Friday’s card provides a little bit of everything, with a pair of tough, extremely wide-open 2-year-old turf events, Dortmund finally getting away from California Chrome, Songbird’s attempt to remain unbeaten against the toughest field she’s ever faced by far, and the continuing rivalry between champions Beholder and Stellar Wind.
If California Chrome should get beat in the Classic on Saturday, a victory by Songbird against this talented a field could earn her Horse of the Year honors.
JUVENILE TURF – Aidan O’Brien has done very well in this race and he has two exceptional colts in Lancaster Bomber and Intelligence Cross, both of whom are coming off good efforts in group I stakes. Lancaster Bomber was in the Dewhurst Stakes to set the pace for O’Brien’s big 2-year-old Churchill, and while did his job, he surprisingly kept going after Churchill passed him and managed to finish second at odds of 66-1.
The American horses are a salty group, with every one of them having the credentials to win. The two most talented look to be the undefeated Summer Stakes winner Good Samaritan, who turned in an absolutely sensational half-mile work in :47 2/5 over the Santa Anita turf course, the only horse working on the turf course that morning, and the brilliant Pilgrim Stakes winner Oscar Performance, who has devastated his opponents in his last two starts and looks to be something special.
Oscar Performance did not have the best of luck at the draw, coming out of the 13-post, which means Jose Ortiz will have to use him to get position, most likely right off the quick sprinter Wellabled. But I still believe this is an enormously gifted colt, who could prove a bargain at 4-1. Good Samaritan also drew toward the outside in post 11, and based on his work and the way he handled this turf course, he is going to be very tough to beat, probably sitting somewhere in midpack.
If these two colts break well and get a good trip, I’m not sure anyone can beat them. I am also intrigued by Favorable Outcome, even though he has never run on grass; or maybe because he’s never run on grass and brings an unknown factor into the race. I actually would have given him a decent shot in the Juvenile, and it's possible he could win this race mostly on talent. I believe's just a good horse. His six-length maiden romp in 1:09 4/5 at Saratoga was as impressive as any 2-year-old seen at the Spa. In the grade I Champagne Stakes, only his second career start, he got up in Syndergaard’s ridiculously fast pace (:44 3/5 and 1:08 3/5) and still held on for third. This is a colt bred for two turns, being by Flatter, out of an Eltish mare, and he could actually improve going two turns on grass.
Eltish, who ran third behind Cigar in the Arlington Citation Challenge and was second in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and Iselin Handicap, did begin his career in Europe, placing in the Dewhurst, Royal Lodge, and Prince of Wales’s Stakes, so there is turf close up in his pedigree. He’s a guess, but at 15-1, he could fit nicely in the exotics with Oscar Performance, my main selection, and Good Samaritan.
I would put a few bucks on him to win just in case, and at 8-1 I like Big Score, who has a stakes win over the course, winning the Zuma Beach Stakes from the 11-post and racing some three-wide without cover the whole race, while coming home his last quarter in :24 flat. I loved his five-furlong work in 1:00 2/5 on dirt the other day and the acceleration he showed nearing the wire.
There are plenty of others to choose from, such as With Anticipation winner Made You Look, and Bourbon Stakes 1-2 finishers Keep Quiet and Ticonderoga. But then these juvenile turf races are always a crap shoot and you just have to get lucky.
Exacta and trifecta box – It’s dangerous leaving out the Europeans, but I’ll go with Oscar Performance, Good Samaritan, Favorable Outcome, and Big Score. Even with his bad post, I still believe Oscar Performance could be something special and will find a way to overcome it. Maybe his post will keep his odds up a little.
DIRT MILE – The chalk looks pretty strong here, with Dortmund, Gun Runner, and Runhappy. Dortmund will appreciate getting away from California Chrome and dropping back in distance, as Bob Baffert appears to have him very sharp. At 6-5, he’s certainly no bargain at the windows. Gun Runner also will appreciate a cut back in distance with a two-turn mile and always runs a good race. Runhappy is a grade I winner at seven furlongs, and he should improve off his fourth-place finish in the Ack Ack, a tough spot going a flat mile at Churchill Downs off a nine-month layoff.
Another who could easily hit the board is Tamarkuz, but he hasn’t won since taking the Godolphin Mile in March of 2015. But he is rounding into top form, improving with every race.
But my win selection here at a price is good old Vyjack, who, even at age 6, has been very sharp in his last two starts, having run the fastest Beyer speed figure of his career in his last start. He sort of reminds me of another “V for Victory” horse, Volponi, as both horses were warriors who ran big races at all distances and on grass and dirt. Vyjack showed his ability at a mile by winning the Kelso Handicap at Belmont in 1:34 flat in 2014. And he was on the Kentucky Derby trail, winning the Jerome and Gotham Stakes, and finishing a close third in the Wood Memorial.
