Main Sequence made a memorable American debut in the July 6 United Nations at Monmouth, and the Graham Motion trainee aims to turn a Grade 1 double in Sunday's $500,000 Sword Dancer Invitational at Saratoga. He will renew rivalry with Twilight Eclipse, whom he just ran down late in the United Nations. But the Sword Dancer is more than a reunion of the principals from Monmouth. Man o' War hero Imagining; the talented Amira's Prince; Midwest shippers War Dancer and O'Prado Ole; and Woodbine invader Perfect Timber make for a competitive renewal of the 1 1/2-mile inner turf test.
Although Kentucky-bred, Main Sequence began his racing career in Europe, where he ranked among the best three-year-olds of 2012. The gelded son of Aldebaran captured the Lingfield Derby Trial (that was transferred to the Polytrack), finished second in both the Epsom Derby and Great Voltigeur and a badly-hampered fourth in the Grand Prix de Paris, all at or about this trip.
Main Sequence's best result of 2013 was a close second to the high-class Mukhadram in the Brigadier Gerard at Sandown. After a somewhat disappointing six-race campaign, he was shipped to Motion in hopes of revitalizing his career. Those plans took a little longer to come to fruition, for Main Sequence got sick upon his repatriation.
But Main Sequence proved to be very much worth the wait in the United Nations. Pitched straight into Grade 1 company off the eight-month layoff, he produced an explosive turn of foot from off the pace to get up by a neck.
Interestingly, Main Sequence would have been a prime contender in Saturday's Arlington Million. But his owner/breeder, the Niarchos Family's Flaxman Holdings, already had earmarked the French-based Smoking Sun for Chicago. Main Sequence therefore flies the flag in the Sword Dancer, and Rajiv Maragh maintains his partnership with the 123-pound co-highweight.
"I think there's some question as to what his best distance is," Motion said of the 2-1 favorite. "He certainly handled the (1 3/8-mile) distance at Monmouth. I don't see a mile and a half being a problem for him, especially on firm turf on a tight course."
Twilight Eclipse had the UN spoils snatched in the final strides, relegating him to the runner-up spot in a Grade 1 for the third time. Second in last year's Sword Dancer and Man o' War, the Tom Albertrani pupil bids for a breakthrough at this level. The multiple Grade 2 hero is best known for setting the world record for 1 1/2 grassy miles -- 2:22.63 -- in last year's Pan American. Regular rider Jose Lezcano will be back aboard the West Point Thoroughbreds colorbearer.
Imagining ranks as the co-highweight along with Main Sequence, thanks to his front-running victory in the May 11 Man o' War at Belmont Park, beating defending Arlington Million champ Real Solution. A Phipps homebred trained by Hall of Famer Shug McGaughey, Imagining has improved with time and maturity. He won his first stakes here last summer, dominating the 1 3/16-mile Idle Rich in wire-to-wire fashion, and he capped the year with scores in the Bowl Game and Red Smith. The six-year-old opened 2014 by finishing second in the February 9 Gulfstream Park Turf prior to the Man o' War.
Imagining's progress stalled, however, when only sixth behind Real Solution in the June 7 Manhattan. He never looked comfortable from the beginning that day, and he subsequently spent time at Fair Hill. Imagining has been training forwardly, and looms as a major rebound candidate with Joel Rosario.
"He doesn't ever like to be in a jumble," McGaughey said. "If he can get a clear shot, he's fine. The day of the Red Smith, he was back, but he was on the outside and in the clear. I think he has a little bit of a problem if he gets all jammed up or stopped or something to that effect."
Amira's Prince is another eligible to do better than his latest, a last-of-six effort to Imagining in the Man o' War. The Irish import looked bound for the top over the winter of 2012-13, when he won all four U.S. starts, including the Mac Diarmida and Mervin H. Muniz Jr. Memorial. Unfortunately, he was sidelined for more than 10 months. In his return to action for Hall of Famer Bill Mott, Amira's Prince was a one-paced third in the Gulfstream Park Turf. He was next a near-miss second as the defending champion in the Muniz before throwing in a rare clunker as the 9-5 choice in the Man o' War. He reunites with Junior Alvarado for the first time since the 2013 Muniz.
