Week of September 23, 2013
By Valerie Grash, Hello Race Fans Contributing Editor

It was an extremely light weekend of stakes action as we gear up for a huge final weekend of September.

This coming Saturday will be a horse racing fan’s nirvana, with no less than 12 Breeders’ Cup “Win-and-You’re-In” challenge races to be contested, including six at Belmont, five at Santa Anita and one at Newmarket. So, sharpen your pencils, gather your handicapping tools, and charge up your electronic devices!

On paper, the $1 million 1 1/16 miles Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes looked at the mercy of new-freshened Grade 1 Mother Goose winner Close Hatches, and, boy, did she prove that right, confidently winning by two lengths while toting five to seven pounds more than the top three finishers behind her. Those three—Sweet Lulu, Street Girl and My Happy Face—were each stepping out in distance after contesting 7-furlong races last out (the Grade 1 Test for Sweet Lulu and My Happy Face, and Grade 1 Ballerina for Street Girl). After leading much of the race, Sweet Lulu gave way to Close Hatches at the head of the stretch, but after faded slightly, re-rallied to get up for second, just a nose in front of late-closing Street Girl who was a half length in front of fourth-place My Happy Face. The final time (1:44.03) wasn’t particularly impressive, but Close Hatches got the job done.

My Happy Face was cross-entered in Saturday night’s $400,000 non-graded 7-furlong Charles Town Oaks, a race ultimately contested over a sloppy track, but won in impressive come-from-behind fashion by Maggi Moss’s Grade 1 winner So Many Ways. The Pennsylvania-bred daughter of Sightseeing got up late to defeat R Free Roll, a filly that beat her earlier this year and who was coming off two open company sprint stakes efforts—a winning one in the Unbridled Stakes against males, but a tiring fifth after leading the Grade 3 Carry Back. George and Lori Hall’s Mr Hall’s Opus finished third, with last year’s Grade 3 Debutante winner Blueeyesintherein in fourth. Update: It was announced on Monday that So Many Ways has been retired to Japan’s Northern Farm where she’ll join former race mares Azeri, Zazu and Musical Romance, to name a few.

Three-year-old fillies were also featured in the 7-furlong Grade 3 Dogwood Stakes at Churchill Downs. Grade 1-placed Irish Lute took the early lead, battling Louisiana-bred Guadalupe High for much of the early going. That one eventually gave way, leaving the Dallas Stewart trainee in front, but Bill Mott-trained 4-5 favorite Sky Girl—newly sold and freshened off a third-place finish in the 1 1/8 miles Grade 3 Arlington Oaks—found racing room inside along the rail, and shot through, getting the win by 1 1/2 lengths. Irish Lute hung on for second, with a gamely Elusive Fate just a neck back in third.

The weekend’s other filly and mare sprint event, the 6 1/2 furlong Grade 2 Gallant Bloom Handicap at Belmont was to be the eighth consecutive victory for red-hot Dance to Bristol who last out defeated Book Review in the Grade 1 Ballerina. Alas, it was not to be, as front-running Cluster of Stars—undefeated in five previous career starts—refused to stop running, winning by five lengths over the favored Dance to Bristol. It was another 2 3/4 lengths back to Dance Card, making her first start since winning last November’s Grade 1 Gazelle Stakes for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.

While favorites prevailed for much of the weekend, the 6-furlong Grade 3 Gallant Bob Stakes at Parx was won by a 30-1 shocker, City of Weston—well-beaten by the filly R Free Roll in both the Unbridled Stakes and Grade 3 Carry Back, but second in the ungraded Hard Spun Stakes at Delaware last out. He had previously won a Florida state-bred stakes race at Tampa under jockey Paco Lopez who regained the mount on Saturday, and led the 3-year-old Holy Bull colt to the upset win. It was nearly a length back to runner-up Clearly Now, the 2-1 favorite off a victory in the Grade 3 Swale early this year and a narrow runner-up finish in the turf Charlie Barley Stakes at Woodbine last out. Another Canadian import, front-running Black Hornet was a game third.

The highlight of Saturday’s Parx card was the 1 1/8 miles Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby which featured a rematch of the top two finishers in the Grade 1 Travers and, once again, it was the well-bred Will Take Charge who won, this time in by a more convincing 2 1/4 lengths, over a game Moreno who narrowly prevailed over the late-closing Battier. Like the Cotillion, the final time (1:49.28) was nothing special, but trainer D. Wayne Lucas is nevertheless preaching to anyone who will listen that his colt is still a contender for 3-year-old champion honors (despite his complete and utter failure in all three of the Triple Crown races). Next up for him: a start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. In the Pennsylvania Derby, Grade 1 Blue Grass victor Java’s War ran a horrific race, never engaged in running and finishing at least 37 lengths behind the winner (and 22 lengths behind his nearest competitor, Speak Logistics). Clearly, this is a horse whose breeding (and races) have indicated his predilection for turf and synthetics, so when will his connections finally acknowledge that fact?

