Maxfield moved back into Kentucky Derby contention and Raging Bull and Keeper Ofthe Stars won Grade 1 races at Santa Anita during the Memorial Day weekend as U.S. horse racing continued its climb back into action.
Several horses, Maxfield among them, made successful returns from long layoffs or long trips.
On the international front, Exultant landed Hong Kong's final Group 1 of the season and, likely, Horse of the Year honors while Daring Tact remained undefeated in winning the second leg of the Japanese fillies' Triple Crown.
Let's get right to it.
The Road to the Triple Crown
Maxfield returned from a nearly seven-months absence to win with style in Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs, maintaining his undefeated record and earning 50 points toward a start in the Kentucky Derby.
The Street Sense colt, a Godolphin homebred, had nothing but trouble early in the 1 1/16-miles race, hung wide on the first turn and then boxed in and shuffled back. He managed to stay within hailing distance of the lead, though, came widest of all into the stretch and edged clear late, winning by 1 length over Ny Traffic. Pneumatic pressed the early pace and held on for show money. Street Sense got home in 1:43.05 with Jose Lopez up.
Maxfield was on everyone's Kentucky Derby radar after winning the Grade I Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland last fall. But he had not raced since then, missing the Breeders' Cup Juvenile with a minor, but unfortunately timed, injury. Had the Run for the Roses not been moved back to Sept. 5 because of COVID-19 protocols, he would have had no chance for Derby glory.
"We were really anxious to see this one," said winning trainer Brendan Walsh. "It wasn't an easy spot, either. I think the top four horses are all really nice horses. It's nice to get this one out of the way. It's good to see him come back and see he's as good, if not better, than when he was a 2-year-old."
Ortiz said the colt looks like a Kentucky Derby contender.
"He came off the layoff today going a mile and a sixteenth and Brendan did a really good job to get him fit so I don’t see a mile-and-a-quarter being a problem at all," the rider said.
Walsh said Sunday Maxfield came out of the Matt Winn just fine. While he is listed by New York racing officials as "probable" for the Belmont Stakes, the trainer said there is no firm, immediate goal.
"I have just been thinking all along to go one race at a time with this colt," Walsh said. "We'll talk it over with the Godolphin team and plan for our next target whatever that may be."
Meanwhile, Florida Derby winner Tiz the Law, the No. 2 horse on the Churchill Downs "Road to the Kentucky Derby" leaderboard, breezed a bullet 5 furlongs in 59.75 seconds Sunday at the Palm Meadows training center in Florida, according to Belmont Park racing officials. The colt is prepping for the $1 million Grade I Belmont Stakes, slated for Saturday, June 20 at Belmont Park.
That race, cut back from its normal 1 1/2 miles to 1 1/8 miles, looks like a key preliminary to the Kentucky Derby. Listed as "probable," along with the iffy Maxfield, are the Bob Baffert duo of Charlatan and Nadal, Basin, Farmington Road, Gouverneur Morris, Modernist and Sole Volante.
Also note: As promised, Churchill Downs has added two races to the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby" -- the Grade 3 Unicorn Stakes June 21 at 1 mile on the Tokyo Racecourse dirt and the Japan Dirt Derby July 8 at 1 1/4 miles at Oi Racecourse -- a regional track. Each will award points for the top four runners on the 40-16-8-4 scale. Promised updates on the "European Road to the Kentucky Derby" schedule await firm schedules of potential qualifying races.
Maxfield wins the Matt Winn Stakes May 23 at Churchill Downs, renews his Kentucky Derby candidacy, photo courtesy Churchill Downs
Elsewhere on the track during the Memorial Day weekend:
After struggling with local health officials to get racing restarted, The Great Race Place pulled out all the stops on Memorial Day with three big stakes, two of them Grade 1 affairs. And that followed a big Saturday card.
Raging Bull kicked into gear at the quarter pole in Monday's $300,000 Grade I Shoemaker Mile, circled most of his rivals and kicked away smartly to win by 2 1/4 lengths, well wrapped up by jockey Joel Rosario. Next Shares, wiped out at the start in a chain-reaction of bumping, rallied from last to take second, 1/2 length in front of Without Parole. Last year's Preakness Stakes winner, War of Will, making his first start on turf, broke inward from the No. 5 gate, causing the bumping and causing the stewards to set him down from fifth to six in the final placings.
