Between the holiday and the fact that racing has had a few weeks to recuperate from the Breeders' Cup, this weekend is the perfect weekend for serious winter stakes racing to get underway. Friday's Clark Handicap (G1) is the first top-level race in the United States since the Breeders' Cup. Here at Picks and Ponderings this weekend we will preview that, as well as all of the other graded races under the twin spires this weekend. That includes the Cardinal Handicap (G3) and the Falls City Handicap (G3) on Thursday, the Clark and the Mrs. Revere Stakes (G2) on Friday, and the Kentucky Jockey Club (G2) and the Golden Rod Stakes (G2) on Saturday. Each day's stakes racing will be covered in a different piece.
In addition to our discussion of stakes racing at Churchill, we also preview Friday's Pick 5 sequence at Hawthorne; between maiden race surprises in Cupboard and Aurea Aura, and a sequence in which only one in five favourites won, no one hit it on Saturday. There will be a $3,737 carryover.
Selections in the Cardinal are made for turf only. Updated on November 22 to account for the scratch of HONOR RIDE from the Falls City.
Thursday, November 22 - Churchill Downs
Race 9: Cardinal Handicap (G3), three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, one and one eighth miles on the turf, post time 3:24pm EST
Named after the state bird, this race was originally christened the Kentucky Cardinal when inaugurated in 1974. It was originally contested on the dirt; in 1987, Churchill Downs moved it to the dirt and renamed it just the Cardinal Handicap. Since 1995, it has held Grade 3 distinction.
One of this weekend's other stakes namesakes at Churchill won the Cardinal: Mrs. Revere, in whose name the Grade 2 turf race for three-year-old fillies on Friday will be run, prevailed in the Cardinal in 1985.
Several times Chicago connections have seen success in the Cardinal. Harvey Vanier won it twice: Safe Play prevailed in her division of the Kentucky Cardinal in 1981 -- and then won the Falls City in her next start. Another Vanier trainee, Electric Fanny, won the 1984 Cardinal Handicap; she would also go on to win the Falls City in her final career start the next year. The most recent triumph by a Chicago horse in the Cardinal came in 2010, when Chris Block trainee Askbut I Won'ttell rolled clear of Kiss Mine and My Baby Baby. Her delightfully named son by To Honor and Serve, Don'task Don'ttell, was most recently fifth in the Buck's Boy Handicap at Hawthorne last month.
Ten have entered to contest the Cardinal Handicap, which offers a $100,000 purse. Though it is getting late in the season, as long as the weather forecast holds, a few dry days in the middle of the week should give the turf at Churchill a chance to dry out a bit. It won't likely be firm -- but either good or yielding would be perfectly realistic for the Cardinal's footing.
There is a lot to like about BONNIE ARCH. Her tactical speed combined with the outside draw should work out beautifully: she should be able to sit just off speedy longshots UNBRIDLED ESCAPE and SPACE CADET, and get a clean trip from the outside. BONNIE ARCH shines on the grass at Churchill, where her only off-the-board finish came in a sprinting experiment. She also likes the distance; in four tries at nine furlongs, she has a win and two other money finishes. And, though she will come into this race off a two-and-a-half-month spell? BONNIE ARCH runs well fresh, making the break a positive.
ENGLISH AFFAIR tried a mile and a half on October 21 in the Dowager (G3); she kept on well late off a troubled trip in the lane, and now cuts back in distance. The distance should suit, as should the course and footing: she was second in a classy allowance going a mile and an eighth over good Churchill turf earlier in the year. ENGLISH AFFAIR also has shown real versatility with respect to pace; she has rallied to score from well off the pace, but has also been able to sit just a length or two off and find the wire. Those options should give her new rider, Churchill stalwart Corey Lanerie, options.
I REMEMBER MAMA will be doing her best running late, and it's not clear how much pace she will get. But, that concern aside, this is a sensible spot for the daughter of Ghostzapper to make her graded stakes debut. I REMEMBER MAMA has been a model of consistency through her career, with three wins and four other money finishes in seven starts. She has shown an aptitude for Churchill, with a win and a close-call third in both her tries. Nine furlongs is a new test, but given her breeding (by Ghostzapper out of a Rahy mare who won at distances from a mile and a sixteenth to a mile and a quarter) she should love it. Though she is a confirmed off-pace type, she has been able to make a rally whether the pace in front of her was blazing hot or merely modest. And, she should be able to handle the turf no matter how much cut there is in the ground; most of her form has come over firm going, but she won over soft ground at Keeneland last month. Taking her as a favourite against these saltier foes gives a bit of pause, but today might be when I REMEMBER MAMA reveals herself as a rising star in the turf female division.
#10 BONNIE ARCH (4/1)
#5 ENGLISH AFFAIR (5/1)
#1 I REMEMBER MAMA (5/2)
Longshot: Jack Sisterson trainee #4 COACHWHIP (8/1) is the other half of an uncoupled, different-trainer Calumet Farm entry. (The more fancied half we discussed above: Rusty Arnold charge ENGLISH AFFAIR.) COACHWHIP has been out west for most of her career, but she acquitted herself nicely for her first and only start for Sisterson so far. She rallied for second in a two-other-than at Keeneland, a length and a quarter behind I REMEMBER MAMA. That came with Ricardo Santana in the irons; Santana gets back in the irons for this. The nine-furlong distance should also suit; perhaps a mile and a quarter (as she tried in California) was a bit long, but there is enough stamina in her breeding to make it worth trying a bit longer than the mile, mile-and-a-sixteenth races that pepper most of her form lines. With tactical speed and strong form over turf with some moisture in it, COACHWHIP can step forward at an honest price.
