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Count Mayo on the Side in
LOUISVILLE, Ky. - Churchill Downs lost a key starter for Saturday's $100,000 Opening Verse Handicap when millionaire Mystery Giver was not entered due to a hind ankle injury, but the track picked up a prominent entrant in the Grade 2, $400,000 Fleur de Lis Handicap with Mayo on the Side.
Carl Nafzger, trainer of Mayo on the Side, had been undecided about running her earlier in the week, but entered her on Wednesday.
"It's a lot of money and we're right at home," Nafzger said.
Mayo on the Side, upset winner over Azeri in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard, is favorably weighted at 116 pounds, six fewer than Breeders' Cup Distaff winner Adoration and four fewer than multiple graded-stakes winner Bare Necessities.
One of the challenges facing Mayo on the Side, besides the quality of her opponents, is the race's 1 1/8-mile distance. She handled the distance when facing three-other-than allowance company last summer, but tired to finish a distant second in the Falls City Handicap last fall when tested in a stakes race at 1 1/8 miles. "It's still our concern," Nafzger said.
Working in her favor is that she has never been better in her 21-race career. Before taking the Humana Distaff, she ran down Fleur de Lis starters Cat Fighter and Roar Emotion in the Doubledogdare on April 16 at Keeneland.
The field, with riders, from the rail out: Adoration, Victor Espinoza; Yell, Pat Day; Roar Emotion, Jerry Bailey; Angela's Love, Mark Guidry; Miss Fortunate, Larry Melancon; Mayo on the Side, Robby Albarado; Cat Fighter, Cornelio Velasquez; Bare Necessities, Rene Douglas; and La Reason, John McKee.
Hard Buck faces 'Swinger' in Open Verse
Even without Mystery Giver, the Opening Verse shapes up as a top race. Grade 1 winner Hard Buck is set to return in the 1 1/16-mile turf race following a second in the $2 million Dubai Sheema Classic on March 27. Also entered is 2003 Jefferson Cup winner Senor Swinger, who is unbeaten in three starts over the Churchill Downs turf course.
The field, with riders: Gretchen's Star, Calvin Borel; Majestic Thief, Velasquez; Hard Buck, Brice Blanc; Classic Par, Albarado; Major Rhythm, Earlie Fires; Restage, Jesus Castanon; Everything to Gain, Guidry; and Senor Swinger, Day.
Any of 12 could win Northern Dancer
What the Northern Dancer Stakes lacks in an obvious favorite, the Grade 3 race more than makes up for in bettability. The Northern Dancer appears to be the most competitive of the six stakes carded for Saturday at Churchill Downs.
Twelve 3-year-olds were entered Wednesday in the $200,000 Northern Dancer, a 1 1/16-mile race that had been contested as a one-turn mile in its six previous runnings. Big-name connections such as Todd Pletcher, Bob Baffert, Jerry Bailey, and Pat Day all have live chances, but the same might be said of virtually every horse in the lineup. The event gives Churchill a terrific way to kick off its $250,000-guaranteed pick four, races 6 through 9, which comprises the Northern Dancer, Regret, Fleur de Lis, and Foster.
J Town, a sharp winner of an entry-level allowance on May 8, may rate the slightest of favorites in the Northern Dancer, partly because Day once again has accepted the mount from trainer Ken McPeek. Other logical contenders include Shaniko, who shipped in Tuesday from New York for Pletcher; Courageous Act, winner of the May 22 prep for Baffert; and Ecclesiastic, who will have Bailey aboard after winning his last two starts.
The Northern Dancer is carded as Saturday's sixth race, and second of the six stakes, directly following the Jefferson Cup. Post time is 3:43 p.m. Eastern.
Kitten's Joy heavy chalk in Jefferson Cup
Kitten's Joy, with Bailey to ride for trainer Dale Romans, drew post 9 as the heavy favorite in a field of 10 3-year-olds in the $200,000 Jefferson Cup, a Grade 3 race at 1 1/8 miles on turf.
Kitten's Joy is unbeaten in five turf races, with his latest victory coming in the Crown Royal American Turf on the April 30 Kentucky Oaks undercard. "He's coming into it the right way," said Romans.
The main challengers in the Jefferson Cup appear to be the Crown Royal runner-up, Prince Arch, and Terroplane, a French-bred who arrived here Tuesday from Southern California for trainer Neil Drysdale.
Another turfer for Romans: Jinny's Gold
Romans also has a turf unbeaten among the eight 3-year-old fillies in the $200,000 Regret Stakes (race 7), although Jinny's Gold, with her 2-for-2 record, has a way to go before sparking comparisons with Kitten's Joy.
Jinny's Gold is part of a lineup that also features Maryland shipper Western Ransom, whose lone prior appearance in Kentucky resulted in a narrow defeat in the April 14 Appalachian Stakes at Keeneland. Other top threats in the 1 1/16-mile grass race include Sister Star, Baxter Hall, and Gingham and Lace.
Mail Call heads feature on slow Friday
With so many good races set for Saturday, the Friday program came up a bit short on quality. Not even one allowance is carded on the 10-race program, which carries a first post of 2:45 p.m. Eastern. A $29,000 starter allowance occupies the customary ninth-race feature slot.
Mail Call, a winner over seemingly tougher rivals earlier at the meet, looks like a deserving favorite in the one-mile turf race.
Clock Stopper gets up easily
Clock Stopper, the odds-on favorite under Pat Day, posted an easy victory in the $63,000 feature Wednesday, despite spotting his rivals several lengths at the start. Owned by Overbrook Farm and trained by Dallas Stewart, Clock Stopper returned $3.40 after finishing six furlongs in 1:08.67 over a fast track. Wildcat Shoes was second and Cojet third in a field of five.
* Two racing radio shows can be heard every weekend in the local area. E.J. Clark and Lane Gold are the hosts of "Kentucky Winner's Circle," Fridays at 6 p.m. on WKJK (1080-AM), and Don Knobel hosts "Down the Stretch" at 10 a.m. each Saturday on WXXA (790-AM).
- additional reporting by Marty McGee