Racing Roundtable: Memorial Day Weekend stakes action and Churchill Downs stakes preview

May 28th, 2024

What were your takeaways from the Santa Anita stakes action over the weekend?

James Scully: Anisette returned from a five-month layoff with a nice win in the Gamely (G1) and Mr Fisk comfortably proved best in the Hollywood Gold (G2), but I’ll focus upon Shoemaker Mile (G1) winner Johannes. I love his potential moving forward.

After reeling off convincing wins in his first three turf starts, Johannes exited a troubled fifth in last year’s American Turf (G2) on the Kentucky Derby Day undercard with a season-ending injury. The four-year-old colt offered a dynamic turn of foot to win his comeback, the April 4 American (G2) at Santa Anita, and continued to show more against a deeper cast in the Shoemaker.

The stalker made his move on the far turn, driving past rivals and overhauling game runner-up Funtastic Again in upper stretch, and then worked hard to record a half-length decision. This experience will only benefit the up-and-coming son of Nyquist. Johannes has developed into an exciting presence in the U.S. turf mile division, and I expect to see him keep progressing for Tim Yakteen.

Vance Hanson: I agree with James that Johannes' performance in the Shoemaker Mile was the standout one during Santa Anita's holiday weekend, and arguably the most meaningful from a broader perspective. With the Breeders' Cup being held at Del Mar, he has an opportunity to become the leading local hope for the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1), although you have to go back 20 years to Singletary to find a California-based winner of the race.

We didn't learn much more about Adare Manor following her victory lap in the Santa Margarita (G2) than we knew before. Although the Breeders' Cup is also in her backyard, and she owns a win in the Apple Blossom H. (G1) in April, you still have to wonder how well she'll stack up come November without having faced some more formidable competition.

Ashley Anderson: Multiple graded-stakes winner Anisette returned off a more than five-month layoff to win the Gamely (G1) in her four-year-old debut on Monday. The Leonard Powell trainee was also the 126-pound highweight in the field, two pounds more than favorite Ruby Nell and four more pounds than the rest of the entrants. The daughter of Awtaad got up to win by half a length over Irish-bred Olivia Maralda and has now extended her win streak to two, with a 10-6-3-0 overall record. Her only out-of-the-money finish was on debut overseas when Anisette was fourth in a one-mile allowance on Kempton's synthetic track. Anisette earned a 95 Brisnet Speed figure in Monday's victory, improving upon the 88 she earned in the American Oaks (G1). Anisette's connections opted to forego the Breeders' Cup last year but if she continues to perform like she did on Monday, she'll be a prime candidate for the Filly & Mare Turf (G1).

What else caught your eye from the weekend of racing?

JS: I’ll mention a trio of maiden winners from the weekend in chronological order.

Prides Crossing, a $1.3 million yearling purchase, made her career debut for Larry Best’s OXO Equine and Paulo Lobo in Saturday’s sixth race at Churchill Downs, and the three-year-old Quality Road filly won going away by a 4 3/4-length margin. The bay filly hails from the Galileo mare Key to My Heart, a stakes winner overseas at 1 1/4 miles, but Prides Crossing has speed in her immediate female family in the form of Justa Warrior, who won her career debut and the Ellis Park Debutante by open lengths in 2022. And Prides Crossing raced up close from the start of the seven-furlong test, making her move to lead off the far turn. She registered a solid 85 Brisnet Speed rating.

A close third after a tough trip in his late April debut at Keeneland, World Record took it to rivals in Monday’s finale at Churchill Downs, smoking 11 opponents by a 6 1/4-length margin over seven furlongs. The well-built son of Gun Runner looked imposing in the post parade and the three-year-old colt dominated from the break, earning an outstanding 95 Speed figure. World Record established himself as one to watch in the stakes ranks this summer for Rodolphe Brisset.

Monday’s eighth race at Santa Anita marked the anticipated career debut for Flightline’s half-brother, Eagles Flight, and the three-year-old colt did not disappoint as the 11-10 favorite, rallying to win by a widening 2 3/4-length margin over six furlongs. He garnered a 91 Speed rating and Eagles Flight has the same connections as Flightline. The John Sadler trainee likely will point toward a race at Del Mar.

