Churchill Downs and Santa Anita back in action on big weekend for US racing

Horse Racing Churchill Downs
Churchill Downs: racing returns beneath the Twin Spires with 11-race card on Saturday.

By Nicholas Godfrey

USA: After a couple of months of limited action, this coming weekend feels like a reawakening for American horse racing with the belated opening of the Churchill Downs Spring Meet and a resumption on Friday at Santa Anita after the coronavirus shutdown.

Although the Kentucky Derby has been postponed until September 5, Churchill Downs kicks off – behind closed doors, naturally – with no fewer than 333 entries over the weekend, starting with a 162 nominations for an 11-race card featuring the return of Eclipse Award-winning female Monomoy Girl.

USA: Monomoy Girl on the mark as racing returns to Churchill Downs

On Sunday, another 11-race card has attracted 171 entries, among them Wesley Ward’s Breeders’ Cup winner Four-Wheel Drive, for whom the trainer is still eyeing Royal Ascot. With 12-runner maximum fields both days, there will be a surfeit of non-runners among the multitude of also-eligibles.

Meanwhile, on Wednesday afternoon Los Angeles health authorities gave the green light for Santa Anita to recommence racing on Friday for the first time since March 27. Jockeys, who are undergoing coronavirus testing, will be among those stationed in quarantine facilities in temporary housing under strict new protocols.

A total of 97 entries have been published for a nine-race card at the storied southern California venue where the Santa Anita Derby, postponed on April 4, will take place on June 6.

Horse Racing Santa Anita starting gate
Santa Anita: racing on Friday for first time since March 27 after coronavirus shutdown.
Photo: Santa Anita

Other high-profile venues, too, are slowly moving towards a return to business. Though there is no date yet for either of the last two legs of the Triple Crown, the main dirt track at Belmont Park was reopened for training on Tuesday with an eye on the potential opening of the spring-summer meet.

In Canada, officials at Woodbine are awaiting government approval to launch their programme on June 6 or June 13. The Queen’s Plate, the jewel of Canada’s Triple Crown, is likely to be run in September. There is even talk of the abandoned Keeneland Spring Meet taking place in the summer.

Further down the food chain, Charles Town (West Virginia) and Golden Gate Fields (San Francisco Bay Area) get going again on Thursday; others, such as Tampa Bay Downs (Florida), Fonner Park (Nebraska) and Will Rogers Downs (Oklahome) are continuing.

There will be a proper star on show at Churchill Downs, where they will belatedly begin their Spring Meet on Saturday, as champion filly Monomoy Girl (Brad Cox/Florent Geroux) returns to action in the fourth race (7.32pm BST), an $85,000 allowance race.

Following her victory in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, the five-year-old missed the whole of last year after colic surgery and a minor muscle injury.

Given that trainer Brad Cox has sent last year’s champion two-year-old British Idiom to the sidelines for ankle-chip surgery, he will be pleased to welcome back Monomoy Girl, the Kentucky Oaks winner of 2018 whose career record stands at nine wins and two seconds from 11 starts.

“It’s been a long time coming but we are thrilled for her to return to the races,” said the trainer. “She’s been working great down at Keeneland since late March and we’re looking forward to this first step back.”

Sunday’s card also marks the return of Four Wheel Drive (Wesley Ward/Irad Ortiz) for his three-year-old debut in which he breaks from the rail in a 5½f allowance race (10.44pm BST) on turf.

Unbeaten in three starts, he won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint at Santa Anita on his most recent outing; Ward is hoping to run him in the King’s Stand Stakes at Royal Ascot after this return to action.

A relative lack of opportunities elsewhere means the jockey colony at Churchill Downs has attracted some serious talent as Javier Castellano, Jose Ortiz, Joel Rosario and John Velazquez join the regulars.

They include British expatriate Sophie Doyle, back in action after the hiatus with a couple of rides on Saturday’s card at the home of the Kentucky Derby.

Sophie Doyle: Locked down in Lexington with Street Band on my mind

Although Gulfstream Park has continued throughout the coronavirus outbreak, the action there is generally of lesser grade after the winter-spring Championship Meet has concluded. Even so, Friday’s card includes a $75,000 stakes race (10.49pm BST) involving Kentucky Oaks hope Tonalist’s Shape (Saffie Joseph/Irad Ortiz), who lost her unbeaten record last time in the Gulfstream Park Oaks.

What’s going on in the USA?

Wednesday (May 13): Fonner Park, Tampa Bay Downs, Will Rogers Downs
Thursday (May 14): Charles Town, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park
Friday (May 15): Charles Town, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Tampa Bay Downs
Saturday (May 16): Charles Town, Churchill Downs, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Tampa Bay Downs
Sunday (May 17): Charles Town, Churchill Downs, Golden Gate Fields, Gulfstream Park, Santa Anita, Tampa Bay Downs

• Visit the Churchill Downs website

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