Let The Breeders' Cup Countdown Begin

Life Is Good is among the stars who come out to play Saturday | Sarah Andrew


There are but five weeks remaining between now and the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland Nov. 4 and 5, and many of horse racing's biggest names will take in their final prep races over the course of the next couple of weekends. Better than 40 graded stakes, the majority of which have championship weekend implications, are set to take place from sea to shining sea, including 21 'Win and You're In' events offering the winners an all-expenses paid trip to the Bluegrass.

Santa Anita stages one of the four Breeders' Cup Challenge races on tap for Saturday, the GI Awesome Again S., a race used by future champion Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky) as a springboard to GI Breeders' Cup Classic success back in 2018. Bob Baffert fields half of the eight starters as he looks for an eight renewal and third in succession. The charge is led by Country Grammer (Tonalist), whose two most important victories to date have come over 10 furlongs–the GI Gold Cup at Santa Anita and G1 Dubai World Cup–but he has proven effective enough going this mile-and-an-eighth trip, with a record of 2-2-0 from four starts. The 5-year-old, a millionaire 11 times over courtesy of two big performances in the desert this winter, looks to bounce back from runner-up efforts behind the re-opposing Royal Ship (Brz) (Midshipman) in the GII San Diego H. July 30 and when finishing in area code 213 behind 'TDN Rising Star' Flightline (Tapit) in the GI TVG Pacific Classic Sept. 3.

Meanwhile, on the Eastern seaboard–which was expecting the arrival of the remnants of Hurricane Ian late Friday–'Rising Star' Life Is Good (Into Mischief) revs up for his Breeders' Cup engagement as the overwhelming favorite in a field of five for the GI Woodward S.

Fourth to Country Grammer after failing to see out the 'stiff' 10 furlongs of the G1 Dubai World Cup, the 4-year-old has been nothing but brilliant since, with big-figure victories in the GII John A. Nerud S.–speaking of the Breeders' Cup–and last time in the GI Whitney S. at Saratoga.

“He's an extremely talented horse,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, whose previous Woodward winners include Lawyer Ron, Quality Road and GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile victor Liam's Map. “We just always hope that everything goes according to plan. It doesn't ever surprise me, but it is just remarkable how consistent he's been every single day he's out there. Every breeze is impressive and that's just what we've come to expect of him.”

The third of the Classic preps takes place at Churchill Downs, where the most competitive of the three fields heads postward in the GII Lukas Classic S. Favored at 8-5 on the morning line is the hard-knocking Hot Rod Charlie (Oxbow), but he'll be made to work for it by last year's Woodward winner and recent GII Charles Town Classic repeater Art Collector (Bernardini), GI Met Mile and Whitney runner-up Happy Saver (Super Saver) and Rich Strike (Keen Ice), who would become the first GI Kentucky Derby winner to succeed beneath the Twin Spires since Silver Charm took the 1998 GII Clark H. a year after being draped with the roses.

The Lukas Classic has been added to NBC's coverage of Saturday's preps.




Dirt Mile Berth Up for Grabs In Ack Ack…

Godolphin's Speaker's Corner (Street Sense) has the rail and is the even-money favorite for the one-mile GIII Ack Ack S. at Churchill Downs, with a trip to the GI Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile awaiting the winner.

For the first four months of this year, the homebred looked like he might develop into one of the top horses in training, as he capped a three-race winning skein with a good-looking 4 1/2-length tally in the GI Carter H. at Aqueduct in April, good for a 114 Beyer. It's been anything but plain sailing since. Best-backed against Flightline in the GI Hill 'n' Dale Met Mile June 11, he faded to third after setting the early pace and also had the misfortune of running into Life Is Good in the Nerud, finishing a distant runner-up. With Cody's Wish (Curlin) representing Godolphin in the GI Forego S. at Saratoga the same afternoon, Speaker's Corner was shipped to Del Mar for the Aug. 27 GII Pat O'Brien S. and never looked likely, dropping away to be fourth behind the impressive Laurel River (Into Mischief).

Juddmonte's Fulsome (Into Mischief), winner of this year's GIII Oaklawn Mile going a two-turn configuration and victorious in this track's GIII Matt Winn S. last year, and the class-dropping Untreated (Nyquist)–perfect in three tries going a mile, albeit against softer–could make life difficult on the rail-drawn favorite.