Since being sent to Phil D’Amato in California he has been reborn, finishing second in the seven-furlong Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar in a blistering 1:20 1/5 behind Masochistic, arguably the fastest sprinter in California and one of the favorites for the Sprint. He then went back on grass and came from far back to win the grade II City of Hope Mile equaling the course record of 1:31 3/5. Relegated to the also-eligible list for the Mile for some reason, he nonetheless is in a good position here going back to the dirt. Flavien Prat seems to fit him well, getting him to relax off the pace, and I can see him closing fast to either pick up a piece of it or winning it all.
Exacta and trifecta box – Vyjack, Dortmund, Runhappy, and Gun Runner. But I may be tempted at the last minute to replace Runhappy with Tamarkuz depending on how the track is playing for speed. I have to bet Vyjack to win as well.
JUVENILE FILLIES TURF – Good luck coming up with the winner of this race. This is a total crap shoot, especially with the exciting La Coronel, who looks to be the most gifted filly in the race, drawing post 14. Her only two turf starts were so impressive and so explosive, I’m not sure anyone could beat her. But now she will have to work out a decent trip from the far outside, which won’t be easy. But, at 9-2, maybe this is the time to bet her, figuring she’ll be longer odds than she should.
The Europeans look to be an evenly matched and talented group, dominated by the ubiquitous O’Brien family – two trained by Aidan and one trained by his son and former jockey Joseph, who will give a leg up to his younger brother, Donnacha. Aidan’s pair, Hydrangea and Roly Poly, both have big chances, but the latter is stuck out in post 13. Joseph will saddle Intricately, who nosed out Hydrangea in the group I Moyglare Stud Stakes at odds 25-1 in her last start.
Also from Europe is the recent U.S. purchase Spain Burg, who really impressed me with her late turn of foot, blowing by the 1-2 favorite Fair Eva in the seven-furlong Rockfel Stakes at Newmarket at 14-1. This was a huge effort and a big step up for this French-trained filly coming off three victories and a second in the provinces. She now is owned partly by Reeves Thoroughbred Racing and is trained by Kathy Ritvo, the team who brought you BC Classic winner Mucho Macho Man. The great Frankie Dettori, who rode her at Newmarket and has won his share of Breeders’ Cup races, will be back aboard. With all this going for her, she is my main selection at 5-1.
But there are so many fillies who can with this race, including the Chad Brown pair of New Money Honey and Rymska, one-two in the Miss Grillo Stakes. At odds of 10-1 and 20-1, respectively, both these fillies look like big overlays.
And I haven’t even mentioned the Natalma winner Victory to Victory, from Mark Casse’s barn, and two other dangerous Europeans, group III winner Madam Dancealot and a real sneaky 15-1 shot from France named Cavale Doree, winner of the Prix du Calvados at Deauville and a decent fifth of 11 in the recent group I Prix Marcel Boussac at Chantilly. You always have to beware of the French invaders, especially when they are overlooked.
There is also the second- and third-place finsishers in the Surfer Girl Stakes at Santa Anita, Happy Mesa and La Force, an Italian-trained filly, who was making her U.S. debut.
So, good luck sorting all this out.
Exacta and trifecta box – Going bombs away except for one. Spain Burg, Cavale Doree, La Corenel, and Rymska. And I’ll place a win bet on Spain Burg, and for a big price, Cavale Doree. But like the Juvenile Turf, we have one horse who could be special, bad post or no bad post.
DISTAFF – This one is pretty simple. Is Songbird the super horse many believe she is? If she is and is truly one of the great ones, then she can zip to the lead from the rail and just keep going, wiring her field once again. But if she is not and is no more than a sensational filly who has dominated her fellow 3-year-olds, then she is in for a rude awakening, running against a field far superior to anything she has faced so far.
I can honestly say I have no idea which is the case. Songbird looks to be something out of the ordinary, sort of like a female version of American Pharoah. But the question is, can she take the pace pressure she is likely going to get at different points in the race from the likes of older fillies and mares Beholder, I’m a Chatterbox, and Curalina, turn them all aside, and then still have enough to hold off Stellar Wind and Forever Unbridled?
With one or more of the three pace fillies likely to test her from the half-mile pole and keep up the pressure around the far turn, it does look like a good setup for Stellar Wind, who is a champion herself, with the versatility to stalk and wear down Beholder or make a big late run as she did on several occasions as a 3-year-old. Her 5-2 morning line odds compared to 6-5 for Songbird is mighty enticing. And let’s not forget Beholder, also at 5-2, who has maintained her form at age 6 and who only last year turned in one of the most spectacular performances seen in a long time, crushing the boys in the Pacific Classic with devastating move on the turn. She was forced to go to the lead in her two narrow defeats to Stellar Wind, but now, breaking from the outside post, will be able to run her race.
I’m just going to sit back and enjoy this one. How can you not root for Songbird? But there are many still loyal to Beholder. If I was forced to put my money on someone, and try to make some kind of decent profit, I guess it would have to be Stellar Wind because of the way the race sets up, and as highly regarded as she is, she may actually be better than we think. I also think Forever Unbridled could run big enough to pick up a piece of it, or even win it at a pretty big price coming off a sneaky impressive score in the Beldame Stakes.
But let’s just hope for a fantastic race and to see greatness on display.