Now that the Breeders’ Cup is over, the North American Thoroughbred racing calendar becomes less hectic through the remaining two months, with fewer signature races scheduled.
Each year, results from World Championships usually determine most of the divisional winners recognized at the Eclipse Awards the following January, and 2018 is no different – although there’s definitely some intrigue building over whether Justify or Accelerate deserves Horse of the Year.
Even if most of the year-end champions have been all-but confirmed, there are important races remaining in November and December that should pique the interest of bettors (let’s face it, those races always exist, every day except Christmas) and fans who follow the sport’s star athletes. Here are five key contests scheduled for the weeks ahead that will put an exclamation point on what’s been a stellar year for horse racing and should also have significance in 2019:
The Race: Clark Handicap
When: Nov. 23
Where: Churchill Downs
Why: Voting for the champion older dirt male Eclipse Award is almost certain to be unanimous for Accelerate, but the Clark Handicap remains an important event in the handicap division with a great history, and this year’s edition offers fans a chance to gauge how that division will shape up in 2019 after Accelerate retires following a planned start in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational on Jan. 26. The 1 1/8-mile Clark has been won by the likes of reigning Horse of the Year Gun Runner (2016), champion Will Take Charge (2013), two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan (2011), Horse of the Year Saint Liam (2004), Kentucky Derby winner, champion, and Hall of Famer Silver Charm (1998), and many more accomplished racehorses. The 2017 winner, Seeking the Soul, is targeting the Clark again following a good runner-up effort in last week’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile.
The Race: Kentucky Jockey Club Stakes
When: Nov. 24
Where: Churchill Downs
The Race: Remsen Stakes
When: Dec. 1
Why: Like the Kentucky Jockey Club one week prior, this is a 17-point qualifying race for the 2019 Kentucky Derby. It’s also a sixteenth of a mile longer than the Kentucky Jockey Club. At 1 1/8 miles, the Remsen is, in fact, longer than most of the Derby preps held over the first two months of 2019, and is the same distance as major spring preps such as the Xpressbet Florida Derby and the Wood Memorial Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets (also held at Aqueduct). It’s an important race to get an early look at which Kentucky Derby contenders can handle stretching out in distance, and winners over the past 15 years include Bluegrass Cat, Court Vision, To Honor and Serve, Honor Code, and last year’s winner (and eventual Runhappy Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets winner) Catholic Boy.
The Race: Matriarch Stakes
When: Dec. 2
Where: Del Mar
Why: The Matriarch was annually one of the highlight events of Hollywood Park’s winter meet since the race’s inception in 1981, and has continued to be important since switching to Del Mar after Hollywood Park closed at the end of 2013. It now concludes Del Mar’s Bing Crosby meet, and usually draws a competitive field of female turf milers to make it an attractive betting race (11, 11, and 14 starters in the last three editions). Past winners include Miss Temple City, Ventura, Intercontinental, Heat Haze, and Starine (the last three trained by the late Hall of Famer Bobby Frankel, who also trained Ventura earlier in her career and dominated the Matriarch in the late 1990s and early 2000s). Last year, four horses shipped in from outside of California to run in the Matriarch, including the top two finishers, Off Limits and Hawksmoor. Look for this year’s renewal to draw similar interest from a few visiting trainers as they target the last Grade 1 turf race of the year.
The Race: Los Alamitos Cash Call Futurity
When: Dec. 8
Where: Los Alamitos Race Course
Why: The last Kentucky Derby prep for 2-year-olds is also a 17-point race. Like the Matriarch, the 1 1/16-mile Cash Call Futurity was one of Hollywood Park’s most popular races ever since its first running in 1981, and its list of past winners includes more than its fair share of contemporary racing standouts – try Snow Chief in 1985, Best Pal in 1990, A.P. Indy in 1991, Real Quiet in 1997, Point Given in 2000, Lookin At Lucky in 2009, and Shared Belief in 2013, just for starters. McKinzie, now back in training for Bob Baffert, won the Cash Call Futurity last year, and while Baffert’s current juvenile star Game Winner is currently scheduled to skip the Futurity and resume racing at Santa Anita early in his 3-year-old season, it’s a good bet that the Hall of Famer will be represented by one or more other promising colts when the gates open at Los Alamitos on Dec. 8.