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Classic seeks recognition without Triple Crown champ Justify

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The reigning Triple Crown champion is not part of the field for this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. And none of the horses in any of the 14 races that make up the Breeders’ Cup cards this weekend has ever won a Kentucky Derby, or a Preakness, or a Belmont Stakes.

So there’s little argument that the races at Churchill Downs this weekend have lost a little luster.

The same argument could be made that this Breeders’ Cup might still end up as a bettors’ delight.

Justify, the Triple Crown champion who was forced into retirement by an ankle problem, would have given the $6 million Classic an absolute superstar for bettors to back. But his absence creates more of a wide-open race, one that has the Dubai World Cup winner in Thunder Snow, the last two Travers Stakes winners in West Coast and Catholic Boy, and 5-2 early favorite Accelerate – who has won his last four Grade 1 starts.

“Bettors love a large, wide-open field that offers value in their selections,” said trainer Tom Amoss, whose horse Lone Sailor is a 30-1 morning-line longshot in the Classic. “I don’t have any question that that’ll be the case.”

There are plenty of reasons to like most of the horses in the Classic. Combined, the 14 entrants in the field have combined to hit the toteboard in 72 percent of their lifetime starts.

Casual fans might not know all the names. But the sport’s biggest followers are likely seeing some serious Classic value.

“Justify not being part of the Classic, a Triple Crown winner, tends to take a little bit away from the Classic itself as far as the viewer wanting to see the best of the best,” Amoss said. “But don’t sell this group short. These are really, really good, talented horses and whoever emerges the victor is going to probably garner older-horse divisional championships.”

Horse of the Year might even be there for the taking.

Whoever wins the Grade 1 Classic figures to take a big step toward contending for the Eclipse Award given to the year’s best horse. If Justify were here and won the Classic – like American Pharoah did three years ago in his Triple Crown year – it would be huge news, another positive shot in the arm for a sport that is seeking ways to draw in more interest.

“I would’ve loved to have him in there, it would’ve been great,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who conditioned both American Pharoah and Justify. “But I think it’s a good field, a solid field.”

That really can be said about all of the Breeders’ Cup races. The entrants for this weekend have combined to win 794 races, or just over 37 percent of their career starts. It is inevitable that some horses who have never finished lower than third won’t even hit the board this weekend, a testament to the depth of these fields.

The Breeders’ Cup Distaff for fillies and mares features the two most recent Kentucky Oaks winners in Monomoy Girl and Abel Tasman, another Baffert pupil.

The Classic features a mix of American and foreign horses including Yoshida, a 4-year-old from Japan. Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn are returning to Churchill Downs, seeking to shake last-place finishes in the past two Kentucky Derbys – both got eased long before the finish after not being able to endure rocky starts in those respective Runs for the Roses.

No Classic is complete without a Baffert presence and he has two in West Coast and McKinzie, the horse who might have been the Derby favorite if not for a hind leg injury. Justify seized the opening, and the rest is horse racing history.

Accelerate is a 5-year-old making his first Classic start after finishing ninth and third in the Classic Dirt Mile the past two years. He has won five of six starts this year and brings a three-race winning streak into the 1 1/4-mile Classic.

“He’s a year older, and this distance is his best distance now,” trainer John Sadler said of the California-based Accelerate. “He’s had a great year and he looks great, so we’re really looking forward to this weekend.”

And if he wins, odds are a lot more people will know Accelerate’s name.

Baltimore sues to block move of Preakness Stakes

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BALTIMORE — Baltimore has ratcheted up a bitter dispute with the owners of a historic racetrack in an effort to seize a nearly 150-year-old course and block the move of one of America’s premier horse races out of the city where it was first run in 1873.

Under state law, the Preakness Stakes – the middle jewel of the Triple Crown of thoroughbred horse racing – can be moved to another track in Maryland “only as a result of a disaster or emergency.” But the Canada-based development company that owns and operates the rundown Pimlico Race Course in Baltimore has made it abundantly clear that it wants to move the storied race out of the city.

A lawsuit freshly filed by Baltimore Mayor Catherine Pugh, the City Council and three residents claims that the Canada-based development company that owns the track is “openly planning to violate Maryland law by moving the Preakness to a different racetrack despite the absence of any disaster or emergency, except for the disaster that they are in the process of creating.”

