Historic clashes at York in the north of England this week provided a dramatic lead-in to weekend horse racing at Saratoga and Del Mar -- all with Breeders' Cup berths at stake and implications for the looming Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe.
It's an embarrassment of riches for fans and a graphic illustration of the internationalization of the sport.
Enable and Japan earned Breeders' Cup berths with victories at York, although Enable certainly didn't need hers, her connections being fixated on a potential hat trick of Arc victories. Three more "Win and You're In" plums are for the plucking Saturday at Saratoga and another at Del Mar.
Friday also offers up one of the year's premier state-bred festivals at the Spa with New York-breds contesting six stakes worth a combined $1.15 million.
So, as Hawk Harrelson used to say on the White Sox broadcasts, "Sit back, relax and strap it down." Here we go.
England - York
Enable was magnificent in Thursday's Group 1 Darley Yorkshire Oaks, leading the way under Frankie Dettori, shaking off a challenge by her old rival Magical and then cruising home first by 2 3/4 lengths. Magical finished second, followed by Lah ti Dar and South Sea Pearl.
Although Dettori had to ask for a bit of energy at mid-stretch before shaking free of the Ballydoyle challenger, the race clearly served as a perfect prep for Enable's bid for a third straight Arc de Triomphe triumph. It was her 12th straight win, 10 of those at the Group 1 level.
"She wasn't at her best in the Arc last year," Racing Post quoted trainer John Gosden. "But if she goes back to the form she showed when she won the race at 3, which she looked like she was showing today, then she'll be mighty tough to beat.
"You always have to watch out for the 3-year-olds," the trainer added. "Sottsass and Japan were brilliant recently and they're the ones we’ll have to watch as they will be getting the weight."
Dettori, ever the font of emotion, said, "I love her so much … She's amazing, uncomplicated, has great presence and a massive engine. Everybody doubts her but she keeps on winning."
Also Thursday at York, Living In The Past made all in the Group 2 Sky Bet Lowther Stakes for 2-year-old fillies and the favorite, Liberty Beach could do better than second, 3/4 lengths back. Living In The Past, a daughter of Bungle Inthejungle, came into the event the winner of only one previous race -- that a novice event at Beverly. Liberty Beach, a Cable Bay filly, came from a win in the Group 3 Molecomb Stakes at Goodwood.
Speaking of Japan, he found one last scrap of energy in the final yards to get by a stubborn Crystal Ocean for victory in Wednesday's Group 1 Juddmonte International at York. Elarqam was third, followed by King of Comedy.
Crystal Ocean, the world's top-rated horse, was always prominent in the 1 1/4-miles feature while chasing pacemaker Circus Maximus. James Doyle rallied Crystal Ocean to a narrow lead as the field turned for home over the left-handed course as Ryan Moore had Japan on the move.
Japan, a 3-year-old Galileo colt, appeared ready to run past Crystal Ocean 100 meters from home but the latter found more and the issue wasn't settled until the last jumps, with a head as the official margin.
Japan has been highly regarded by the Coolmore lads and trainer Aidan O'Brien but could do no more than third in the Investec Derby in his first try at the Group 1 level. He returned from that, however, to win the Group 2 King Edward VII at Ascot before Wednesday's breakthough. "He's made progress from day one," O'Brien told Racing TV. "He's the type who will never win by far but is a lovely relaxed horse who does what he needs to do. That's the best form of any three-year-old this season."
The race was a "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf. British bookmakers lowered his odds for that race to 6-1 and for the Arc to 10-1.
Crystal Ocean opened his campaign with three straight wins, capped by the Group 1 Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot. He then gave Enable a test before finishing second by a neck in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes July 27, earning his somewhat controversial 127 rating.
Among the disappointments in the International was Japan-based Cheval Grand, who finished eighth, beating only Thundering Blue. Oddly, both of those competed in the
Group 1 Japan Cup last year, Cheval Grand finishing fourth and Thundering Blue 10th. Cheval Grand won the 2017 Japan Cup and was second in the Group 1 Longines Dubai Sheema Classic in March.
Also Wednesday, Logician moved sharply into focus for the fast-approaching St Leger with a handy win in the Skybet Great Voltigeur. With Dettori up, the gray Frankel colt, a Juddmonte Farms homebred, moved strongly to the lead in stretch run and was not under any pressure to win by 1 3/4 lengths over Constantinople. Norway, who made the early pace, finished third. Logician remains undefeated after four starts.
