It’s time to hit the books! We have six weeks to study up for our final exam of 2017.
The biggest handicapping puzzle of the year comes together on November 3 and 4 at Del Mar when the 34th Breeders’ Cup will be held, with $28 million in purse money up for grabs over 13 lucky races.
Will YOU be ready?
This weekly six-part column called “The Breeders’ Cup Skinny” will prepare you each step of the way to make sure that you’re ready to score at this year’s BC.
This week and next week, we’ll hit the highlights of the last set of “Win & You’re In Races” being held across both North America and Europe.
We’ll review the big-name horses, like Arrogate and Gun Runner, that are “Training up to the Breeders’ Cup” in Part 3.
Part 4 will encapsulate the European runners that could make a splash at Del Mar.
Part 5 will review the pre-entries one week before the BC and we’ll also review wagering strategies a few days before #BC17.
Now that we have a course syllabus, let Professor Slim school you in the ways of the BC, starting with this weekend’s “Win & You’re In” races at Santa Anita and Belmont.
Not So Awesome
Let me start my west coast preview by admitting that my east coast bias has bitten me in the ass on more than one occasion come BC weekend, but I won’t let my east coast bias shroud my non-objective handicapping this year.
The California horses have a home-field advantage this year with the BC at Del Mar, and horses that have shown an affinity for the quirky Del Mar surface will have an upper hand. Let’s focus on horses that could excel at Del Mar as we preview the five “Win & You’re In” races held at Santa Anita this Saturday.
The headliner on the card, an automatic qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, is the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes, run on the Santa Anita dirt at 1 1/8 miles.
Trainer Bob Baffert will train his top two Classic contenders, Collected and Arrogate, up to the BC and brings Cupid into the Awesome Again riding a two-race win streak. Undefeated in his only two starts of 2017, Cupid won the non-graded Harry F. Brubaker at Del Mar in mid-August in his last race. Off an eight-month layoff, Cupid finally gained Grade 1 glory by winning the Santa Anita Gold Cup to end May. In both races, the 4-year old showed a new-found ability to settle early, stalk, and take over late to win.
A last second addition to the Awesome Again is Group Stakes winner Mubtaahij, who will be making his first start for his new trainer Baffert. Last seen running fourth in the Group 1 Dubai World Cup, Mubtaahij was training too well to keep on the bench for Baffert and brings a great deal of back class having raced in the United States in the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Belmont Stakes. Last year he had three major stakes races in the U.S. for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin.
Multiple Grade 1 winner Dortmund entering the Awesome Again is the biggest mystery in the race right now. Retired in April after starting 2017 in a new barn and running two lackluster races, Dortmund was later un-retired and began training again in July. Reports are that the mammoth son of Big Brown is even stronger than ever and that the respite has done him well, but he has a lot to prove after flopping as the odds-on favorite in the 2016 BC Dirt Mile, finishing a distant fourth. He won 2015’s Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at this distance, but that was many moons ago.
Cupid, Mubtaahij and Dortmund will need to run well to warrant starts in the Breeders’ Cup.
UPDATE: DORTMUND WILL SCRATCH FROM THIS RACE
One horse targeting the BC no matter how he runs in the Awesome Again is Midnight Storm. Trainer Phil D’Amato will likely enter his multi-surface veteran in the Turf Mile if things don’t go well in the Awesome Again, but he could target the Dirt Mile if he excels on Saturday. Midnight Storm finished third in the BC Turf Mile last year and will be a pace presence in any race that he enters.
Breaking Lucky, Curlin Rules, Donworth, and Win the Space would all need to put in a huge surprise performance to have a chance to get the automatic invite to the BC Classic.
Zenyatta Yada Yada
With Baffert’s Vale Dori and champion Stellar Wind both skipping the Grade 1 Zenyatta, the top two mares on the west coast will not be in one of the biggest preps for the BC Distaff.
Stellar Wind is conspicuously absent from defending her 2016 title in this race. Trainer John Sandler will “train up to the Breeders’ Cup” with Stellar Wind; we’ll dive deeper into why in Part 3 of our BC Skinny series on layoff horses.
For now, we’ll focus on Sadler’s back-up plan, Shenandoah Queen, from Stellar Wind’s owners, Hronis Racing. A winner last time out at Del Mar in a non-graded stakes, she has a lot to prove at this class level.
The wildcard in the Zenyatta is Paradise Woods. Can she run back to the freakshow performance she displayed last time over this course when she rolled to victory in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks by 11 3/4 lengths? That performance made her the even-money favorite in the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks, where she blazed early fractions in the slop and faded badly to finish 11th. She was given a rest after that taxing performance and was fully checked and scanned. Her return sixth-place finish in the Grade 3 Torrey Pines can be excused because she stumbled at the start, but she needs to prove that her SA Oaks romp wasn’t a fluke.
Faithfully, Midnight Toast, Rockport Babe and Motown Lady each need to freak in the Zenyatta in order to get on the BC Distaff map.
