The spotlight is on our neighbors to the North this Saturday as Tepin returns in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile (Can-IT). The undisputed "Queen of the Turf" takes on seven older males in the $1 million race Sept. 17, which is a Breeders' Cup Challenge "Win and You're In" event for the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT), and the last of four graded stakes on a 12-race card.
Some basic things to know:
* The Ontario Derby (Can-III) is run on the synthetic surface that replaced the old Polytrack this season, while the Canadian (Can-IIT), Northern Dancer Turf (Can-IT), and the Woodbine Mile are all run over the E.P. Taylor Turf Course. At 1 1/2 miles around, it is the largest grass course in North America (Belmont Park's Widener turf is a relative pipsqueak at just over 1 5/16 miles), and the 1,440-foot stretch is the longest in American racing.
* The mile course record of 1:31.75 was set in the 2013 Woodbine Mile by Wise Dan, on the way to his second straight Horse of the Year title. That mark doesn't figure to be threatened, as the weather forecast for the Toronto area calls for a 90 percent chance of thunderstorms Saturday morning, with scattered storms throughout the afternoon.
* If you're playing the percentages, win-place-show (14.95% takeout) and rolling doubles (15%) extract the smallest bite from your wallet. Things escalate from there, with exactas at 20.5%, trifectas, pick fours and pick fives at 25%, and pick threes and superfectas at a rather usurious 26.3%.
Let's start with the marquee attraction and work our way backward:
Woodbine Mile (race 12, 6:39 EDT)
It's difficult to find compelling reasons to take a position against Tepin (#8). If the rains come, she is perfect from four starts on non-firm turf—the Just A Game (gr. IT), First Lady (gr. IT), and Breeders' Cup Mile in 2015, and the Queen Anne Stakes (Eng-IT) that stretched her overall win streak to seven. Plus, her outside draw with a long run to the turn virtually ensures a clear trip.
But while the champ hasn't lost in over a year, it would be a mistake to underestimate what kind of Herculean effort was asked of her at Royal Ascot. And let's face it, the two horses that fully extended her—Belardo and Lightning Spear—are not exactly household names in Europe. The latter, in fact, hadn't won in well over a year before taking the recent Celebration Mile (Eng-IIT) at the expense of Woodbine Mile entrant Arod, whose form since a placing in the Qatar Sussex Stakes (Eng-IT) in July of last year had been atrocious, for the most part.
Arod (#3) is one of two European invaders for Qatar Racing Limited along with the equally unremarkable Mr. Owen (#7). However, the other shipper from across the pond, Shadwell Stable's Mutakayyef (#2), should be taken very seriously.
Mutakayyef had just one career victory heading into this, his 5-year-old season, but returned to win back-to-back races at a mile, before stretching back out in the Juddmonte International (Eng-IT) and finishing a troubled third behind Postponed and Highland Reel. Those two are absolute top-class runners who have already secured fees-paid berths in the Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT). Postponed, who drifted in front of Mutakayyef and put him in tight quarters in deep stretch, has won six straight major stakes in England, France and Dubai, while Highland Reel is a group I winner in the United States, Europe, and Hong Kong.
All of which is a roundabout way of saying Mutakayyef is in career form and probably the best horse Tepin has faced since she beat 2015 Woodbine Mile winner and 2016 Arlington Million (gr. IT) winner Mondialiste in the BC Mile last fall.
Northern Dancer Turf (race 10, 5:31 p.m.)
Half the field comes out of the Arlington Million, where 5-6-7 finishers Danish Dynaformer (#8), last year's winner The Pizza Man (#7), and beaten favorite World Approval (#6) wound up less than two lengths behind Mondialiste. Tight finishes on turf are par for the course, but when so many horses are separated by so little, it's a tell-tale sign this wasn't the Million's strongest renewal.
Wake Forest (#4) had some trouble, finishing 10th in the Million, but I'm not sure that totally absolves him from a performance where he made no impact at all.
The Northern Dancer has the look of a last hurrah for Big Blue Kitten (#2), who took the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT) for his 14th victory last fall, but has been off the board in two starts at age 8.
The others are Button Down (#1), a 5-year-old mare trying the boys for a third time after some trouble in the Nijinsky (Can-IIT) and Sky Classic (Can-IIT); Majeed (#3), an import from Great Britain who appears outclassed; and Camp Creek (#5), a 3-year-old meeting older after rallying from last for a 26-1 upset in the Breeders' Stakes.
At the bottom line, pace could make this race if World Approval sets up shop on an easy lead.
Canadian (race 8, 4:30 p.m.)
Dacita, a Chilean-bred daughter of the late Scat Daddy, became the last horse to beat Tepin when she captured the 2015 Ballston Spa (gr. IIT) in her United States debut. She excels on firm ground, but may not get her preferred footing.
Rainha Da Bateria has been on non-firm going twice and in each case produced her best race to date, winning the 2014 Jessamine (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland, and running a fast-closing second (at 44-1) in last year's Mrs. Revere (gr. IIT) at Churchill Downs.
The likeliest alternatives seem like Steip Amach (#3), an Irish-bred import who may class up based on a close third in the Darley Prix Jean Romanet (FRA-IT) at Deauville last out; and the local mare Strut the Course (#4), who won this race a year ago off a very similar July-to-September freshening, and on yielding turf to boot.
Ontario Derby (race 4, 2:24 p.m.)
A surface switch and distance cutback should help Amis Gizmo (#6) after a big middle move fizzled out in the grassy Breeders' against Camp Creek; he has won five of seven starts on Woodbine's synthetic surfaces, along with a tough beat when second in the Queen's Plate.
Dragon Bay (#4) has yet to win a stake, but led in the stretch of the Toronto Cup and Saratoga's Better Talk Now in his last two tries.
Zero Hour, a $1.4 million purchase at the 2015 OBS March Sale, had trouble when unveiled on turf at Saratoga last summer, but he returned from nearly a year on the sidelines to win stylishly at Woodbine last month for Mark Casse.
Berliner, a Stronach Stables' homebred, is perfect from three starts since relocated to Woodbine and given over to Nicolas Gonzalez. However, he has only raced on grass up to now.