Dettori was lobbying for the St Leger even before sticking the landing on his trademark flying dismount. But trainer John Gosden was more circumspect, according to Racing Post, saying, "There's a couple of options for Logician, one obvious one at Doncaster and the other being to stay at a mile and a half. But we'll see how he comes out of this in the next 10 days before we decide."
Here's what Saturday's $1.25 million Grade I Runhappy Travers Stakes for 3-year-olds at Saratoga doesn't have: Disqualified Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security and 2018 2-year-old champ Game Winner. Here's what it does have: A wide-open field of 12 with a chance to rewrite the so-far meandering script of the 3-year-old season.
Game Winner is out because of a virus going through Bob Baffert's barn. Maximum Security is out because his connections felt he wasn't quite right. They likely will meet later -- perhaps at Santa Anita for the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Tacitus inherits the favorite's role at 5-2 on the morning line. But, like many of these, he needs to take a step or two forward. The son of Tapit won the Grade II Tampa Bay Derby and Grade II Wood Memorial before running fourth, placed third, in the Kentucky Derby and second in the Belmont. He stumbled at the start of the Grade II Jim Dandy early in the Spa meeting and rallied to finish second.
Code of Honor finished one slot ahead of Tacitus in Louisville. Baffert substitutes Mucho Gusto for Game Winner and he will attract mucho support after finishing second to Maximum Security in the Grade I Haskell at Monmouth. Tax and Highest Honors also will have their backers, as will Looking At Bikinis.
Tacitus, seen winning the Wood Memorial earlier this year, is the favorite for Saturday's $1.25 million Travers Stakes at Saratoga, Susie Raisher photo, courtesy NYRA
Midnight Bisou and Elate meet for the third time this year in Saturday's $700,000 Grade I Personal Ensign at Saratoga, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In" for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff. Midnight Bisou, a 4-year-old Midnight Lute filly, won both of the earlier confrontations. Both are already in the Distaff, Midnight Bisou via a June win in the Grade I Ogden Phipps and Elate thanks to a victory in the Grade II Fleur de Lis at Churchill Dows, also in June.
There are four others in the Personal Ensign. She's a Julie captured the Grade III Bayakoa and Grade I La Troienne earlier this year and was second in last year's Alabama. Wow Cat was second in the Breeders' Cup Distaff last year at Churchill Downs and returned in July to finish second in the Grade III Shuvee over the Saratoga strip. Shuvee winner Golden Award also is on hand for this and Coach Rocks completes the field.
Saturday's $850,000 Grade I Sword Dancer at Saratoga, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", drew a talented bunch including Channel Cat and Ya Primo -- the 1-2 in the Grade II Bowling Green, run over the same course July 27. Ya Primo is one of three Chad Brown trainees here. Also in that trio is the lightly raced Annals of Time, who steps up but could be a really good one. Channel Maker comes off a fourth in the Bowling Green.
Filly & Mare Turf
Saturday's $400,000 Grade II Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa for fillies and mares at Saratoga has nine takers and a well-matched bunch it is. One always starts with trainer Chad Brown in this kind of thing these days and, sure enough, he will saddle three in the Ballston Spa -- Fifty Five, Significant Form and Mascha. Mascha makes her second U.S. start after racing in France. The lukewarm favorites are Secret Message and Starship Jubilee but there could be money to be made with some sharp handicapping.
Saturday's $175,000 (Canadian) Grade II Play the King Stakes at Woodbine is 6 furlongs for 4-year-olds and up but all six entrants are, in fact, 4. None inspires total confidence here although Curlin's Honor most recently was second in the Grade II King Edward going 1 mile over the course and Sable Island exits a second in the Grade III Vigil Stakes over the local all-weather track.
Mitole is the 4-5 favorite on the morning line for Saturday's $600,000 Grade I Forego at Saratoga. The 4-year-old Eskendereya colt, trained by Steve Asmussen, finished a fading third in the Grade I Vanderbilt in his last outing but before that won the Grade I Met Mile and the Grade I Churchill Downs. He might have to chase down promises fulfilled, who starts from the rail. That 4-year-old Shackleford colt from Dale Romans' barn looked recovered from his Dubai experience (fourth in the Group 1 Golden Shaheen) when he won the Grade II John Nerud last month. It would be a surprise to find any of the others in the winner's circle but that's why they run these.
