The race with the shortest field had been drawing the most buzz even before the Breeders’ Cup pre-entries were announced on Wednesday.
The buzz has only grown louder since then.
There are just six fillies in the Distaff, to be run next Friday at Santa Anita.
Among them is two-time champion Royal Delta, who will be attempting to win the nine-furlong dirt race for fillies and mares for an unprecedented third straight time, but the intrigue goes well beyond that.
The field also includes Princess of Sylmar, owned by Schenectady native Ed Stanco, as well as 2012 2-year-old filly champion Beholder and Close Hatches, the only horse to have beaten Princess of Sylmar this year.
Even within this small set, there are rematches galore.
Princess of Sylmar just beat Royal Delta in the Beldame at Belmont Park and also handed Beholder her only loss since January when she won the Kentucky Oaks by a half-length over Beholder.
Close Hatches beat Princess of Sylmar in the Gazelle at Aqueduct in April and hasn’t done much wrong since she was seventh in the Oaks.
Royal Delta appeared to be getting on a big roll before losing to Princess of Sylmar by two lengths in the Beldame.
At stake are championships, including perhaps even the Horse of the Year Eclipse Award, especially if Game On Dude gets beat in the Classic next Saturday.
“It’s a small but select field, and I think whoever wins it is going to have to run an extremely good race, and if you don’t run a good race, you’re not going to get a very big piece of it, because it’s competitive from top to bottom,” trainer Bill Mott said during a national teleconference.
Mott trains the 5-year-old Royal Delta and Close Hatches, and trainer Todd Pletcher has Princess of Sylmar and Authenticity, who is having a terrific year but has finished second in all three attempts at a Grade I this year.
She was 41⁄2 lengths behind Royal Delta in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga Race Course and a length and a quarter behind Beholder in the Zenyatta at Santa Anita last month.
Street Girl, who has never raced longer than a mile and a sixteenth, rounds out the Distaff pre-entries. She is cross-entered in the Filly & Mare Sprint, but has first preference in the Distaff.
Stanco, a 1967 Linton High graduate, has had reservations about running Princess of Sylmar in the Breeders’ Cup, the only horse he has racing for the time being, but she has thrived deep into her
She’s 6-1-0 from seven starts and has banked over $1.6 million in purses in 2013, winning four straight Grade I’s. That includes the Coaching Club American Oaks and Alabama at Saratoga, after which she beat older horses for the first time in the Beldame.
“The filly’s just continued to train very well, and I think Ed had expressed some concerns way back before the summer even started about going to California and running a 3-year-old against older mares,” Pletcher said. “And after a long campaign, we did give her kind of two breaks along the year, and she just continues to do really well.”
Princess of Sylmar is scheduled to fly from New York to California with Pletcher’s other Friday
horses on Monday, and his Saturday horses, including Classic entries Palace Malice and Graydar, will fly on Tuesday.
While making a case for Princess of Sylmar as 3-year-old filly champion, Pletcher said year-end honors did not factor at all in the decision to run in the Breeders’ Cup.
The door appears to be open for Beholder, a three-time Grade I winner this year, to snag that Eclipse away from Princess of Sylmar if she wins the Distaff.
“I don’t think you can really approach these types of races with reservations about whether or not winning or losing is going to affect her status as champion 3-year-old filly,” Pletcher said. “She’s coming off a win against the best older mare in training, and she’s doing well and there’s a $2 million Breeders’ Cup Distaff five weeks from then, and I think that’s when you’ve got to try and take advantage of those opportunities. You can’t always assume that things are going to be the same next year.”
Mott said Royal Delta has been picking it up a notch during training.
Last year, she was cross-entered in the Classic; this year, Mott said “the conversation was very short” between him and Besilu Stables about considering running against the males on Saturday.
“We were second in the Beldame, and I didn’t think she ran her very best race that day, but it was still a credible race,” Mott said. “She got beat by a very good filly, but she’s training very well since.”
This will be Close Hatches’ third attempt at nine furlongs, after the Gazelle win and the seventh in the Kentucky Oaks.
