Summer racing heats up with California Chrome, Songbird

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Horse racing’s summer season kicks off in a big way this weekend at two of the sport’s most treasured racetracks, Del Mar and Saratoga.

And what a daily double it should be – Dubai World Cup winner California Chrome taking on six rivals in Saturday’s $200,000 San Diego Handicap and undefeated filly Songbird starring in Sunday’s $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks.

While the Del Mar meet began last week, Saratoga opens its 148th season on Friday and runs through Sept. 5.

Stakes races on opening day at the Spa are the Schuylerville for 2-year-old fillies and the Lake George for 3-year-old turf fillies. On Saturday, it’s the Sanford for 2-year-olds.

California Chrome, the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner, comes into the 1 1/16-mile San Diego with a 3-0 record this year. The 5-year-old Chrome won the $10 million World Cup in March in his last start.

The field also includes 2015 Santa Anita Derby winner Dortmund, Hard Aces, Soi Phet, Crittenden, Follow Me Crev and Win the Space.

Chrome leaves from the No. 6 gate, and will have regular rider Victor Espinoza aboard. The race is a prep for the $1 million Pacific Classic at Del Mar on Aug. 20.

“Outside is good for me,” Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman said. “(Espinoza) will be able to break and see what’s happening to his inside and go from there.”

Songbird arrived at Saratoga from California on Wednesday. A comfortable winner in all eight of her races, the 3-year-old filly will be ridden by Hall of Famer Mike Smith in her New York debut. The filly owned by Rick Porter went for jog around the track Thursday morning.

“She ate up (Thursday) morning and she was bright-eyed and bushy-tailed,” Porter said. “She went with the pony and jogged for a mile and an eighth. She wasn’t too happy to go back to the barn, she probably wanted to do a little more. She’s doing fantastic considering all the travel she’s had.”

In her last start, Songbird won the Summertime Oaks by 6 1/2 lengths.

Taking on the 2-year-old champion filly trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer is Carina Mia, Weep No More, Flora Dora and Mo d’Amour.

A week later, 3-year-olds are center stage after a Triple Crown break when Derby winner Nyquist returns for the $1 million Haskell Invitational on July 31 at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, New Jersey. A day earlier, it’s Preakness winner Exaggerator and Belmont Stakes winner Creator hooking up in the $600,000 Jim Dandy at Saratoga.

Others in the Haskell include Gun Runner (third in Derby), Blue Grass winner Brody’s Cause (seventh in Derby, sixth in Belmont) and Iowa Derby winner American Freedom, trained by eight-time Haskell winner Bob Baffert.

Last year, more than 60,000 fans showed up at Monmouth to watch Triple Crown champion American Pharoah blow away the field in his first race since sweeping the Derby, Preakness and Belmont.

Royal silks return as King Charles III’s horse finishes 2nd

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SALISBURY, England – The famous royal silks returned to British horse racing with the first runner under the ownership of King Charles III finishing a distant second at Salisbury.

Educator was the first horse to wear the purple, red and gold silks since the death of Queen Elizabeth II on Sept. 8.

Her oldest son and heir, Charles, has taken on the royal stable and Educator was sent off as the 11-10 favorite under jockey Tom Marquand for the Radcliffe & Co Handicap.

Okeechobee won by 4 \ lengths in the four-horse race.

The queen’s last runner was Improvise, who was beaten narrowly at Epsom on the day the monarch died at her Balmoral estate in Scotland.

Breeders’ Cup spots on the line this weekend, top trainers hold keys to 2-year-old tests

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Sometimes, in assessing stakes races, it is best to look at the history of the race and see if there is a dominant factor in that history. This weekend’s racing features both the Champagne Stakes and the Miss Grillo Stakes, two Win and You’re In races for the Breeders’ Cup (coverage begins Saturday at 4 pm ET on NBC). For both races, you need to look no further than the “winning trainer” column, which provides some unavoidable facts:

  1. Since 2004, Todd Pletcher has won the Champagne Stakes a record-setting six times.
  2. In recent times, Chad Brown has asserted himself in this race, winning 3 of the last 6 runnings.
  3. In the 14 runnings of the Miss Grillo since 2008, Chad Brown has been the winning trainer 8 times.

All observations and handicapping of these two races must begin with these facts. Is there something that makes horses from these barns better than others? Not necessarily. But history tells us that these two barns have high-quality and expensive horses and they tend to get them to peak at this time of year. You can try to beat them at the betting windows, but be aware of the history that you are running into.

Further research brought up some interesting notes about these two races and their Breeders’ Cup divisions.

