While Mike “Saratoga Slim” Spector and Curtis “Magic” Kalleward have a healthy respect for each other as writers and handicappers, that all goes out the window when it comes to their coastal biases. Leading up to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup, these two will debate which coast is better depending on the division.
Slim represents the east coast and Magic represents the west coast, so they’ll dive into all of the big Breeders’ Cup races to help you get ready and show how biased they really are towards their favorite local horses.
Today in the final edition of this series, they debate the Classic division.
Why the East is Beast
Slim: Before I flex my east coast bias for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, I need to stress the importance of having money left in your budget for this final race. No matter who you like, if you find a way to get it right and hit the exacta, trifecta, or superfecta, then you will be paid handsomely. This is one of the most wide-open Classics in recent memory, so believe in your opinions and stand for your convictions! I recommend having at least 20% of your original budget left to bet this race individually.
Saying all of that, I have a strong conviction in this race and will not steer away from my belief that the world’s best dirt routers are on the east coast, and that’s where I’ll focus my wagering dollars.
My main plays will focus on Catholic Boy to win while mixing in Mind Your Biscuits and Yoshida on all plays. This is the ultimate east coast/Saratoga play: targeting the Grade 1 Travers Stakes winner, the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes runner-up, and the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes victor.
If you read any of my articles that covered Saratoga this summer, then you know that I am enamored with Catholic Boy. His willingness to gut out wins at the highest level on both turf and dirt, along with his never-give-up attitude, are reasons why I absolutely adore this colt. He did something that you hardly ever see when, after Analyze It headed him in the stretch, he came back to win both the Grade 3 Pennine Ridge Stakes and the Grade 1 Belmont Derby. Yet it was his stalk-and-pounce Travers victory over Mendelssohn, where he romped late by 4 widening lengths, that was one of the most impressive wins that I’ve ever witnessed live. And, yes, that was me screaming, “You’re my booooy, Catholic Booooy!” as I ran up the Saratoga outer rail and into the winner’s circle to congratulate trainer Jonathan Thomas.
They say that you’re not supposed to root if you’re in the press, but Thomas’ story is just too difficult not to root for.
The Travers win earned Catholic Boy his highest career Beyer figure (104), and that makes him competitive here if he can take another step forward. I do realize that he’ll need to come off of a two-month layoff from the Travers to fire an even bigger shot in the Classic, while also stepping up against elders for the first time, but I think he’s up for the test.
My biggest concern is that Catholic Boy spiked a temperature in early October that forced him to miss a workout, but Thomas stated at that time that is was very minor. Catholic Boy returned to the workout tab at Belmont on October 14, and then he really shined once he arrived at Churchill Downs with a big workout and gallop out on October 21, practically dragging regular rider and Hall-of-Famer Javier Castellano around the backstretch. That was followed up with another sollid workout last Sunday at Churchill showing that he may have bounced out of his sickness a few weeks back.
I’ll talk more about my other East Coast horses later in this article. I want to let Magic put on his white wig and drool over how much he loves his Bob Baffert-trained duo first.
Why the West is Best
Magic: Like Slim said, this is the most wide-open Classic in recent memory (though, for someone who only started following the sport in 2015, that’s not a very high bar). The fact that the race’s two most likely winners come from the same conditioner means even Baffert doesn’t have a strong feeling one way or the other.
Let’s start with the horse named for the nation’s best shoreline. West Coast has done absolutely nothing wrong in his career. 12 starts, six wins, five seconds, and a third. Let’s list the only horses who have finished ahead of him since May 20, 2017:
- Gun Runner, the future Hall of Famer and 2017’s undisputed Horse of the Year, defeated West Coast in last fall’s Breeders’ Cup and January’s Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup
- Collected, his stablemate who at the time was one of the nation’s top older males when he outfinished West Coast for second in last year’s Classic
- Thunder Snow, the runaway winner over a very speed-favoring Meydan track in March’s Group 1 Dubai World Cup (and also my sneaky Classic upset pick)
I hear what you and many of his other detractors are saying: that West Coast looked sluggish or tired last out in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes. Well, guess what? That was his first race in six months. He wasn’t even originally nominated to it, but Baffert supplemented him late because he had been training strongly enough that Baffert wanted him to go out and shake off the rust.
