The $125,000 Cougar II (G3) is Del Mar’s Sunday feature, but the real headline act comes one race later in the $100,000 Wickerr S., where Smooth Like Strait seeks a confidence-booster.
Wickerr S. – Race 9 (9:03 p.m. ET)
Winless since the 2021 Shoemaker Mile (G1), millionaire Smooth Like Strait actually qualifies for this restricted turf stakes. The Wickerr is for three-year-olds and up who have not won a sweepstakes of $50,000 (other than state-bred) at a mile or over since Sept. 1. Thus it shapes as a good spot for Smooth Like Strait to get some class relief and get back into the win column.
Dropping down from graded company for the first time in more than two years, the Michael McCarthy trainee has not lost form at all. He’s continued to perform at a high level while settling for minor awards. Smooth Like Strait was a close second in last year’s Eddie Read (G2), Del Mar Mile (G2), City of Hope Mile (G2), and Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1), and he resumed in a similar vein when a neck third in the April 15 Maker’s Mark Mile (G1). In his Shoemaker title defense, Smooth Like Strait was compromised by too hot a pace and wound up second.
A quick tempo is likely here as well, but with potentially a better set-up. New rider Juan Hernandez has the task of working out a trip from post 12. That might turn out well for Smooth Like Strait, considering the amount of speed to his inside, including Kentucky Pharoah. An outside stalking trip could be in store for the 6-5 favorite.
Daytona (G3) hero Bran should be prominent early in his first route attempt since arriving in California. Storm the Court, the surprising Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) champion of 2019, likewise projects a forward trip as he tries to kickstart his career back on turf.
Gregorian Chant, who’s not progressed any further sprinting, steps back up in trip again. Sword Zorro, demoted from first to third in last summer’s La Jolla (G3), could be rounding back into form in his third start off the layoff. Last year’s Wickerr runner-up, Majestic Eagle, exits a sixth in the American (G3), while Indian Peak was a fairly even fifth in the San Francisco Mile (G3). Argentine Group 1 veteran Irideo stretches out after a closing second in a turf sprint allowance. Me and Mr. C invades from Gulfstream for Mike Maker, and finds himself drawn widest of all in post 13.
Cougar II (G3) – Race 8 (8:33 p.m. ET)
Hernandez could be going for a stakes double on Sunday, for he also rides defending champion Tizamagician in the Cougar II. The Richard Mandella charge rolled as the 3-10 favorite in last summer’s edition of the 1 1/2-mile test, amid a sustained campaign. The difference this year is that Tizamagician has not raced since his second in the Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance (G2) on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. Yet the son of Tiznow has found his niche in the dirt marathon division, with a 4-2-2-0 mark at the trip, and his Hall of Fame horseman has a 21% strike rate off layoffs of greater than 90 days. Tizamagician remains the top threat as the 8-5 morning-line favorite.
Perhaps his most intriguing rivals are Dean Martini and Dicey Mo Chara. Dean Martini has back class on dirt, as the 2020 Ohio Derby (G3) winner, and he demonstrated abundant stamina with his close fourth in the San Juan Capistrano (G3) in his latest. Dicey Mo Chara is proven at this distance as the runner-up in the San Luis Rey (G3) on turf. The European import is effective on all-weather too, holding out the possibility he could be versatile enough to adapt to dirt.
Heywoods Beach, a distant third in the 2021 Cougar II, resumed with a fourth in the Shoemaker Mile. Now the Speightstown half-brother to turf star Stephanie’s Kitten goes turf-to-dirt for John Sadler, a 31% trainer in that category. Others to note are Extra Hope, Mandella’s other runner who has not won since the 2020 Native Diver (G3), and sophomore Win the Day, most recently third in the Los Alamitos Derby (G3).