Submitted by Noel Michaels on Wednesday, October 14, 2015 at 12:00 AM
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW LEADING UP TO THE 2015 BREEDERS’ CUP
By Noel Michaels
The Breeders’ Cup will be here in a couple weeks and the all-important Breeders’ Cup Challenge prep race season is over, with key races at tracks like Belmont, Keeneland, and Santa Anita all setting the stage for the two-day Breeders’ Cup extravaganza to be run at for the first time ever at Keeneland on Friday and Saturday, Oct. 30-31.
Now that the Breeders’ Cup preps are in the books, let’s take a look at five important things handicappers have learned from the key stakes races that have been run over the last few months leading up to Thoroughbred racing’s championship days.
1) No Prep Was the Best Prep for American Pharoah
Triple Crown winner American Pharoah will make his final career start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which figures to be a terrific race this year with the sensational Beholder facing the boys, and tough older horses like Honor Code and the Belmont Park-loving Tonalist. That being said, make no mistake, American Pharoah is still the horse to beat.
American Pharoah has raced twice since his Belmont Stakes victory sealed racing’s first Triple Crown in 37 years, and that is the perfect amount of work as he heads toward his toughest test yet in the Classic. Unlike most 3-year-olds, American Pharoah breezed through the Triple Crown grind unscathed, as he proved when winning Monmouth’s Haskell Invitational handily. His next logical stop was at Saratoga - the Graveyard of Favorites - for the Mid-Summer Derby, the Travers Stakes, which became the only blemish on his record so far in 2015.
When losing to the far inferior Keen Ice in the Travers, American Pharoah showed he was merely mortal, while at the same time opening the door to other realistic contenders heading into the Breeders’ Cup Classic. At the same time Pharoah was faltering, another horse was making her presence felt in a big way. Beholder, the multiple Grade 1 stakes-winning mare trained by Richard Mandella made waves in a big way, first by destroying males at Del Mar in the $1 million Pacific Classic and then by keeping her career-best form intact by crushing fillies and mares in the Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita. Those wins, along with American Pharoah’s loss, could be enough to make Beholder the co-favorite heading into Lexington on Oct. 31.
But before you bury a Triple Crown winner prematurely, keep in mind a couple of key factors regarding American Pharoah. First, even though some would argue that a horse the ilk of American Pharoah should never lose to a horse the likes of Keen Ice under any circumstances, American Pharoah did run the entire Travers down inside on a totally dead rail that day at Saratoga, while Keen Ice enjoyed a perfect outside plodding and rambling trip. Jockey Victor Espinosa made a giant mistake that day by not riding any of the prior races to understand how the track was playing, and it cost him. And second, if the grind of a demanding season did really start to catch up with American Pharoah in the stretch of the Travers, then the layoff between the Travers and the Classic will be just what the doctor ordered for the Triple Crown hero before he rides off into the sunset.
Exiting the Travers, American Pharoah will have nine weeks to rest, prepare, and train up to the Classic. This is the perfect recipe to get him fresh and where he needs to be to go out in style as a Breeders’ Cup-winning champion. Now if someone could only get a memo to Victor Espinoza, to get on board some horses on the Saturday undercard, in order to understand exactly what to do, and what not to do, in order to win that day at Keeneland.
2) This Year’s Eastern 2-year-old Male Division was Weak, Western Juveniles are Strong
This has been an exceptionally weak year for eastern-based juvenile colts and geldings, with all the best 2-year-olds outside of California all turning out to be fillies so far in 2015. There was not one single dominant 2-year-old male to emerge from the Saratoga meet this season, either in a stakes race or in one of the many fertile maiden races, which usually produce racing’s next crop of budding superstars.
The eastern juvenile division was so weak, in fact, that a second-string Doug O’Neill California shipper named Ralis invaded and won the Hopeful, and the Champagne Stakes at Belmont was won by the mediocre-looking maiden victor Greenpointcrusader. The reason I call Greenpointcrusader mediocre, at best, is because he wasn’t even close to the best-looking male maiden winner to emerge from Saratoga, and probably wasn’t even the second or third best. Those horses, it could be argued, were Championofthenile, Sudden Surprise, and Get Jets, and those three horses . . . wait for it, wait for it . . . are all New York breds.
Keeneland’s main juvenile prep, the Breeders’ Futurity, figures to play an important role his year as the local prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and that race did yield a couple of serious BC Juvenile contenders in first- and second-place finishers Brody’s Cause and Exaggerator, who exited a win in the Saratoga Special. While it is certainly good to see a good race over the track for those two contenders, neither them, nor the New York contingent from the Champagne seems to be nearly as good as the top California-prepped contender, Nyquist, who just keeps on winning and did so again in the Frontrunner Stakes at Santa Anita.
Besides Nyquist, I also recommend taking a long hard look at the Frontrunner’s runner-up, Swipe, in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. Swipe came-up less than a length short of Nyquist in the Frontrunner while five lengths clear of the third horse, despite chasing Nyquist through moderate fractions and ending up trying to rally through on the rail in the stretch on a questionable inside at Santa Anita. If Swipe had gone outside, he very well might have been able to catch Nyquist. As it stands instead, Nyquist will be the one to beat in the BC Juvenile, and the horse with the best chance at an upset will be Swipe, not any one of the contenders from Belmont, Keeneland, or anywhere else.
