Two more "new shooters" for trainer Bob Baffert's Kentucky Derby team surfaced in weekend horse racing as top-class action rebounded from coast to coast.
The Independence Day weekend included a classic edition of the Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park, won by the rapidly improving Vekoma, Sneaking Out upsetting Bellafina at Los Alamos, Tacitus winning easily in the Suburban but Instilled Regard all out to take the Grade I Manhattan at Belmont Park.
There also was a huge bubble of world-class racing in the UK and France, including the English and French Derbies and Enable's return to action.
We start with:
The Road to the Roses
The four-months delay in the Kentucky Derby schedule certainly has changed what might have been into what might be now. Several of the top contenders for the Derby's original May 2 date have dropped off the Road to the Roses with injuries. Others who weren't remotely ready to compete on the first Saturday in May now look like formidable prospects for Sept. 5. Notable among them, Uncle Chuck, the impressive winner of Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Los Alamitos Derby
After the late scratch of Anneau d'Or, trainer Bob Baffert had half the remaining field in Saturday's race -- Uncle Chuck, with only one previous race to his credit, and Thousand Words, a one-time top Kentucky Derby prospect looking to regain his form. Of course, they finished 1-2 with Uncle Chuck looking far the better.
Always close, Uncle Chuck and jockey Luis Saez glided to the lead exiting the stretch turn. As the two long shot pacesetters gave way, Thousand Words emerged from the rear to mount a challenge. That never materialized as Uncle Chuck quickly was gone, winning by 4 lengths over his stablemate, running 1 1/8 miles in 1:47.65.
"That was good," Baffert said. "At the top of the lane, I thought Thousand Words might get him, but at least he ran better. We're just learning more about Uncle Chuck. He's still pretty green, but he's got gears ... He was full of himself when he came back. It's exciting. He's learning quickly and he has brilliance. I was impressed. I think we just saw something pretty special and he's been special from day one. He's bred to be any kind."
Uncle Chuck is by Uncle Mo, out of the Unbridled's Song mare Forest Music. He earned 20 Kentucky Derby points for the win and likely will have to pad that total if Baffert hopes to get him into the Run for the Roses. Thousand Words earned 8 points and now stands No. 15 on the list for a maximum field of 20.
Baffert has another 3-year-old tip-toeing up the Derby path. Cezanne, a Curlin colt out of the Bernardini mare Achieving, looks to be living up to his dad's talent and his mom's name. Making just his second start on Thursday at Los Alamitos, Cezanne put away a pace rival halfway through the 1-mile test, opened up a 3-lengths lead and got home first by 1 length.
Baffert said the youngster, racing for a partnership including the Coolmore lads, still might be confused when he gets away to a big lead. Having paid $3.65 million for him as a yearling, the owners will expect Baffert to impart the needed wisdom before the colt's next start, which will have to be in quest of some Kentucky Derby points -- and, thus, against tougher opposition.
On Sunday at Prairie Meadows, Acre was promoted to victory in the $100,000 Iowa Derby as the stewards took down the number of Letmeno for interference in the stretch. Letmeno was placed second and Billy Batts, unaffected by the mishap, got show money. Acre, with Martin Garcia riding, rallied from last of 5 and, despite being bumped, finished second, just a neck back.
Acre is a Calumet Farm-Adele Dilschneider homebred son of Blame out of the Galileo mare Greenery. Despite the flashy pedigree, he had only one win from five previous starts.
Coming right up on the Road to the Roses:
There are two Derby qualifier races on Wednesday, a world apart. The Indiana Derby at Indiana Grand awards 20 points to the winner. And the Japan Dirt Derby at Ohi Racecourse in Tokyo concludes the "Japan Road to the Kentucky Derby." Café Pharoah already has enough points to get the first Japan bid to Louisville. If he doesn't accept the invitation for any reason, the winner of this race would be next in line. So there remains some interest.
