Aside from tonight’s upcoming Del Mar Mile (G2), two other Sunday turf stakes had a bearing on the mile picture.

First came the $163,187 Play the King (G2) at Woodbine, featuring the seasonal reappearance of Bobby’s Kitten. The Ramsey homebred has always shaped as a real talent — hence his name, as an homage to the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel. But his propensity to have only one setting — “onward, as fast as possible!” — has at times proven costly. It took a cutback in trip to the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint (G1) to finally get him to settle, and he exploded late to get up in a dramatic finish.

Since Bobby’s Kitten hadn’t raced since that coup, I was curious to see how he’d act: would the Chad Brown trainee be fresh and eager off the layoff, as would be understandable even for horses not so ebullient? Or would the four-year-old possibly have mellowed a bit with age? Not a chance.

We had the answer right out of the gate, as “Bobby” took off like the proverbial scalded cat and vied through frenetic splits of :22.32 and :45.01. He couldn’t sustain that torrid gallop, especially off the layoff and down that long Woodbine straight. Overtaken at the six-furlong mark in 1:08.44, he was a spent force and wound up seventh of eight.

The winner, Reporting Star, rode the rail to a 15-1 upset, edging King Edward (G2) winner Tower of Texas by a nose. Tower of Texas was spotting Reporting Star six pounds as the co-highweight along with Bobby’s Kitten. There was a gap of five lengths back to the consistent Kaigun, the defending champion, in third. The final time of 1:20.66 on the firm course reflected the early duel.

With this out of the way, Bobby’s Kitten could move forward for a bigger objective, such as the September 13 Woodbine Mile (G1). He was third in that race last fall, where he set a controlled pace and tried stubbornly, but couldn’t hold off Trade Storm and Kaigun. Of course, another total speedball in Obviously is bound for Woodbine, not to mention two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan in his comeback.

Although Bobby’s Kitten should improve fitness-wise, the psychological dimension is trickier to gauge. Perhaps if he insists on blazing, he can carry his speed more effectively around a two-turn mile, as at Keeneland for the Shadwell (G1) and the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), than the more demanding Woodbine. The Shadwell could also be a good way to pinpoint his Breeders’ Cup target. A title defense in the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint might not suit him, since it’s a mad 5 1/2-furlong scramble at Keeneland, as opposed to the about 6 1/2-furlong downhill contest that he enjoyed so much at Santa Anita.

 

About an hour later at Monmouth, Middleburg continued his progress for trainer Christophe Clement with a breakthrough — in more ways than one — in the $101,000 Cliff Hanger (G3).

The half-brother to past Clement turf star Winchester was due for a first stakes win, having missed by a whisker to Triple Threat in the June 7 Monmouth (G2) at this course and distance. Middleburg was also third to Big Blue Kitten in the May 2 Fort Marcy (G3) in his stakes debut, and most recently finished second in the Arlington H. (G3). He was accordingly dispatched as the even-money favorite, but after stalking the pace on the inside, he had to wait for room. Or better still, he exerted his force of will to create space for himself in the stretch.

Well handled by Joe Bravo, Middleburg quickened on a dime once he saw daylight and got up by a neck over Special Envoy. The top two are both Mr. and Mrs. Bertram Firestone homebreds, but the runner-up is trained by Arnaud Delacour.

“I talked to Christophe this morning, and he said win or lose to ride a patient race and sit the pocket, and that’s exactly what I did,” Bravo said. “We were confident he had the best turn of foot of any horse in the race, and when you ride for Christophe, you always ride with confidence. I was able to sit patient and just wait for a seam to open and when it did he ran past those other horses in three or four jumps.”

Lochte was another neck away in third in a fine effort, considering that he was wide throughout under the top weight of 123 pounds. Glenard, who retreated to fifth, was likely not helped by his trip. The Graham Motion charge has done his best work when held up and making one run, so his middle move was inadvisable.

Middleburg blasted his final eighth in :11 and change off tepid fractions, which produced the final time of 1:48.52 on the firm turf. The five-year-old son of Lemon Drop Kid deserves a crack in better company at this point.

Middleburg photo courtesy of Bill Denver/Equi-Photo.