3) The Keeneland Prep Races are Ultra-Important for the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland
The Polytrack era at Keeneland officially came to an end last year with the re-installation of a traditional dirt main track racing surface at the historic Lexington, Kentucky oval. This will have a major impact on 2015 Breeders’ Cup handicapping, because all of Keeneland’s Polytrack prep races that basically meant nothing as preps for dirt track Breeders’ Cups run between 2007-2013 will once again have major importance in terms of sending legitimate contenders to pretty much every one of the Breeders’ Cup dirt races.
Throw in the fact that local prep races tend to mean more anyway, and you have the makings of several Keeneland prep race graduates being able to cash-in at the 2015 Breeders’ Cup.
With Keeneland hosting the Breeders’ Cup, there was actual real incentive for many of the best dirt horses in the land to prep at Keeneland this year for the first time in nearly a decade. Real dirt contenders based in Kentucky finally got a chance to stay home and run in Keeneland’s preps, thereby again making them highly relevant to handicappers on Breeders’ Cup weekend.
The top horses exiting Keeneland’s key Breeders’ Cup Challenge prep races will again be forces to reckon with in the championship dirt races. Those horses who did stick around to run in the Keeneland Polytrack preps, like the Spinster, the Phoenix, the TCA, the Alcibiades, and the aforementioned Breeders’ Futurity, will be amongst the best contenders in the corresponding Breeders’ Cup race divisions on dirt this year.
This means that you must heavily consider the first four finishers from the Spinster - Got Lucky, Untapable, Yahilwa, and Frivolous - to be amongst the top contenders in the Distaff, the first- and third-place finishers from the Phoenix - Runhappy and Work All Week - to be the top contenders in the Sprint, and the first- and third-place finishers in the TCA - Fioretti and Judy the Beauty - to be top contenders in the Filly & Mare Sprint.
I am tempering my enthusiasm bit in the Juvenile dirt divisions, because I think the best males this year are coming from California (see above), and there are so many great Juvenile Fillies contenders this season coming from both coasts, but none of them prepped in the Alcibiades.
4) Besides the Classic, the Race of the Year is the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies
Speaking of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, I think the race is setting-up to be an instant classic this season. As mentioned above, this wasn’t a banner year for 2-year-old males at Saratoga, but that was not the case for the fillies. Two sensational 2-year-old fillies made big splashes at Saratoga this season, and those two horses, Rachel’s Valentina and Tap To It, might not even be the favorites in the Breeders’ Cup!
The favoritism in the 2015 Juvenile Fillies is likely to go to the west coast-based winner of Santa Anita’s Chadelier Stakes, Songbird, who keeps improving and reeling off victories while looking unbeatable for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer.
With all respect to very, very good 2-year-old fillies such as Frizette winner Nickname, and Alcibiades winner and runner-up Gomo and Dothraki Queen, those horses are all running for fourth, at best, at this Breeders’ Cup.
The reason is not because those horses aren’t capable, but rather, it’s because they just can’t measure up at this stage in their careers, to the unbelievably talented top trio. Rachel’s Valentina, the second foal of champion Rachel Alexandra, has lived up to the hype and looked special doing it when winning the Spinaway at Saratoga, and Tap To It, who narrowly lost to Rachel’s Valentina in the Spinaway, was equally or perhaps more impressive in defeat due to a tough trip that may have cost her the race.
When Songbird, Rachel’s Valentina, and Tap To It get ready to rumble in the Juvenile Fillies, it will be the highlight of the 2015 Breeders’ Cup leading up to the featured event in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
5) The Stage is Set for European Grass Domination
In 2014, the headline story of North American turf racing was the unbeatble Main Sequence, who reeled off four straight Grade 1 wins in the most important U.S. turf races to uphold the pride of North American turf racing at the Breeders’ Cup by winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf. With Main Sequence out of the picture this year, however, and with the retirement of multiple Breeders’ Cup Mile winner Wise Dan, the 2015 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland could prove to be an almost complete white-wash for the North American horses as better and more accomplished European rivals fly into Lexington poised to pounce on all, or most, of the top prizes on the grass.
With the exception of the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, and perhaps Harmonize in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf, European grass invaders seem poised for a clean sweep of the Breeders’ Cup grass races at Keeneland, with talented major contenders pointing to the Turf, Mile, Juvenile Turf, and Filly & Mare Turf races against seemingly overmatched local competition in all of those spots, with no North American standouts on the grass this year.
Making things even better for the Euro invaders is the fact that Keeneland is one of the best, easiest, and most convenient places for European horses to reach in North American racing, with a climate that is also suitable for their horses, who prefer cooler temperatures and less-than rock-hard course conditions. The Lexington airport is literally right across the Pike from Keeneland, and the horse charters will be arriving filled with horses ready to take down all of the top turf prizes at the 2015 Breeders’ Cup.
Consider these five handicapping tips as you get ready for the best days of the year in horseracing, as the best horses in the world in every division descend on the Blue Grass for what figures to be a memorable weekend as Keeneland hosts the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships for the very first time. Best of luck, and enjoy the races!