday's rivals.
The foreign runners' connections are looking at Almond Eye as the main threat. "She's the best one here," Capri's rider, Ryan Moore, said at Thursday's news conference. "She's done nothing wrong -- ever, I think." And Thundering Blue's trainer, David Menuisier, allowed the filly "looks very impressive, obviously."
Her regular rider, Christophe Lemaire, agreed with that assessment, and more.
"She really is a perfect horse," Lemaire said. "She is very clever. She's smart and knows very well what she has to do ... Really, she has no bad points. It's a fantastic feeling when she shifts into high gear. It's like riding in a Ferrari. Her shifting gears feel wonderful. She's a special horse."
Capri won last year's Group 1 Irish Derby and Group 1 Doncaster St Leger. This season, working around an early injury, he finished a good fifth in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe before a fourth-place effort on short rest in the Group 1 Champion Stakes at Ascot. "He has good form," Moore said of the Aidan O'Brien trainee, a 4-year-old by Galileo. "He needs to come back to that."
Thundering Blue, a 5-year-old, Kentucky-bred gelding by Exchange Rate, jumped into the picture with a victory in the Group 2 York Stakes in July and followed that with an eye-opening third in the Group 1 Juddmonte International at York in August against the best of the best. He got traveling experience while winning the Group 3 Stockholm Cup International, then just missed winning the Grade I Canadian International at Woodbine Oct. 13.
"Even though he hasn't won a Group 1 yet, I believe he has the ability to do so," Menuisier said.
On Saturday at Tokyo Racecourse, the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" gets under way with the Cattleya Sho, the first of four races that will identify a potential starter for the Run for the Roses. The series has been expanded this year from the original three-race format.
The fields are set for the Longines Hong Kong International races on Dec. 9, four Group 1 events at distances from 1,200 meters to double that, all on the Sha Tin turf.
The local fields were more or less set a week ago in a trio of prep races and include three winners from the 2017 event. Foreigners on tap include Japan's top sprinter, Fine Needle, miler Persian Knight and stayers Lys Gracieux and Crocosmia.
European entrants include Waldgeist, Latrobe, Rostropovich, Japan Cup contender Capri, Sir Dancealot, One Master, Beat the Bank and Stormy Anarctic. Others come from Singapore and, despite a quarantine dispute, Australia.
"Once again, we are delighted that this year's selected runners are of proven, world-class ability," said Hong Kong Jockey Club's Andrew Harding. "We expect to see excellence at this event and with strong contenders like Hong Kong's own incredible Beauty Generation, Japan's Fine Needle, and European stars including Waldgeist and Latrobe, we can expect another thrilling afternoon of sport on Dec. 9."
Cosmo Charlie, making his second start of the season, pulled away down the stretch to win Thursday's feature at Meydan by 2 1/4 lengths over Etijaah. Early challenger Radaini could not stay with the winner down the lane and was nipped for second.
Cosmo Charlie, a 4-year-old son of Stay Thirsty, was on the fringes at the top level during the 2018 World Cup Carnival, winning the middle leg of the UAE Triple Crown, the Al Bastikaya, and finishing second to Heavy Metal in the Group 3 Firebreak Stakes. "He is a very nice horse on his day," said winning trainer Doug Watson, "and hopefully he can build on this and be competitive back at the Carnival."
Back in North America:
Prado's Sweet Ride went quickly to the lead in Thursday's $200,000 Grade II Falls City Handicap for fillies and mares and rolled home an easy winner for jockey Florent Geroux. The odds-on favorite, Divine Miss Grey, gave futile chase as Prado's Sweet Ride lengthened her lead, scoring by 4 3/4 lengths. Dutch Parrot was third, 1 length farther back. Prado's Sweet Ride, a 6-year-old Illinois-bred mare by Fort Prado, finished 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:50.50.
Prado's Sweet Ride notched her second graded stakes win. The other, the 2015 Regret, also came under the Twin Spires. It was the second Falls City victory for Chicago-based trainer Chris Block, following the 2010 win by Dundalk Dust.