Yet despite all of that, I think that the “other Baffert” has just as strong of a chance to win. Never forget – before there was Justify, there was McKinzie. Eight months ago, he was a top contender for the Kentucky Derby and had run strong in all four career starts (winning three) before an injury knocked him out for – guess what – six months (I’m starting to sense a trend here…). His return race in September’s Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby was exactly what I (and our boss, Aaron) needed to see from him. He was forced to run wide in the turns, he was forced to keep pressure on the pace throughout, and yet he still drew off strongly while receiving a career-best Beyer of 107. The cherry on top? Jockey Mike Smith didn’t need to work McKinzie hard to get the win. He knew what he needed to do to get the job done and didn’t push him any further than necessary. Smith made sure to leave more than enough in the tank for the Classic.
Duke it Out
Slim: Magic, you must either be blinded by the California sun reflecting off of Baffert’s white hair or else be smoking too much of that Cali legal kush, because you’re whacked out if you’re supporting West Coast.
Magic: Don’t knock it til you try it.
Slim: Bro, you can’t even keep up with me. Maybe you love your coast so much that you’re just stuck betting him because of his name. Either way, I’ll personally let West Coast beat me in the Classic this year. First off, I was not impressed by his return race in the Awesome Again last month. He was struggling late in my eyes and was barely able to beat Isotherm, who isn’t even close to the level of horse that he’ll have to meet in the Classic. I don’t buy the whole story that West Coast needed a race off the bench and that he’ll be able to fire huge here. Since Magic likes to beat me over the head with Beyer speed figures in these debates, how do you answer the fact that West Coast only ran a 97 in his return race? He ran better than that winning $150,000 Easy Goer Stakes in June of 2017, where he earned a 99, before he really emerged to the top of the crop.
Magic: Slim, you used to be a runner, right? Go run a 5k right now, after several months spent sitting on Chad Brown’s lap instead of practicing, and see how well you do. Going into the Awesome Again, I said, “Give me Accelerate now but West Coast later.” I nailed the first half; now watch me do it again on Saturday. He’s shown in the past that he can run triple digits with regularity.
Slim: I was never a runner and don’t understand your analogy or your Chad Brown reference at all. Yes, I know that West Coast ran a gaudy 117 Beyer in the Pegasus, but that was at 1 1/8 miles. I just see him laboring late at 1 1/4 miles. I know that sounds crazy because he won the 2017 Travers at that distance, but he got a dream gate-to-wire trip over a weak crop that day. He didn’t have the late kick in last year’s Classic to pass a tired Collected to get up for second. He was also one-paced and unable to chase down Thunder Snow in Dubai at this distance, too. And yes I realize that was a notoriously speed favoring track.
A big concern also needs to be: Why did it take West Coast so long to run after returning from Dubai? Arrogate returned from his Dubai triumph in four months for the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap. That was an utter disaster and began his well-documented demise. Baffert said afterward that Arrogate was fine, and then he ran a better race in that year’s Grade 1 Pacific Classic before throwing in a clunker in last year’s Classic.
It is possible that West Coast will never return to top form after Dubai, just like Arrogate. Betting that he will run back to his Travers or Pegasus form is a risky proposition that I’m not taking at a short price in this contentious field.
I have fewer doubts about McKinzie, but he’s also making just his second start after a long layoff. His Penn Derby win was impressive, but the field behind him did not bring their best efforts over a deep track.
The biggest concern that I have about McKinzie is that he is unproven while going 1 1/4 miles. Can he excel at this distance? Being sired by Derby winner Street Sense definitely helps, but the female side of his pedigree doesn’t scream out distance.
I always listen when Baffert talks about his horses, and you can hear that he’s high on McKinzie, but he also wasn’t 100% sure after the Penn Derby that he was sending McKinzie to the Classic. Baffert considered skipping the Classic for the shorter 1 1/8-mile Grade 1 Clark Handicap instead, so that’s something to ponder in this puzzle of a race.
Magic: Baffert only mentioned the Clark as a backup in case McKinzie came out of the Penn Derby needing extra time to recover. You and I share the same affinity for Baffert’s openness when speaking to the media. He doesn’t mince words and he doesn’t spew the same putrid BS over and over and over like a certain New York conditioner. If Baffert likes a horse, he lets you know, and he loves McKinzie.
Slim, I have some good news for you. Dan the Fan Man is on your side (he loves Catholic Boy and Yoshida) and he’s offered to help argue against me:
- “McKinzie was rusty.” – See my point about West Coast above.
- “The final time was slow.” – Parx was playing very heavy that day.
