The Cigar Mile at Aqueduct and the Matriarch and Hollywood Derby at Del Mar -- Grade I events all -- are the featured attractions on the weekend Thoroughbred racing marquee.
Aqueduct also has important early preps for the 2019 Kentucky Derby and Oaks in Saturday's Remsen and Demoiselle. And Gulfstream Park hosts the Claiming Crown -- a feast of competitive races with bulging fields.
In Japan, the Grade 1 events just keep on coming. This weekend it's Sunday's Champions Mile at Chukyo Racecourse, featuring U.S. invader Pavel.
A pair of 1-mile tests for the older set and important Derby and Oaks preps make up the tasty stakes stew at the Big A on Saturday.
The $750,000 Grade I Cigar Mile attracted Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup Classic participant Mendelssohn, two from Chad Brown's always-dangerous barn and a potential star in Copper Town. A field of eight is set.
Since partnering Mendelssohn to a fifth-place finish in the Breeders' Cup, jockey Ryan Moore has ridden in top-level races in Australia and Japan. After reuniting with Mendelssohn in Saturday's Cigar Mile, he will leave Aqueduct for Hong Kong, where he is booked for both the Longines Hong Kong International Races and the attendant jockey challenge. Mendelssohn, a Scat Daddy colt, has accumulated some air miles of his own back and forth across the Atlantic between runs in the Dwyer, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. "We were delighted with his run in the Classic," said trainer Aidan O'Brien. "And we're very happy with his work since."
Brown's Cigar Mile duo of Patternrecognition and Timeline come off first- and third-place finishes in the Grade II Kelso, respectively. Patternrecognition looks the more likely and Brown said of him, "He's a nice horse and on his best day he's capable of being competitive in here."
Copper Town rides a three-race winning streak for trainer Todd Pletcher. He steps up in class for the still-hot ownership team headed by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club.
The Cigar Mile also pits against one another the Ortiz brothers, who are competing for the best-jockey Eclipse Award. Jose rides Patternrecognition while Irad has the mount on Sunny Ridge, who split the Brown horses in the Kelso.
Marley's Freedom returns from the West Coast to contest Saturday's $250,000 Grade III Go For Wand for fillies and mares. The Bob Baffert trainee, a 4-year-old Blame filly, was last seen finishing fourth as the odds-on favorite in the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. That loss snapped a streak of three graded stakes wins. "I've been wanting to stretch her out in distance because she's bred to run all day," Baffert said. "But the one-turn mile should really suit her."
Brown has a talented duo in the Go For Wand in Grade II Ruffian winner Pacific Wind and consistent earner Your Love.
The early Classic preps are designed to let young horses improve and that's what the connections will be looking for in Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Demoiselle for 2-year-old fillies. Perhaps needing less improvement than the other six is Enliven, who has made steady progress through four starts, culminating in a runner-up finish in the Grade III Tempted on Nov. 2. "She's doing well, so we hope she likes two turns," said trainer Kiaran McLaughlin. "I think she will." The remainder of the field is spiced by Afleet Destiny, trained by the colorful and enthusiastic Uriah St. Lewis. St. Lewis saddled Discreet Lover to a massive upset win in the Grade I Jockey Club Gold Cup in October and said Afleet Destiny should love the two turns. "She wants to go a mile and a half and we feel she could be any kind," he said. The others are maiden winners.
Seven 2-year-olds look for their first Kentucky Derby qualifying points in Saturday's $250,000 Grade II Remsen. Another of Brown's deep string, Network Effect, exits a second-place finish in the Grade III Nashua Nov. 4. After that, it's a lot of question marks with the others stepping up in class, shipping for the first time, switching surfaces, etc. For those watching the Ortiz vs. Ortiz struggle, Jose rides Jungle Warrior for trainer Jimmy Jerkens whilst Irad gets a leg up on the Mark Hennig-trained Bourbon War.
A massive, and massively talented, field of 14 is set for Sunday's $300,000 Grade I Matriarch on the seaside track's lawn. Leading the pack is the ultimate rags-to-riches story Vasilika. The 4-year-old Skipshot filly was claimed by trainer Jerry Hollendorfer for $40,000 in February at Santa Anita. She finished second in her next race and since then has racked up eight straight wins, most recently the Grade II John Mabee, the Grade I Rodeo Drive and the Grade II Goldikova. She has earned $614,328 this season.