"We gave him a little time after the last clunker, thinking we'd freshen him up a little bit," Mott said. "A mile and a half suits him. We hope he returns to his old form. His (disappointing performance in the Man o' War) was just one of those things. I hope he doesn't do it again."
War Dancer and O'Prado Ole are both exiting fine efforts in defeat at Arlington, with form tying into the International Festival of Racing. The Ken McPeek-trained War Dancer was a close third to Million-bound Finnegans Wake and American St. Leger contender Admiral Kitten in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Handicap July 12. But War Dancer could benefit by stepping back up to 1 1/2 miles -- the distance of his hard-fought decision in the May 24 Louisville Handicap two back.
"The distance suits him and he's doing quite well," McPeek said. "The Arlington race (on Million Preview Day, July 12), there were two choices -- a mile and a quarter and a mile and a half, and he's won graded stakes at both distances. It looked like the mile and a quarter came up a little easier with a shorter field, but he stumbled a little and that cost him the win."
O'Prado Ole comes off a rallying second in the 1 1/2-mile Stars and Stripes at Arlington, splitting the St Leger pair of The Pizza Man and Suntracer. The four-year-old has the profile of a Dale Romans improver. His sire, champion turf horse English Channel, was upset as the 3-5 favorite in the 2007 Sword Dancer, and O'Prado Ole will try to write the upset story himself on Sunday. He lures Hall of Famer John Velazquez into the saddle.
Perfect Timber made great strides for Hall of Fame trainer Roger Attfield in 2013. Beginning the season as an unraced four-year-old, the Charles Fipke homebred went on to nearly upset his stablemate, and eventual Sovereign Award champ, Forte Dei Marmi in the Northern Dancer Turf. Perfect Timber is resuming his ascent this year. A troubled sixth to War Dancer in the Louisville 'Cap, he came roaring back to miss by a nose in the July 6 Singspiel. Javier Castellano picks up the mount on the intriguing Canadian.
One race earlier at the Spa, horse-for-the-course Alpha is the one to beat in the $100,000 Alydar over 1 1/8 miles on the main track. Four-for-five at Saratoga, the Godolphin runner has scored his biggest wins here, in the 2012 Jim Dandy and Travers (via dead-heat) and the 2013 Woodward. Alpha has been freshened since unsuccessfully trying turf in the February 15 Mac Diarmida, where he tired to fifth behind Sword Dancer threat Twilight Eclipse. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has found a soft return spot for Alpha, who is himself a descendant of Alydar. The race's namesake sired Hiaam, the second dam of Alpha.
McLaughlin will also send out Shadwell homebred Farhaan, the winner of the Lord of the Night and Stymie on Aqueduct's inner track this winter. He has not raced since his fifth in the April 19 Ben Ali over the Keeneland Polytrack.
Easter Gift, runner-up in last year's running of the Alydar, will try to go one better. A Grade 3 winner of the 2012 Smarty Jones when with Hall of Famer Nick Zito, the Robert LaPenta colorbearer was switched to the Chad Brown barn and added the 2013 Mountainview to his resume. Easter Gift was third to champion Will Take Charge and Game On Dude in last November's Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs, but suffered interference in his belated reappearance in the July 27 Monmouth Cup.
Csaba ships up from Gulfstream Park and brings a two-stakes winning sequence along with him. Fifth in this race a year ago, the Phil Gleaves pupil has yet to score at Saratoga, but he missed in a photo in the off-the-turf National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame in 2012.
Both the Sword Dancer Invitational and the Alydar will be broadcast as part of the Jockey Club Tour on FOX. The show will air from 5-6:30 p.m. (EDT) on FOX Sports 1, FOX Deportes, and FOX Sports Go, and on-air duties will be handled by Greg Wolf, Richard Migliore, Andy Serling, Simon Bray and Maggie Wolfendale.
In addition to the stakes coverage, the telecast will feature a tribute to NYRA announcer Tom Durkin, who will be retiring August 31 after calling races at NYRA racetracks for 24 years. It will also spotlight two-year-old colts Jess's Dream and Cozmic One, the first foals out of Horses of the Year Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta, respectively. Both colts are currently in training at Saratoga.