Saturday, Keeneland squeezes a delayed running of the $600,000 Grade II Blue Grass into a special, five-day meeting. While there are several potential Derby colts in the expected field, the big deal is trainer Kenny McPeek nominating his star filly, Swiss Skydiver. She's already solidly qualified for the Kentucky Oaks and the 100 Derby points to the winner of the Blue Grass -- or even the 40 awarded the runner-up -- could be enough to give her connections the option on that first weekend in September.
The Road to the Oaks
Project Whiskey raced between rivals around the stretch bend in Saturday's $300,000 Grade III Delaware Oaks, then battled the rest of the way before prevailing by 1/2 length over Dream Marie. Princess Cadey was along for third and the favorite, Piece of My Heart, tired from the lead to finish fourth. Project Whiskey, a Maryland-bred filly by Tapizar, was sent to the post at odds of nearly 39-1, the longest on the board, and finished the 1 1/16 miles over a fast track in 1:44.04 for jockey Frankie Pennington.
Project Whiskey was 2-for-5 last year and was unplaced in her only previous outing this season -- a Churchill Downs allowance event May 25.
"I think this is what she has been waiting to do -- to go a route of ground," said winning trainer Robert "Butch" Reid. "We're not sure where we are going to go next with her, but I am sure it will probably have the word "Oaks" behind it. What exactly that race is, we are going to have to sit down with the owners to figure out."
There are plenty of "Oaks" around. Project Whiskey earned 50 points toward at start in the queen of them, the Sept. 4 Kentucky Oaks.
Speaking of Oaks, Curlin's Voyage rallied late to a narrow win in Sunday's $125,000 (Canadian) Fury Stakes at Woodbine, edging 65-1 long shot Justleaveitalone by a head. The Curlin filly, with Patrick Husbands up for trainer Josie Carroll, got 7 furlongs on the all-weather track in 1:23.91. Restricted to Canadian-foaled 3-year-old fillies, the race could be a gateway to the Woodbine Oaks or to the Queen's Plate. Curlin's Voyage won the Grade III Mazarine Stakes last October and the Ontario Lassie in December and was Canada's champion 2-year-old filly.
"To me, she's a better filly going two turns and we look forward to her next race," Husbands said.
And at Prairie Meadows, Flat Out Speed forced the early pace in Sunday's $100,000 Iowa Oaks, took over the lead at the five-eighths pole and blazed home first by 1 3/4 lengths over Aurelia Garland. Ocean Breeze was third. Flat Out Speed, an Iowa-bred filly by Flat Out, got 1 1/16 miles in 1:42.79. Alex Cancheri rode.
Saturday's $500,000 Grade I Runhappy Metropolitan Mile -- the Met Mile -- well might go down as one of the best American races of 2020 for older horses. If so, Vekoma's performance will be duly noted as year-end honors are considered.
Vekoma got away alertly in the one-turn mile around the big Belmont Park course and jockey Javier Castellano took what was given him. Leading down the backstretch and through the turn, there was a moment when it appeared he would be swallowed up by onrushing opposition. Instead, he found another gear and held on gamely to win by 1 1/4 lengths.
Network Effect was second, 2019 Travers winner Code of Honor was third, Razorback Handicap winner Warrior's Charge was fourth and the favorite, multiple Grade-I winner McKinzie, was fifth.
Winning trainer George Weaver said he was concerned when he saw the field closing on his runner. "At the quarter pole, for a brief moment, I didn't know if he had any horse in the tank or not," Weaver said. "But at the eighth pole I saw him re-break and I was so proud of him.
"We're going to nominate to the (Aug. 1) Whitney for sure, but he's run two huge races back-to-back. The most likely scenario, to me, is that he would come back in a race like the Forego (Aug. 29). We want to plot a campaign to get us to the Breeders' Cup, so we'll take a look at the calendar and go from there."
