Monday Morning Trainer – Fast and furious

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The Breeders’ Cup now less than five weeks away and one could really get a sense the World Championships was near as October opened with a Saturday filled with stars.

A ranking of these stars doesn’t seem right, considering their respective accomplishments, but by about 7:30 p.m. Sunday and the weekend essentially complete it seemed a no brainer that two such stars shined brighter than the rest.

California Chrome was simply California Chrome winning the Grade 1 Awesome Again on a stacked Saturday card at Santa Anita. He took down a gallant Dortmund yet again in a cakewalk performance that certainly will lead horsemen from East of the Mississippi to seriously consider the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile versus the Breeders’ Cup Classic on the closest thing to California Chrome’s not named Los Alamitos.

California Chrome won the Awesome Again by a geared-down 2 1/4 lengths for his sixth straight victory. The 5-year-old son of Lucky Pulpit hasn’t lost since the 2015 Dubai World Cup, a stretch of more than 18 months and a remarkable achievement in today’s era.

The notion of a California Chrome versus American Pharoah scenario in last year’s Classic was mentioned on NBC Sports Network’s coverage of the racing from Santa Anita – not that it was really relevant considering the latter is long retired and it wasn’t ever really close to materializing. The thought of California Chrome ending his 2016 campaign in the Classic – with another stop on in the $12 million Pegasus World Cup still looming in early 2017 – is a reality though and it could be a tough one for the opposition to swallow once again.

The other major star of the weekend was champion Stellar Wind, who not only topped the great Beholder again but added another Grade 1 victory to her resume in the Zenyatta Stakes. Stellar Wind heads to the Breeders’ Cup Distaff as the leading threat to unbeaten Songbird – or perhaps it’s the other way around?

Second in last year’s roughly run Distaff, Stellar Wind didn’t get going on her 4-year-old campaign until June and will make her fourth start of the year in the Breeders’ Cup Friday headliner.

Saturday’s stacked card at Santa Anita produced a few others that figure to be favored or close to favored in their respective Breeders’ Cup races even with more prep races still to come.

John Shirreffs – yes, John Shirreffs – saddled the winner of California’s major Breeders’ Cup Juvenile prep in the Malibu Moon colt Gormley. A $150,000 buy at last year’s Keeneland September sale, Gormley fended off odds-on favorite Klimit to win the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes by 3 lengths.

Bob Baffert redeemed for Dortmund’s and Klimit’s defeats late in the card when Noted And Quoted, a daughter of The Factor who cost owners Speedway Stable $375,000 at this year’s OBS March sale, won a good battle against With Honors in the Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes.

 

Super Wet

Belmont Park rolled out the first of its two Super Saturday cards and despite averse conditions the five stakes proved fairly formful.

The lone outlier came in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, which was expected to the latest notch on Flintshire’s belt until Ectot stole the race on the front end. An English-bred son of Hurricane Run who was unlucky in a 12-furlong grass race closing weekend at Saratoga, set a legit but not overly fast early pace and eventually drew away to win by 5 lengths.

Todd Pletcher was on the fence early in the week about even running Ectot, a Group 1 winner in France who was 17th in last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp.

Charlton Baker earned his first trip to the Breeders’ Cup and his first Grade 1 victory as Joking showed no signs of rust winning the Grade 1 Vosburgh. A 7-year-old son of Distorted Humor claimed for $20,000 more than two years ago, Joking gave Baker his first graded stakes win in June in the Grade 2 True North and didn’t run again until the Vosburgh.

The next serious test for Joking will come in the travel to the West Coast for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Baker said in June that he’s the type of horse that doesn’t handle a change of scenery very well – he held the gelding out of the Saratoga meet – but the fact he’ll be on a plane for California shows the pull of the Breeders’ Cup.

 

Not so ‘happy’

Churchill Downs wrapped up its short September meet Sunday and hosted three stakes that could have some Breeders’ Cup implications the day before.

The Grade 3 Ack Ack was supposed to be the latest victory for champion sprinter Runhappy but nine months on the sidelines proved a bit too much to overcome. Sent off at 3-10 in the field of 6 for the 1-mile Ack Ack, Runhappy battled for the lead early and eventually faded to fourth, beaten 2 ½ lengths by Tom’s Ready.

Noble Bird returned to Kentucky after his extended stay in Saratoga with a small string of Mark Casse’s horses under the supervision of his son and assistant Norm and looked like his old self winning the $175,000 Lukas Classic Stakes. A runaway winner of the Grade 3 Pimlico Special in May, Noble Bird lost back-to-back starts against Grade 1 company in the Met Mile and Whitney, before getting a bit of class relief in the Lukas.