Graeme North looks ahead to Saturday's action at Keeneland and Belmont...
"G1 winner Stephanie's Kitten is probably the one they all have to beat, however, and is not surprisingly favourite on the Morning Line..."
The highlight at Keeneland on Saturday is the G1 QEII Challenge Cup (17:21 local time, 22:21 BST) over nine furlongs on the turf for three-year-old fillies and despite being won by the Aiden O'Brien trained Together last year sees no European challenge this time around. The former Mick Channon-trained Samitar does line up, however, having won the G1 Garden City Stakes at Belmont last time without quite needing to run up to the form that saw her win the Irish 1000 Guineas (a race Together was second in the previous year) back at the Curragh in May.
If nothing else, the Garden City, which Samitar won by a head from the re-opposing Somali Lemonade, showed she's more versatile in terms of distance than her previous efforts had promised she might be and while she ought to confirm form with Somali Lemonade on 4lb better terms there will probably be less on this occasion between her and the third that day, Tannery, who was having her first run since winning the G3 Kilroy Estate Stakes at the Curragh in July.
Tannery was ridden from too far back at Belmont over a trip as sharp as she would want on firm ground - she won a Listed race at Limerick in June over an extended eleven furlongs on soft - and still looks open to further improvement, but kept to this trip might be dependent on a very strong gallop which doesn't look certain to materialise.
G1 winner Stephanie's Kitten is probably the one they all have to beat, however, and is not surprisingly favourite on the Morning Line at 3.5. The 2011 Juvenile Fillies Turf winner, Stephanie's Kitten won the G2 Lake Placid Stakes at Saratoga last time readily from Centre Court and Somali Lemonade having had a luckless run in the G2 Lake George there before in a tight finish with Centre Court, Better Lucky and Samitar.
The fact these fillies have beaten each other on occasions before rather suggests this race might be decided in some part by tactics - so likely lone front runner Dayatthespa has to come into consideration - but all other things considered Stephanie's Kitten has the best credentials.
There are a couple of minor G3 events on the turf at Belmont on Saturday with the first of them, the Athenia Stakes (16:02, 21:02 BST) over a mile and a sixteenth, providing what looks a good opportunity for the ex-French Dealbata to win her second race in four starts since joining Chad Brown.
Whether the injudicious rides she has received on her last two starts is the reason Ramon Dominguez has been replaced by Eddie Castro is hard to know, but suffice to say she should be going into this looking for a fourth win on the trot. She has little to fear from La Cloche, Embarr or Law of The Range in their bids to reverse the form and with Arena Elvira entered for the main track only she probably has just Laughing and Ruthenia, who are both capable of going well on their day but are none too consistent, to beat. The forecast 2.4 gives nothing away, however.
The Knickerbocker (17:06, 22:06 BST) over nine furlongs has attracted a field of eight runners with the best half dozen separated by just 5lb on Timeform ratings. Boisterous put up a career-best effort when second in the G3 Arlington Handicap two runs back and his rear finish last time in the Arlington Million is easily excused seeing as he was held up way off a very slow pace. Giving upwards of 4lb to all bar recent dual Monmouth G3 winner Tune Me In won't be easy, however, with Stormy Lord, Bombaguia and Barocci all deserving of close consideration. Stormy Lord comes here in the form of his life having followed his second place in the G2 Sky Classic at Woodbine with an authoritative win at Parx last time.
Likely front runner Bombaguia seemed to turn in a career best at Belmont when second in the G2 Bowling Green on his latest start but was allowed to set a 26-second first quarter unpestered in front, so might be a shade flattered by that run. He just got the better of Barocci the time before at Saratoga in another race in which he stole a march but the 2011 Prix du Prince d'Orange runner-up Barocci had previously got the better of their individual argument in a more conventionally-run optional claimer on this track and with the likelihood of a similar scenario on Saturday, along with much softer ground than he has encountered so far in the States, almost certainly isn't the 13 chance he is priced up on the Morning Line.