English Affair won a battle of deep closers in Thursday's $100,000 Grade III Cardinal Handicap for fillies and mares, edging Amboseli by 1/2 length. I Remember Mama got first run to the lead but then settled for third. English Affair, a 4-year-old English Channel filly, completed 9 furlongs on yielding turf in 1:54.26 with Corey Lanerie in the irons.
English Affair's trainer, Rusty Arnold, said she is "a typical English Channel that is getting better with age. We've run her going a couple of different distances and it just shows her versatility. Today's race came up and it was the perfect spot to run her in."
The Churchill Downs weekend program continues Friday with the highlight of the fall season, the $500,000 Grade I Clark Handicap and the $200,000 Grade III Mrs. Revere for distaffers on the turf. The Clark field includes Seeking the Soul and Bravazo, the second and third finishers in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, as well as Prime Attraction and Leofric. Euro import Stella di Camelot, now trained by Chad Brown, is the 2-1 morning-line favorite in a field of 12 for the Mrs. Revere.
Saturday is for 2-year-olds looking toward next year's Kentucky Derby and Oaks as the $200,000 Grade II Golden Rod and $200,000 Grade II Kentucky Jockey Club take center stage.
Life in Shambles rallied into contention four-wide in upper stretch in Thursday's $200,000 Grade III Fall Highweight Handicap and chased down Heartwood for a 3/4-lengths victory. Always Sunshine was another 3/4 length back in third while the favorite, Runaway Lute, beat only one of his five rivals. Life in Shambles, a 7-year-old Broken Vow gelding, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:12.02 with Irad Ortiz Jr. up.
"We expected him to run good and he did," said Henry Argueta, assistant to Life in Shambles' trainer, Jason Servis. "He's a warrior. He's been there before."
Thursday's other two stakes races at the Big A both came off the turf.
Matty's Magnum found room inside and rallied to win the $150,000 Winter Memories Stakes for 3-year-old fillies by a nose over Semper Sententiae and another 1 3/4 lengths from Competitionofideas. All three came from far back while the pacesetter, Significant Form, faded to finish fourth. Matty's Magnum, a daughter of Even the Score, ran 1 mile on the fast main track in 1:41.97 with Manny Franco up for trainer David "Slam" Donk.
Five Star General led all the way to a 1 1/4-lengths victory in the $100,000 Central Park Stakes for 2-year-olds. Doups Point and Market Bubble filled the trifecta and the favorite, Empire of War, settled for fourth. Five Star General, a Distorted Humor colt owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club, finished 1 mile on a fast track in 1:41.35 for jockey Jose Ortiz.
Friday's feature is the $200,000 Grade III Comely for 3-year-old fillies at 9 furlongs on the dirt, supported by the $150,000 Gio Ponti Stakes for 3-year-olds on the turf and the $100,000 Key Cents for state-bred 2-year-old fillies.
Saturday brings the $400,000 Grade III Long Island with fillies and mares going 11 furlongs on the turf, weather permitting. Also on the card are the $200,000 Grade III Discovery for 3-year-olds on the grass and the 6-furlongs Aqueduct Turf Sprint Championship. Belmont Stakes runner-up Gronkowski is in the Discovery field after two intervening disappointments.
Sunday's program at the Big A has two races for 2-year-olds -- the $100,000 Tepin Stakes for 2-year-old fillies on the turf and the $100,000 Notebook Stakes on the main track for New York-bred juveniles. Fillies and mares will go 6 furlongs on the grass in the $125,000 Autumn Days.
India Mantuana opened a big early lead in Thursday's $100,000 Grade III Red Carpet Handicap for fillies and mares, turned back and early challenge to take another commanding advantage and finally held on to win by 1/2 length over Siberian Iris. The favorite, Vexatious, rallied from last of eight to finish third in a dead heat with Escape Clause. India Mantuana, a 4-year-old daughter of Wilburn, ran 1 3/8 miles on firm turf in 2:14.50 with Tyler Baze up.
Trainer Ray Bell, who claimed the filly last August for $40,000, said he was surprised at the lack of an early challenge. "That was the only chink in her armor, if somebody had gone with her and softened her up," he said.
Friday's feature is the $200,000 Grade II Hollywood Turf Cup at 1 1/2 miles. Bigger Picture is a lukewarm 5-2 favorite in a field of seven.
