Since March, 3-year-old turf standouts Rydilluc and Charming Kitten have been on parallel schedules, clashing four times beginning with their first confrontation in the Grade 3 Palm Beach Stakes.
Except for a wildcard run by Charming Kitten in the Kentucky Derby, the two also have faced each other in the Grade 1 Blue Grass Stakes, the inaugural Penn Mile and the Grade 2 Virginia Derby.
On Friday, the rivalry resumes, when Rydilluc and Charming Kitten meet again in the 29th running of the Grade 2, $200,000 National Museum of Racing Hall of Fame, a 1/16-mile race on the turf at Saratoga Race Course.
The Hall of Fame, restricted to 3-year-olds, drew a field of six with Ken and Sarah Ramsey's Charming Kitten and Get in Line coupled as an entry and co-favored at 9-5 on the morning line. Battier was entered Main Track Only.
Rydilluc, a son of Medaglia d'Oro trained by Gary Contessa, won his first two meetings on turf with Charming Kitten, taking the Palm Beach by 3½ lengths and the Penn Mile by three-quarters of a length, as Charming Kitten checked in second both times. In between those races, they met in the Grade 1 Blue Grass on the Keeneland Polytrack, and Rydilluc led deep into the stretch before fading to fourth while Charming Kitten rallied from 11th to finish third, beaten a half-length by winner Java's War.
In their most recent battle, Charming Kitten finished second by a head to War Dancer in the Virginia Derby, while the favored Rydilluc appeared to struggle over the Colonial Downs turf course labeled good and faded to eighth.
"I think that horse and my horse probably know each other," Contessa said. "They probably talk to each other going down the backside. I mean, they've run against each other so many times."
Rydilluc, 2-1 on the morning line, was undefeated on grass heading into the Virginia Derby, and Contessa has lost none of his faith in the colt. He was thrilled with a final tune-up of five furlongs in 59.87 seconds over the Oklahoma training track turf August 2.
"I still think Rydilluc is a sensational horse, and he's worked fantastic," Contessa said. "I believe we ran poorly because the turf was soft [at Colonial Downs], and my horse has trained very well since. His work the other day was poetry in motion. He looked phenomenal, and I had the first quarter in 25 [seconds] flat and the last quarter in 22 4/5. [Jockey Edgar] Prado barely moved on him. The horse is certainly coming into the race ready, and we've just got to come out and do it."
Rydilluc has been a prominent pace presence in all his starts, and he figures to be again in the Hall of Fame with only the recently claimed Get in Line for the Ramseys and trainer Michael Maker showing a history of front-running.
Get in Line, 2-for-3 lifetime on turf, exits a $50,000 claiming race in which he led for nearly a half-mile before tiring to fifth. If he is able to keep Rydilluc from controlling the pace of the race, it could benefit his entry-mate, Charming Kitten, who prefers to come from off the pace.
Charming Kitten has won a single stakes race, the Kitten's Joy, named after his sire, on January 20 at Gulfstream Park. Yet, he has consistently delivered powerful performances against top 3-year-old turf company, particularly in his most recent two starts, the Penn Mile and Virginia Derby.
"He's run really well, and we were just a little unfortunate the other day [in the Virginia Derby, July 13] when he just missed," said trainer Todd Pletcher. "He consistently shows up and runs hard every time. It's just been unfortunate. I think he's coming up to this in really good order."
Pletcher has another Hall of Fame entrant in Notacatbutallama, 4-1, who has won back-to-back stakes races, the Grade 3 Hill Prince on June 5 and the Solar Splendor on July 13, both at Belmont Park.
The son of Harlan's Holiday has won four stakes races and run well at Saratoga, having finished second in his debut before breaking his maiden last August by 6 ½ lengths on the grass. He finished fourth, beaten three lengths by Balance the Books in the Grade 2 With Anticipation, just 10 days after that. Charming Kitten finished third in the With Anticipation.
"He showed a lot of talent right from the beginning," Pletcher said. "He just seems to keep getting better and better. The thing that seems a little different with him this year as opposed to last is that he's learned to polish off a race. He's had a tendency to make the lead at times and idle a little bit, but now he's beginning to finish up well."
Balance the Books, 7-2, from the powerful stable of Mechanicville, N.Y. native Chad Brown, returns to Saratoga coming off a third in the Solar Splendor. He won the With Anticipation and the Grade 3 Bourbon at Keeneland before finishing third in the Grade 1 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
He made two starts on the Polytrack to open his 3-year-old campaign, an 11th-place finish in the Grade 3 Spiral and a sixth in the Blue Grass, before returning to turf.
"He proved he liked the turf course here last year," Brown said. "It seems like he's rounding back into form, so we're going to give him a shot in here."
Darley Stable's North Slope, 8-1, trained by Kiaran McLaughlin, finished fifth in the Solar Splendor, his first stakes try, after between squeezed exiting the starting gate. Two races prior, he hit the gate while coming out.
"The next time he won by 3½ lengths," McLaughlin said. "We're putting blinkers on, and he's a really nice horse. He's doing great and he belongs, and he's working lights out."