Chad Brown has three of the others -- Quidura, Uni and Rymska. All are graded stakes winners but all seek their first Grade I triumph. Others with graded stakes wins on their resume are Valadorna, Daddy Is a Legend and Insta Erma. Trainer Doug O'Neill tries Mopotism on the green course in the Matriarch after a fifth-place showing in the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff.
The Ortizes -- or is it Ortizi? -- jet across the continent to continue their competition in the Matriarch. Jose is up on Quidura, Irad on Rymska.
Fourteen, including one filly, entered for Saturday's $300,000 Grade I Hollywood Derby, 9 furlongs on the turf. French-bred Raging Bull, winner of the Grade II Hall of Fame and Grade III Sarnac at Saratoga, makes his first California start for the aforementioned Chad Brown. Brown also tries the grass for Instilled Regard, who has not raced since finishing fourth in the Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby.
River Boyne, an Irish-bred colt by Dandy Man, has won six of his last eight, most recently the Grade II Twilight Derby at Santa Anita. He was third in the Grade II Del Mar Derby behind only Ride a Comet and Kazan. Kazan is back but Ride a Comet is not. Have At It, second in the Twilight Derby, and Desert Stone, a close third, will have at it again. Also in the Hollywood Derby field are Carrick, winner of the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington, and the lone filly, Californiagoldrush, winner of the Grade II Sands Point at Belmont Park in her last outing.
Winter has come early to the Northeast and Midwest. So, here's a suggestion:
The Claiming Crown returns to South Florida Saturday with nine races reserved for horses who have run for a tag at least once this year or last. There are races on turf and dirt, from 5 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, both open and restricted to fillies and mares.
What the Claiming Crown races have in common is the horseplayer's dream: Huge and competitive fields, with contenders coming from all over. Three races have 16 entries, two have 14, two have 12, the Rapid Transit has 10 and only the Distaff Dash, with nine to start, fails to crack double-digits.
Check closer to Saturday because, well, you know, but there currently is no rain in the forecast through race day, with temps to be in the upper 70s to around 80.
It's way too complex to analyze all the fields here. You can catch all the action, complete with up-to-the-second commentary from analyst Jude Feld, on HRRN, www.horseracingradio.net.
On the international beat:
Sunday's Grade 1 Champions Cup at Chukyo Racecourse, formerly the Japan Cup Dirt, pits U.S. runner Pavel against an aspirational lineup of locals.
Pavel comes to Japan on the back of his second straight10th-place finish in the Breeders' Cup Classic. Before that, the 4-year-old Creative Cause colt was a distant second behind Accelerate in the Grade I Pacific Classic at Del Mar and a winner in the Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs. He was fourth in this year's Group 1 Dubai World Cup.
Gold Dream, winner of two Grade 1 races on the dirt last season -- one of them the Champions Cup -- arguably leads the locals. The 5-year-old son of Gold Allure, however, comes to this race after finishing second to Le Vent Se Leve in the Mile Championship Nambu Hai at Morioka and faces that rival again.
Several others would be in with a chance should any of those falter.
England's All-Weather Championships visited Deauville Friday with Trais Fluors winning the featured Prix Lyphard and earning a place in the Betway Easter Classic at Lingfield Park on Championships Finals Day April 19.
Tres Fluors, a 4-year-old Dansili colt, traveled well back of the leaders before being angled out at the top of the straight by jockey Pierre-Charles Boudot. He closed the deficit quickly to lead with more than a furlong to run. German-trained Rolando made a big late run but fell a neck short at the line under Mickael Barzalona. The reigning Sun Racing All-Weather Mile champion Lucky Team was another 5 1/2 lengths behind in third.
Trais Fluors came into the race off a third-place finish behind Recoletos in the Group 1 Prix d'Ispahan on the Longchamp turf in May but had not run since.
Owner Andreas Putsch of Haras de Saint Par, said afterwards, "It is obviously a long way off, but the Easter Classic is now an option for us to consider. "Trais Fluors definitely stays in training for 2019 and Lingifeld is certainly something to think about. Andre Fabre is away at the moment and we will sit down and talk about next year in the future."