Unraced at 2, she’s 5-1-0 from seven starts this year.
Beholder owns the home-field advantage at Santa Anita, where she is 5-1-0 from six starts.
She breezed seven furlongs in 1:24.4 in company on Tuesday, a work that impressed trainer Richard Mandella.
“She worked with a nice allowance filly, and we gave that filly about five lengths or so the first three-eighths of a mile, and she just moved up and took over the workout,” he said. “I got her three-quarters at 1:11 and out in :23 and a little change, and I haven’t many work quite like that.”
Despite the short field, the Distaff is expected to have a significant tactical component to it, since Beholder, Close Hatches and Royal Delta have won on the lead, whereas Princess of Sylmar’s preferred style is to stalk and pounce.
Mandella said that although Beholder typically races on the lead, she works off other horses in the morning, as she did on Tuesday.
“We’ve never had to teach her anything about speed; she’s got an abundance of that,” he said. “We’re not looking to change anything, but in case we had to, we’d like to be prepared, that’s all.”
Although Beholder primarily races in California, she did get a first-hand look at Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks.
“I’m was very impressed at Churchill Downs when she beat us, and I’ve seen her races at Saratoga that looked terrific,” Mandella said. “I’m sure she’s one to worry about, just as Royal Delta is and the field. It will be a tough group.”
Calumet Farm’s Preakness winner Oxbow was retired on Friday and will stand at stud for $20,000 at Taylor Made Farm near Nicholasville, Ky.
He won just three times in his 13-race career, but was first in the Preakness and second in the Belmont Stakes and finished with $1,243,500 in earnings.
The son of Awesome Again last raced on July 28, when he was fourth in the Haskell.
BOREL BREAKS LEG
Hall of Fame jockey Calvin Borel broke his left leg when he was thrown from his mount after it broke down Wednesday at Keeneland.
Borel was taken to the University of Kentucky Medical Center for evaluation after the fall from Sonic Dancer shortly after the start of the sixth race. He was clipped by Peace Talk, ridden by Jon Court, as the field ran by.
His wife, Lisa, said Wednesday night on his Twitter and Facebook accounts that he broke his fibula:
“Miraculously unscathed otherwise — no concussion or skull fracture considering how hard he fell,” she tweeted. “That’s a gift from God.”
Earlier, Keeneland medical director Barry Schumer said the 46-year-old Borel was “stable, somewhat alert” and suffering concussion-like effects.
Borel’s mount, a 3-year-old Kentucky-bred colt, was euthanized.
The race was stopped and declared a no contest because Borel and Sonic Dancer were still on the course near the finish line as the field went around the first turn.
Borel was inducted into the Hall of Fame in Saratoga Springs in August.
Conan O’Brien brought his humor to the announcing booth on Friday at Santa Anita, calling a race that likely left fans wondering exactly which horse had won.
The late-night comic took over for Trevor Denman for the second race. O’Brien didn’t have to pronounce any tongue twisters among the six horses running a mile on the dirt. He even smoothly handled the favorite’s name, Sarangani.
That was the easy part.
Squinting through binoculars to describe what was unfolding proved much tougher in a sport that has its own unique lingo.
O’Brien told The Associated Press that he was thoroughly confused trying to identify the horses by the color of the jockeys’ silks or “costumes,” as he called them.
“If you’re going to have idiot
celebrities come in and call a race, you can’t have two guys in all blue and two guys in all white,” he said. “It’s not fair.”
It was an exciting two-horse race to the finish line, with Knucklebuster beating Blue Collar Boy by a half-length.
HERE AND THERE
My Miss Aurelia, the 2011 champion juvenile filly, was set to make her return to the races for the first time since March, but scratched out of the Punkin Pie Stakes at Belmont on Thursday. . . .
The National Museum of Racing and Hall of Fame will present its annual Breeders’ Cup Preview Program at 2 p.m. on Sunday in the Hall of Fame Gallery.
Veteran handicappers Tom Amello and Jeff Carle will provide analysis and predictions of each Breeders’ Cup race. The program is free and open to the public.