Race 11: Falls City Handicap (G2), three-year-olds and up, fillies and mares, one and one eighth miles on the dirt, post time 4:22pm EST
Churchill Downs has hosted the Falls City Handicap for most of the racetrack's history. Inaugurated in 1875, the Falls City has been contested every year since except for 1878-1881, 1893-1909, and 1928-1940. It has been a Thanksgiving Day feature since 1978, and has been run at its current distance since 1982. A Grade 3 from 1976 through 2001, it has since held its Grade 2 designation.
Two former Illinois stakes namesakes won the Falls City. The only horse to win the race three times, Indian Maid (1959, 1960, 1961), hailed from the barn of local trainer Mary Keim. Indian Maid won local stakes races including the Hawthorne Juvenile Handicap (1958), the Land of Lincoln Stakes (1958), the Yo Tambien Handicap (1959, 1960), the Beverly Handicap (1960), and the Modesty Handicap (1960, 1961). Indian Maid also lent her name to a filly and mare turf route stakes at Hawthorne, last contested in 2013.
Bungalow, bred in Illinois and campaigned by Harvey Vanier, concluded her career with a win in the 1992 Falls City Handicap. Fairmount hosted a stakes race in Bungalow's name, a dirt route for distaffers bred in the Land of Lincoln. Like the Indian Maid Handicap, the Bungalow Handicap last graced the racing schedule in 2013. Bungalow was Vanier's last winner of the Falls City Handicap, but far from his only: he also won with Magnabid (1971), Safe Play (1981), Pretty Perfect (1984), and Electric Fanny (1985). With five wins, he has won the Falls City more than any other trainer. More recently, an Illinois-bred mare owned in part by Nancy Vanier came close: Streamline finished second in 2016, a length and a half behind Indiana-bred Lady Fog Horn.
Eight fillies and mares have entered the Falls City Handicap to vie for its $200,000 purse. DIVINE MISS GREY will likely go off the heavy favourite, off a comfortable victory in the Chilukki Stakes (G2) on Breeders' Cup Saturday. If she runs back to that, she likely scores. She'll get fast footing again. But, she stretches out an extra furlong -- and goes two turns. That two-turn distinction matters: her only try at a mile and an eighth was a credible enough second behind Wow Cat (the next-out second-place finisher in the Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1)), but the Belmont mile and an eighth is only one turn. Will that matter for DIVINE MISS GREY? Perhaps not; she handled two turns well enough in the Dr. James Penny at Parx, albeit against an easier set, a group of washed-off turf horses. But, is that enough of a question to make this space want to look elsewhere at odds-on? Especially with the drifting out that DIVINE MISS GREY did last time out, it sure is.
Though DREAMCALL finished well adrift of DIVINE MISS GREY in the Beldame Stakes (G1), dig back a little deeper and you'll find something interesting. In the Molly Pitcher (G3), a two-turn race at Monmouth, DREAMCALL finished second -- beaten 3/4 length for top money, but five and a half lengths clear of DIVINE MISS GREY. The scratch of HONOR RIDE is a concern -- that means DREAMCALL likely has a bit less pace to chase, and DIVINE MISS GREY has it a bit easier on the front end than she would have. But, DREAMCALL hasn't always needed a torrid pace to fire. The footing should be no problem; Churchill can be a bit love-it-or-hate-it, but this filly does have an allowance win over the course last year. And, freshened since a win in early October, DREAMCALL should be ready to return at her best. It would be no surprise for that best to prove enough -- and she'll do so at the right price.
Illinois-bred PRADO'S SWEET RIDE has made most of her career on the turf, including a win in the Grade 3 Regret Stakes at a mile and an eighth on the Churchill grass three years ago. But, looking at her Brisnet figures reveals something interesting -- though she has only run on dirt four times during her career, her best ones have come on dirt. No wonder trainer Chris Block is taking a shot with PRADO'S SWEET RIDE in a graded stakes on the main track. On pace, she looks well suited -- with HONOR RIDE and DIVINE MISS GREY often keen to send, and SKEPTIC likely just off them, her versatile stalking-to-midpack tendencies should allow Florent Geroux to carve out a good trip for her.
#5 DREAMCALL (6/1)
#1 DIVINE MISS GREY (3/5)
#6 PRADO'S SWEET RIDE (10/1)
Longshot: #4 SKEPTIC (12/1) may have found the Spinster a little too tough, especially with the poor start she got. But, this time, she drops in class and returns to a course where she has already seen some success. With a better beginning rider Brian Hernandez should be able to get her kindly out of the gates and settled just off the pace being carved out by the likes of HONOR RIDE and DIVINE MISS GREY. With forward placings as good as they are in dirt routes at Churchill, that "first run on the speed" trip could be exactly what SKEPTIC needs to outrun her odds.
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