Churchill Downs’ opening weekend might not have any stakes, but returning Breeders’ Cup winners make for quite a pair of bookends. After 2018 Distaff (G1) champion Monomoy Girl launches her comeback Saturday, reigning Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) hero Four Wheel Drive kicks off his sophomore campaign in Sunday’s 10TH race. Trainer Wesley Ward hopes that the 5 1/2-furlong turf dash will serve as his stepping stone to Royal Ascot.
Four Wheel Drive, who was expected to run at Keeneland’s canceled meet, brings a perfect 3-for-3 record. The American Pharoah colt debuted in the Rosie’s S. at Colonial Downs, where he drew off in a 5 1/2-furlong course record time of 1:00.84. Up to 6 furlongs in Belmont Park’s Futurity (G3), Four Wheel Drive dominated by a similar margin of 3 lengths. His early speed proved decisive in the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, as he posted a wire-to-wire victory over Chimney Rock. Stablemate Kimari finished fast but too late in fourth.
Ward has Royal Ascot designs for both Four Wheel Drive and Kimari. With this week’s news that the meeting is still going ahead at its original dates, June 16-20, and that international shippers reportedly will be accepted, his plans can firm up. Ward has mentioned keeping Four Wheel Drive to the shorter trip for the 5-furlong King’s Stand (G1), versus elders, while Kimari would stick to fellow 3-year-olds in the 6-furlong Commonwealth Cup (G1).
But there is one possible complication for Four Wheel Drive’s tune-up: the Louisville weather. The forecast calls for an 80% chance of rain Sunday, and Ward told Daily Racing Form’s Marcus Hersh that Four Wheel Drive would be scratched if the race is transferred to the main track.
Two main-track-only entrants – Hop Kat and Banks Island – are among the overflow field of 18, along with four also-eligibles. Hop Kat is 2-for-2 so far for Eddie Kenneally, breaking his maiden by eight lengths here last May and returning with a score in the Gulfstream slop April 26. Banks Island took five tries to enter the winner’s circle, but the Brendan Walsh pupil did so in an off-the-turf maiden at a sloppy Fair Grounds Dec. 27.
If the race stays on the lawn, Four Wheel Drive will break from the rail. Ironically, the allowance for 3-year-olds marks the first time that he has raced outside of stakes, but he’s still facing that caliber of opposition.
Ward has another American Pharoah colt in the line-up in Maven. A debut winner on the Aqueduct dirt last spring, he successfully switched to the French turf for the Prix du Bois (G3). Maven was sidelined after a 10th in the Molecomb (G3) at Glorious Goodwood. Like Four Wheel Drive, he ranks as the 123-pound co-highweight.
Walsh will be represented regardless of the surface. Godolphin blueblood Banks Island is there in case of dirt, but his European recruit Guildsman holds plenty of appeal on turf. Showing ability to handle rain-softened ground in his impressive premiere at Goodwood, the Qatar Racing colorbearer boasts Group form through a close third in Royal Ascot’s Coventry (G2) and a second in the Round Tower (G3). Guildsman was a promising third in his U.S. debut in the Texas Glitter S. at Gulfstream, where he was slowly away but closed smartly. That learning experience, plus an extra half-furlong, should serve him well here.
Juvenile Turf Sprint runner-up Chimney Rock, beaten just three-quarters of a length by Four Wheel Drive that day, also missed narrowly in both the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Turf Sprint and the Indian Summer (to Kimari). Chimney Rock has raced twice since the Breeders’ Cup. Rolling by six lengths in the Louisiana Champions Day Juvenile on dirt, the Mike Maker trainee faded to fourth in the Jan. 26 Texas Turf Mile.
Jack and Noah, who retreated to fifth after setting a fast pace in the Texas Turf Mile, likewise figures to improve on the cutback. Fourth to Four Wheel Drive in last fall’s Futurity, the Bated Breath colt wired the Nov. 9 Atlantic Beach at Aqueduct. The Mark Casse speedster should blast early from post 4. Stablemate Race Driver, one door down in post 5, offers a complementary style as a late-running winner in his first turf sprint try at Fair Grounds. The Gray Blur exits a similar entry-level allowance tally in New Orleans.
The Greg Foley-trained Bango has yet to race on turf, but he enjoyed Turfway Park’s Polytrack when landing the March 14 Animal Kingdom. Aqueduct allowance winner Hopeful Treasure, admirably consistent on dirt for Michael Pino, hails from the turf-oriented family of French superstar Peintre Celebre.