Racing roundtable: American and European theaters on Memorial Day weekend

May 30th, 2023

James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson review the events of Memorial Day weekend both here and abroad in this week's Roundtable.

Did we learn anything from the Hollywood Gold Cup (G1)?

James Scully: Runner-up in last year’s Gold Cup, Defunded gamely notched his first Grade 1 triumph, turning back a challenge from Piroli to reassert control by midstretch, and the five-year-old gelding is now 1-for-3 at the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) distance. His last two stakes wins have come at the expense of lesser competition, and the frontrunning gelding’s ability to navigate 10 furlongs will be tested by top-class rivals, but Defunded remains eligible to keep progressing for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert. The speedster registered a third consecutive triple-digit Brisnet Speed rating (101) and the Breeders’ Cup will take place on his home court at Santa Anita.

Kellie Reilly: Defunded showed that he could win going 1 1/4 miles on the front end after being beaten in both previous attempts at the trip. But he had favorable circumstances this time. He didn’t face the deepest field, outside of stablemate Country Grammer, who was pretty tame in his first start back from a disappointing effort in the Dubai World Cup (G1). Defunded got token pace pressure that didn’t force him to go as hard early as he has in the past. Even so, he still had to work late to see off the persistent Piroli, who was making his stakes debut off a loss in a second-level allowance. Defunded’s final quarter clocked in at :26.58, suggesting that he would have been vulnerable to anyone with a solid kick. In the grand scheme of things, I’m not sure that this performance was all that persuasive for the upcoming divisional tests at the classic distance.

Vance Hanson: Not especially. Defunded was sent off the odds-on favorite, presumably in the belief he was well positioned to lead the field gate to wire. And so it proved. Defunded had to work a bit to fend off an upper-stretch challenge from the ex-claimer Piroli, who was making his stakes debut, but got the job done. It was far from a head-turning performance, though, and it's hard to see him replicating the effort against a far better group of rivals in the Breeders' Cup Classic over the same track and distance in November.

Will the Shoemaker Mile (G1) have an impact on the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1)?

JS: After racing exclusively on dirt over the past three seasons with limited success, recording only one win in that time, Exaulted found his calling upon a switch to turf in January. The six-year-old gelding has strung together four consecutive victories, including a pair of graded stakes, and the Peter Eurton trainee displayed a fine turn of foot to seize control of the Shoemaker Turf Mile leaving the far turn. Exaulted must keep advancing to be considered a serious Breeders’ Cup Mile prospect, but I won’t dismiss his chances outright.

I’m always reminded of With Anticipation when I see an older horse switch to turf successfully late in their career. A modest Listed stakes/Grade 3-type performer on dirt over four seasons, finishing third in a lone turf appearance early in his three-year-old campaign, With Anticipation made 28 main track appearances for Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard before switching to turf at age six. He proceeded to win five Grade 1 races and finished second in the 2002 Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) before retiring with more than $2.6 million in earnings.

KR: The Shoemaker Mile probably won’t produce the Breeders’ Cup Mile winner, but Exaulted is just the type to run second or third to a top-class international shipper. With his ability to punch home from a good tactical position, he figures to be the one to catch in deep stretch. Exaulted’s 4-for-4 record in the exact conditions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile, the course at Santa Anita, removes a lot of variables. Although I wouldn’t have foreseen Exaulted’s meteoric rise in the turf division, it’s not a surprise that he’s found his home on the surface. His sire, the wonderfully versatile Twirling Candy, is responsible for several turf worthies, chief among them Grade 1-winning millionaire Concrete Rose.

VH: I didn't find this edition of the Shoemaker Mile to be overly compelling. Exaulted ran his course-and-distance record to 4-for-4, which isn't a bad thing to have as the Breeders' Cup will be held at Santa Anita this fall. But, like Defunded, he wasn't beating as strong a field as he will face five months from now. As a former dirt sprinter, I wonder if Exaulted would be a better fit for the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint (G1), a race won at Santa Anita in 2016 by Obviously, who had previously captured two renewals of the Shoemaker Mile.

What else was noteworthy from Memorial Day weekend?

JS: Echo Zulu came back strong in Monday's Winning Colors (G3) at Churchill Downs, scoring by 5 3/4 lengths, and the 2021 champion juvenile filly looks poised to make a serious impact in the female sprint division. After a fourth in the 2022 Kentucky Oaks (G1), the Steve Asmussen pupil came back from a 4 1/2-month layoff with a pair of encouraging sprint efforts last fall, romping in the Dogwood (G3) and finishing second in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (G1). Goodnight Olive remains the standard-bearer in the division, but the reigning champion just had her seven-race win streak snapped when third in the Derby City Distaff (G1).

KR: Dermot Weld’s dashing Tahiyra and Aidan O’Brien’s progressive Paddington are covered at length in this week’s “Pedigree Notebook,” since both Irish classic winners are by Siyouni. So I’ll mention another angle from the European action: the emphatic rebounds by a pair of O’Brien celebrities. Luxembourg had a right to move forward from his quiet comeback, and did he ever, with a determined front-running display in Sunday’s Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1). He’s always reminded me of Ballydoyle’s magnificent St Nicholas Abbey; if that projection holds, Luxembourg is set for a lucrative career as an older horse.

On Saturday, sophomore stablemate Little Big Bear relished the cutback to sprinting in the Sandy Lane (G2), thereby turning the page on his 2000 Guineas (G1) debacle. Like the weekend’s other major winners, Little Big Bear set himself up for Royal Ascot. But his 180-degree turnaround gives me hope for a similar revival for Guineas flop Auguste Rodin, Ballydoyle’s premier contender in Saturday’s Derby (G1) at Epsom.

VH: I'm surprised the French colt Vadeni has seemingly not trained on following a second dull showing of the season in Sunday's Tattersalls Gold Cup at the Curragh. Winner last season of the French Derby (G1) and Eclipse (G1), Vadeni later finished a close second to the mare Alpinista in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (G1). What promised to be a potentially fine four-year-old campaign has gotten off to a poor start, with Vadeni finishing fourth in the Prix Ganay (G1) at Longchamp in late April and now fifth by more than nine lengths in the Tattersalls Gold Cup. His future presently remains unclear.