The Saturday Special presented by Thoroughbred Racing Calendar – April 16

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A seismic clash of champions at Oaklawn Park ushers in the second half of April and the final serious countdown to one of the country’s most anticipated weekends of the year.

The Grade 1 Apple Blossom Handicap takes center stage and brings together Monomoy Girl and Swiss Skydiver, both honored with Eclipse Awards last season. Monomoy Girl concedes two pounds to her younger rival in what could be the race of the young year for $1 million. They met in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, with Monomoy Girl winning and Swiss Skydiver finishing seventh in the lone poor effort of her career. 

Not to be outdone, Oaklawn also runs another of its signature events in the $1 million Oaklawn Handicap, which also drew a strong field.

The Kentucky Derby and Kentucky Oaks are two weeks out and with all the preps in the books it’s pin and needle time with penultimate works slated for the weekend.

The cast for the Derby continues to take shape and by our count it looks like 11 of the 20 in the likely field come from four trainers – Todd Pletcher (four), Brad Cox (three), Steve Asmussen (two) and Mark Casse (two). While we’d always prefer a bit more variety it’s tough to knock the accomplishments of those four.

Strong racing elsewhere with a good renewal of the Grade 2 Californian at Santa Anita, a pair of stakes at Aqueduct and the final Saturday of the Keeneland spring meet.

Flat racing is in full swing overseas and the race for leading jump jockey is coming down to the wire. Check it all out in the primer for Saturday, April 17, plus some bonus material. Take care, be safe and good luck.

Riverdee Stable Quote of the Day: “I stayed in the hotel last night and was trying to think what was here. What was in this actual spot, where this hotel is? That’s where the old gap was. I was trying to envision where the kitchen was exactly. I can remember (trainer James Eckrosh) parking in that one spot and hitting the fence every day. He backed into the fence or hit the fence every day, turning in. But you know what? There’s only one thing that’s constant in life – change.”
Jockey Robby Albarado after staying in the hotel overlooking Oaklawn Park 

“We’re not going to give up, so we just keep taking it race by race and keep chipping away.”
Defending champion Brian Hughes on the title race 

The Saratoga Special Name of the Day: Hanno. Grand National. Hanno the Navigator, of course. The Carthaginian explorer of the fifth century BC, best known for his naval exploration of the western coast of Africa. Hanno the horse is by Henrythenavigator.

Thirsk. Race 1. 6:10 a.m. Hunch bet. Call Annie. 

Bangor-on-Dee. Race 1. 6:25. If you’re following the heating-up jockey championship, the bell rings here. Harry Skelton, the leader looking for his first title, rides five races, starting with 8-5 Dan Gun in the opener. Brian Hughes, the defending champion and now chaser, rides the first five races. He picks up 3-1 Rubytwo in the opener. The title finishes at Sandown next Saturday but could come down to this Saturday at Bangor. Good luck, gentlemen. 

Curragh. Race 1. 8:30. Two-year-olds go to school in the opener.

Curragh. Race 2. 9:00. Two-year-old Cadamosto has already been to school, the son of No Nay Never won his debut last Saturday.  

Thirsk. Race 7. 9:10. Toro Strike returns from Group action in the fall for Richard Fahey and Paul Hanagan. 

Curragh. Race 3. 9:35. The Group 3 Tri Equestrian Gladness Stakes. Speak In Colours, Lancaster House and Know It All return from Group 1 efforts in their latest efforts.

Curragh. Race 4. 10:10. Broome goes 7-5 for Aidan O’Brien and Ryan Moore in the Group 3 Holder Plant Rentals Alleged Stakes. 

Nottingham. Race 1. 11:40. Meng Tian just missed in his career debut, the son of Territories returns against four rivals in the opener. 

Keeneland Race Course. Race 2. 1:39 p.m. Ashaar, second in his last two, and Portos make up strong uncoupled entry for Todd Pletcher in 9-furlong allowance.

Keeneland. Race 3. 2:12. We got to know Let Them Eat Cake, a half sister to multiple stakes winner Free As A Bird, during last summer’s Fasig-Tipton Stable Tour with Ian Wilkes (Page 6). Daughter of Animal Kingdom looks to get in the win column in 5 ½-furlong turf maiden that also draws American Goddess and aptly named Six Feet Apart from meet’s leading trainer Wesley Ward.

Aqueduct. Race 3. 2:26. Good early allowance on the grass for state-breds – if it stays on – with last-out winners Dr. Blute, Bardolino, City Mischief and Our Troubadour in the field with Dancing Buck and Swashbuckle.

Fonner Park. Race 1. 2:30. Start the day with the fillies division of the $15,000 Fonner Park Special. We like the sound of that. Miss Addisyn K is the lone winner in the field of six Nebraska-bred 3-year-old fillies.

Fonner. Race 2. 2:57. Nebraska-bred colts and geldings take their turn in second division of $15,000 Fonner Park Special. Same story as the fillies race with one winner, Kamikaze Judge, in the field.

MysticStrikeGrand National. Race 1. 3:15. Last stop before Glyndon. Timber toppers go 3 1/4 miles in the timber stakes. Mystic Strike (right, with trainer Todd McKenna. Tod Marks Photo) slipped on the turn at the Manor, he returns for his final prep before the Maryland Hunt Cup next week. Nine veterans looking for glory. Watch

Aqueduct. Race 5. 3:32. Mo Faith won belated debut against open company on the grass at Gulfstream and now takes on state-breds in 1-mile allowance on the grass.

