With every result during last weekend's blockbuster slate of stakes races across the country, the collective picture for the Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs blurred and sharpened by turns.
As Keeneland begins its 75th anniversary meet this Friday, the historic track will offer its own stout lineup of graded contests that are sure to further change the landscape of this year's World Championships.
A total of nine graded stakes races, including five Grade I tests, are set for Keeneland's opening weekend, with many of them already drawing full, deep fields.
After the Grade I, $400,000 Darley Alcibiades for 2-year-old fillies kicks things off Friday, the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile anchors a Saturday card that also features the Grade I Breeders' Futurity for 2-year-olds and the Grade I First Lady Stakes for fillies and mares 3 years old and up on the turf.
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The Grade I Juddmonte Spinster, a traditional prep for the Breeders' Cup Ladies' Classic, will take place on Sunday.
The Shadwell Turf Mile attracts the smallest field of the Grade I races drawn thus far, but the eight-horse lineup for the $600,000 race boasts the most proven talent.
Castleton Lyons' two-time defending champion turf male Gio Ponti is back in the Shadwell, having won the 8-furlong test in a glorified hand-ride last season before his runner-up finish to Goldikova in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
The 6-year-old son of Tale of the Cat — who is being pointed to the Mile again — has been unable to find the winner's circle in four starts this year. After opening his season with a fifth-place finish in the Dubai World Cup, Gio Ponti finished third, second and second in the Grade I Manhattan, Man o' War Stakes and Arlington Million, respectively, and was forced to race over a less-than-favorable yielding turf in two of those contests.
With a sun-filled forecast ahead, Gio Ponti should get the firm turf and pace scenario Saturday that he thrives on. A win would validate trainer Christophe Clement's belief that the six-time Grade I winner hasn't lost a step.
"I think he is as solid as he has ever been and if you believe in numbers, he runs the same kind of numbers as he always does," Clement said. "He has not won, which is (what) we call that lack of racing luck.
"The greatest asset with Gio Ponti is he has got a remarkable turn of foot and that turn of foot is even more efficient when he gets pace in the race and that turn of foot is even more efficient on summer turf," Clement said. "It seems like on paper we should get plenty of pace and on paper the ground should be firm."
The most likely candidate to set the Shadwell pace is the horse who may be Gio Ponti's most dangerous challenger. The flashy Get Stormy has earned two Grade I wins this year with his front-running speed, including a 23/4-length victory in Keeneland's Maker's Mark Mile this April.
Get Stormy missed a start in the Grade II Fourstardave at Saratoga this summer because of a slight tendon injury, but he returned to run second to Turallure after giving way late in the 11⁄8-mile Grade II Bernard Baruch on Aug. 26.
Charlie Lopresti, trainer of Turallure, was thrilled to topple Get Stormy that day and is hoping to duplicate the feat when he saddles Wise Dan in the Shadwell.
A graded stakes winner on the Polytrack last year, Wise Dan lost his first three starts this season, but he has apparently found new life on the turf. Just days after working on the grass for the first time, the 4-year-old gelding captured the Grade II Firecracker Handicap, going a mile on the turf at Churchill on July 4 and most recently taking the Presque Isle Mile on the all-weather surface Sept. 9.
"He's got much better action on grass. He's got a beautiful action, but his action is even better on the grass," Lopresti said.
An overflow field of 16 2-year-olds was entered for the 11⁄16-mile Breeders' Futurity, including graded stakes winners Majestic City and Shared Property.
Majestic City won his first three starts, including a score in the Grade III Hollywood Juvenile Championship, and finished second in the Grade I Del Mar Futurity but was disqualified to third for interference.
C.S. Silk, winner of the Grade I Just A Game at Belmont Park in June, heads an overflow lineup of 12 for the 1-mile First Lady which also features Daveron, who has been victorious in all three of her 2011 starts including the Grade II Ballston Spa at Saratoga on Aug. 27.