Churchill sets table to big summer races

Churchill sets table to big summer races

June 26, 2018 3:00 AM


When Churchill Downs closes its high profile 2018 Spring race meeting on Saturday, June 30, they will offer three stakes races and set the table for the strong summer schedule that annually takes place in New York and California.

Yes, the Saratoga race meet in upstate New York and Del Mar’s on the Southern California coast will run from mid-July to early September and provide dozens of rich races that will help set up the 2018 Breeders’ Cup, to be run this year at Churchill on Nov. 2-3. Among the most important of these summer races will be Del Mar’s $1 million Pacific Classic at 10 furlongs on Aug. 18 for 3-year-olds and up and Saratoga’s $1.25 million, 1-1/4 mile Travers for premier 3-year-olds on Aug. 25.

While the Bob Baffert trained Justify is eligible to run in either of those two premier summer races, it seems likely the undefeated Triple Crown winner will be headed to Saratoga for the Travers. That’s my thinking as of now, Baffert said recently; and few trainers have managed more good horses with the skilled touch Baffert has demonstrated over the past 20-plus years.

He is in fact, one of the very best horse trainers I have covered in my reporting career.

Beyond Justify’s next appearance at either Saratoga or Del Mar, there will be more than 200 other stakes run this summer at other tracks throughout the country. Many of those races are certain to produce numerous contenders for all 14 Breeders’ Cup events that will occur at Churchill, including the ultra-rich $6 million BC Classic.

This past weekend in fact, there were a few performances that might already have set up a BC contender or two. Moreover, there were several other stakes on Saturday that succeeded in giving horses of somewhat lesser quality a chance to shine in their home states.

For instance, a Baffert trained 4-year-old colt, American Anthem – whose only prior race this year was a win of a 7-furlong allowance race on June 1 at Churchill – earned a solid 105 Beyer Speed Figure in the 7-furlong $250K Grade-2 San Carlos Stakes at Santa Anita Park. This was the third stakes win of this colt’s limited career and he performed as if he will be a serious factor in the 6-furlong $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Fact is, this colt’s only prior 6-furlong race was a win over older horses in his career debut last December.

Another good performance that suggested BC potential was turned in by Core Beliefs, the lightly raced 3-year-old winner of the $500K Ohio Derby at Thistledown on Saturday. Not only did he earn a respectable 93 Beyer, he previously had finished a decent third to Justify two months ago in the Santa Anita Derby! That, and his most recent second in the G2 Peter Pan at Belmont have put Core Beliefs on the map for us to accurately monitor his true BC potential going forward.

As hinted earlier, Saturday also was a day for state bred horses to shine in several stakes at several tracks including Thistledown.

There were in fact a pair of $75K stakes for Ohio breds run on Saturday at that Midwestern track. Meanwhile, Arapahoe Park had two stakes for Colorado Breds; Evangeline Downs had two for accredited Louisiana breds and Maryland’s Laurel Park offered four stakes designed strictly for Virginia breds.

This was quite nice of Laurel, considering it is located in nearby Maryland and Virginia does not have a pari-mutuel racetrack. As I saw it, the best performance of those Virginia bred races was turned in by Armoire, a 5-year-old mare who earned an 89 Beyer winning the 1-mile Nellie Mae Cox on the turf.

Unlike Virginia, Texas does have a pari-mutuel track and so it joined the parade of state bred stakes on Saturday by offering a $50K event for horses bred in that expansive state. The same was true for New Mexico, which saw Hustle Up remain undefeated in a terrific $175K stakes at Ruidoso Downs for New Mexico bred 2-year-olds.

Meanwhile, Canada and Minnesota also offered stakes on Saturday that were specifically designed to give horses who had raced at their respective tracks relatively rich opportunities to fatten their respective bankrolls.

Woodbine’s $125K, Grade-3 Singspiel on the grass at 1-1/2 miles was won by Shahroze, which gives this Irish invader license to be pointed to the $4 million BC Turf at that same distance. At Canterbury the $100K Mystic Lake Mile was won by 17-1 shot My Bariley; the $100K Mystic Lake Derby was won by lightly raced and improving Sniper Kitten who earned a good 87 Beyer.

Beyond those results, Canterbury’s stakes-loaded card also included a pair of $50K sprints – the Dark Star Cup won by 12-1 longshot Creative Art and the Hoist Her Flag won by the favorite Puntsville.

While all of these races were conducted for various reasons, Churchill Downs was not left out of the party, offering the $75K Roxelana for fillies and mares at the popular 6-furlong distance in which Astrollinthepark won her first stakes in more than a year. And, as stated earlier, even with so many stakes to close out June, we will be looking for many more and many richer when Del Mar and Saratoga get into gear.

Stay tuned, the very best of the 2018 racing season is about to begin.