Keeneland. Race 6. 3:51. Brian Lynch unveils Amerman Racing Stables’ homebred Coffee Break, son of Ghostzapper out of multiple graded stakes winner Coffee Clique, in 6-furlong maiden on the main track.

Grand National. Race 2. 4:00. Allowance timber horses go the same distance as the big one. Sons of Empire Maker, Great Notion, Dynaformer, Smart Strike, Run Softly and Eskendereya try to earn their way to the top. The six runners have combined to make 142 starts from Pimlico to Pine Mountain, Kempton to Kentucky Downs. Watch 

Keeneland. Race 7. 4:24. Wesley Ward fires again in 5 1/2-furlong turf allowance with Chili Petin but don’t overlook Ready For Change, Notorious R B G, Brooke Marie or No Way Jose.

Aqueduct. Race 7. 4:44. Seven entered for the $200,000 Times Square division of the New York Stallion Series, including Lobsta, Market Alert and It’s Gravy. They’ve all placed in stakes without winning one yet and there might not be a better spot than here.

Grand National Race 3. 4:45. The finale of the three-race timber card. Florida-, French-, Kentucky-, Irish-, British- and Maryland-breds offer amateurs/apprentices a day in the country. Dueling Grounds Derby winner My Afleet should relish the change of pace. Watch

SouthBendKeeneland. Race 8. 4:57. What a journey South Bend went on last summer. After a second in the Ohio Derby for Stan Hough he was sold to current connections to run in the Travers, Kentucky Derby and Belmont Derby. He didn’t hit the board in any, although a decent fourth to Tiz The Law in the Travers. Now he’s back for first start since early October in 1 1/6-mile optional. (South Bend, left. Tod Marks Photo). Last year’s Canadian Horse of the Year Mighty Heart, crowned with that honor and champion 3-year-old male at Thursday night’s Sovereign Awards virtual ceremony, is also in the field.

Oaklawn Park. Race 8. 5:09. Steve Asmussen, on the way to another training title, sends out Pa Ma’s Amos and James Madison in two-turn maiden for 3-year-olds.

Aqueduct. Race 8. 5:19. Short price on Hard Love in the $100,000 Woodhaven for 3-year-olds at 1 1/16 miles on the grass. Runner-up in the Central Park when last seen in late November on the same course, son of Kitten’s Joy won’t have it easy against Shawdyshawdyshawdy, Original and Sifting Sands.

Gulfstream Park. Race 10. 5:22. Life In Shambles, winner of the Grade 3 Fall Highweight Handicap in 2018, still going strong at age 10 and inching closer to seven figures. He’s 13-14-6 in 63 starts with $936,341 and runs for $35,000 in 6-furlong optional.

Keeneland. Race 9. 5:30. Always one of our favorites, the Grade 2 Elkhorn going 12 furlongs on the turf. Many of the usual suspects – Cross Border, Say The Word, Tide Of The Sea, North Dakota, Channel Cat and Red Knight – are within a chance.

Oaklawn. Race 9. 5:49. Strong field of eight for Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap, bumped up to $1 million for 2021. Express Train, second in the Big ‘Cap for John Shirreffs, ships from California to take on Silver State riding a four-race win streak, Graded 2 Gulfstream Park Mile winner Fearless and Brad Cox’s graded stakes-winning duo of Owendale and Warrior’s Charge.

Santa Anita Park. Race 5. 6:15. Superstition comes off nice win over Oleksandra in the Wishing Well and is the one to beat in $75,000 Mizdirection going 6 furlongs on the grass. She’ll get a strong test from Cal-bred Leggs Galore, the winner of five straight for Phil D’Amato.

Oaklawn. Race 10. 6:29. Firecrow led then finished not-so-bad fourth behind C Z Rocket, Whitmore and Flagstaff in the $200,000 Hot Springs. He won’t face any of that quality in 6-furlong optional but will meet tough foes in stablemate Seven Nation Army, Engage and Welder.

SwissSkydiver AlabamaOaklawn. Race 11. 7:09. The Grade 1 $1 million Apple Blossom and the blockbuster matchup between last year’s champion 3-year-old filly Swiss Skydiver (at right winning the Alabama. Tod Marks Photo) and champion older dirt female Monomoy Girl. The latter carries top weight of 124 pounds, giving two to her younger rival, and comes off easy win in the Grade 3 Bayakoa in late February. Swiss Skydiver took her show on the road for her 2021 debut and won the Grade 1 Beholder Mile at Santa Anita. The wise guys will like Letruska to possibly go all the way on the lead but she’s not in same league as the top two.

Santa Anita. Race 7. 7:19. Stakes-caliber optional at 7 furlongs with the comebacking Grade 1 winner Ce Ce, winner of last year’s Apple Blossom, unbeaten Happier and Himiko from Bob Baffert’s barn and Cal-bred stakes winner Bella Vita.

Santa Anita. Race 8. 7:51. Independence Hall, third in the Pegasus World Cup and fourth in the Big ‘Cap in his last two starts, rates slight edge in tough renewal of the Grade 2 Californian. Five-horse field also includes Country Grammer, winner of last year’s Peter Pan at Saratoga making his first start for new connections, Magic On Tap, Royal Ship and Growth Engine.

Charles Town Races. Race 8. 10:32. If you’re still going strong – and why not? – check out the $75,000 Original Gold and its field of 10 West Virginia-bred fillies and mares.