Johnny Bear, who toppled the odds-on English invader Hawkbill here in last year's Northern Dancer Turf, again will be looking to bring down the talented European invader in Saturday's renewal of the Grade 1 feature.
The Northern Dancer, worth $300,000, is a mile and a half turf race for 3-year-olds and upward and attracted a field of 10.
Johnny Bear, the senior member of the field at age 7, parlayed his 2017 Northern Dancer win into a Sovereign Award as Canada's champion older turf horse for the Colebrook Farm of John Brnjas and Danny Dion's Bear Stable.
After getting the winter off, Johnny Bear has been rounding into form for trainer Ashlee Brnjas, finishing a close third behind fellow Northern Dancer participants Tiz a Slam and Mekhtaal in the Grade 2 Nijinsky and then a troubled second in the restricted Halton.
Both races took place on the turf course here with the Sky Classic at 1 3/8 miles and the Halton a 1 1/2-mile test which Johnny Bear captured last year en route to his Northern Dancer tally at odds of 9-1.
“It's unfortunate what happened to him in that last race,” said John Brnjas, who had watched Johnny Bear have to steady in the stretch run and the claim of foul by regular rider Luis Contreras be denied.
“But he's in good shape. I think he's coming up to this race as good as he was last year.”
Hawkbill, a 5-year-old who is trained in England by Charlie Appleby for the powerful Godolphin outfit, was the 3-5 choice in last year's Northern Dancer and made all the running before being tagged on the wire by Johnny Bear.
“He came out of the race with a little bit of a dodgy leg,” said Sophie Chretien, traveling head lass for Appleby and a regular companion of Hawkbill. “The turf was very hard. Hopefully, this year there's a bit of give to it.”
Hawkbill had been slated to stay on here for the Grade 1 Pattison Canadian International but instead returned home and set his sights on the Grade 1 Dubai Duty Free, a 1 1/2-mile turf race worth $6 million that he dominated on the front end.
Next for Hawkbill was a three-race campaign in England which concluded with a good fourth-place finish in the Group 1 Coral Eclipse at 1 1/4 miles on July 30.
“He ran a good race; he just got beat by better on the day,” said Chretien.
Hawkbill then got a breather, with the Northern Dancer in mind, and returns loaded for bear.
“He's travelling really well,” said exercise rider Daragh O'Donohoe. “He's very strong right now.”
Jamie Spencer, winner of back-to-back runnings of the Northern Dancer with Wigmore Hall in 2011 and 2012, will ride Hawkbill for the first time.
And, should he capture the Northern Dancer, Hawkbill's Grade 1 win this year makes him eligible for a $50,000 bonus under Woodbine's new graded stakes incentive program.
The Northern Dancer will feature rematches between Tiz a Slam and Mekhtaal, the 1-2 finishers here in the Grade 2 Nijinsky on July 22, and Utmost, who left Tiz a Slam in second place in the Grade 2 Sky Classic four weeks later. Both Mekhtaal and Utmost are trained by Graham Motion.
Tiz a Slam, a homebred 4-year-old colt who is owned by Chiefswood Stable and trained by Roger Attfield, has taken a new lease on life lately by employing a free-wheeling style under rider Steven Bahen in route races.
After going coast-to-coast in the Grade 3 Dominion Day over 1 1/4 miles of Tapeta, Tiz a Slam doubled up in similar fashion while traveling 1 1/2 miles on the grass in the Grade 2 Nijinsky.
In his most recent outing, Tiz a Slam failed to fend off Utmost but was far clear of the rest as the runner-up.
“He's always going to be forwardly placed,” said Attfield. “He doesn't have to be on the lead, but he has to be allowed to gallop along. He's a big galloping, horse. As long as he's in the clear he's okay.”
Mekhtaal was a half-length runner-up to Tiz a Slam in the Nijinsky with Johnny Bear just a neck back.
Owned by Al Shaqab Racing, Mekhtaal was making his first start in almost 10 months that day after disappointing in last fall's Grade 1 Turf Classic at Belmont Park.
“I've been very happy with him,” said Motion. “Hopefully he'll benefit from that race. He'd been off a long time, and he might have been a work short when I ran him up. But, I thought it was a really good effort.”
Bred in England, the 5-year-old Mekhtaal was a Group 1 winner in France before moving stateside.
Utmost was making his first start in more than three months and coming off a close third-place finish in the listed Cape Henlopen over 1 ½ miles of turf at Delaware Park when he defeated Tiz a Slam.
“I thought he ran pretty courageously the first time I ran him at Delaware,” said Motion. “He was free on the lead, which really wasn't what I wanted him to do.”
Utmost relaxed just off Tiz a Slam's pace in the Sky Classic and then took control for a one-length victory.
“He did win it impressively,” said Motion. “I was pleased with the way he did it. It's given me confidence to run him back this weekend.”
Jose Ortiz will ride Mekhtaal and Alan Garcia retains the mount on Utmost.
Rounding out the field will be Patterson Cross, Markitoff, Seeking Albert, English Illusion and Vexatious.
Patterson Cross and Markitoff both were entered in last Saturday's Kentucky Turf Cup at Churchill Downs but landed on the also eligible list and have been redirected to the Northern Dancer.
The 5-year-old Patterson Cross came close in a couple of graded stakes last year and is coming off a good fourth-place finish in the John's Call, a 1 5/8 mile turf race at Saratoga.
Markitoff has run decently without placing in graded stakes company. His last three starts came under “nonwinners of two other” than allowance terms.
Seeking Albert, fourth in last year's Northern Dancer, comes into this year's renewal off a distant third-place finish in the Sky Classic.
English Illusion, despite his victory over Johnny Bear, will be an outsider here. The 5-year-old gelding was becoming a stakes winner off the claim as he was haltered for $45,000 by trainer Sylvain Pion on Aug. 5.
Vexatious, the only filly in the field, became a stakes winner last out in a listed event over 1 3/8 miles of turf at Del Mar.
FIELD FOR THE GRADE 1 NORTHERN DANCER TURF
1/Mekhtaal/Jose Ortiz/Graham Motion
2/Markitoff/Javier Castellano/Mike Maker
3/Utmost/Alan Garcia/Graham Motion
4/Johnny Bear/Luis Contreras/Ashlee Brnjas
5/Hawkbill/Jamie Spencer/Charles Appleby
6/Tiz a Slam/Steven Bahen/Roger Attfield
7/Vexatious/Rafael Bejarano/Neil Drysdale
8/Seeking Albert/David Moran/Mike DePaulo
9/English Illusion/Rafael Hernandez/Sylvain Pion
10/Patterson Cross/Joel Rosario/Bill Mott
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