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Breeders’ Cup Skinny: The Classic & the “Training Up” Dilemma

Breeders’ Cup Skinny: The Classic & the “Training Up” Dilemma

Now that the “Win & You’re In” series has nearly been completed, it’s time to start assembling the fields for the 34th Breeders’ Cup.

There will be many changes in the next three weeks leading up to the two-day world championships held on November 3 and 4 at Del Mar, but we now have a relatively clear picture of who will be lining up in the gate for the 13 races.

For all of the prospective fields for BC17, check out of our Breeders’ Cup page that we’re updating every day to give you the best info before BC.

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We’ve known for quite a while who’ll be “training up” to the BC. That dreaded phrase has been said by the game’s top trainers about their horses over the last couple of months. We’ve been unable to see these horses race for over a month (at least), which will make handicapping this year’s BC more challenging than previous years.

How do we know if these horses are ready for the biggest races of the year if we haven’t seen them race for months?

There are a few ways to approach this dilemma:

  • Criteria #1: Evaluate the horse’s success off of long layoffs
  • Criteria #2: Evaluate the trainer’s experience and success off of long layoffs bringing horses to the Breeders’ Cup
  • Criteria #3: Look at the history of the race in question and the success of horses entering off of long layoffs
  • Criteria #4: Follow workouts closely, listen to expert opinions, and watch replays

Since the most important workouts won’t occur until a week or two before the BC, we’ll delve into our layoff horse analysis by evaluating Criterion 1 to 3 above.

One size doesn’t fit all, so you’re asking for trouble if you’re making statements like, “I’m throwing out all horses that are running off of long layoffs.”

We’ll tackle each major contender entering off of a layoff of more than two months by taking a systematic approach, starting with the Classic, in this article. Future editions of the Breeders’ Cup Skinny will analyze horses running in the BC Sprint, Dirt Mile, and others, but we have a lot to cover in just the Classic, so let’s get to it!

Arrogate still looms large (Photo: Michael Spector)

Classic Layoff Star

The two biggest stars in the Classic division each enter the BC Classic off of over two-month layoffs, with Arrogate and Gun Runner most likely vying for favoritism when they enter the gate together on November 4.

Last year’s winner, Arrogate, will look to defend his title and win off of almost the same length of a rest as he did in 2016. Arrogate burst onto the scene after straddling the Grade 1 Travers field at Saratoga 71 days before his 2016 BC Classic win at Santa Anita over California Chrome. This year, he’ll have taken 78 days off from his late-closing second in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic before running again. It was recently announced that this will be Arrogate’s last race before he retires, so one of the biggest questions entering BC will be: “Will he go out a winner?”

Arrogate checks the Criteria #1 box in that he’s proven himself off of this layoff. His trainer, Bob Baffert, not only won the BC Classic off of this type of layoff last year, but pulled the same trick when American Pharoah returned off of a 64-day rest from his Travers loss to return a Grand Slam winner in the 2015 BC Classic. Baffert looks to win this race for an unprecedented fourth year in a row, as Bayern won the 2014 BC Classic off of a 43 day respite following a win in the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby.

Arrogate has shown that he can win off a layoff. Baffert has done it three years in a row. The recent history of the BC Classic points to these types winning, so all three criteria are met.

Now, Arrogate just has to prove that he doesn’t hate the Del Mar surface like he showed when losing both the Grade 2 San Diego and the Pacific Classic over the summer. Even if Arrogate doesn’t truly hate the Del Mar surface, he may be disadvantaged chasing down front runners with a very short stretch, like he was when he ran out of racetrack trying to chase down Collected in the Pacific Classic. We’ll get clues when training at Del Mar starts on October 22 and how early Baffert gets the 2016 Horse of the Year to where “The Turf Meets the Surf.”

Gun Runner made the Grade 1 Woodward look like a workout (Photo: NYRA-Annette Jasko)

Put Down Your Gun

After Gun Runner romped in the Grade 1 Whitney at Saratoga to start August, Hall-of-Fame trainer Steve Asmussen had a choice: either wait until the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup for Gun Runner to get in his final BC Classic prep, or else run again at Saratoga to end the meet in the Grade 1 Woodward. Asmussen chose the latter, and Gun Runner romped again. Both of his Saratoga wins were at 1 1/8 miles, and with Asmussen’s decision, Gun Runner didn’t have to stretch out to the 1 1/4 miles of the JCGC.

Because of this, Gun Runner is fresh. Even though he showed no signs of fatigue, romping in hand under regular rider Florent Geroux both times, the biggest question facing Gun Runner is if he’s a true 1 1/4-mile horse. In three career starts at that distance, he was caught in the 2016 Kentucky Derby to get third, couldn’t keep up with Arrogate from an outside post in the 2016 Travers, finishing third, and was caught late by Arrogate in the 2017 Dubai World Cup, placing second.

Looking at Criteria #1 for Gun Runner, he showed no issues firing fresh off of a three-month layoff to start the year, winning the Grade 3 Razorback at Oaklawn in February. When he returned from Dubai, he crushed the Grade 1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs in mid-June off of another three-month layoff. Still, neither one of those fields can hold a candle to this BC Classic cast, so he’ll need to prove that he can fire fresh against this caliber of horses.