Vekoma, a 4-year-old colt by Candy Ride, finished in 1:32.88, a bit more than a half-second off the track record. He won his second straight Grade I event, backing up the 7 1/4-lengths score in the Grade I Carter Handicap over a sloppy Belmont surface June 6. The win was his sixth from eight starts with only a 13th-place showing in the Kentucky Derby and a third place, behind Code of Honor, in the Fountain of Youth, between him and perfection.
On Saturday at Gulfstream Park, Double Crown rallied from the middle of the pack to win the $75,000 Carry Back Stakes for 3-year-olds by 3/4 length from With Verve. Ournationourpride was third. Double Crown, a Bourbon Courage gelding, got 7 furlongs in the slop in 1:22.37 under Cristian Torres. He now has three wins and a second from four trips.
Vekoma (pink cap) turns for home on the lead and on the way to victory in Saturday's Grade I Met Mile at Belmont Park, Elsa Lorieul photo, courtesy of New York Racing Association
Filly & Mare Sprint
Sneaking Out pulled off the upset in Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Great Lady M. Stakes at Los Alamitos, getting first run to the lead in the lane and the holding off the odds-on favorite, Bellafina, by 3/4 length. It was 2 lengths back to Amuse in third. Sneaking Out, a 4-year-old daughter of Indian Evening out of the Kitten's Joy mare Maddie's Odyssey, ran 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.62 with Martin Garcia riding for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
Sneaking Out scored her first graded stakes win. Bellafina has seven such to her credit, three at the Grade I level.
"We were able to sit in the exact spot I wanted early, just behind the speed, and she felt strong," Garcia said. "I made sure we stayed in our lane into the stretch. She dug in and wouldn't let them by."
Frank's Rockette took the lead in Saturday's $100,000 Grade III Victory Ride Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Belmont Park, cruised down the lane and had just enough left to win by a head over Reagan's Edge. Center Aisle was third. Frank's Rockette, an Into Mischief filly, finished 6 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:14.47 with John Velazquez piloting. She now has four wins and four seconds from eight career starts.
Trainer Bill Mott said he could point Frank's Rockette to the $300,000 Grade I Longines Test Aug. 8 at Saratoga. "That's what I've had my eyes on," Mott said. "It's a big challenge. The Test is a great race. We've won it a couple of times and it's a very important race for 3-year-old fillies. If she's doing well, I'd like to give her a try in there."
At Gulfstream Park on Saturday, Boerne led gate-to-wire in the $75,000 Azalea Stakes for 3-year-olds fillies, winning by 1 3/4 lengths from Estilo Talentoso. Bankruptonthebeach was third. Boerne, a daughter of Fed Biz, ran 7 furlongs on a sloppy, sealed track in 1:22.17 with Edgard Zayas in the irons. It was her fourth win from her last five starts.
On paper, Tacitus was the class of a six-horse field contesting Saturday's $200,000 Grade II Suburban at Belmont Park and he ran like it, roaring from off the pace to win by 8 3/4 lengths. Moretti was second, a neck in front of Parsimony. Sir Winston, last year's Belmont Stakes winner, was last the entire 1 1/4 miles and was beaten 21 1/2 lengths. Tacitus, with John Velazquez up, got home in 1:59.51.
Tacitus, a Juddmonte Farms homebred son of Tapit, was fourth in last year's Kentucky Derby, promoted to third by the disqualification of Maximum Security. He then was second in the Belmont, Jim Dandy and Travers. After a good fifth-place showing in the $20 million Saudi Cup to start the year, he finished fourth in the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap May 2.
Winning trainer Bill Mott seemed a little disappointed Tacitus couldn't have turned in a performance like Saturday's back in February, commenting: "We took him half way around the world earlier this year looking for something like that in Saudi and in Dubai before they canceled the race (the Dubai World Cup)."
In Iowa, Night Ops waited just off the pace early in Sunday's $100,000 Grade III Prairie Meadows Cornhusker Handicap, pounced when prompted by jockey Martin Garcia and scampered home first by 3 3/4 lengths. My Sixth Sense and Rated R Superstar completed the trifecta. Night Ops, a 4-year-old Warrior's Reward colt, ran 9 furlongs on a fast track in 1:48.30. Brad Cox trains the winner, who got his first graded stakes score.