Raging Bull, a French-bred, 5-year-old son of Dark Angel, finished in 1:32.73 over firm turf. The Chad Brown trainee was one of several making an impressive comeback during the weekend His last start was in September, when he was third in the Woodbine Mile. He has been training in Florida and this was only his second visit to the West Coast. The first saw him victorious in the Grade I Hollywood Derby on the Del Mar turf in December of 2018.
"He ran a super race and he always runs good," said Brown's assistant, Juan Hernandez. "He had trained well here and he was acting good. He's just a very special horse."
Raging Bull earned a free pass to the TVG Breeders' Cup Mile at Keeneland this November via the "Win and You're In" program.
In the day's second Grade I event, Keeper Ofthe Stars stalked the pace in the $300,000 Gamely Stakes for fillies and mares, moved to the lead when prompted by jockey Abel Cedillo and held well, winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Bodhicitta rallied from far back to nose out Mucho Unusual for second. The favorite, Etoile, was never involved and finished eighth. Keeper Ofthe Stars, a 4-year-old daughter of Midnight Lute, ran 1 1/8 miles on the turf in 1:46.43.
Keeper Ofthe Stars entered the Gamely off a win in the Grade II Buena Vista and now has seven wins from 15 career starts.
"I'm over the moon right now! I'm really speechless," said Keeper Ofthe Stars' trainer, Jonathan Wang. "This is my first Grade I, so I'm off the schneid! Now that she's learned to relax, the sky's the limit with her … She's a really good filly. I thought she could've won a couple of those graded stakes at Del Mar, but her best races are in front of her."
Jolie Olimpica made her move in the lane in Monday's $200,000 Grade II Monrovia Stakes for fillies and mares, edging by pacesetting Stealthediamonds, then holding off a late bid by Oleksandra to win by 1/2 length. Stealthediamonds couldn't steal the race but did hang on for show money. Jolie Olimpica, a 4-year-old, Brazilian-bred filly by Drosselmeyer, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:01.11, just 0.1 second shy of the course record, with Mike Smith riding.
Jolie Olimpica won all three starts in her native land, then hit the ground running in California this year, winning the Grade III Las Cienegas in January and finishing second in the Grade II Buena Vista in February before taking a short break.
"She's that kind of horse," Smith said. "She deserves to be ridden confidently. She demands it as well. I just let her be and she will get the job done."
United, the horse who nearly cost Bricks and Mortar an undefeated season last year, returned to the winner's circle Saturday by a typical nose in the $200,000 Grade II Charles Whittingham Stakes. The 5-year-old Giant's Causeway gelding dueled a long shot foe into submission, then hooked up in a stirring stretch duel with the favorite, Rockemperor, winning by the aforementioned nose.
Rockemperor, however, was set down to third for bumping in the lane, elevating Originaire to the place position.
United, with Flavien Prat up, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf, starting on the downhill course, in 2:00.34.
He moved into the stakes ranks for the first time in last year's Whittingham, finishing second. In the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf, he held the lead in deep stretch, yielding to Bricks and Mortar by just a head. That victory sealed Horse of the Year honors for Bricks and Mortar.
"I thought I was second," Prat said of Saturday's finish. "On my way back, I looked at the tote board and there was an inquiry. I said 'What? I wasn't involved in that.' And (then) I realized I won. That was pretty cool. He's getting better and better with each race."
United's trainer, Richard Mandella, was doubly happy with the win.
"With everything we've been through, this puts the icing on top of the cake as far as getting back to racing here at Santa Anita," said Mandella. "Ever since the race was renamed for Charlie, I've wanted to win it. He was such as special man and he meant so much to our game. I've had a few seconds, but to win today really means a lot."
Wildman Jack, making his first start back from a successful trip to Dubai, stuck close to the pace set by 70-1 longshot Sparky Ville in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Daytona Stakes, edged past that foe late and won by a nose. Stubbins was 1/2 length farther back in third. Wildman Jack, a 4-year-old Goldencents colt, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on firm turf in 1:01.01 with Mike Smith at the controls.
After an inquiry involving five horses and some tight quarters in deep stretch, the stewards let the result stand.
Wildman Jack was successful in the optional claimer ranks last year for trainer Doug O'Neill. Sent early to Dubai, he finished second in the Yahsat Trophy and won the Group 3 Nad Al Sheeba Turf Sprint by 4 3/4 lengths. He could have been in the mix for the $2 million Group 1 Al Quoz Sprint had the entire World Cup card not been canceled.
"He came back from Dubai in perfect shape and he continued to train well," O'Neill said. "This race came up tough, like a Breeders' Cup race. It's nice to have Big Money Mike, I can tell you that. Midway through the race, it looked like maybe we were dropping out of it, but he still had horse."