Juveniles Share The Spotlight at BAQ…

The Belmont at the Big A meet plays host to the afternoon's other 'Win and You're In' tests–the GI Champagne S. for 2-year-old males going the one-turn mile and the GII Miss Grillo S. for juvenile grass fillies.

Despite his relative inexperience, Verifying (Justify) will take plenty of beating while stepping into stakes company for the first time. A $775,000 Keeneland September purchase, the May-foaled half-brother to champion Midnight Bisou (Midnight Lute) ran to 3-4 favoritism in the Travers Day opener at Saratoga, scoring by a widening 1 3/4 lengths, and looks to have trained on since the debut.

Trainer Brad Cox has yet to saddle a Champagne winner and believes his charge will be prominent in the run Saturday.

“I want to be up close, but he doesn't necessarily have to be on the lead,” Cox said. “He has enough natural speed going a mile that he's going to be in the mix. He's a good-looking horse. Based on pedigree and how he looks, I think he'll like more ground.”

A pair of 'TDN Rising Stars' figure to make their presence known as well. Gulfport (Uncle Mo), whose sire won the 2010 Champagne en route to a GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile victory and an Eclipse Award, romped by better than a dozen lengths in the  July 4 Bashford Manor S. and has since finished runner-up in the GII Saratoga Special S. and GI Hopeful S. New York-bred Andiamo a Firenze (Speightstown), a homebred half-brother to 2017 Champagne hero Firenze Fire (Poseidon's Warrior), was fractionally disappointing when third in the GIII Sanford S. upstate July 16, but bounced back with a smooth success in the state-bred restricted Funny Cide S. Aug 26 over the same sloppy underfoot conditions he's likely to encounter Saturday.

'Rising Star' Be Your Best (Ire) (Muhaarar {GB}) looks to remain perfect in three starts in the Miss Grillo, a race likely to test the field's collective ability to handle a fair bit of cut in the ground depending on what mood Ian is in.

“She fits great in this spot,” trainer Horacio De Paz said. “She's won twice and going long, so the distance shouldn't be a problem. Hopefully the weather stays together and we don't get a lot of rain, but even if we did get some rain, she's a horse that likes turf with a little give as well. Everything is very positive for her. She overcomes things.”

The field of six also includes Free Look (Tapit), a late-on-the-scene third to Be Your Best on July 31 debut ahead of a much-the-best score Sept. 4. Alluring Angel (GB) (Fastnet Rock {Aus}) won on Saratoga sprint debut for the always-dangerous Jorge Abreu barn Aug. 4 and stretches out off a stinging nose defeat in the Sept. 13 Untapable S. at Kentucky Downs.

'Kingdom' Comes Back in SA Sprint Championship…

In 2019, Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella brought Omaha Beach (War Front) back off an April layoff and a missed chance in the GI Kentucky Derby to score impressively in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship S., then a Grade I. The conditioner looks for lightning to strike twice Saturday when the very talented Forbidden Kingdom (American Pharoah) makes his much-anticipated return to action.

A $300,000 purchase out of the 2020 Fasig-Tipton Selected Yearlings Showcase, the chestnut son of the gifted Just Louise (Five Star Day) wired this track's GII San Vicente S. Jan. 29 and proved he could handle two-turns with a blowout win in the GII San Felipe S. Mar. 5. But it all came undone in the GI Santa Anita Derby Apr. 9, as he dropped away to finished tailed off in last behind 'Rising Star' Taiba (Gun Runner) and hasn't been seen since.

“Richard is a such a great caretaker and he's given him plenty of time and let him get back to the horse that we know he is,” Spendthrift's Ned Toffey told TDN's Steve Sherack recently for his APB series. “We know he's fast. We know he's talented. It's just been a frustrating year.”

Forbidden Kingdom faces a field that includes C Z Rocket (City Zip), winner of this race in 2020 and third in defense of his title last year; and the progressive Kid Corleone (Shackleford), who tries graded company for the first time.




Elsewhere On Saturday…

The final two legs of the Florida Stallion Stakes–the In Reality S. and My Dear Girl S. are set for Gulfstream Park; a five-stakes program at Laurel Park includes the Selima S. and Laurel Futurity for the 2-year-olds; and Tyler's Tribe (Sharp Azteca) tries to make it five-for-five ahead of a possible Breeders' Cup appearance in the Iowa Cradle S. at Prairie Meadows.

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