For Criteria #2, when Asmussen won his only BC Classic in 2007 with Curlin at Monmouth Park, he entered off of a traditional four-week layoff from a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. When Untapable won the 2014 BC Distaff, she had a six-week layoff from her Grade 1 Cottilion win, so that isn’t that far of a stretch from the eight weeks that Gun Runner has had off before the BC. Asmussen is known to put his horses though maintenance breezes and it’s tough to doubt that the Hall-of-Famer will have his top horse primed to fire a big race.

All reports are that Gun Runner has acclimated himself well to the west coast, as he’s already been training at Santa Anita for the last couple of weeks, but since he can’t start training at Del Mar until October 22, it’s still unknown how he’ll take to that track’s dirt surface.

I think that Gun Runner is awesome, and since he bit me in early July after arriving at Saratoga, he’s been a super horse, so I’m not going to bet against him with both fists. Still, as the likely BC Classic favorite, there are more questions surrounding him than I prefer to see when betting a low-priced favorite in the year’s biggest race.

Not to make this about me, but Gun Runner has had super powers since biting me in July (Photo: Frank Panucci)

Calm, Cool and Collected

The winner of the aforementioned Pacific Classic, Collected, has been sitting around in his stall waiting for the BC Classic, too.

A perfect four-for-four in 2017, the Baffert trainee went to the lead in the Pacific Classic and never looked back, holding off his late-charging stablemate, Arrogate, to win his first Grade 1.

Baffert toyed with the idea of running Collected in the Grade 1 Awesome Again on September 30 but opted to skip the race and train up to the BC Classic instead. Collected will run in his first BC off of a 78-day layoff.

Looking at Criteria #1, Collected won the Pacific Classic off of a two-month layoff from his Grade 3 Precisionist win at Santa Anita in June. His previous win in the Grade 2 Californian was also two months prior in April, so it seems like the two-month spacing between races has worked well for him. Still, the spacing between the Pacific to BC Classic is pushing almost three months.

The bigger question entering the BC Classic is if Collected is truly a 1 1/4-mile horse. Yes, he won the Pacific Classic at this distance, which should be enough to prove that he can excel at this distance, but he got away with moderate fractions on a relatively easy lead that day, even though a very good horse in Accelerate trailed him closely early. He’ll have company on the front end in the Classic with Gun Runner stalking this time.

Collected beat Arrogate in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, but can he do it again? (Photo: Melanie Martines)

Training at Calder

Gunnevera rounds out the four horses training up to the BC Classic off of more than a two-month layoff.

After rallying for a good second-place finish in this year’s Grade 1 Travers behind the Baffert-trained West Coast, Gunnevera will be given 71 days off before the BC Classic.

Gunnevera won the $100,000 Tangelo at Gulfstream Park off of a similar layoff of over two months after running fifth in the Preakness, so he has the experience. He beat four horses that I’ve never heard of in the Tangelo, though, so to say that field doesn’t stack up to the BC Classic is the understatement of the year. He ran a good second to start 2017 in the Grade 2 Holy Bull after taking almost three months off, so that may be more indicative of his ability off the bench against a competitive field.

His trainer, Antonio Sano, is bringing his first horse ever to the BC, so he’ll need to prove that he can have his best horse fire against the best competition that he’s ever faced. I’ve been a fan of Gunnevera since I saw him win the Grade 2 Saratoga Special as a juvenile, but this is a big challenge for the son of Dialed In.

Gunnevera is training at Gulfstream Park West (the former Calder Race Course), which has been notoriously known as a deep, tiring track, helping horses excel over fast tracks like what will be expected at Del Mar. Gunnevera will need all of that extra foundation to have a chance on BC day.

Gunnevera won the Tangelo off of a similar layoff, but Arrogate & Gun Runner weren’t in that field (Photo: Leslie Martin)

Recency Reigns

The aforementioned West Coast comes into the BC Classic off of a strong win in mid-September’s Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby. The last time that Baffert won the Pennsylvania Derby, he returned to win the BC Classic with Bayern, so this 43-day layoff should fit just right.

The other BC Classic contenders all enter off off four- and five-week layoffs. Awesome Again winner Mubtaahij, who won that race on September 30, is a likely entry for Baffert, bringing his total possible horses in the Classic field to four. The late-charging third-place finisher in the Awesome Again, Win the Space, may enter the Classic for trainer George Papaprodromou.

Multiple graded stakes winner Keen Ice and developing 3-year-old Pavel are each likely to enter the BC Classic off a four-week rest after running second and third, respectively, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The winner of that race, the New York-bred Diversify, is only possible to enter the BC Classic after winning in his first-ever graded stakes try for trainer Rick Violette in gate-to-wire fashion.

The Breeders’ Cup website also lists War Decree as a contender  for the Classic. World-class trainer Aidan O’Brien has been known to ship his turf stars to the U.S. and take a shot in the Classic, so it wouldn’t be surprising to see an O’Brien entry here. If O’Brien wants to take his best shot, it wouldn’t be shocking to see him even run 2016 BC Turf winner, Highland Reel, in the BC Classic.

Classic Pace Projection

With a relatively small field of 8 to 10 horses expected in this year’s BC Classic, it’ll be interesting to see if horses like Gun Runner and Collected are keen to run fast early off a freshening. The biggest effect that these layoffs might have is on the expected pace of the BC Classic, so we’ll see how the workouts go and take it from there. There’s no grand, all-encompassing statement to be made about these layoff horses, but we’ll just take each situation individually as we continue to analyze the field.

For all my crazy thoughts as we draw closer to #BC17, please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim.

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