Spooky Channel came with a rush in the final sixteenth to win a very classy allowance event midway through the Saturday program. Parlor had rallied quickly from the back of the 12-horse field rounding the turn to seize the lead but was forced about six-wide and failed to hold off Spooky Channel by a neck. Hembree was third and the favorite, Mr. Misunderstood, was seventh, beaten only 2 lengths for it all. Spooky Channel, a 5-year-old English Channel gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:41.57 with Julien Leparoux in the irons. A Thread of Blue was among three scratches.
Yet another comebacker, Dunbar Road, rallied from next-last to win Saturday's $150,000 Shawnee Stakes for fillies and mares by 1 3/4 lengths over Chocolate Kisses. Vault was third. Dunbar Road, making her first start since finishing fifth in last year's Breeders' Cup Distaff, was off a step slowly, got squeezed back on the first turn and then had to come wide into the stretch to reach contention. She battled briefly with Chocolate Kisses before putting that one away, finishing 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:43.65 for jockey Jose Ortiz.
"We broke a little slow but she's so classy," Ortiz said. "I'm very happy she's back."
Dunbar Road, a Chad Brown trainee, won the Grade II Mother Goose and Grade I Alabama last season in a campaign that saw her take four of seven starts.
Continuing a theme, Sharing, making her first start since winning the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf last fall, tracked the early speed in Saturday's $100,000 Tepin Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, moved to the lead in the lane when asked by Manny Franco, then held off a late bid by Abscond to with by 1/2 length. Pass the Plate was third and the favorite, Alms, ran evenly to finish fifth. Sharing, a Speightstown filly trained by Graham Motion, got 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.26.
Sharing closed the books on 2019 with three straight wins after finishing a troubled third, beaten just a neck, in her career bow.
"It's great seeing her back to her form from last year," Franco said. "She's very classy but it makes your job easier when you have nice horses underneath you."
One of these days, we'll have an exacta of Alms and Pass the Plate and all the "Broken Down Horseplayers" will have to donate 10 percent of their winnings to a good cause.
In Saturday's $100,000 Blame Stakes, Owendale raced last while saving ground out of the chute and down the backstretch, got revved up nearing the turn and came with a steady rally through the stretch to win by 1/2 length over Everfast. Silver Dust was just another neck in arrears in third. Owendale, a 4-year-old Into Mischief Colt, finished the one-turn mile in 1:34.74 with Florent Geroux up.
This will sound familiar: Owendale, trained by Brad Cox, was making his first start since finishing second behind the talented Tom's d'Etat, in the Grade I Clark Handicap last Nov. 29 over the same course. He also won the Lexington, Ohio Derby and Oklahoma Derby, all Grade III events, last season and finished third in the Preakness. He was 10th in the Breeders' Cup Classic.
"It was great to see him return like that going a one-turn mile," Cox said. "This definitely puts him in a position to try more graded stakes later on in the year at a better distance going two turns … We'll look like races like the Stephen Foster for his next start but he will like the two turns better."
Smooth Like Strait dueled for the lead all the way into the stretch in Saturday's $100,000 War Chant Stakes for 3-year-olds, kicked away inside the final furlong and won by 1 3/4 over Pixelate. The favorite, Field Pass, was another 1/2 length back in third. Smooth Like Strait, a Midnight Lute colt, got 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.77 with John Velazquez in the irons.
Smooth Like Strait, trained by Mike McCarthy, won the Grade II Cecil B. DeMille at Santa Anita Dec. 29 and was second in his only previous start this year.
"The turf was really firm the entire day and I was really excited about my horse's chances," Velazquez said. "Then, right before the race, the rain started but I'm really proud that he handled everything well. He ran a hard race."
Golden Gate Fields
Restrainedvengence dueled with Kiwi's Dream the entire 1 mile of Monday's $100,000 All-American Stakes, first pressing the pace, then taking a narrow lead and finally winning by a head. It was another 3 lengths back to Camino Del Paraiso in third. Restrainedvengence, a 5-year-old Hold Me Back gelding, finished in 1:36.43 over the all-weather course with Kent Desormeaux up.
Restrainedvengence has been swinging back and forth between California and New Mexico, where he won the Zia Park Championship in November and the Curribot Handicap at Sunland Park in March.
Around the world, around the clock:
It took a bit of daring-do but Daring Tact found just enough room and just enough late speed to get home first in Sunday's Group 1 Yushun Himba -- the Japanese Oaks -- and maintain her undefeated record.
