What did you do over the weekend? If you're Thoroughbred racing, you threw parties - all over the country.
In what will be a busy stretch over the next six weeks leading up to the Breeders' Cup Nov. 1-2, racing dove into autumn with a string of major stops.
The Pennsylvania track hosted its richest day of the year and was rewarded handsomely with signature renewals of the Pennsylvania Derby and Cotillion. Both races are worth $1 million and delivered. Travers winner Will Take Charge served notice on his division that he belongs in any championship discussion with a 2 ¼-length win for Willis Horton and trainer D. Wayne Lukas. Jockey Luis Saez angled in at the top of the stretch and Will Take Charge responded with a burst that carried him from fourth to first. Early leader Moreno finished second with Battier third after rallying into contention from far back and far outside. The winner improved to 4-for-9 this year and put the ball squarely in the courts of division rivals Orb and Palace Malice, who run this weekend.
Will Take Charge continued a big year for the Hall of Fame trainer.
"None of them are easy. They're fun. I don't dwell," Lukas said at Saratoga when asked about staying positive. "I don't wake up every day trying to prove I'm a horse trainer any more. I just do my job and I feel good about it, I enjoy it so much. I'm comfortable. About when I was 35, I said I'm fighting this too hard, I'll just do my job and it'll be OK. I used to think I've got to get out there and beat somebody, you just step back and do your job, it usually takes care of itself."
When told that 35 was young for such an invaluable lesson, Lukas laughed.
"Maybe not that early," Lukas said. "Maybe 45."
One race earlier, Juddmonte Farm homebred Close Hatches made off with the Grade 1 Cotillion for trainer Bill Mott and jockey Mike Smith. The daughter of First Defence collared Sweet Lulu at the quarter pole and prevailed by 2 lengths. Sweet Lulu stayed for second with Street Girl third. Sent off the favorite in a field of nine, Close Hatches won for the fifth time in seven career starts (all this year).
City Of Weston upset the Grade 3 Gallant Bob Stakes at better than 30-1. The 3-year-old caught favorite Clearly Now late and won by three-quarters of a length for trainer Antonio Sano and owner Cloud Nine Lumoni.
Also at Parx, veteran turf performer Roadhog made his fourth start in the Pennsylvania-bred Alphabet Soup Stakes and collected win number two. The Ellendale Racing homebred won for the eighth time and passed $435,000 in career earnings. Trainer Lizzie Merrymon has engineered two stakes wins this year with the son of Bowman's Band. Next stop should be the Maryland Million, which he won in 2012, at Laurel Oct. 19.
Opening Day was technically Thursday, but Laurel Park found its real stride Saturday with seven stakes. Chief among them was the De Francis Dash, which went to 8-year-old veteran Immortal Eyes at long last. Trainer Damon Dilodovico's charge was making his third consecutive start in the sprint stakes and came off a second in 2011 and a third last year. This time around, he went to the front at the start and repulsed all challenges while winning by 6 ¾ lengths and going past $1 million in earnings for Robert Abbo Racing Stable and jockey Travis Dunkelberger.
Fair Hill Training Center had a big day with two stakes wins - the Laurel Turf Cup by Tricky Hat (who led a $75 all-Fair-Hill exacta with Eagle Poise) and the Lady Baltimore by Strathnaver. Shug McGaughey trains the former for Andrew Rosen, Robert Trussell and Gainesway Stable while Graham Motion trains the latter for Andrew Stone.
Nobody had a bigger day than Maryland-bred standout Ben's Cat, who won yet another turf stakes in the Laurel Dash. Owner/trainer/breeder King Leatherbury thought about the De Francis Dash with his charge, but opted for turf and was rewarded. Ben's Cat picked up his 23rd career win and fourth this year while passing $1.6 million in career earnings. Julian Pimentel rode the winner, who wore down Mr. Online while the duo drifted to the outside of the turf course, to win the 6-furlong test by a neck over Mr. Online.
Yes I'm Lucky won the Laurel Futurity for trainer Eddie Plesa Jr., the 2-year-old's fourth win in five tries this year. The son of Yes It's True has now won stakes on turf and dirt. The Selima, for 2-year-old fillies, went to Aibhilin for owners David and Margaret Wilmer and trainer Cal Lynch.
Saturday's Jameela Stakes for Maryland-breds went to the photo-finish camera with Madame Giry getting the nose decision over Ju Ju Eyeballs. Bred by Raintree Thoroughbreds, the winner collected her second consecutive win for Nutmeg Farm and trainer Cam Gambolati.
The New York track bills Sept. 28 as Super Saturday, but warmed up with the Gallant Bloom Stakes a week earlier. Turtle Bird Stable's Cluster Of Stars ran her winning streak to six and stopped Dance To Bristol's run at seven with a win in the 6 ½ furlong stakes for fillies and mares. Trained by Steve Asmussen, the winner drew off to score by 5 lengths with Dance To Bristol second.
Javier Castellano won five on the day. This Saturday is indeed super as the Belmont card will include the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Beldame, the Turf Classic, the Flower Bowl, the Vosburgh and the Kelso.
The card featured 11 stakes and familiar wins by locals Lucy's Bob Boy and Down Town Allen, but two $400,000 stakes drew the biggest names. Pennsylvania-bred So Many Ways captured the Run for the Ribbon Stakes for Maggi Moss and trainer Tom Amoss. The winner rallied wide to catch R Free Roll late and win by 2 ¾ lengths going 7 furlongs. In the Researcher, Lynn and Lola Cash's Take It Like A Man prevailed over Mongolian Saturday and favorite Bond Vigilante for trainer Kellyn Gorder.