At Woodbine on Saturday, Skywire came off the rail for room at the top of the lane in the $200,000 (Canadian) Grade II Eclipse Stakes and outfinished Avie's Flatter, winning by 1 1/4 lengths over that foe. The favorite, Mr Ritz, held a brief lead at the top of the stretch but faded to finish fourth in his first start of 2020. Skywire, a 4-year-old Afleet Alex gelding, ran 1 1/16 miles on the all-weather track in 1:44.12 with Rafael Hernandez in the irons for trainer Mark Casse. Skywire was a long shot in the race, which didn't bother Hernandez.
"You can't worry about that when you've got Casse in the race," Hernandez said. "He put him in there because he knows he belongs and he showed up."
Also on Saturday at the Toronto-area track, Halo Again burnished his Queen's Plate credentials with a 1 1/4-lengths victory in the $125,000 (Canadian) Queenston Stakes for Canadian-foaled 3-year-olds. The Speightstown colt stalked the pace, collared Golden Wave at mid-stretch and ran on to win by 1 1/4 lengths as the favorite. Golden Wave held second with long shot Glorious Tribute third. The most recent winner of both the Queenston Stakes and the Queen's Plate was Not Bourbon in 2008.
Instilled Regard shot between rivals in the closing yards of Saturday's $400,000 Grade I Manhattan Stakes at Belmont Park and was just up in the final jumps to win by a neck. The favorite, Rockemperor, was second, giving trainer Chad Brown the exacta, and 7-year-old Sadler's Joy finished third. Instilled Regard, a 5-year-old son of Arch, ran 1 1/4 miles on firm turf in 2:02.59 with Irad Ortiz Jr. timing the trip perfectly.
"They both got really good trips," Brown said of Instilled Regard and Rockemperor. "Both jockeys did a great job and both horses responded super. It's unfortunate one of them had to lose. In the end, Instilled Regard just made the last move of the chess match. I'm so proud of the horse. He keeps getting better."
At Delaware Park, Gufo was away slowly in Saturday's $125,000 Grade III Kent Stakes for 3-year-olds, dawdled near the back of the field until he turned for home, then hit the afterburners and outdueled Pixelate through the closing yards to win by 1/2 length. It was another 2 1/2 lengths to Vanzzy in third. Gufo, a Declaration of War colt ridden by Trevor McCarthy and trained by Christophe Clement, ran 1 1/8 miles on firm turf in course-record time of 1:46.94.
"We went a little slow the first quarter but things quickened up," McCarthy said. "I felt like I was on the best horse, so I left him alone, kept him out of trouble and gave him time to get himself together … When we turned for home, I just went outside of Pixelate, and my horse did all of the work. He was really impressive breaking the track record and he really stormed home the last eighth of a mile."
Social Paranoia came with a late rush to win Saturday's $150,000 Grade III Poker Stakes at Belmont Park, outfinishing Seismic Wave by 1 length. The favorite, Value Proposition, was third. Social Paranoia, a 4-year-old Street Boss colt, got 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.30 for jockey Jose Ortiz.
"He's been successful at multiple distances," said Social Paranoia's trainer, Todd Pletcher, "but it seems like he's found a specialty at a mile -- set up off the pace and make one run."
Pletcher said the $400,000 Grade I Fourstardave at Saratoga Aug. 22 is a "good possibility" for Social Paranoia's next outing.
Filly & Mare Turf
Trickle In was quickly on the lead in Saturday's $50,000 Christiana Stakes for 3-year-old fillies at Delaware Park and made the advantage stand, winning by 1 length. Duchess of Sussex put a nose in front of Embossed at the wire to finish second. Trickle In, a daughter of Temple City, got 1 1/16 furlongs of firm turf in 1:41.26 with Trevor McCarthy riding.