The Epiphaneia filly, with Kohei Matsuyama in the irons, raced well off the pace while stretching out from her longest previous distance, 1 mile, to 1 1/2 miles. As the field straightened out into the long stretch run Daring Tact remained far behind the leaders, with plenty of traffic in front of her.
After feinting right, Matsuyama guided the filly left and toward a hole between runners which promptly started to close. After squeaking through that opening, Daring Tact put on her running shoes and got there just before the wire, defeating Win Marilyn by 1/2 length. Win Mighty was third.
Daring Tact became just the second filly, following Miss Onward in 1957, to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown while undefeated.
"I admit I felt the pressure," said Matsuyama, who won his third Grade 1 but first while riding the favorite. "So I'm relieved."
"After a good break, we were bumped a few times, so I decided to keep her relaxed in a lower position than planned," the rider said. "She instantly kicked into gear once out of traffic in the straight and showed another amazing run down the middle of the lane. Her tremendous burst of speed was extraordinary."
Daring Tact won at first asking at Kyoto Nov. 16, 2019, then immediately jumped up to win the Elfin Sakes Feb. 8 in her 3-year-old debut. That earned her a spot in the Grade 1 Oka Sho or Japanese 1,000 Guineas April 12, where she won by 1 1/2 lengths.
Daring Tact represents the first crop produced by Epiphaneia, winner of the 2014 Japan Cup (G1). Eight of the 18 starters in the Yushun Himba were sired by the late Deep Impact (JPN). The best showing was by Ria Amelia, who finished fourth, also with a good turn of foot after a late start.
Exultant, belying his age (6) and a rough season, shook off old rival Time Warp early in the stretch run in Sundays' Group 1 Standard Chartered Champions & Chater Cup and held on to win by 1 length.
The victory was a virtual repeat of his winning effort in his last race, the Group 1 FWD QE II Cup, and likely earned him Horse of the Year honors.
Time Warp , under Chad Schofield, took the front in the 2,400-meters chase and played "catch me if you can," just as he had in the QE II Cup. Exultant could and did catch him in that race and could and did do so again. Time Warp faded to finish last of seven while South African-bred Chefano and New Zealand import Furore filled out the tierce.
"It's never easy in small fields when you're on the favorite," Purton said. "Everyone goes out there to make your life difficult and they tried to do that again today. But, fortunately, I was on a horse that was able to absorb some pressure and still be able to fight out a finish."
Perhaps looking forward to next season, Purton was touting his mount's resilence.
"I thought, once again, I was out on my feet at the 200 (meters) but today it was like he was waiting for them a little more. It's like he's become more cunning and I could feel, when they were coming, he started to surge underneath."
Exultant ran his season's record to four wins from seven starts with two of the wins at the top level -- likely enough to win Horse of the Year over BMW Hong Kong Derby winner Golden Sixty, who did not try graded stakes company.
Exultant "does deserve it," Purton said of the ultimate honor. "Everyone wants to talk about Golden Sixty but he only did it in the 4-year-old series. He didn't come out and do it against the older horses and I think it's important that is taken into consideration. That might be the telling factor."
Trainer Tony Cruz won the race for the seventh time, adding to the three renewals he won as a jockey, and said he reckons Exultant the best of the lot at the distance.
"He's the best stayer of them all," Cruz said. "He has no speed but he has a great attitude."
Purton and Joao Moreira each had four winners on the Sunday card at Sha Tin Racecourse, remaining tied for the lead in the jockey standings with 123 each.
News and notes:
Gulfstream Park announced Sunday overnight purses will be raised 10 to 15 percent beginning in June.
"We were very conservative with our purse structure beginning in March due to the COVID-19 pandemic," said Gulfstream Vice President of Racing Mike Lakow. "Without our casino operating and with no on-track attendance and handle, we had to make adjustments with the purse account. The horsemen have been incredibly understanding and have worked with us throughout this process. We want to thank them for their support and we're pleased to provide this increase."
Keeneland has asked the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission to approve a five-day summer meeting that would make up some of the stakes and other races lost when the spring schedule was lost to the pandemic.
The proposal calls for nine or 10 races per day from Wednesday, July 8, through Sunday, July 12, without spectators.
Among the stakes expected to be revived if the plan is adopted are the $600,000 Grade II Toyota Blue Grass and $400,000 Grade I Central Bank Ashland (G1), preps for the Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks, respectively, the $350,000 Grade I Coolmore Jenny Wiley (G1), the $300,000 Grade I Maker's Mark Mile and $250,000 Grade I Madison.