Despite lacking any graded stakes, Laurel’s Saturday card featured some exciting contests. Transferred back from dirt to turf, juvenile Yes I’m Lucky put on a clinic winning the 5 1/2 furlong Laurel Futurity by 6 1/2 lengths over Tiger Bourbon—and posting a final time (1:01.30) that wasn’t that far off the track record (1:00.53). In the corresponding filly race, the Selima Stakes, impressive maiden winner Hot Squeeze was defeated by a determined Aibhilin (Sky Mesa). In the 1 1/16 miles Lady Baltimore Stakes, H. Graham Motion trainee Strathnaver got up for the victory. The English-import won her first two American races earlier this year, including the 1 1/2 miles Grade 3 Bewitch at Keeneland, before failing miserably in her last two starts, in the Grade 2 Sheepshead Bay and Grade 3 Modesty Handicap. This win, by a head over favored Abaco, was particularly impressive as the final time (1:40.98) was just a fraction off the track record (1:40.85).

Opting for the Laurel Dash on turf rather than the Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash on dirt turned out to be the right move for veteran Ben’s Cat, as the 7-year-old got up in time to win over longshot Mr. Online (who carried six less pounds) in a new track record time a scintillating 1:07.40, .11 seconds off the track record time. A race on Maryland Millions Day (October 19) appears to be next for Ben’s Cat, a Maryland-bred gelding who has now won 23 of 35 lifetime starts.

Even with the dirt track turned sloppy, the once-prestigious Frank J. De Francis Memorial (a Grade 1 event from 1998 until 2010) turned out to be an impressive career-best performance for 8-year-old Immortal Eyes whose final time (1:08.47) wasn’t far off the track record (1:07.95) set by Richter Scale back in 2000. Well rated, the front-running Immortal Eyes was never seriously challenged, and he ended up winning under a hand ride by nearly seven lengths. The runner-up Saturday’s Charm (a narrow second-place finisher in the Grade 3 Tom Fool Handicap earlier this year) finished two lengths ahead of second-choice Service for Ten. Post-time favorite Sage Valley—a distant fifth-place finisher in the Grade 1 Forego last out—was a disappointing last here. A similar below par effort by favored Atigun—a Grade 3 runner-up behind Dark Cove in the 1 1/2 miles Louisville Handicap in late May—occurred in the Laurel Turf Cup, a race narrowly won by Shug McGaughey trainee Tricky Hat, with jockey Rosie Napravnik aboard. For Napravnik, who rode seven races on the 11-race card, it was her only win on Saturday, although she had four second-place finishers.

While North American racing looks forward to several big-race events this fall—the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita on November 1 and 2, as well as Pattison Canadian International Day at Woodbine on October 27—there are a number of other prestigious race meetings for fans to explore. The 2013 Melbourne Cup Carnival begins on November 2 and ends on November 9, with the historic “Race That Stops a Nation”—the 2-mile long Melbourne Cup—being contested on Tuesday, November 5 (late Monday night for North American viewers). Before all these events is the Qatar Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe weekend at Longchamp, highlighted by the 92nd running of the 1 1/2 miles Arc on October 6. Fillies (Solemia and Danedream) have captured the open company affair in its most recent runnings—will another prevail this year? This past weekend, the 3-year-old colt Intello punched his ticket for the Arc, winning the French Group 3 Prix du Prince d’Orange with ease. Whether he will be a strong contender remains to be seen, but what excitement lies ahead over the next two months!

Keep up with all the racing commentary and news at Raceday 360 Wire!

Last Week’s Races

2013 Gallant Bloom Handicap Replay
Cluster of Stars holds off Dance to Bristol.

Video courtesy of NYRA

2013 Cotillion Stakes Replay
Close Hatches hands Sweet Lulu her first defeat.

Video courtesy of Partymanners

2013 Pennsylvania Derby Replay
Will Take Charge does it again.

Video courtesy of Breeders’ Cup

2013 De Francis Dash Replay
Immortal Eyes takes them all the way.

This video must be viewed at YouTube

2013 Laurel Turf Cup Replay
Tricky Hat gets through on the wire for the win.

This video must be viewed at YouTube

2013 Laurel Dash Replay
Ben’s Cat wins despite Mr. Online’s best efforts to take him wide.

This video must be viewed at YouTube

2013 Lady Baltimore Stakes Replay
Strathnaver gets up in time, just before favored Abaco.

This video must be viewed at YouTube

2013 Prix du Prince d’Orange Replay
Intello scores an easy win.

Download Brisnet.com Results Charts
2013 Charles Town Oaks Chart
2013 Cotillion Stakes Chart
2013 De Francis Dash Chart
2013 Dogwood Stakes Chart
2013 Gallant Bloom Handicap Chart
2013 Gallant Bob Stakes Chart
2013 Lady Baltimore Stakes Chart
2013 Laurel Dash Chart
2013 Laurel Turf Cup Stakes Chart
2013 Pennsylvania Derby Chart

Check probable starters at Horse Racing Nation’s Stakes Tracker

See you at the track!

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Charts and PPs provided by Brisnet