VH: Clearly Unhinged looks like a filly sprinter on the rise following her win in Monday's Winning Colors (G3) at Churchill Downs. The pace she prompted was really hot, but she seemed to finish with enough left in the tank and is now 2-for-2 since her private acquisition and transfer to trainer Steve Asmussen, who knows a thing or two about developing top-class sprinters. The multiple Grade 1-placed four-year-old will get more serious tests at Saratoga, and I wouldn't put it past her that she could run better fields off their feet.

AA: On Memorial Day at Churchill Downs, Stowaway impressed in his first start since transferring to the barn of Whit Beckman. The five-year-old gelding was cutting back to a mile in a dirt allowance after racing primarily on all-weather and running longer.  He had one prior dirt start, back in February of 2022 at Fair Grounds, where he finished far back in eighth under the care of trainer Mark Casse. But Beckman found the right recipe with Stowaway in his Churchill debut, removing blinkers and cutting back to a mile on the dirt while picking up hot jockey Martin Garcia. The Gun Runner son tracked the early pace before making a bid at the furlong grounds and edging away to win by a neck over the favorite, Shopper's Revenge. Stowaway also earned a career-best 91 BRIS figure in his second career win from 13 lifetime starts.

What are you looking forward to seeing at Churchill Downs this coming Saturday or elsewhere?

JS: Saturday is Stephen Foster Preview Day at Churchill Downs, and the Blame (G3) marks the return of 2023 Blue Grass (G1) winner Tapit Trice, who has not been seen under silks since a third in the Travers (G1). Clark (G2) winner Trademark will be a rebound candidate if the track is fast, and I’m excited to see Dreamlike make his second start of the year. A half-length second in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1) three back, Dreamlike couldn’t reel in frontrunning Caliostro when returning over a speed-biased Keeneland track on April 19, but he’ll improve upon the neck second while stretching back out to a preferred 1 1/8-mile trip.

VH: Two horses I'm looking forward to seeing at Churchill Downs on Saturday are Skelly and Xigera. Skelly makes a rare appearance outside Oaklawn in the Aristides S, while Xigera returns in the Shawnee (G3) following a too-bad-to-be-true attempt in the La Troienne (G1) over a sloppy track she appeared not to handle.

Otherwise, the main focus for me are the classics in England and France. The original version of the Oaks (G1) and Derby (G1) will be held at Epsom on Friday and Saturday, respectively, while the Prix du Jockey-Club (G1), or French Derby, will be run at Chantilly on Sunday. The latter will be offered for the first time to TwinSpires account holders, and is usually a compelling and often wide-open race. I'll be offering opinions on the Epsom racing later this week on TwinSpires Edge.

AA: I am most looking forward to Skelly's return to Churchill Downs, where he broke his maiden in his second career start before finishing second in an allowance at the track. One of the top sprinters in the country, Skelly shipped to Oaklawn after his brief stint at Churchill and went on to build a seven-win streak that was snapped with his runner-up effort in the Riyadh Dirt Sprint (G3) in February at King Abdulaziz Racetrack overseas. Skelly then returned to Oaklawn and won his next two, the Count Fleet H. (G3) and Lake Hamilton S. He will be tough to beat in Saturday's Aristides S. at Churchill and has a Brisnet Prime Power rating that's 12 points higher than the next-closest runner, Tejano Twist, whom Skelly defeated a handful of times at Oaklawn.

Aside from the Aristides, I'm also intrigued by the stakes debut of Cameo Performance in the Audubon S., the finale at Churchill on Saturday. The Oscar Performance colt was beaten a neck on debut racing seven furlongs on the all-weather track at Dundalk. He then tried turf in his first start with Brendan Walsh and broke his maiden by 1 1/2 lengths in a 1 1/16-mile maiden special weight at Keeneland. The three-year-old will need to improve upon his last-out 83 BRIS figure but has put in a pair of sharp recent workouts at Churchill and will look to rally late while breaking from an inside post.