Shancelot is one of the stars of the Saratoga meeting and gets a chance to prove he's no fluke as the odds-on favorite among nine in for Saturday's $500,000 Grade I H. Allen Jerkens Memorial for 3-year-olds at 7 furlongs. The Shanghai Bobby colt, trained by Jorge Navarro, is 3-for-3 with the wins at Gulfstream Park in February, Monmouth Park in June and the Grade II Amsterdam at the Spa July 28. He won the Amsterdam by 12 1/2 lengths and was awarded an almost incredible Beyer Speed Figure of 121 after completing the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.01. That's only 0.27 second off the track record established by Quality Road 10 years ago this month. If he can do that again, all we can do is watch and enjoy. Shancelot starts from the rail and if he's not up to the task, it's anyone's race.
Catalina Cruiser is the star in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Pat O'Brien at Del Mar, a "Win and You're In" for the only race he's ever lost -- the Big Ass Fans Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile. The 5-year-old son of Union Rags, trained by John Sadler, finished sixth in the big race last year at Churchill Downs but since then has won the Grade II True North Stakes at Belmont Park and the Grade II San Diego Handicap. He won last year's Pat O'Brien by 7 1/4 lengths. Among the six rivals, Jalen Journey has been improving for trainer Peter Miller; 2017 winner Giant Expectations returns to California after a three-months rest; and Bob Baffert tries to get American Anthem restarted.
Filly & Mare Sprint
Come Dancing saw her modest win streak snapped last time out when she was caught late by Midnight Bisou and finished second in the Grade I Ogden Phipps. Midnight Bisou isn't contesting Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Ballerina for fillies and mares at Saratoga, a Breeders' Cup "Win and You're In", so Come Dancing, a 5-year-old Malibu Moon mare, is the 6-5 morning line favorite. Close behind is Separation of Powers, a 4-year-old Candy Ride filly who already has two Grade I scores this season. Among the others in the seven-horse field, Mia Mischief also is a Grade I victress and Minit to Stardom might press Come Dancing on the front end.
Summer Sunday looks imposing on one of the last Sundays of summer, heading a field of seven for the $125,000 (Canadian) Grade III Seaway Stakes for fillies and mares on the Woodbine all-weather course. The 4-year-old daughter of Silent Name rides a three-race win streak, all at Woodbine, culminating in the Grade II Royal North on July 21. Among the others, Katie Babie has finished second in her last two starts, both Grade III events at Woodbine.
Friday's $200,000 Funny Cide Stakes for New York-breds at Saratoga has a field of nine with no clear favorite. Watch and learn.
Saturday's $50,000 Evangeline Downs Prince attracted six with Kentucky-bred Elusive d'Oro the morning-line pick after two competitive runner-up showings at Churchill Downs.
My Italian Rabbi and Fierce Lady are the morning-line favorites among six entered for Friday's $200,000 Seeking the Ante Stakes for New York-breds at Saratoga. They ran 1-2 in that order in the Stillwater Stakes July 18, just a nose apart.
Friday's $50,000 Evangeline Downs Princess looks like a program-stabber with eight fillies set to mix it up over 6 furlongs.
Already in the books:
Wednesday's $100,000 John's Call was supposed to be 1 5/8 miles on the turf but instead went 1 1/4 miles on the sloppy main track. After the scratches, Highland Sky bided his time, took command in the stretch and won off by 8 1/4 lengths over Red Knight. Turco Bravo and Redicean completed the order of finish. Highland Sky, a 6-year-old Sky Mesa gelding, splashed home in 2:04.32 under Manny Franco.
Double Tuff was double tough in the stretch run in Wednesday's $100,000 William Henry Harrison Stakes for Indiana-breds, kicking away from five rivals to win by 4 3/4 lengths. Here Comes Doc and Operation Stevie filled the trifecta slots. Double Tuff, a 6-year-old Skylord gelding, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.12 with Marcelino Pedroza up.
In Wednesday's $100,000 Shelby County Stakes for state-bred fillies and mares, Expect Indy had to change course in deep stretch to get by odds-on favorite Unbridled Class, then edged that foe by 1/2 length. Hay Little Bit rallied five-wide from far back to get show money. Expect Indy, a 6-year-old Mr. Mabee mare, finished in 1:10.88 under Emmanuel Esquivel.
Two Thirty Five chased down Leading Score in the final yards of Wednesday's $115,000 Harry F. Brubaker Stakes, winning that by a nose. The favorite, Line Judge, reported third. Two Thirty Five, a 5-year-old Stay Thirsty gelding, ran 1 mile on a fast track in 1:37.51 with Abel Cedillo in the irons. Isotherm and Dr. Dorr were fourth and fifth.