Saturday it's the $200,000 Grade II Seabiscuit Handicap at 1 1/16 miles on the lawn and the $100,000 Grade III Jimmy Durante for 2-year-old fillies going 1 mile on the green course.
Sunday, 2-year-olds tackle the same turf mile in the $100,000 Grade III Cecil B. DeMille and the $100,000 Grade III Native Diver Stakes is for 3-year-olds and up at 9 furlongs on the dirt.
Wynn Time, making his first start since April at Oaklawn Park, rallied to the lead inside the final furlong in Thursday's $75,000 Thanksgiving Handicap and won by 1 length over Proforma. The early leader, Switzerland, finished third. Wynn Time is a 4-year-old Illinois-bred gelding by Three Hour Nap out of the Five Star Day mare Five Star Swank. He ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.68 with Marcelino Pedroza riding.
Trainer Hugh Robertson said Wynn Time either will stay in New Orleans for the Duncan F. Kenner or journey back to Arkansas. He now has six wins from nine starts and has never missed the top three.
Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Kennedy Road Stakes for 3-year-olds and up is 6 furlongs on the all-weather course. Sunday, fillies and mares try 7 furlongs on the same surface in the $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Bessarabian Stakes.
Golden Gate Fields
The Bay Area track contributes a pair of graded events to the long weekend's festivities. On Friday it's the $50,000 Golden Gate Debutante for 2-year-old fillies at 6 furlongs on the all-weather course. Saturday, older horses will go 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather in the $100,000 Grade III Berkeley Handicap.
Johnny Jump Up jumped up at 23-1 odds to post a front-running victory in Wednesday's $100,000 Swatara Stakes, holding off Monongahela by 3/4 length. The favorite, Dr. Blarney, got home third. Johnny Jump Up, a 7-year-old Jump Start gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:44.36 with Julio Hernandez at the controls. He was fourth in the same race last year and was claimed for $16,000 one start later. He's 3-for-4 since the claim.
Midtowncharlybrown showed the way in Wednesday's $200,000 Fabulous Strike Stakes and scooted off late to win by 2 3/4 lengths over Rockinn On Bye. The favorite, Lewisfield, was third. Midtowncharlybrown, a 4-year-old Uptowncharlybrown colt, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:10.15 for jockey Mychel Sanchez.
Please Flatter Me was sent quickly to the lead in Wednesday's $100,000 Blue Mountain Juvenile Fillies Stakes for Pennsylvania-breds and drew off to win by 4 lengths, ridden out by Alex Cintron. The Munnings filly got 6 furlongs in 1:11.24 as the odds-on favorite.
Wednesday was Zia Park Derby/Oaks Day with those races topping a seven-stakes program.
Nanoosh, a Paynter colt, battled down the stretch to defeat the favorite, Air Strike, by 3/4 length in the $250,000 Derby. Cosmic Burst, a daughter of Violence, edged away in the $250,000 Oaks, winning by 1 1/4 lengths from Rose of Malibu.
Forevamo, a 5-year-old Uncle Mo gelding, won a prolonged duel over Pinson in the $150,000 Championship at 9 furlongs. Anyportinastorm led all the way to take the $100,000 Sprint. Alliford Bay, a City Zip filly, won the 7-furlongs Distaff by 3 lengths.
In the 2-year-old races, Watch Me Burn, a daughter of Hold Me Back, led all the way to a 1 1/4-lengths victory in the $75,000 Princess. And Oil Money drew off late to capture the $75,000 Juvenile by 3 1/2 lengths over Myhotrodlincoln.
News and Notes
Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens has retired for the third and, undoubtedly, final time. As first reported by Daily Racing Form, Stevens was injured during a post parade incident last weekend. The injury put him at risk for spinal cord damage should he suffer another mishap. Earlier, knee issues prompted a retirement that lasted from 2005 to 2012. He returned at the highest level but again was forced to the sidelines for a hip replacement in December of 2016 but returned to action the following spring.
Stevens, 55, ends with 5,187 career wins. That includes nine Triple Crown race wins, among them his ride on Winning Colors, only the third filly winner of the Run for the Roses. His mounts earned more than $258.9 million. He earned the Eclipse Award one year after his 1998 induction into the Hall of Fame.