- “He beat a bunch of bums.” – What was he supposed to do, give them 10 lengths at the start and show that he could close? Use up every ounce of energy to beat them by 20 lengths while running the risk of having nothing left for the Classic? McKinzie didn’t have to work hard to beat them, so he didn’t. Why should Smith have pushed him more than needed?
Speaking of beating a bunch of bums, tell me, who did Catholic Boy defeat in the Travers that’s any better than who McKinzie beat at Parx? Mendelssohn almost took Catholic Boy gate-to-wire, yet you don’t consider Mendelssohn a threat here. And yes, Catholic Boy’s Pennine Ridge and Belmont Derby wins were ultra-impressive visually – I still can’t believe he did what he did, let alone twice – but how much of that was his talent and how much was hard-luck loser Analyze It’s fault? Analyze It couldn’t beat Carrick in his next start (who? exactly), and then when facing elders for the first time while also cutting back in distance, he couldn’t even hit the board. He’ll suffer the same fate earlier on Saturday’s card in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
I’ll use the same argument against Yoshida. His Woodward win, and the subsequent fanboying that came after, reminds me of when Good Samaritan beat a weak field in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes, then fell to pieces when facing tougher foes two months later. Yoshida beat Gunnevera, who’s a longshot here and hasn’t looked the same as he did last year, and Leofric, who won a small Grade 3 race next out but isn’t good enough to run here.
Slim: Magic, you’re all over the place with your arguments, so I’ll just turn to talking about your favorite horse Biscuits instead of picking apart your loose points above.
In the ultimate New York move, there’s no better way to represent my roots than to back the richest New York-bred of all-time, Mind Your Biscuits. As is the case with Catholic Boy, I love a horse that shows guts and won’t back down from a fight. Biscuits is the epitome of a fighter, and his versatility makes him dangerous here.
Biscuits easily won the Grade 3 Lukas Classic Stakes at 1 1/8 miles here at Churchill Downs while stalking the early pace and galloping out with gusto. His Whitney runner-up finish in the slop was an impressive route debut, too, so the former world-class sprinter surprised many by showing his love of going longer.
I knocked McKinzie for not having a 1 1/4-mile race on his resume, so I have to admit that it’s a major question for Biscuits. I know one thing’s for sure, though: when the chips are down, Biscuits ain’t giving up in the stretch.
Another love of mine that runs his race every time is Yoshida. In his dirt debut, he mowed them all down in the Saratoga stretch to win the Woodward. It wasn’t the greatest field ever assembled for the race (as you said Magic) and he got a good pace setup, but he will likely have that same type of fast pace again in the Classic for his late move. I won’t play him heavily in the win spot, but keying him underneath in second and third for exotic bets is a top play for me here.
So, here it is: I’m playing the Catholic Boy, Mind Your Biscuits, Yoshida trifecta box! If you didn’t know, super-owner Sol Kumin has co-ownership in all three of these horses, so I’m calling it the Sol Trifecta Box (copyright pending).
My win money will be on Catholic Boy, while I’ll play Biscuits and Yoshida in exactas and on backup tickets to end multi-race wagers. Since Aaron Halterman of the Racing Dudes is so in love with McKinzie, I’ll make sure I have him on a backup ticket in my multi-race plays, too
I’ll mix McKinzie and Mendelssohn in my exotic plays a bit, too. It’s possible that Mendelssohn sets the pace and still has enough to hold on for a piece of the trifecta, so it’ll be smart to play him underneath.
I’m playing against likely favorites Accelerate and West Coast, hoping to get a good pay-off here!
Magic: I should really thank you for not making me have to argue for Accelerate or Pavel. I expect both to finish well out of the money. Slim nailed it at the top, and I’ll reiterate it once again: this race is wide open. I’m going with the trusted veteran trainer (Baffert) and jockey (Smith) who know how to win the biggest races on the biggest stages.
If I’m going to be wrong about one of our debates (unlikely), then I’d want it to be here. If Mind Your Biscuits finds the winner’s circle, I may cry like a baby.
Listen, if you’ve gotten this far and you’re still unsure of where to go, let me leave you with this: Mike Smith, who has ridden both horses to Grade 1 victories and has won more Breeders’ Cup events than any other human, had his choice of which Baffert horse to ride.
Mike Smith picked McKinzie, and you should, too.
What’s your opinion? Let us know in the comments below and/or on Twitter: @SaratogaSlim, @CurtisKalleward, and @racing_dudes! Be sure to check back daily for more debates and the latest Breeders’ Cup news as we approach the year-end championships. Good luck to everyone playing the Breeders’ Cup this weekend!