The main event of the weekend at Keeneland is the 2022 QE II Challenge Cup, which has drawn a strong field headed by G1 winner McKulick, G1 runner-up Bellabel and intriguing Irish raider Paris Peacock. Twenty-four hours earlier, a host of old friends including Channel Maker, Red Knight and Arklow renew acquaintance in the G3 Sycamore.
Grade 3, $300,000, 1m 4f turf, 3yo+, Friday
The boys of the old brigade are here in the Sycamore, the main event at Keeneland on Friday, with three eight-year-olds out to prove that age is just a number.
The return to Keeneland may be a blessing for former top-class Channel Maker (6-1), who was third in the 2020 G1 Breeders’ Cup Turf here and won the G2 Elkhorn over this course and distance on his first start of the year, pressing the pace before driving home to beat Another Mystery (15-1) by a length and a quarter.
He can’t handle G1 company anymore but is still very effective at this lower level, and showed plenty of grit to hang on to his lead when winning a stakes at Belmont Park in July, two lengths clear of British Royalty (30-1) and Admission Office (20-1) in fourth and fifth.
Fellow greybeards Red Knight (6-1) – who won this race two years ago – and Arklow (4-1) met in the G2 Kentucky Turf Cup over a mile and a half at Kentucky Downs last time, where Red Knight continued his renaissance when beating the high-class Gufo by a nose, with Another Mystery a neck away third, Admission Office fifth, Arklow an empty, thoroughly disappointing sixth and Temple (10-1) a long way down the track.
Red Knight is two-for-two this year and enjoying a late-life flourish, while his barnmate Temple wasn’t beaten far when third in the G1 United Nations at Monmouth Park on his previous start, and a bad run at the Downs is always easy to forgive. However, Arklow is riding a six-race losing streak and can’t be relied upon to repeat the form of his runner-up spot in the G2 Bowling Green, over a mile and three-eighths at Saratoga in July, when he had Highland Chief (9-2) three and a half lengths back in fourth.
Highland Chief got lucky in the G1 Man o’War over a mile and three-eighths at Belmont when they crawled round and he outkicked his rivals and hasn’t matched that level since.
Stretching out from a mile brought considerable and surprising improvement from Mira Mission (7-2), who almost stole the G1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga over a mile and a half but was caught close home and beaten a neck by Gufo. That was a deep contest and may well be the best form available here, and class relief is always a major pointer.
Cellist (30-1) is inconsistent but can’t be ruled out after his victory in the G3 Louisville at Churchill Downs over a mile and a half, while Balthus (12-1) makes his stakes debut after three wins in minor company, latterly over a mile and a half at Saratoga. Further improvement is likely but absolutely necessary.
Sycamore Stakes Odds & Prediction
The step up to this distance appeared to suit MIRA MISSION very well last time, and he will be hard to beat if maintains that progression.
|HORSE||JOCKEY||ODDS BY JAZZSPORTS|
|Red Knight||Gerardo Corrales||+600|
|Admission Office||Brian Joseph Hernandez, Jr.||+2000|
|Highland Chief (IRE)||John R. Velazquez||+450|
|Channel Maker||Luis Saez||+600|
|Mira Mission||Julien R. Leparoux||+350|
|British Royalty||Ricardo Santana, Jr.||+3000|
|Balthus (IRE)||Manuel Franco||+1200|
|Another Mystery||Florent Geroux||+1500|
|Cellist||Corey J. Lanerie||+3000|
|Highest Honors||Tyler Gaffalione||+800|
|Time for Trouble||Joseph Talamo||+3000|
|Keystone Field||Reylu Gutierrez||+2000|
Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup
Grade 1, $600,000, 1m 1f turf, 3yo fillies, Saturday
With a record four wins in the Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup to his name, Chad Brown was bound to be a man to reckon with in Saturday’s highlight at Keeneland, and his pair of entries dominate the discussion.
Brown has won three of the last four editions of the race and has a very strong candidate in McKulick, who ran rampant through the distaff Turf Triple this year, winning the ten-furlong G1 Belmont Oaks and the G3 Jockey Club Oaks over a mile and three-eighths at the same track, and in between running second in the G3 Saratoga Oaks at a mile and three-sixteenths.
This will be a greater test of her speed and that may not necessarily play to her strengths, especially in a contest where there is no obvious pace angle. McKulick has connections to New Year’s Eve, with the score 2-1 between them.
New Year’s Eve beat McKulick by two and three-quarter lengths in the G2 Edgewood at Churchill Downs in May when McKulick was coming off a seven-month layoff. Then New Year’s Eve finished well behind in the Belmont Oaks, but only a neck separated the pair when they ran 2-3 in the Saratoga Oaks.
Last time out New Year’s Eve may not have been suited by the idiosyncratic Kentucky Downs circuit or the longer distance, a mile and five-sixteenths, when fourth as favorite for a stakes, and she should appreciate today’s scenario. California Angel was third at Kentucky Downs, three-quarters of a length ahead on her first start for six months, and now returns to the track where she won last year’s G2 Jessamine over a mile-sixteenth, her most recent success. Perhaps she’ll move up for that.
Brown’s second-string is Gina Romantica, stretching out for the first time after winning a mile stakes at Saratoga and then running second in the G3 Pebbles at Aqueduct, also over a mile. She doesn’t yet have the class of her barnmate but is upgrading.
Stakes debutante She’s Gone needs a career-best just to get in the mix, but California shipper Bellabel was an impressive winner of the G2 San Clemente over the Del Mar mile before finding only the high-class Spendarella too strong in the G1 Del Mar Oaks at today’s distance. Spendarella would have been a strong fancy here and Bellabel has solid claims.
Irish raider Paris Peacock hit the board in six maidens before finally getting the job done in a stakes at second-tier Gowran Park over a mile and three-sixteenths. She then improved to win a G3 over the same course and distance on soft ground, and any rain will help. She needs more today but is moving up fast, although cutting back in distance may not be positive.
2022 QE II Challenge Cup Odds & Prediction
McKulick brings the class but G1 runner-up BELLABEL has been in excellent form following a break, and could be capable of further improvement.
|HORSE||JOCKEY||ODDS BY JAZZSPORTS|
|California Angel||Rafael Bejarano||+1500|
|Gina Romantica||Flavien Prat||+350|
|She’s Gone||Luis Saez||+3000|
|New Year’s Eve||Tyler Gaffalione||+450|
|Bellabel (IRE)||Umberto Rispoli||+500|
|McKulick (GB)||Irad Ortiz, Jr.||-100|
|Paris Peacock (IRE)||Florent Geroux||+1000|
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