Road To The Million VI: Wednesday, July 15, 2009
Who’s the best turf horse currently in training in North America? Is it Midnight Cry Stables’ Einstein, the reigning grass horse king, or is it Castleton Lyons’ Gio Ponti, Einstein’s young lion of a challenger with teeth bared – figuratively at least – for their projected fight in the upcoming Arlington Million XXVII on Aug. 8?
Or could it be Jonathan Sheppard’s Just as Well – well under the national radar until his impressive late run to victory in last weekend’s Grade III Arlington Handicap as the final local preview for the centerpiece race of Chicago’s Thoroughbred racing season?
The 27th running of the Arlington Million, which annually attracts some of the world’s best turf horses, will go to the post late in the afternoon on the second Saturday in August, preceded by the 20th anniversary edition of the Grade I Beverly D. Stakes for the world’s best grass-favoring fillies and mares and the 33rd running of the Grade I Secretariat Stakes, restricted to 3-year-olds of international turf caliber.
Together, the only three Grade I races contested in Illinois on an annual basis make up Arlington’s one-day International Festival of Racing, and this summer’s Arlington Million gets added international prestige because the winner will receive an automatic invitation to the Group I Japan Cup when it is run in Tokyo later in the year.
Einstein, winner of Churchill’s Grade I Woodford Reserve Turf Classic on Kentucky Derby Day May 2, was most recently third beaten only a length in the Grade I Stephen Foster Handicap on the main track at the Twin Spires oval June 13. However, in that effort the 7-year-old bobbled early and then was checked and bumped repeatedly during subsequent nightmarish traffic problems.
The Brazilian-bred son of Spend a Buck, on course to make his next start in the Million, quietly breezed a half-mile in :52.80 at Churchill July 12 in a maintenance move for his upcoming Chicago appearance.
Gio Ponti, however, won his third straight Grade I race July 11 when he came from off the pace to capture the $500,000 Man o’ War at Belmont Park by 1 3/4-lengths. Previously, the 4-year-old son of Tale of the Cat won the $400,000 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Handicap on Belmont Stakes Day June 6, as well as last winter’s $300,000 Frank E. Kilroe Mile Handicap at Santa Anita.
“This just confirms that at the moment, I’m afraid, he’s got to be the leader of the turf division here” said Gio Ponti’s trainer Christophe Clement following last weekend’s East Coast outing in the Man o’ War.
Now joining those two as a new Arlington Million threat following last Saturday’s Arlington Handicap triumph is Just as Well, who closed with a rush to be best by a length in that $200,000 turf test at the Arlington Million distance of 10 furlongs.
Two weeks ago Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard wasn’t sure his son of A. P. Indy was even ready for last week’s race, but following that excellent outing, Just as Well is under prominent consideration for the Million.
Also deserving that consideration is Patricia Generazio’s Presious Passion, front-running hero of Monmouth’s Grade I United Nations Stakes July 4. The 6-year-old Royal Anthem gelding won that same race on The Jersey Shore last summer, but trainer Mary Hartmann decided to forego the Million in favor of Saratoga’s Grade I Sword Dancer Invitational Handicap, where Presious Passion finished fourth. This year, however, Hartmann is giving the Million a second look.
In California on The Fourth of July, Irish-bred Artiste Royal, owned by David and Jill Heerensperger and conditioned by Hall of Fame trainer Neil Drysdale, appears to be on his way to the Million
“We’re probably headed that way,” said Drysdale, speaking over the phone from California earlier this week.
In Kentucky, Circle E Racing’s Mr. Sidney, winner of Churchill’s Grade II Firecracker Handicap July 4 and Keeneland’s Grade I Makers Mark Mile April 10, now appears likely for the Arlington Million, according to Lee Einsidler of Circle C Racing.
“Bill Mott called me and said it (the Million) makes all the sense in the world,” Einsidler told Blood-Horse early this week referring of Mr. Sidney’s Hall of Fame trainer who saddled Masayuki Nishiyama’s Paradise Creek to win the 1994 Arlington Million.
On the European front, remaining under strong consideration for the Arlington Million is Teruya Yoshida’s Cima de Triomphe, fourth in Great Britain’s Group I Coral-Eclipse July 4 at Sandown behind three of Europe’s best, and a winner of Sandown’s Group III Brigadier Gerard Stakes May 28 before that.
