Although there were no grade I races in the United States this past weekend, we did kick off the second season for 3-year-olds in rousing fashion and caught an early glimpse of the possible European challengers for the Breeders’ Cup following an exciting Royal Ascot meeting.
Let’s get to the Euros first. All eyes are always focused on the classic crop of 3-year-olds, but that is not the case this year. The Irish Derby is still to be run, but as of now, there are only two 3-year-old Derby horses of note – Workforce, runaway winner of the English Derby (Eng-I), and Lope de Vega, impressive winner of the French Derby and French 2,000 Guineas. Both appear to be far superior to any of the others who competed in the respective Derbys. It is rare to get the English and French Derby winners to the Breeders’ Cup and although it is early, the chances of Andre Fabre showing up with Lope de Vega are pretty slim.
Michael Stoute and Juddmonte, trainer and owner of Workforce, are both supporters of the Breeders’ Cup, but Stoute unveiled another exciting colt in Harbinger at Royal Ascot, and should have a powerful one-two punch for the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-I). Harbinger, owned by Highclere Thoroughbred Racing, destroyed his field in the 12-furlong Hardwicke Stakes (Eng-II) for his third straight victory and looks to be a rising star in the older horse division.
Juddmonte had to be thrilled with the one-two finish of Byword and Twice Over in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes (Eng-I), giving them two top-class 10-furlong horses. But they will have to decide whether to stretch either one out to 1 ½ miles for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) or consider returning to the Classic, run this year on dirt, with Twice Over, third in last year’s Classic on the synthetic.
Byword had given Goldikova a tussle in the 1 1/8-mile Prix d’Ispahan and before that won the one-mile Prix du Muguet (Fra-II), so 10 furlongs would seem to be his maximum distance, especially with Twice Over cutting into his lead at the finish of the Prince of Wales’s. But he is by runaway Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Peintre Celebre, so we’ll have to see which direction Fabre and Juddmonte go with him.
The star of Royal Ascot of course was the magnificent Goldikova, who has remained in training this year at the age of 5 to try for an unprecedented third Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) victory. The Ascot meet demonstrated just how strong the milers are in Europe this year. Goldikova, one of the great milers of all time, actually did not run her usual race in the Queen Anne (Eng-I), hitting the front extremely early and then having just enough to hold off the furious rush of Paco Boy, last year’s Queen Anne winner who has emerged as the best older male miler in Europe and should provide further fireworks with Goldikova this year.
If Goldikova and Paco Boy aren’t enough to whet the appetite, there is the brilliant 3-year-old Canford Cliffs, who followed up his smashing Irish 2,000 Guineas (Ire-I) victory with an equally impressive win in the St. James’s Palace Stakes (Eng-I) over stablemate Dick Turpin. Both colts, like Paco Boy, are trained by Richard Hannon, the former drummer for the ‘60s rock band The Troggs (Wild Thing), who has not been to the Breeders’ Cup since 1993. Some may remember Hannon as the trainer of Mr. Brooks, who suffered a fatal injury in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I).
Canford Cliffs, who showed his brilliance at 2 winning the Coventry Stakes at Royal Ascot by six lengths, also finished third behind Makfi and Dick Turpin in the English 2,000 Guineas (Eng-I), so he gained revenge on both his conquerors at Newmarket. Dick Turpin, after winning the Greenham Stakes at Newbury in April, has now finished second in the English 2,000 Guineas, French 2,000 Guineas (beaten a half-length by Lope de Vega), and St. James’s Palace Stakes. So watch out for Hannon in the BC Mile this year, with three top-class horses to choose from.
Finishing fifth in the St. James’s Palace Stakes was American invader Noble's Promise , who ran hard the entire way, but didn’t have an ideal trip, parked on the outside around the turn. He might have been better off given his head by Kiaren Fallon and allowed to use his natural speed, rather than rate off the lead and try to outkick the big Guineas horses. But he was far from embarrassed, getting beat only three lengths, despite drifting out in the stretch.
