The final countdown is on for the 2018 Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs – the fields were set for the 14 World Championships races Monday afternoon – and key meetings in Kentucky and New York wrapped over the weekend.
Keeneland closed the doors on its fall meeting first, wrapping up in front of a hearty group of 14,927 Saturday, while Belmont Park ended the Fall Championship meet Sunday after being forced to cancel the day before due to high winds and rain. The autumn steeplechase season also plugged along Saturday, with meets in South Carolina and Virginia playing a role in the 2018 standings with just four stops remaining.
All of that set the stage for a big two days in Louisville, with the Breeders’ Cup returning to Churchill for the first time since 2011.
Steeplechase Update: Optimus Prime great at Great Meadow
Two weeks ago, trainer Ricky Hendriks said he had no qualms about skipping the Grand National hurdle stakes with Optimus Prime, whose stablemate Zanjabeel would have been favored in the $450,000 Grade 1 but was scratched with a tendon injury.
“We knew when we bought him he didn’t want to go that far and we’re not going to do it,” Hendriks said then of the 2 5/8-mile Grand National. “He’s training well and we’re going to run in that race in Virginia.”
Well, that race in Virginia – the $75,000 Zeke Ferguson Memorial – was Saturday at Great Meadow and Optimus Prime went off like the Golden State Warriors against the Washington Generals. The Rosbrian Farm colorbearer took over with two fences to go and won by 18 lengths as the even-money favorite and 158-pound highweight. Sempre Medici, getting 10 pounds from the winner, settled for second and was 15 lengths clear of Schoodic.
At 2 1/8 miles, the Ferguson is a half-mile shorter than the Grand National so Hendriks may still be right but the 6-year-old French-bred’s effort would have put him in the mix at Far Hills – where Irish raider Jury Duty claimed the top spot and $270,000 winner’s check. For his cause, Optimus Prime improved to 2-for-3 in the United States with a win in Saratoga’s Grade 1 New York Turf Writers Cup and now the Ferguson to go with a third in the Grade 1 Lonesome Glory. Saturday’s win gave the son of Deportivo $167,500 earned in the U.S. this year, third to Jury Duty and Zanjabeel.
Ross Geraghty rode the winner to pad his lead atop the earnings list for jockeys at $672,650.
In other action at Great Meadow:
- Doc Cebu leapt to the top of the timber standings with his fourth win in five tries in the $75,000 International Gold Cup for Charlie Fenwick and trainer Jack Fisher and jockey Hadden Frost. The 2017 division champion seems assured of a second consecutive crown with only Sunday’s Pennsylvania Hunt Cup on the schedule. Saturday’s win moved the son of Hard Spun past spring star Senior Senator $102,000-$90,000. Saturday, Doc Cebu outlasted Super Saturday and Le Chevalier in the 3 1/2-mile timber stakes.
- Irv Naylor’s Elucidation improved to 2-for-2 in the U.S. with an allowance hurdle score for trainer Cyril Murphy and jockey Darren Nagle. Bred by the Niarchos family, the Irish-bred son of Oasis Dream held off Go Get The Basil and Set To Music to add the $45,000 race to his maiden score at Shawan Downs last month.
- Graded turf stakes winner Renown became a hurdle winner in the opener for Merriebelle Stable, trainer Elizabeth Voss and jockey Jack Doyle. The 7-year-old English-bred scored by a length over Dynaformersrequest. Katnap won the steeplethon, his second win in as many starts this fall, for Wits End Farm, trainer Willie Dowling and Nagle. Flat races went to Deposit, Shrove Tuesday and Accountable.
At Aiken Saturday, Hendriks won two to get to 20 on the year, two more than Jack Fisher with – again – only two weeks (and four race meets) to go. Morningstar Farm’s Diplodocus (Tom Garner) won the maiden hurdle in a romp and Barhanpour (also Garner) won a conditioned claimer in his first start off a claim from Fisher at Foxfield. Naylor, Murphy and jckey Graham Watters teamed up on a maiden claiming win with Av A Word while Gigi Lazenby’s Our Frosty won a filly/mare maiden hurdle by 59 lengths. The Louisiana-bred daughter of Half Ours was making her hurdle debut for Kate and Bernie Dalton. In the finale, fan favorite Tobias won the training flat in his first start since June for trainer Rae Fernandez.
With limited opportunities to go – Saturday’s Callaway Gardens and Montpelier meets, Sunday’s Pennsylvania Hunt Cup and next weekend’s Charleston Steeplechase – Hendriks (looking for his first crown) leads the trainers’ standings by two over Fisher (11 titles).
Doyle’s 15 wins top the jockeys’ list, but he’s got company from last year’s champion Nagle (14) and 2012 winner Geraghty (13).
George Mahoney’s Rosbrian Farm is home and hosed among the owners with $688,350 (more than $280,000 ahead of Naylor).
The NSA gives a prize to its leading earner and that will be Jury Duty, who collected $270,000 in the Grand National, in a tough beat for Zanjabeel ($265,500). Jury Duty is entered in Saturday’s Noel Laing open handicap at Montpelier, which could cloud the official Eclipse Award championship race with Zanjabeel.
While we’re on the subject over leaderboards, Sean took command of the fall TIHR handicappers’ challenge with eight (8!) wins in the weekend’s 13 races. He came up with Diplodocus and Av A Word at Aiken; At the Gold Cup, Sean swept the first five races with Renown, Katnap (on the scratch of Giza), Elucidation, Optimus Prime and Doc Cebu, then got Shrove Tuesday home in the seventh. Overwhelmed but undaunted by the show of force, Joe and Tom had what would normally be decent weekends. Joe had five wins – Barhanpour (on two scratches), Elucidation, Optimus Prime, Doc Cebu and Shrove Tuesday. Tom countered with four – Barhanpour, Optimus Prime, Doc Cebu and Shrove Tuesday. The season series stands Sean 16, Joe 12, Tom 10. It ain’t over until it’s over but…
By the Numbers
5: Consecutive wins for trainer Chris Hartman after he sent out Corruze in the fourth race Saturday at Keeneland. He also won three races Oct. 24 with Shesamajestic, Gettysburg and Balandeen and another Oct. 21 with Excessivespending.
9: Wins for Todd Pletcher as he collected his fifth Keeneland training title.
15: Victories for Tyler Gaffalione for his first Keeneland riding title.
21: Leading owner titles for Ken and Sarah Ramsey at Keeneland after they wrapped the fall meet with six wins.
38: Victories for Irad Ortiz Jr. at the Belmont Fall Championship meet, his third straight fall crown.
44: Wins for leading trainer Chad Brown at the Belmont meet, his third straight fall-season title.
45: Years of service for Keeneland mutuel clerk Sue Shadoan according to an ad in the closing-day program.
64: Races taken off the turf at the Belmont fall meet, compared to just five last year.
14,224: Average daily attendance at the Keeneland fall meet.
$144,309,944: Record all-sources handle for the 17-day Keeneland fall meet, surpassing the previous mark of $139,660,204 set at the 2013 fall meet.
$269,002,237: All-sources handle for the 35-day Belmont fall meet.