Now mentioned as a possibility for an Atlantic crossing in less than three weeks for the Million is Sheikh Mohammed Bin Khalifa Al Maktoum’s Imbongi, third at Ascot in the Group II Summer Mile Stakes July 11 and winner of Newmarket’s Group III Criterion Stake before that on June 27. The South African-bred is trained by Mike de Kock, who brought that same ownership’s Archipenko to Chicago to finish second in last summer’s Million.
Also possible for the Million from Great Britain is Sheikh Hamdan bin Rashid Al Maktoum’s Tazeez from the yard of John Gosden. That Kentucky-bred son of Silver Hawk out of a Nureyev mare was fifth in the Group I Prince of Wales’s Stakes June 17 during the prestigious Royal Ascot meeting, beaten four lengths at the wire.
A huge positive development concerning the upcoming $750,000 Beverly D. Stakes as the Arlington Million’s sister race involves the expected participation of Doubledown Stables’ Black Mamba, winner of the last two renewals of Hollywood Park’s Grade II Beverly Hills Handicap. The 6-year-old mare, bred in New Zealand, is now on a course for a Beverly D. run.
Trained by California-based John Sadler, Black Mamba stayed on the West Coast last summer to win Del Mar’s Grade I John C. Mabee Handicap following her 2008 Beverly Hills win but is more probable for the Beverly D. this year.
“Right now, I’m leaning toward the Beverly D. with her,” said Sadler last weekend on a brief trip to Chicago to saddle Michael Talla’s Oil Man in Arlington’s Grade II American Derby. “Mr. Templer (owner Richard of Doubledown) is from Chicago and I think he’d like to see his horse run here.”
A second major addition to the Beverly D.’s probable list is Lewis Lakin’s Pure Clan, two and a half lengths the best in last weekend’s Grade III Modesty Handicap as a Beverly D. prep.
“We sure plan to (run in the Beverly D.) if things stay the way they are,” said Pure Clan’s trainer Robert Holthus, speaking over the phone from Louisville the day after her Modesty score.
Among Pure Clan’s other graded stakes victories are tallies in Hollywood’s Grade I American Oaks Invitational last year, Churchill’s Grade II Golden Rod Stakes in 2007, as well as Grade III wins in the 2008 Regret Stakes and 2007 Pocahontas Stakes at the Twin Spires oval.
In a final late Beverly D. update, Live Oak Plantation’s Points of Grace won the Grade II Dance Smartly Stakes last weekend at Canada’s Woodbine Race Course, and is being considered as a late nomination to Arlington’s main grass test for fillies and mares.
“We’ll either point for the Beverly D. or the (Saratoga’s Grade I) Diana Handicap (Aug. 1),” said Malcolm Pierce, trainer of Points of Grace. “If the owners are up for it, I’d rather come to Arlington and get her the extra week. The Beverly D. is definitely under heavy consideration.”
Finally, in updates for the Grade I Secretariat Stakes for grass-favoring sophomores, last weekend’s Grade II American Derby hero Reb, owned by Ashbrook Farm, would appear likely for a for a return in the final leg of Arlington’s Mid-America Triple, although trainer Rusty Arnold is reportedly on a vacation in the Bahamas and unavailable to confirm that assumption.
Virginia Tarra Trust’s Giant Oak, winner of the 75th anniversary edition of the Arlington Classic as the Triple’s first leg, came out of his fifth-place finish in the roughly run American Derby without problems and remains on course for the Secretariat.
Tommy Town Thoroughbreds’ Oil Man, winner of Hollywood’s Grade III Cinema Handicap June 21, came to Chicago to finish third in the American Derby before being disqualified and placed fifth, but remains at Arlington under the care of Chicago-based conditioner Mike Stidham for a projected next run in the Secretariat.
Finally, the Secretariat Stakes could still easily get a tangy additional appetizer in the form of Lael Stable’s Nicanor – the late beloved Barbaro’s turf-favoring little brother. Nicanor is currently undefeated on the grass and slated to go to the post in Saturday’s Grade II Virginia Derby.
Should Nicanor run well at Colonial Downs this weekend, trainer Michael Matz would still have three weeks to prepare him for the $400,000 final leg of Arlington’s Mid-America Triple. Matz, it will be remembered, saddled Brushwood Stable’s Kicken Kris to win the Secretariat Stakes six years ago.