Horses

Champions California Chrome, Songbird headline weekend stakes

Mike Smith rides Songbird to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland last Oct. 31, 2015. The champion filly brings an eight-race win streak into Sunday’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.
Mike Smith rides Songbird to win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Keeneland last Oct. 31, 2015. The champion filly brings an eight-race win streak into Sunday’s Grade I Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga. AP

The richest racehorse in North American history is set to make his first start since garnering that lofty prefix. He will face, among others, the Grade I-winning amazon whose only career losses came at the hands of his Triple Crown-winning former stablemate.

The meeting of 2014 Horse of the Year California Chrome against the chestnut beast that is Dortmund in Saturday’s Grade II, $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar could be considered the best showdown the handicap division has seen in this country this season. What remains to be seen is if the high-profile matchup even goes down as the best race this weekend.

With the boutique Del Mar meet beginning last week and Saratoga opening its historic gates for the summer on Friday, the time of year has arrived when racing fans’ heads will be spinning trying to keep up with the quality coming from the entry boxes. The first such exercise begins Saturday as California Chrome makes his first start since winning the $10 million Dubai World Cup at Meydan Racecourse in March and continues Sunday with undefeated champion Songbird trying to extend her reign of dominance against the likes Grade I-winners Carina Mia and Weep No More in the Grade I, $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga.

Before either champion races this weekend, there will already be a top-level result in the books. Miss Temple City, who defeated males in the Grade I Maker’s 46 Mile at Keeneland in April, is set to make her first start since running fourth in the Group II Duke of Cambridge Stakes at Royal Ascot in June when she headlines a field of 10 in Saturday’s Grade I, $500,000 Diana Stakes over the Saratoga turf.

The brilliant 48-hour stretch of racing on tap has the potential to produce some seismic shifts in the divisional ranks. Dortmund, whose first career loss came when he ran third to his old stablemate American Pharoah in the 2015 Kentucky Derby, hasn’t started since winning the Grade III Native Diver at Del Mar last November and has been plagued by minor ailments this year.

If the massive son of Big Brown can upset 5-year-old California Chrome, who has rarely looked better at any point in his career, a new wrench could be thrown into the older male division that the latter has towered over. Such a defeat would be nothing, however, compared to the shockwaves that would resonate if Songbird were to endure a loss as the reigning juvenile champion filly has been unchallenged in winning her eight career starts by a combined 42 ½ lengths.

With no shortage of potential drama on tap, here is your weekend cheat sheet of the biggest racing action:

Saturday

Grade I, $500,000 Diana Stakes at Saratoga for fillies and mares going 1  1/8 miles on the turf

Post time: 6:18 p.m. EDT

Key contender: The Graham Motion-trained Miss Temple City made her season debut one to remember when she bested male rivals by 1¼-lengths in the Maker’s 46 Mile. Her run in the Duke of Cambridge Stakes was better than the final result gives credit for as she battled to find running room throughout and still came with a game turn of foot at the finish. “You wonder if the trip might affect her, running against those conditions. But I don’t see any negative effects that it’s had on her,” Motion said. “I felt like when she came back to America, I targeted the Diana, and everything fell into place.” The distance of the Diana is a question mark for the 4-year-old daughter of Temple City but she did run second, beaten just a head, in the Grade I Queen Elizabeth II Challenge Cup held over 1  1/8 miles at Keeneland last October.

Others to watch: Trainer Chad Brown has four entrants in the Diana, including multiple graded stakes winner Dacita. Dacita defeated eventual champion Tepin in last year’s Grade II Ballston Spa at Saratoga and is coming off a victory in the Grade II New York Stakes at Belmont Park on June 10. Stablemate Wekeela has been knocking on the door at this level, running second in the Grade I Gamely and Grade I Jenny Wiley this season.

Grade II, $200,000 San Diego Handicap at Del Mar for 3-year-olds and up going 1  1/16 miles

Post time: 9:10 P.M. EDT

Key contender: Dual classic winner California Chrome has regained his old form this season, winning each of his three starts in 2016 including his sublime Dubai World Cup triumph. With Dortmund coming off the layoff and Hard Aces expected to scratch and run in Sunday’s Grade III Cougar Handicap instead, California Chrome should have few excuses if he is as on his game as his most recent workout — a sizzling 5-furlong drill in :59.20 — suggests. “He’s got his game face on,” said Art Sherman, trainer of California Chrome. “He’s a different horse when he’s getting ready to run.”

Others to watch: There was a point in the lead-up to the 2015 Kentucky Derby when many wondered if Dortmund would prove to be the best 3-year-old in trainer Bob Baffert’s barn. American Pharoah made all of that moot, but Dortmund was beast-like when he was right, winning his first six career starts including the Grade I Santa Anita Derby last year. “Dortmund has speed and will probably go to the front. We should be able to get a good stalking position and sit second,” Sherman said.

Sunday

Grade I, $500,000 Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga for 3-year-old fillies going 1  1/8 miles

Post time: 6:18 P.M. EDT

Key contender: All eyes will rightfully be on Songbird as she faces just four rivals and arguably her toughest ever challenger in Carina-Mia. No one has been able to successfully eyeball Songbird, and her most recent 6½-length win in the Grade II Summertime Oaks at Santa Anita Park in June was another glorified workout. If she gets things her own way on the front end, it will be game over in a hurry for her foes. “If you watch her work, it’s just unbelievable,” owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farms said of Songbird’s most recent 6-furlong move in 1:11.40 on July 17. “(Jockey) Mike (Smith) never sat down on her, he let her do the work the way she wanted to do it and it looks like she’s just floating in an open gallop, and then those times come up, it’s just shocking.”

Others to watch: Carina Mia flashed brilliance as a juvenile in winning the Grade II Golden Rod Stakes at Churchill Downs but has really come into her own her last two outings. The daughter of Malibu Moon won the Grade I Acorn Stakes at Belmont Park on June 11 and the Grade II Eight Belles at Churchill on May 6 and has the ability to press the issue on the front end. How far she wants to go is a concern, however, unlike Grade I Ashland Stakes winner Weep No More whose late kick will relish extra ground. “We’re not one to duck away from a challenge, I guess, when we know we’ve got a good filly,” said Bill Mott, trainer of Carina Mia. “We’re here (at Saratoga) and it’s a very important Grade I race and we want to find out.”

Alicia Wincze Hughes: 859-231-1676, @horseracinghl

This weekend

SATURDAY

Diana Stakes at Saratoga

When: 6:18 p.m. (TVG)

Favorite: Miss Temple City (3-1)

San Diego Handicap at Del Mar

When: 9:10 p.m. (TVG)

Favorite: California Chrome (4-5)

SUNDAY

Coaching Club American Oaks at Saratoga

When: 6:18 p.m. (TVG)

Favorite: Songbird (4-5)

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