Mitchell Road battled for the lead in Sunday's $50,000 Ellis Park Turf, gave it up and hen came again to win by a neck over late-running Strike My Fancy. Harmless, who bedeviled the winner through much of the 1 1/16 miles, eventually settled for third. Mitchell Road, a 5-year-old daughter of English Channel, finished in 1:43.12 with Joe Talamo aboard.
Pay Any Price led the way in Sunday's $75,000 Bob Umphrey Turf Sprint at Gulfstream Park, then battled to the finish between two rivals, winning by a head. Ambassador Luna was second and Krsto Skye finished third, another 3/4 length back. Pay Any Price, a 10-year-old gelding by Wildcat Heir, ran 5 furlongs on good turf in 56.03 seconds under Edgard Zayas. The veteran sprinter holds the course record of 53.61 seconds, set in 2017.
I'llhandalthecash worked to the lead in the stretch in Friday's $80,000 License Fee Stakes for fillies and mares at Belmont Park and held off a big late run by the favorite, Dalika, by 1/2 length. A Great Time was third, another 3/4 length back. I'llhandalthecash, a 4-year-old Point of Entry filly, was clocked in 1:09.11 over good turf with Jose Ortiz aboard.
Elsewhere in North America:
Fifty Five rallied from next-last in Thursday's $100,000 Mount Vernon Stakes for New York-bred fillies and mares, came around rivals to challenge for the lead at mid-stretch and outfinished Classic Lady by a nose for the win. War Canoe was involved all the way but came up short late, finishing third, another 1 1/4 lengths back. Fifty Five, a 6-year-old Get Stormy mare, ran 1 mile on firm turf in 1:36.45 with Javier Castellano in the irons. A terror in this category, Fifty Five won this race last year and finished second in 2018.
Royal Um started well back in Sunday's $81,000 John H. Reilly Handicap for New Jersey-breds, advanced steadily through the field and drew off in the stretch to win by 2 1/4 lengths. Prendimi showed the way and held on for second, 2 lengths to the good of Golden Brown. Royal Um, a 4-year-old Kantharos colt, finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.94 for jockey Trevor McCarthy.
Prancing Warrior opened a big lead in Saturday's $78,000 Spruce Fir Handicap for New Jersey-bred fillies and mares and held off the heavy favorite, Liz' Cable Girl, by 1 length for the win. Crazy Daisy was third. Prancing Warrior, a 5-year-old mare by Bold Warrior, ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:11.70 with Jose Ferrer up.
Laki rolled by the early leaders in the final furlong of Friday's $75,000 Oceanport Centennial Stakes and pulled away to win by 2 1/2 lengths. Awesome Anywhere was second, 5 3/4 lengths to the good of Midtowncharleybrown. Laki, a 7-year-old Cuba gelding, ran 5 furlongs on a fast track in 57.62 seconds with McCarthy aboard.
D'Rapper, the longest shot in the field of four, pressed the pace in Sunday's $50,000 Iowa Sprint, then rallied down the stretch for jockey Sophie Doyle, winning by 1 1/4 lengths. Pacesetting favorite Welder was second, followed by Whereshetoldmetogo and Awesome Saturday. D'Rapper, another of those amazing Illinois-breds, is a 7-year-old Cherokee Rap gelding. He finished 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:08.32.
Abounding Joy bounded away from her five rivals in the stretch run of Saturday's $50,000 Iowa Distaff, winning by 5 1/4 lengths. Meadow Dance and Pinup Girl completed the order of finish with the rest far behind. Abounding Joy, a 5-year-old daughter of Quality Road, ran 1 1/16 miles on a fast track in 1:42.54 with Ricardo Santana Jr. aboard.
Bye Bye J found some late speed to win Saturday's $50,000 Saylorville for fillies and mares, rallying by Headland to win by 1 1/2 lengths over that one. Raider was up for third. Bye Bye J, a 4-year-old Uncaptured filly, negotiated 6 furlongs in 1:08.87 with Santana up.