Aidan O’Brien, who is a long way from lining up his Breeders’ Cup forces, possibly secured a return visit with Lillie Langtry, the Coronation Stakes (Eng-I) winner who was injured in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. O’Brien’s 3-year-old colts have not distinguished themselves yet this year, but he still has the Irish Derby to look forward to. He did surprise everyone, possibly even himself, when his English Derby rabbit, At First Sight, hung on for second at 100-1 at Epsom. But the son of Galileo was exposed in the King Edward II Stakes (Eng-II), finishing up the track behind the improving Monterosso.
O’Brien might also start thinking ahead to the Breeders’ Cup Marathon after the gutsy victory by Mikhail Glinka in the two-mile Queens Vase, in as exciting a stretch run as any run at Royal Ascot this year.
And who knows what goal O’Brien and Coolmore will set with their speedster, the former Australian runner Starspangledbanner, who wired his field in the group I Golden Jubilee over six furlongs. America’s representative, Kinsale King, who won the Golden Shaheen in Dubai this year, ran his heart out to finish third, and again might have had a better chance had Fallon gone after the winner, who was on the best part of the track on the near-side rail, from the start and tried to match him for speed. But Kinsale King proved he is without question one of the best sprinters in the world.
Speaking of the American challengers, hats off to Kenny McPeek. In addition to Noble’s Promise’s solid effort. McPeek came away with excellent third-place finishes with a pair of maidens – Tiz My Time in the Albany Stakes (Eng-III) and Casper’s Touch in the Chesham Stakes. Both were right there at the finish and running on strongly.
Remember the name Zaidan…not for the Breeders’ Cup, but for next year’s Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I). Trainer Clive Brittain said after the son of Street Cry’s impressive score in the seven-furlong Chesham Stakes that he is already thinking ahead to the Run for the Roses. Brittain covets the Derby, finishing second to Ferdinand in 1986 with Bold Arrangement.
Here comes the second wave
Back in America, the second season for 3-year-olds unveiled a pair of serious contenders for the major summer and fall stakes in Afleet Express, winner of the Pegasus Stakes (gr. III) at Monmouth over a classy field, and Golden Itiz, tenacious winner of the Affirmed Handicap (gr. III). Both were making their stakes debuts, with Afleet Express, trained by Jimmy Jerkens, also making his two-turn debut.
Afleet Express, a notoriously bad breaker, bobbled at the start from the outside post, was taken back to third, and then easily disposed of Jackson Bend, third in the Preakness (gr. I), and Schoolyard Dreams, second in the Tampa Bay Derby (gr. III), before drawing clear in the stretch. It appeared as if the late-closing Afleet Again, winner of the Withers Stakes (gr. III), and stakes-placed Soaring Empire had dead aim at him, but he found another gear and was easing clear again at the wire, winning by 1 ¾ lengths. With Afleet Again finishing a strong second, it was a one-two finish for Afleet Alex, sire of both colts. All three of these promising colts should move forward off this race, run over a very slow track, and improve as the distances stretch out. But as of now, Afleet Express looks to be something special, especially after his eye-catching 7 ¾-length romp in a Belmont allowance race prior to the Pegasus, in which he blazed the seven furlongs in 1:21 3/5, earning him a 105 Beyer speed figure.
Afleet Again has now run five excellent races in his last six starts, but needs to correct his problem of drifting out in the stretch. It might have cost him the Spend a Buck Stakes and it certainly didn’t help him coming out and bumping several times with Soaring Empire in the Pegasus. He seems OK inside the eighth pole, but he has issues after turning for home. Soaring Empire has always shown promise and seems to be coming into his own now. Watch out for this son of Empire Maker in the big money races ahead. He looks just about ready to peak.
Another who bears watching is the Nick Zito-trained Our Dark Knight, who beat a good allowance field by three lengths earlier on the Monmouth card. His time for the 1 1/16 miles was only two-one-hundredths of a second slower than the Pegasus. This son of Medaglia d'Oro is another who is just now finding himself and improving with every start. He should relish the 10 furlongs of the Travers Stakes (gr. I).
Although Jackson Bend disappointed in the Pegasus, Zito still is loaded in the 3-year-old division with Our Dark Knight, major stakes winners Ice Box and Fly Down, second in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes, respectively, and the brilliant Miner’s Reserve, who could be any kind. Now, add to that list Gallant Fields, a son of Smarty Jones , who broke his maiden by 8 ¼ lengths at Belmont Sunday, getting the mile in a sharp 1:35 4/5 after pressing a rapid :45 1/5 half.
