By Mike Farrell
Time does fly, and it will be October when the weekend arrives. Time to punch those tickets to the Breeders’ Cup, especially for promising 2-year-olds.
There are nine Breeders’ Cup “Win and You’re In” stakes on tap Friday through Sunday. Five are juvenile contests.
It kicks off Friday, opening day at Santa Anita with a trio of 2-year-old races: the American Pharoah (G1), the Chandelier (G2) for fillies and the Speakeasy for turf sprinters.
Belmont continues the juvenile theme Saturday with the Champagne (G1) while that afternoon Santa Anita spotlights older runners in the Awesome Again (G1), the Rodeo Drive (G1) for turf fillies and mares and the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G2).
The flurry of Breeders’ Cup qualifiers concludes Sunday with a pair of distaff events: the Frizette (G1) for 2-year-olds at Belmont and the Zenyatta (G2) at Santa Anita.
This is the final sprint to the Cup. It’s now or never as the opportunities dwindle with each passing stakes.
The Awesome Again brings together the top older runners on the West Coast — Idol, Express Train and Tripoli — along with a Medina Spirit, who may or may not be this year’s Kentucky Derby (G1) winner pending final, and long overdue, adjudication of that race.
Bob Baffert played peek-a-boo with Medina Spirit. First we enter, then we promptly scratch from last weekend’s Pennsylvania Derby (G1). This might not be the easier spot Baffert was seeking, not against a Santa Anita Handicap (G1) winner Idol and the Pacific Classic (G1) winner Tripoli.
Shifting to the East Coast, the Champagne is the next step for Gunite after his dominant Hopeful (G1) victory at Saratoga. He easily beat Wit that day after that rival stumbled at the break. Wit, the Sanford (G3) winner, is back for another try — and hopefully a smoother start.
Hot Rod Charlie must have been a linebacker in his previous life. He fits the profile as an intimidating, take-no-prisoners bully on the racetrack.
Now he is a Grade 1 winner following his victory Saturday in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby. Controversy follows Hot Rod Charlie, and the latest episode was no exception.
Hot Rod Charlie carried Midnight Bourbon, his favorite punching bag, extremely wide coming off the final turn at Parx Racing. While there was no contact, unlike the Haskell Stakes (G1) where Hot Rod Charlie ducked into Midnight Bourbon’s path and caused him to stumble, the tactic clearly compromised the second-place finisher’s chances.
Would the outcome have been different if Hot Rod Charlie, with Flavien Prat aboard, ran straight as a string? Of course, we’ll never know if Midnight Bourbon could have overhauled the eventual winner. The stewards found no fault and the result stood.
Now it’s on to the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) for Hot Rod Charlie.
“He displayed today that he has got some special qualities that, if he stays injury free, could lead to big stuff in November,” trainer Doug O’Neill said. “I think he can be a big force in the Breeders’ Cup. Obviously, there are some big-time horses out there that have more experience than him, but he is coming around at a good time.”
Midnight Bourbon won’t back for another shot as trainer Steve Asmussen has had his fill of Hot Rod Charlie. Asmussen told the Daily Racing Form the Midnight Bourbon will skip the Breeders’ Cup and aim for the Clark Handicap (G1) in late November at Churchill Downs.
The Burke family had a week to treasure in Delaware, Ohio.
Ron Burke was king of the annual Grand Circuit stop in the heart of the Buckeye State, winning the Little Brown Jug with Lou’s Pearlman and the Jugette, the companion event for fillies, with Scarlett Hanover.
It was also the week he learned of his 2022 induction into the Harness Racing Hall of Fame in Goshen, New York.
Burke is often referred to as harness racing’s Todd Pletcher, the leader of a stable with top contenders in virtually every division … as he demonstrated in the Jug and Jugette. He is the first trainer since Brett Pelling in 1998 to sweep both races in the same year.
The Burke Brigade didn’t stop there, winning a record 13 races during the week at the fairgrounds. Since 2009, Burke has led all North American trainers every season in wins and earnings.
The Hall of Fame recognition was a foregone conclusion when his name appeared on the ballot this year. He will be joined there by Yannick Gingras, who was in the sulky behind Lou’s Pearlman in the Jug, trainer George Teague, Jr. and long-time Michigan legend Chris Boring in the Veteran’s category.
It became a true Burke family affair when his parents Mickey and Sylvia were recognized as Little Brown Jug Wall of Fame honorees.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.