In the Iowa-bred ranks, Scrutinizer dueled to the lead in the $50,000 John Wayne for colts, geldings and horses, then forged clear to win by 3 1/2 lengths over Kauai, and Queen's Altar was along in the final strides to snatch victory from pacesetting Naughty Shirley in the $50,000 Mamie Eisenhower for fillies and mares.
Four $50,000 races on Wednesday were for the Minnesota-breds.
Defend the Rose led gate to wire in the Frances Genter Stakes for 3-year-old fillies and won by 1 1/2 lengths over Rush Hour Traffic. The First Defence filly ran 6 furlongs on a fast track in 1:09.46 with Alex Cancheri up. The race is named for the owner of the 1990 Kentucky Derby winner, Unbridled. Who can forget trainer Carl Nafzger telling the 92-year-old, who was there at Churchill Downs but couldn't see the race well, "You won the Kentucky Derby, Mrs. Genter!"
Weekend Ride also showed the way in the Victor S. Myers Stakes for 3-year-olds, prevailing by 2 lengths over Mynameis Prince. Weekend Ride, a Midshipman colt, finished in 1:10.11 with Danny Velazquez riding.
Firstmate rallied along the rail in the stretch drive to win the Minnesota Turf Distaff by a neck from Ready to Runaway. Firstmate, a 5-year-old Midshipman mare, got home in 1:28.56 for 7 furlongs of firm turf. Roimes Chirinos rode.
Cinco Star and Drop of Golden Sun battled it out down the stretch in the Ralph Strangis Stakes, swapping the lead before Cinco Star put his nose in front on the wire. Cinco Star, a 5-year-old gelding by Three Hour Nap, ran 7 furlongs on the grass in 1:28.06 with Constantino Roman in the irons.
Ting Tang won a head-bobber by a nose over Edge of Night in Friday's $75,000 Cincinnatian Stakes for Ohio-bred 3-year-old fillies. Lovely Lady Linda was 3 3/4 lengths back in third. Ting Tang, a daughter of City Weekend, ran 1 1/16 miles on firm turf in 1:43.79. Gerardo Corrales had the mount.
Ohio-bred 2-year-olds were featured in Friday's $75,000 Hoover Stakes with Esplanande leading most of the way to a 2 1/4-lengths win. Uptown was second with King B B third. Esplanande, a Daredevil filly, ran 5 1/2 furlongs on a fast track in 1:05.31 with Corrales up. She's now 2-for-2.
Louisiana Legends night Saturday provided state-breds six opportunities, each worth $60,000.
Shang, the odds-on favorite, got the job done in the Turf, winning by 1/2 length from Treys Midnight Moon while covering 1 mile on firm going in 1:36.63. In the Turf Distaff, Mariah's Galaxy posted a minor upset, winning by a head over Net a Bear with the odds-on favorite, Is Too, checking in third.
Relentless Dancer, a prohibitive favorite, edged away late to win the Cheval Stakes for 3-year-olds by 1 3/4 lengths over Sydster. Vacherie Girl, another favorite, won a stretch duel by a head from Southern legend in the Soiree Stakes for 3-year-old fillies.
Laughingsaintssong, yet another topping the mutuel odds, kicked away late to win the Sprint by 1 3/4 lengths over Scarlettsblackjack. And in the Mademoiselle for fillies and mares at 5 1/2 furlongs, Snowball pulled off the upset with the favorite, Play Unified, third after a bad start.
Lone Star Park
Racing was canceled abruptly after the first race Sunday, with management citing concerns about the spread of the COVID-19 pandemic in Texas. A terse statement said racing "will resume at a date to be determined."
The cancellation wiped out four stakes slated for Sunday's card. Among them were the Texas Stallion Stakes for 2-year-olds and 2-year-old fillies. Most races on the card had relatively full fields.