First, a look at the 2-year-old colt division. Since 2004 (when Todd Pletcher won the first of his 6 Champagne Stakes), three 2-year-olds have won the Champagne, the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the 2-year-old Eclipse Award. They were War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010) and Shanghai Bobby (2012).  Pletcher trained Uncle Mo and Shanghai Bobby, and Hall of Fame trainer Nick Zito handled War Pass.

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Looking at the 2-year-old turf fillies, the dominance of Chad Brown is even more striking. Since 2008, when Chad Brown captured his first Miss Grillo and the first running of Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, four 2-year-old fillies have captured the Miss Grillo and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. They were Maram (2008), Lady Eli (2014), New Money Honey (2016) and Newspaperofrecord (2018). All four fillies were trained by Chad Brown.

A review of charts from the Champagne back to 2004 (the year of Todd Pletcher’s first winner in the race) reveals that he had 20 starters, with 6 wins, 3 seconds and 1 third. That means he has won 30% of the time and been in the money 50%.

A review of the charts from the Miss Grillo dating back to 2008 (Chad Brown’s first winner in the race) shows that he has had 23 starters, with 8 wins, 1 second and 4 thirds. That means he has won approximately 35% of the time and been in the money 56%.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Champagne Stakes

So, what does this mean for this year’s editions of these two “Win and You’re In” races for the 2022 Breeders’ Cup?

In the Champagne, it seems that the dominant trainers in the sport are putting forth the major contenders.

  • 2021 Eclipse Award-winning trainer Brad Cox is likely to start Verifying, who was a solid winner at Saratoga as a big favorite in his only career start.
  • The sport’s all-time winningest North American trainer is Steve Asmussen, who is rapidly closing in on 10,000 career wins. Asmussen, who won this race in 2020 with Jackie’s Warrior, will send out Gulfport, a very impressive son of Uncle Mo. Gulfport won his first two races by an average winning margin of almost 10 lengths. Then, he had some real misfortune in his next two starts, finishing 2nd in both races at Saratoga. In the Saratoga Special, he had major traffic problems that led to losing several lengths at the top of the stretch. As the favorite in the Hopeful, he endured a wide trip on a sloppy surface to be 2nd best again. With a clean trip, he will be a major contender in the Champagne.
  • As previously stated, Chad Brown has won the Champagne in 3 of its last 6 runnings. He is likely to enter Blazing Sevens, who is a son of Good Magic, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner. After a big win in the first race of his career at Saratoga, Blazing Sevens endured a wide trip on a sloppy track in the Hopeful Stakes, and he should improve here, especially on a fast track.
  • The horse who beat Gulfport in the Hopeful was Forte, trained by the 6-time winner of this race, Todd Pletcher. The stretchout to a one-turn mile in the Champagne would have seemed to be made to order for his closing kick. At entry time, Pletcher chose to not enter Forte in the Champagne Stakes, in all likelihood because he plans to enter the horse in the Breeders’ Futurity next Saturday at Keeneland. The Breeders’ Futurity is a Win and You’re In race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and can be seen on CNBC.

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Storylines to Watch for 2022 Miss Grillo Stakes

Moving on to the Miss Grillo, Chad Brown is likely to enter Free Look, who was an impressive late-closing winner of a Maiden race in her second career start. In her first start, she was a victim of a slow pace, and the best she could do from the back of the pack was close to be 3rd. She seems to be a horse who is likely to improve with more racing. Free Look is a daughter of the leading sire Tapit.

Two others to watch in the Miss Grillo are Be Your Best and Pleasant Passage. Be Your Best is undefeated in two starts for trainer Horacio DePaz. Her last start was the P.G. Johnson Stakes, and she displayed the stalking style that has led to wins in both of her starts. Another with a license to improve is Pleasant Passage, from the barn of legendary trainer Shug McGaughey. In her only career start, she rallied up the rail and endured a stretch battle to get up for a narrow win. She has outstanding grass breeding, and the experience of that win should work in her favor in this race.

It is hard to predict outcomes with lightly-raced 2-year-olds. What we do know is that two horses will win their way into two Breeders’ Cup races on Saturday. That’s the great thing about these “Win and You’re In” races… they are running for something other than purse money, and it often produces some outstanding outcomes.

Lookahead to 2022 Breeders’ Cup

These races lead up to two of the 14 championship races on November 4th and 5th. For those who have never watched an entire Breeders’ Cup, get ready for the rush of witnessing a world championship event every 35 minutes or so. It’s like the Olympics of our sport. Be ready to watch and wager, and you’re sure to come away with some great memories. If you pick some winners, you might come away with a nice profit, as well. The Breeders’ Cup…there’s nothing like it!