On opposite sides of the country, Lava Man and Bernardini each did what they were supposed to do Saturday, setting a summit meeting on Nov. 4 in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
Something will have to give when Lava Man, the 5-year-old with humble beginnings, and Bernardini, the 3-year-old with royal breeding, get together in the $5 million Classic in less than four weeks.
Much to the delight of many at Santa Anita, California-bred Lava Man, who began his career in a $12,500 maiden claimer at Stockton, won his seventh in a row, defeating Brother Derek and five others in the $500,000 Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap.
Bernardini, who will be favored on Nov. 4, won his sixth in succession, cruising to another victory earlier Saturday in the $712,500 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.
Easy wins are nothing new for the 3-year-old son of A.P. Indy, who is owned by Darley Stable and trained by Tom Albertrani. After finishing fourth in his sprint debut on Jan. 7 at Gulfstream Park, Bernardini hasn't been challenged in any race since. Jockey Javier Castellano was like a statue in the saddle again Saturday as Bernardini coasted home by 6 3/4 lengths in 2:01.02 for the 1 1/4 miles.
In winning for the 14th time in 34 starts, Lava Man quickly made the lead in the Grade II stakes race under Corey Nakatani, set moderate fractions, kicked away around the turn and went on to a comfortable 2 1/4 -length score. He ran the 1 1/8 miles in 1:48.15.
Having conquered all comers in his home state, Lava Man will try to show he can win on the road, something he failed to do in 2005. He was beaten a combined 62 3/4 lengths in two races in New York and Japan last year.
"We're very proud and excited to take on horses outside California again," said trainer Doug O'Neill, whose Great Hunter, a 2-year-old Aptitude colt, won the $500,000 Lane's End Breeders' Futurity at Keeneland. "Nothing against the horses he has been running against here, but this is a new challenge and we've got to prove ourselves."
Brother Derek, who ran his best race since taking the Santa Anita Derby in April, and 2005 Kentucky Derby winner Giacomo, who finished third, are likely to join Lava Man in the Classic.
Aragorn, the country's top miler on turf, won his fourth in a row, taking the $249,000 Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile at Santa Anita. Trained by Neil Drysdale, Aragorn won by one length as the 1-5 favorite in 1:32.87 and is headed for the Breeders' Cup Mile.
"He's just a tremendous horse, a tremendous athlete," said Nakatani, his jockey. "I think this is just about what he needed. Neil was happy with it and so am I. We're looking forward to a month from now."
Form also prevailed in the other graded stakes at Santa Anita, as 2-5 favorite Bordonaro won the $250,000 Ancient Title Breeders' Cup. The 5-year-old Memo gelding led throughout under Patrick Valenzuela, winning in 1:07.93 for the six furlongs.
In the other Grade I races at Belmont Park, favored Fleet Indian won her eighth in a row by edging Balletto to win the $600,000 Beldame, Honey Ryder out-finished Film Maker to win the $600,000 Flower Bowl Invitational, Henny Hughes was dominant for his third victory in succession when he easily took the $400,000 Vosburgh and odds-on choice English Channel rolled to an easy victory in the $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.
At Keeneland, Kelly's Landing, a 12-1 outsider, won the $250,000 Phoenix Breeders' Cup Stakes and Aussie Rules, a 9-2 shot, closed strongly to win the $600,000 Shadwell Turf Mile.