Submitted by Noel Michaels on Sunday, October 16, 2016 at 12:00 AM
FIVE THINGS TO KNOW LEADING UP TO THE 2016 BREEDERS' CUP
The Breeders' Cup will be here in a few 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 Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday, Nov. 4-5.
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) California Chrome looks unstoppable
Dubai World Cup winner and all-time leading money earner California Chrome looks virtually unbeatable heading into this year's Breeders' Cup Classic. The 5-year-old former Kentucky Derby winner had an abbreviated two-race campaign in 2015, but rebounded strongly in 2016 and has never been better than he is right now, coming off back-to-back romps in the Pacific Classic and Awesome Again Stakes to push his record this year to 6-for-6.
Gone now is the mustachioed buffoon who used to own California Chrome, but staying the same is the rest of the team, including trainer Art Shurman and jockey Victor Espinosa, who've expertly guided and handled this horse throughout his 2016 campaign and have the horse ready as he'll ever be for a Breeders' Cup victory in his home state – with no shipping required. Chrome has vanquished the likes of Beholder, Hopportunity, and Dortmund all season long, has no problem with the 1¼-mile distance obviously, and gets to run the race essentially on his home track.
The competition lining up to take on California Chrome is solid, yet fails to reach his league. The top challengers are likely to be Bob Baffert's sensational Travers shocker, Arrogate, who bypassed a Breeders' Cup prep and instead will train up to the race, and Frosted, who looked dominant earlier in the 2016 campaign but perhaps has since tailed off and whose connection are now considering ducking California Chrome and entering the Dirt Mile instead. Others likely to enter include Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist, who has failed to regain his Derby and pre-Derby form, Gun Runner, who seems out-gunned in this spot, and handicap division stalwarts Effinex and recent Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Hopportunity. Those are nice horses, but seem like contenders only in the exotics, not to win.
Unless Arrogate is able to replicate his super-horse effort from the Travers, the most serious challenger to California Chrome in the Classic likely will be Santa Anita specialist Melatonin, who rolled to wins in both the Big Cap and Gold Cup at Santa Anita this year and is trained by Richard Mandella, who knows a thing or two about stealing the show in Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita. However, looking at this from a post-preps point of view, it would have been nice to see Melatonin get a final prep race under his belt for the Breeders' Cup, but he did not have one. He will train up to the race with his most recent outing being the Gold Cup victory way back on June 25. All that certainly has California Chrome looking a heckuva lot like a single to round out your Breeders' Cup Pick 3s, Pick 4s, and Pick 6s in the Classic.
2) The Europeans will make their dent. Here's where
The European contingent used to cringe at the prospect of shipping to California for the Breeders' Cup, with the long trip, climate change, and firm turf being blamed for many past failures. But the Euros have learned to adjust and have enjoyed more and more success in many recent Santa Anita Breeders' Cups, especially on the turf where you'd expect them to make their mark.
Who are the Euros to focus on this year and in what races do they have their best shots. First, let's go ahead and eliminate the Classic. Euros often try the dirt to go for the $6 million purse, and let's not forget the stunning 100-1+ upset of Arcangues here, but with California Chrome looming… it ain't happening this year.
Surprisingly, the Euro contingent also faces uphill climbs in races like the Mile against Tepin, and the Filly & Mare Turf against Lady Eli. However, if those two favorites do manage to lose at the Breeders' Cup, it will likely be to Europeans and not to North American challengers. Powerhouse Aiden O'Brien's barn, in particular, is targeting those races with Alice Springs (Mile) and Seventh Heaven (F&M Turf), who very well could at least get in the exactas.
Speaking of Aiden O'Brien, he's targeting the Turf as you would expect, and doing so with the 1-2 finishers from the Arc d'Triomphe, Found and Highland Reel. Arc winners are cursed in the Turf and Found, looking to repeat his 2015 Turf victory, may be cooked after also running on Champions Day on Oct. 15. However I expect Highland Reel to show up strong and take it to the Americans, Flintshire included.
This is looking like a year a Euro horse could win the Turf Sprint, if in fact, Limato runs in this race instead of in the Mile. Then there's the Juvenile turf races, where Euros are largely ignoring the Juvenile Turf (males) but preparing to dominate the Juvenile Fillies Turf, where they'll have a stranglehold on the race with as many as four strong contenders. Including Spain Burg and a trio of Aiden O'Brien horses, Intricately, Roly Poly, and Brave Anna.
3) Santa Anita Prep Races are Ultra-Important for the Breeders' Cup at Santa Anita
California horses tend to do extremely well in California Breeders' Cups, and Eastern horses tend to struggle. This is what history teaches us about Breeders' Cups at Santa Anita. Will this hold true again this year? Will it pay dividends to already be proven on the track or turf at Santa Anita?
Well if the Eastern/Midwestern horses are going to make a dent, at least they are going to have 13 races to do it in, and there will be several spots where those horses can and will make their dents. However, if it's a toss-up between a West coast horse and a shipper, handicappers stuck between two choices should take a long look at the local horse in more instances than not.
California Chrome has already been mentioned as a standout in the Classic, coming off his win in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita, plus other West coast races this summer. But how about the other races? Who are the best local Breeders' Cup contenders exiting local prep races?