The Stronach Group is looking at a fresher track it owns in Laurel Park – in Anne Arundel County about 30 miles (about 50 kilometers) south of the Baltimore facility – as a better option for the Preakness. It has only pledged to keep the Preakness at the Baltimore track through 2020.

In an email seeking comment about the lawsuit, which was filed Tuesday in Baltimore Circuit Court, the Stronach Group said it “believes these actions are premature and unfounded.”

Here’s what it wants to do: Stronach aims to make some $80 million in improvements to build a “super track” at Laurel Park and company officials are lobbying Maryland’s General Assembly to permit funding from gambling proceeds to help realize their vision.

Baltimore’s lawsuit, meanwhile, asks a court to grant ownership of the Pimlico track and the Preakness race to Maryland’s biggest city through condemnation. Baltimore is also trying to prevent the Stronach Group from using state bonds to fund improvements at Laurel Park.

The lawsuit accuses the company of essentially manufacturing a disaster by “systematically” underinvesting in Pimlico, instead spending the majority of the state aid it receives on boosting its Laurel track.

Hard feelings between Baltimore and the owners of Pimlico had been intensifying before this week’s lawsuit. In a February letter to Maryland Gov. Larry Hogan and Maryland lawmakers, Pugh portrayed the Stronach Group as a family business in disarray, noting that the feuding “father, daughter and now granddaughter” were “suing one another in multiple lawsuits.”

The Preakness saga’s latest chapter comes a few months after the Maryland Stadium Authority issued a report saying the Pimlico track should be torn down and rebuilt at a cost of $424 million.

It said the rundown condition of the aging Baltimore track presents challenges threatening the “continued existence and the success of the Preakness Stakes,” but it also stressed there did not appear to be “situational factors” such as the surrounding city neighborhood of Park Heights and accessibility issues that would “negatively affect Pimlico Race Course’s ability to remain the long-term home” of the Preakness.

Pugh strongly endorsed the redevelopment plan recommended by the Maryland Stadium Authority, saying the economic opportunity it would bring could dramatically revitalize an area that’s experienced disinvestment for decades.

Hogan appears less than receptive to Baltimore’s latest tack, telling WBAL’s radio station that “the overwhelming number of people in Maryland don’t really care where it (the Preakness) is.”

“They would just like to keep it in Maryland.”

Yet the Republican governor also reiterated that he would like to see the major horse race remain in Baltimore.

Back in its heyday, Pimlico hosted many of the sport’s most memorable races: Seabiscuit’s match race with War Admiral in 1938; Man o’ War’s debut in 1920 with a stunning win over Upset; and Secretariat’s last-to-first victory during his Triple Crown run in 1973. Though work crews have found a way to make the track presentable for the Preakness every year on the third Saturday in May, many racing fans have said the need for a dramatic makeover has been blatantly obvious for many years.

Sire of Triple Crown winner American Pharoah dies at 13

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VERSAILLES, Ky. (AP) WinStar Farm says that stallion Pioneerof the Nile, sire of 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, has died.

Owner Ahmed Zayat confirmed the death of the 13-year-old to the Associated Press on Monday and said he was “like a family member.” WinStar stated on its web site that Pioneerof the Nile had bred a mare and became uncomfortable after returning to his stall. He died on the way to the clinic. Zayat said he was awaiting results from an autopsy.

The Kentucky-bred son of Empire Maker and Star of Goshen by Lord at War earned more than $1.6 million and five wins, a second in the 2009 Kentucky Derby and a third in 10 career starts. Trained by Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, Pioneerof the Nile sired 2-year-old male Eclipse Award winners Classic Empire and American Pharoah – who became horse racing’s 12th Triple Crown champion winner and first since 1978 when he swept the Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes.

WinStar’s Elliott Walden said on the web site that the farm is saddened and heartbroken over Pioneerof the Nile’s death and praised his “unique personality.” Zayat said he will cherish the horse’s sweet demeanor and talent that set a standard for his stable. He added, “He was a part of us, a part of me. Just very special.”