Thanks to the Kansas City Royals, this is the biggest sports weekend of the year, what with the MLB playoffs, and a terrific slate of college and NFL games. But it's also a great weekend in racing with stakes-filled programs at Keeneland, Belmont Park and Santa Anita.
What with the Breeders' Cup four weeks away, many (most) of these races have BC implications.
This has the potential to be one of the best Breeders' Cups in its 30-year history, but as always the key for the sporting public is cashing a bet (multiple bets), so we'll be there to help online and on the John Piesen Hot Line (888 612 2283).
The Breeders' Cup will be run at Santa Anita for the third straight year, and this year there will be four BC races on Oct. 31, and after an evening with the trick or treaters, nine BC races will be run on Saturday, capped by the Classic, headed by Shared Belief, Bayern and California Chrome.
At least, Chrome's folksy connections are talking Classic, but I, for one, would not be surprised to see a retirement announcement sometime this month. The other option is firing jockey Espinosa, but I doubt that will happen.
For a nice quiet guy, whose career has been mostly free of controversy, Espinoza has dominated what passes for headlines of late. First, there was the Pennsylvania Derby, when he voluntarily surrendered the lead -- and the race - to Bayern (who paid $9.40 as a Piesen Hot Line special).
And last Saturday, in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, Espo floated Shared Belief nine-wide, leaving SB life-and-death to win the race, and making him 7-for-7 going into the Classic.
Shared Belief will be even-money in the Classic, and a victory would give him a well-deserved sweep of year-end honors -- Horse of the Year and champion 3-year-old.
SB is a very good horse, but if Bayern gets loose, look out!
You know this is going to be an interesting BC when you see that the favorite in the first BC race on Friday, the Juvenile Turf, answers to the name of John F. Kennedy.
Make up your own punch line.
The other potential big name in the BC is two-time reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan, who is pointing for a third straight Mile win. If he does so, he will be only the second horse in history to win a BC race three years running, joining Goldikova.
But first Wise Dan has to get there, and that means winning the $1 million Shadwell Turf Mile on Saturday at Keeneland, the first seven-figure ever at Keeneland in Lexington, Ky., the birthplace of one George Clooney.
Don't laugh. The British books are offering 100-1, down from 200-1, on Clooney to be U.S. president some day. And then maybe some day we'll see a George Clooney in a BC race.
But Wise Dan is a definite bet-against on Saturday. Last spring, he underwent surgery for colic, and, in his first and only race back, he won the Bernard Baruch at Saratoga by a dirty nose over Optimizer.
And Optimizer will be no better than fourth or fifth choice in the seven-horse Shadwell, which highlights day two at Keeneland.
Then there's the weather factor. They are predicting monsoon-like conditions for Saturday in central Kentucky, so the chances of the Shadwell staying on the grass seem remote, leaving Wise Dan high and dry.
So then what?
If the Shadwell somehow stays on the lawn, Seek Again will be very tough.
But that's a big if.
You would think there would be better choices for Keeneland's first million-dollar race.
Checking out the undercard:
R Free Roll and Stonetastic both exit stakes wins on wet strips at Saratoga, and now hook up in the 200K Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes, a six-furlong Grade 2 for fillies and mares, 3 and up, going as race six.
R Free Roll in fact has won three straight, and is first-time Mike Smith. My only concern is the weight. She adds six pounds to 122, and history tells us she's done her best work toting weights in the teens.
Speedinthruthecity had a rough trip behind R Free Roll at the Spa, and is first-time Rosie Napravnik, who, after riding the card at Keeneland in the afternoon, will jet to Indiana Grand for Vicar's in Trouble, who will be second choice in the Indiana Derby that evening.
That race will be a fun-watch because the favorite will be the unbeaten Atreides, who is reputed to be the fastest horse out of Florida since Dr. Fager.
Smith again will be the place to go in race seven, the 400K First Lady Stakes, a Grade 1 event for fillies and mares, 3 and up, scheduled for a mile on the grass.
Nine quality gals were entered, but the race may fall apart if the predicted rains come, and that would leave Better Lucky, with Smith up, as a standout. Better Lucky is a 5-year-old Godolphin mare working on her second million.
If the race stays on grass, California shipper Istanford, who beat the boys in the Arlington Classic on good turf, would be tough to catch with first-time Albarado.
A full field of 12 was entered in race eight, the 500K Breeders Futurity, a Grade 1 for 2-year-olds at 1/16 miles. The likely favorite is Carpe Diem, a $1.6 million colt from the Winstar-Pletcher-Velazquez team who was very impressive winning his Spa debut wire-to-wire at 3-5.
But there won't be a front-end winner here. The race has a ton of speed, and I expect to see the winner coming from behind, likely at a price.
One possibility is W V Jetsetter, who had a horrible trip closing for third in the Saratoga Special. The chestnut has been training well for Pletcher protege Weaver at the Spa, and gets lasix and Rosario for this race.
A potential problem is the 12-hole, but the outside may be the place to be on a wet racetrack. You know the Siro's boys will be down on this one.
Another price possibility is Hashtag Bourbon, who had rough-trip thirds in two Churchill starts, has already gone this far, and goes back to Leparoux, who does his best work with closers.
Race 9 is the Shadwell, and as we said, the weather may play havoc on this one.
Last year, the race came off the grass, and Silver Max won wire to wire, beating Wise Dan. Max again is the main speed, and, whatever the conditions, figures to take some catching under Albarado. Who knows? Stranger things have happened.
At Belmont, Pletcher (who else?) will run the favorite in the 500K Champagne, a Grade 1 for 2-year-olds at a flat mile. That would be Daredevil, who won his first start by six as the stick at Saratoga.
Jockey Castellano jumps off the accomplished I Spent It to ride Daredevile...but of course he rides a lot more winners for Pletcher than he does for Tony Dutrow.
But look out for Holy Boss, a 10-length winner as the chalk in his debut at Churchill. for Asmussen. This will be the first New York starter for jockey Santana, a terror on the Kentucky-Arkansas circuit.
Thanks for tuning in. Have a great weekend, rain or shine, sorry about the Buccos, and keep the Hot Line in mind. See you back here next week as the countdown to the Breeders' Cup continues.