Let's start with the Sprint, which is sort of an obvious category to look at the California horses, and there has been none better in that division lately than the red-hot Lord Nelson, who exits yet another G1 romp in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. Vyjack set a track record at one mile on the turf in the G2 City of Hope Mile, but his waters will get a lot deeper as he faces the unlikely task of repeating that effort in either the Mile of Dirt Mile in the Breeders' Cup. Nevertheless, it's tough to overlook 1:31.3, which was his clocking at Santa Anita in that Oct. 8 victory.
Miss Southern Miss merits strong consideration in the Juvenile Fillies Turf based on her last-to-first run to victory in the Surfer Girl Stakes on Oct. 10, Big Score earned an 85 Beyer figure in the Zuma Beach Stakes on Oct. 10 and thrust himself into the picture in the Juvenile Turf, and Ashleyluvssugar is a serious contender for the Turf based on his win in the John Henry Turf Championship on Oct. 2. Ambitious Brew earned an all-important stakes win on the downhill turf course in the Eddie D. to prep for a run as one of the favorites in the Turf Srpint.
From the Breeders' Cup preview card at Santa Anita on Oct. 1, in addition to California Chrome, there were other locals that stamped themselves as serious Cup contenders that day. They include Del Mar Futurity winner Klimt who was runner-up behind lone speed Gormley in the Frontrunner Stakes, Dortmund ran second to California Chrome in the Awesome Again to establish himself as a major contender in the Dirt Mile, Avenge, who will be difficult to overlook in the Filly & Mare Turf after her wire-to-wire win in the Rodeo Drive for of all people, Richard Mandella, and Noted and Quoted, and With Honors, who dueled and finished 1-2 in the Chandelier Stakes making her one of the horses to beat in the Juvenile Fillies. Finally, there's the top duo from the Zenyatta Stakes of Stellar Wind and Beholder, who will be the top contenders to try to knock-off undefeated Songbird, who prepped out East, when they all meet in the Distaff. If Songbird does somehow finally lose, perhaps they will blame the shipping out East and the lack of a local prep to be the cause of her downfall.
4) Beware Lady Eli and Runhappy in returns from long layoffs
Two of the top contenders for Breeders' Cup wins were gone for most of the year but have made their returns just in time to stamp themselves as prime contenders for Breeders' Cup wins. These horses are Lady Eli, who had two prep races since returning from a life-threatening bout of laminitis that kept her out for a year, and Runhappy, the freakish Breeders' Cup Sprint winner from 2015 who returned from his own long layoff to get one prep under his belt in time to point for new territory in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.
Just because these horses were gone much of the year, doesn't mean handicappers should forget about them.
Lady Eli was a true monstress in 2015 before going to the sidelines, and seems to have picked up right where she left off with her victory over multiple Graded stakes winner Sentiero Italia and Beverly D. winner Sea Calisi in the Flower Bowl Invitational at Belmont. She'll face tough competition in the Filly & Mare Turf, but you'd be crazy to think she's not the horse to beat.
Runhappy is a horse that will offer pretty decent odds in the Breeders' Cup, and will be overlooked by many as he tries a new division this year (Dirt Mile instead of the Sprint). Also, Runhappy had just one prep and lost it when fourth in the Ack Ack at Churchill Downs. But before you count him out, go ahead and look at the races he ran last year, and also consider that even Lady Eli lost her first prep race in her comeback from the long layoff. In truth, I believe Runhappy got what he needed in his lone Breeders' Cup prep this fall, and unless Frosted enters the Dirt Mile instead of the Classic, Runhappy should be the Dirt Mile horse to beat.
5) Tepin and Mongolian Saturday are on track for Breeders' Cup repeats
Runhappy will be attempting consecutive Breeders' Cup wins, but not in the same race. There are three other defending champions going for repeats this year in the same race and all three of them will be major players. This group of horses includes Tepin (Mile), Mongolian Saturday (Turf Sprint), and Found (Turf).
In the case of Found, he has as good a world-class turfer that's come down the pike in quite some time. The concern this year is that if he intends to repeat in the Breeders' Cup, he'll need to do it off of back-to-back runs in Europe's two biggest turf championship races, the Arc d'Triomphe and the Champion Stakes. He certainly could pull it off, but not with my money at low odds.
That leaves Tepin and Mongolian Saturday as the repeat efforts to best consider in Breeders' Cup Saturday. Tepin did lose her final prep race to a filly at Keeneland in the First Lady Stakes, but that was in an extreme runaway loose lone speed situation and the pace won't be that way in the Mile. This season, Tepin has been as dominant as ever with her win in the Woodbine Mile, as well as with her win at Ascot over Euros in the Queen Anne Staakes.
If you had mentioned a Mongolian Saturday repeat a few weeks ago, most people would have through you were crazy because the gelding had struggled mightily for much of 2016 until he returned to the U.S. to pick up right where he left off with a win in Keeneland's Turf Srpint prep, the Woodford Stakes. It might just be a case that Mongolian Saturday loves Keeneland, but nevertheless, it will take nerves of steel to leave him off your tickets in the 2016 Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint, at least in the exotics.
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 Santa Anita for what figures to be a memorable weekend at the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. Best of luck, and enjoy the races!
By Noel Michaels