Now that the 4th of the July holiday weekend is in the books, it's time to commence the serious countdown. Del Mar comes first, in exactly 10 days. Saratoga follows a little more than a week later and in 18 days, or so says the chalkboard on a front porch in Saratoga Springs. (Full disclosure, the chalkboard is on the porch of this writer).
The on-track action of the holiday weekend whetted the appetite for racing fans and hopefully served as a harbinger of what's to come at those two popular summertime locales.
The stable areas at Del Mar and Saratoga will soon start to fill up and the equine stars headed to those tracks are a star-studded group. And don't forget Monmouth Park and Arlington Park, as they've attracted the likes of American Pharoah and California Chrome for their respective signature events.
We put the Monday Morning Trainer feature on the sidelines for a while earlier this year, but figure this week was the perfect time to bring it back and recap a busy weekend of racing.
A total of 17 graded stakes races were run in North American Saturday and Sunday, plus the Canadian classic Queen's Plate. The group of 17 included the Grade 1 Belmont Derby and Belmont Oaks Invitationals and the United Nations at Monmouth Park. Gulfstream Park welcomed back the Summit of Speed program, once a mainstay at Calder Race Course, after a one-year hiatus.
Lady Eli was the star of the $1 million Belmont Oaks Invitational going into the 10-furlong grass event and enhanced her status with a powerhouse victory as the odds-on favorite against 13 others. The 3-year-old daughter of Divine Park ran her record to 6-for-6 with her 2 3/4-length victory over Itsonlyactingdad and European import Outstanding.
The Grade 1 Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup at Keeneland figures to be Lady Eli's primary objective later this year and trainer Chad Brown threw out a few possible spots where she could show up next, including the Grade 2 Lake Placid Aug. 14 at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Beverly D. against older fillies and mares Aug. 15 at Arlington Park.
Lady Eli's winning time of 1:59.27 was nearly 2 seconds faster than Force the Pass' clocking in his victory in the Belmont Derby two races prior. The son of Speightstown followed up his win in the Grade 3 Penn Mile with a 3 3/4-length victory over European invader Canndal for owner and breeder Richard Santulli and trainer Alan Goldberg.
The two seven-figure sophomore turf events were two of six stakes that made up the Stars and Stripes card.
Speightster was as impressive as any winner during last month's newly named Belmont Stakes Race Festival. The only problem was since he zipped to victory early on that Friday's card, the day before American Pharoah swept the Triple Crown and before nearly all of the smorgasbord of stakes were run it was one of those efforts largely forgotten and overshadowed.
The same could have been said of his victory in Saturday's Grade 2 Dwyer Stakes, although more than likely not since the win came at the immediate expense of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Texas Red.
Winning trainer Bill Mott said the "sky's the limit" for the son of Speightstown after he rolled to a 2 1/2-length win in 1:35.13 for the 1-mile trip. He's won three in a row to start his career and the Grade 1 King's Bishop - another race that serves as a marquee lead-in to a main event (the Travers) - Aug. 29 could be a logical big target for the WinStar Farm homebred colt.
The other winners on the Stars and Stripes card were Irish Jasper in the Grade 3 Victory Ride, Effinex in a major rebound in the Grade 2 Suburban and the ever-consistent Private Zone in the Grade 3 Belmont Sprint Championship.
Classic for Stronach
Frank Stronach picked up his third Queen's Plate victory and first since Awesome Again in 1997 when his homebred Ghostzapper colt Shaman Ghost won the Canadian classic by 1 1/4 lengths over Danish Dynaformer Sunday at Woodbine.
The victory was the seventh Canadian classic for Stronach, who hadn't won one since Harlem Rocker took the 2008 Prince of Wales Stakes for his Adena Racing Venture. Stronach also won the Breeders' Stakes three times - Blitzer in 1992, Basqueian in 1994 and Royal Challenger in 2006 - and the Queen's Plate with Basqueian, Awesome Again and now Shaman Ghost.
Brian Lynch, who trained Royal Challenger, also trains Shaman Ghost.
The news that American Pharoah would make his first start since sweeping the Triple Crown in the Belmont Stakes in next month's Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park came right before another Bob Baffert-trained 3-year-old took down a major prize on the West Coast.
Gimme Da Lute, a homebred for longtime Baffert client Mike Pegram and partners Karl Watson and Paul Weitman, scored a game nose victory over Prospect Park in the Grade 2 Los Alamitos Derby. Kentuckian, the 2/5 favorite and a colt many considered to be filled with tremendous upside, was 7 3/4 lengths back in third after battling for the lead early.
For those scoring at home that gives Baffert yet another accomplished sophomore to go with American Pharoah. He's also the trainer of Dortmund and Fame And Power and the Los Alamitos Derby was his 15th graded stakes victory of 2015.