With the Triple Crown safely tucked away, action returns to Churchill Downs this weekend with a tasty “Downs After Dark” program on Saturday evening, featuring an appearance by none other than Justify.
No, the Triple Crown winner won’t be racing. But he will take a bow in front of the fans — a nice draw for an evening that already promises plenty of action and includes three Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” races.
There’s even more top-flight racing on tap at Santa Anita, Monmouth Park and Delaware Park.
On the international front, the French Oaks on Sunday at Chantilly has a full field of quality fillies. And Royal Ascot opens Tuesday.
Let’s start with:
While Justify enjoys his well-deserved applause Friday night in Louisville, he’ll be walking on the very track where he’s expected to wrap up his career in November in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And the opposition already is lining up.
Racing Post reports Aidan O’Brien feels he learned his lesson in the Kentucky Derby and plans to send Mendelssohn back to the United States for two more races in preparation for the Classic.
O’Brien said: “The Breeders’ Cup Classic is what we’ve been thinking of for Mendelssohn and he’ll more than likely head to Belmont on the same day as the Eclipse at Sandown (July 7),” O’Brien told the British media outlet. “He’ll run on the dirt in the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes and then we’ll look at the Pennsylvania Derby (on Sept. 22) … He’s had a bit of rest and he’ll be just ready to start back.”
Gronkowski, the other European Triple Crown contender, also is expected to take an American route to another try at Justify after finishing second in the Belmont Stakes.
Of course, there won’t be any shortage of local candidates for the Breeders’ Cup capper, either. On this weekend’s agenda:
Saturday’s $500,000 Grade I Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs is a “Win and You’re In” for Classic, to be run over the same track in November. The eight entrants include three millionaires and some with globetrotter resumes.
The favorite, however, may be the least experienced of the lot — Backyard Heaven, a 4-year-old Tizway colt trained by Chad Brown for Ken and Sarah Ramsey who makes just his fifth career start. Backyard Heaven won his second start at Aqueduct in December, captured an allowance event at the Big A in March with a 108 Beyer Speed Figure and won the Grade II Alysheba at Churchill Downs on Oaks Day by 4 1/2 lengths with a 105 Beyer.
Those numbers are better than anything put up recently by such experienced opponents as Irish War Cry, Lookin At Lee, Hawaakom or last year’s runner-up (behind Gun Runner) Honorable Duty. Hawaakom finished second in the Alysheba so the class and age questions seem to have been answered.
Saturday’s $100,000 Grade III Matt Winn Stakes for 3-year-olds at Churchill Downs has one Kentucky Derby refugee, Combatant, who struggled home 18th in the Run for the Roses, and another once was considered a late-blooming Derby prospect for Bob Baffert, Ax Man. Combatant was fourth in the Arkansas Derby but still seeks his first victory against winners. Ax Man is 2-for-2 this year including a win in the Sir Barton at Pimlico on Preakness Day. Also watch for Funny Duck, upset winner of the Pat Day Mile on Derby weekend after a bunch of starts on the lawn.
Eight go forward for Sunday’s $100,000 Pegasus Stakes for 3-year-olds at Monmouth Park. None is going to be mistaken for Justify but Justaholic and Supreme Aura did participate in some early Triple Crown trials before their goals were modified. Forced was second in the Gold Fever Stakes in his last outing at Belmont Park but only three contested that race.
Saturday’s $200,000 Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs is a “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and trainer Wayne Catalano is hoping his filly, Farrell, can grab that free pass. Farrell tired late in her last start, the Grade I La Troienne on Oaks Day, finishing a close second. But she has been competitive throughout her career in virtually every start over a fast track. Off tracks, not so much. The field of nine is well matched, however, and a case can be made for virtually any one of them.