At Hollywood Park, Golden Itiz, a son of Tiznow , rallied from fourth to wear down the hard-knocking Skipshot , winning by a half-length. Sham Stakes (gr. III) winner Alphie's Bet, rallied to finish third, beaten a length. All three should move forward in the Swaps Stakes (gr. II) if that is where they go next. Golden Itiz has won three in a row, from four career starts, and has shown the ability to win on the lead, as he did in his 11 ¼-length romp in a 1 1/16-mile allowance race, and from off the pace, as he did in the Affirmed and in his maiden victory going 6 ½ furlongs, in which he came from seven lengths back. Considering the Tiznows normally get better with age, there’s no telling how good this colt will be by the end of the year.
For the Beyer pundits, Afleet Express earned a 97 Beyer, while Golden Itiz earned a 92.
Paddy O'Prado , third-place finisher in the Kentucky Derby, returned to the grass and defeated the best 3-year-old turf horses in the East, winning the Colonial Turf Cup (gr. II) by three lengths, establishing himself as the leader of the division. In his wake were Arlington Classic winner Workin For Hops, American Turf (gr. IIT) winner Doubles Partner, and Lane’s End (gr. II) winner Dean's Kitten.
At Belmont Saturday, the hard-knocking Aikenite beat up on several new kids on the block in a one-mile allowance race. With nine starts under his belt already, including placings in four graded stakes, Aikenite was able to get back in the winner's circle, defeating the New York-bred Shrewd One, with only three career starts, and Winaholic, with only two career starts. Aikenite was best, circling horses to win going away by two lengths in a sharp 1:35 1/5. Shrewd One, a 12 1/2-length winner against state-bred allowance horses, made a bold, early move on the far turn outside horses, and like most horses who attempt that, he came up a bit short in the stretch, but still ran an excellent race under the circumstances. Winaholic, a maiden winner at Monmouth, came running late to nose out Shrewd One for the place. The second and third horses look to have a bright future, and it was good to see Aikenite finally score a well-deserved victory. When this horse is allowed to drop back and make one late run, he can close with the best of them.
As if that weren’t enough, there is a major star lurking in the New York-bred ranks. Friend or Foe , a son of Friends Lake, out of an Unbridled mare, made it three for three in his career with a resounding 2 ½-length victory in the Mike Lee Stakes Sunday. Behind him were the speedy General Maximus, a winner of three of four career starts, and the Todd Pletcher-trained Ibboyee, winner of the Spend a Buck Stakes at Monmouth, second in grade II Swale Stakes and grade III Withers and third in the grade II Hutcheson Stakes.
Friend or Foe, who had broken his maiden in open company at Gulfstream before winning a six-furlong state-bred allowance race in a sizzling 1:08 4/5, earning a 93 Beyer, continued his assault on the clock, winning the seven-furlong Mike Lee in 1:21 3/5.
He has the pedigree (his sire won the Florida Derby and his broodmare sire won the Kentucky Derby, Breeders’ Cup Classic, and Florida Derby) and the right running style. It will be interesting to see where trainer John Kimmel goes with him next. Don’t be surprised to see him show up in the Jim Dandy Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga or possibly point for the King’s Bishop Stakes (gr. I), depending on whether Kimmel want to continue stretching him out. Jockey Rajiv Maragh said he galloped out another three-eighths of a mile after the wire, an indication he wants to go farther.
In the 3-year-old sprint division, currently headed by D’Funnybone, the Arkansas-bred Comedero scored his eighth career victory in nine starts, winning the Red Legend Stakes at Charles Town by 2 ¼ lengths. The son of Posse, who is undefeated in sprints, saw his seven-length lead at the eighth pole whittled down to 2 ¼ at the finish, but this was a big step up in class, as he defeated major stakes horses Backtalk and Northern Giant, as well as California invader Working Capital, second to Alphie’s Bet in the Snow Chief Stakes at Hollywood Park. Six of Comedero’s wins have come at six furlongs, so he could very well return to the shorter distances.