A Ride on Rodeo Drive
Avenge and Goodyearforroses, who ran second and third behind division leader Lady Eli in the Grade 1 Gamely back in June, lead the contenders in the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive looking to advance to the BC Filly & Mare Turf.
Beau Recall will try elders for the first time coming out of a nose loss in the Grade 1 Del Mar Oaks.
Amboseli, Decked Out, Frenzified, Goldy Espony, Kiss Me Now, Majestic Heat, and Responsibleforlove will fill out the gate.
West Coast Juveniles
The juvenile fillies division will hopefully come into clearer focus after the Grade 1 Chandelier at Santa Anita on Saturday. The undefeated Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante winner Moonshine Memories headlines this race and will be the likely favorite for the BC Juvenile Fillies if she wins.
Baffert’s Just A Smidge will look to bounce back after a lackluster fifth in the Debutante. She ran an impressive maiden-breaker at Del Mar earlier in the meet. Alluring Star is Baffert’s other entry and comes in off of a debut win to end the Del Mar meet.
Dancing Belle, Piedi Bianchi, Super Good, Terra’s Angel, and Holy Diver will also contend the Chandelier.
The juvenile males will take center stage in the Grade 1 Frontrunner, highlighted by a rematch of Bolt d’Oro vs. Zatter. Bolt d’Oro chased down Zatter late to win the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity, which made these two the top early choices to win the BC Juvenile.
Ayacara, City Plan, Continental Divide, Solomini, Tatters to Riches, Take the One O One, and Texas Wedge complete the Frontrunner lineup.
Belmont Super Saturday
Belmont Park will have huge back-to-back weekends full of BC “Win & You’re In” races, and this Saturday features two of them.
The Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, a “Win & You’re In” for the BC Turf, features a star-studded cast.
Top 3-year-old turf star Oscar Performance will compete against elders and stretch out to 1 1/2 miles, both for the first time in his career, so he has big questions to answer. Looking for his fourth straight win for trainer Brian Lynch, the 2016 BC Juvenile Turf champ captured back-to-back Grade 1s in his last two races, the Belmont Derby and the Secretariat. He’s done his best running when on the front end in those races, but he’ll get company from top-notch older horses here, such as the trio from trainer Chad Brown.
Brown is loaded for the Hirsch, just like he usually is in any New York-based graded turf stakes. Beach Patrol will join stablemates Money Multiplier and Fanciful Angel in the Hirsch starting gate.
Beach Patrol rides his Grade 1 Arlington Million victory into the Hirsch and should be involved early and often, but he’s stretching out to a 1 1/2-mile distance that he’s never run before.
Fanciful Angel finished second in the Arlington Million, his first career U.S. start. After the race, his connections moved him to the Brown barn in a total “If you can’t beat them, join them” move.
Money Multiplier finishes off the Brown trio and will try to bounce back after his crushing 1/2-length defeat by Sadler’s Joy in August’s Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga. Sadler’s Joy is also entered into the Hirsch for trainer Tom Albetrani and already has his expenses to Del Mar paid. He qualified for the BC Turf after his late-charging win in the Sword Dancer.
Trainer Dermot Weld is bringing both Zhukova and The Grey Gatsby to Belmont from Europe. The mare, Zhukova, will wait until the Grade 1 Flower Bowl on October 7 to run, but Weld was not afraid to race her against males. She was successful doing so when she won the Grade 1 Man O’ War over a yielding Belmont turf back in May. The Grey Gatsby is a classy 6-year-old turf male that’s raced against the best turfers in Europe for a few years now.
Channel Maker (for trainer Bill Mott), Converge, Tricked Up (both for trainer Naipaul Chatterpaul), Ascend, and Mekhtaal (both for trainer Graham Motion) fill out a very intriguing field for the Hirsch.
New York Sprinters Look to Del Mar
The Grade 1 Vosburgh winner will earn an all expenses paid trip to contest the BC Sprint. This year’s edition brings together an interesting group of newcomers versus hardened veterans.
El Deal absolutely freaked on the front end while winning the Grade 1 Vanderbilt at Saratoga at the end of July. His trainer, Jorge Navarro, has recently faced “juicing” allegations and fines that put that performance under the spotlight. Will he return with a similar freak show at Belmont in the Vosburgh?
The 7-year-old Green Gratto, with 57 lifetime starts, will look to keep El Deal company on the front end, but he couldn’t keep up with him in the Vanderbilt.
Additional speed comes from a pair of 3-year-olds, Mr. Crow and Takaful, that can mix it up on the front end.
Trainer Todd Pletcher’s Mr. Crow won his last two starts emphatically by over 17 lengths and gets a class test in his first stakes try.
Takaful ran a strong second in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens last out and has shown maturity in his last two starts after previously having been a tough horse for trainer Kiaran McLaughlin to handle.
Others entered for the race include Celtic Chaos, Stallwalkin’ Dude and Weekend Hideaway.
For all of your Breeders’ Cup news and views, please follow me on Twitter @SaratogaSlim as I prepare for the cross-country trip to attend my first Breeders’ Cup!