Fair Grounds Oaks winner Chocolate Martini was assigned highweight of 124 pounds and pegged the 9-5 morning-line favorite for Saturday’s $200,000 Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita, where she faces five rivals. The Broken Vow filly finished fifth in the Kentucky Oaks in her last start. Exuberance has been running in top company in graded states but without much to show for the effort. Thirteen Squared was third in the Santa Anita Oaks, albeit defeated by 7 lengths. Fool’s Paradise was fifth in the Santa Anita Oaks and bounced back to win an allowance affair last month.
Saturday’s $100,000 Obeah Stakes at Delaware Park, a 9-furlongs prep for the $750,000 Grade II Delaware Handicap on Bastille Day, drew a field of 12 including defending champ Power of Snunner and 7-2 morning-line favorite Tequilita. Power of Snunner, an 8-year-old daughter of Power by Far, exits a sixth-place finish in the Grade III Alaire DuPont Distaff at Pimlico on May 18. Tequilita, a 4-year-old daughter of Union Rags, was third in her most recent outing, the $250,000 Grade II Ruffian at Belmont Park.
Reigning U.S. Male Turf champ World Approval heads the cast for Saturday’s $200,000 Grade II Wise Dan at 1 1/16 miles at Churchill Downs. The 6-year-old Northern Afleet gelding was 5-for-6 last year, including a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. However, he comes off a money-burning fifth in the Grade I Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita and will need to step things back up to handle the likes of Divisidero, Shining Copper and the improving Mr. Cub. He’s the 6-5 favorite on the line.
Arawak and Irish-bred River Boyne might be the ones in Saturday’s $100,000 Rainbow Stakes for 3-year-olds at Santa Anita. Only five signed on. Arawak, an Uncle Mo colt, and River Boyne, by Dandy Man, exit the fourth and fifth placings in the Grade II American Turf at Churchill Downs.
Filly & Mare Turf
Thirteen are set for Saturday’s $100,000 Grade III Regret for 3-year-old fillies on the Churchill Downs turf. There’s no obvious favorite here although the Larry Jones-trained Stave makes her fifth career start seeking third straight win. She’s drawn outside but the 1 1/8 mile configuration has a long run down the stretch to the first turn, so the issue could be moot.
Multiple Grade I winner Oscar Performance returns to Belmont Park, where he is 3-for-3, for Sunday’s $300,000 Grade III Poker Stakes. Oscar Performance, a Kitten’s Joy colt, used the Grade III Pilgrim at Belmont as a springboard to victory in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf. Last year, he won the Grade III Pennine Ridge and the Grade I Belmont Derby Invitational over the course before annexing the Grade I Secretariat Stakes at Arlington. He tailed off at the end of the year, finishing ninth in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, makes his first start as a 4-year-old and gives up weight to all seven rivals.
Those include 2015 Belmont Derby winner Force the Pass, last year’s Poker winner Ballagh Rocks and ultradependable Fire Away, who exits a victory in the Grade III Dixie at Pimlico.
On the international front:
Happily returns to the scene of her last triumph seeking a repeat in Sunday’s Group 1 Prix du Diane (French Oaks) at Chantilly. The Galileo filly, trained by Aidan O’Brien, bagged the Qatar Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere going 1 mile over the course last Oct. 1. Following that, she was a trouble-plagued 14th in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. She started her 3-year-old season with a pair of third-place showings in the English and Irish 2000 Guineas. Sunday, jockey Ryan Moore will see if she benefits from adding 1/4 mile to her task.
Happily is far from the only live chance in the race. Laurens comes from a win in the 10-furlongs Group 1 Prix Saint-Alary at ParisLongchamp and before that was second in the 1000 Guineas at Newmarket. Several of the others could prevail with a small step forward, including The Aga Khan’s homebred Shahnaza, an Azamour filly who’s 2-for-2 this season. Good race.
Royal Ascot opens shop Tuesday. First out of the gate is the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes and, two races later, Lady Aurelia defends her title in the Group 1 King’s Stand. From there, it just gets better and better. Roll the procession! Maybe the new American-born duchess can help hand over some hardware to her countrymen?
Four of the Breeders’ Cup events are “Win and You’re in” tickets for Breeders’ Cup races in November.