With just four weeks remaining until the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the last major prep race for the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic will be held this Saturday, that being the historic Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes at Belmont Park.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup will be telecast on NBC Saturday with live coverage beginning at 5 p.m. ET.
The 1 ¼-mile race has drawn a small but elite group of six horses, two of which faced off against Breeders’ Cup Classic favorite California Chrome earlier this year.
Those two horses are Mubtaahij (#2) and Hoppertunity (#3), who finished just a neck apart when second and third behind California Chrome in the March 26 Dubai World Cup, the richest race in the world with a purse of $10 million.
Since then, Mubtaahij and Hoppertunity have gone their separate ways. While Mubtaahij has compiled a better record this summer — finishing third in the Grade 2 Suburban Handicap and a close second in the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes —Hoppertunity has arguably faced tougher competition, finishing fourth behind the talented Melatonin in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita and fourth behind California Chrome, Beholder, and Dortmund in the TVG Pacific Classic Stakes.
Of the pair, I narrow prefer Hoppertunity. Even though he is shipping in from California and has never run at Belmont Park, he has done well shipping to other locations and has handled a wide variety of racetracks, including Churchill Downs, Keeneland Race Course and Oaklawn Park. In addition, he won the 2014 Rebel Stakes on a sloppy track. With a chance of rain on Saturday at Belmont, Hoppertunity’s proven ability on wet tracks is a positive.
Hoppertunity’s schedule this summer was interrupted by a slight illness: he missed the Cougar II Handicap in July as a result and entered the Pacific Classic off a two-month layoff, which probably wasn’t ideal. He has trained in uninterrupted fashion since then, turning in a series of eye-catching workouts at Santa Anita, and looks ready for a winning effort while facing an easier field than the one he tackled in the Pacific Classic.
Effinex (#6) is another major contender capable of running a huge race on his best day. He’s got a great record at 1 ¼ miles and won the Suburban Handicap at this distance in July. While he was no match for Frosted in the shorter Whitney Stakes, he raced wide on the turns that day and was beaten just a half-length for second place. He is a candidate to win, but enters the Jockey Club Gold Cup off a two-month layoff. Effinex seems to do better with more frequent racing, and it’s very likely that this race is being used as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which Effinex finished a strong second last year. Additionally, a wet track probably wouldn’t be to Effinex’s liking — he finished a distant third in the 2015 Jockey Club Gold Cup on a sloppy track.
One longshot who could contend for a spot in the top three is Protonico. Trained by Todd Pletcher, Protonico was a top-class stakes competitor in late 2014 and early 2015, winning the Grade 3 Discovery Handicap, Grade 3 Ben Ali Stakes and Grade 2 Alysheba Stakes and finishing second by a half-length to Hoppertunity in the Grade 1 Clark Handicap. Protonico wasn’t as sharp during the second half of 2015, but after a long rest, he returned on Sept. 9 to win a one-mile allowance race at Belmont Park, winning by a nose in a fast time to bring his record at Belmont to a perfect 2-for-2. Pletcher has enjoyed great success with horses making their second start off long rests, and Protonico will be ridden by the three-time Eclipse award-winning jockey Javier Castellano. If any horse can step up with a surprisingly big performance, I think Protonico is the one.
Wagering Strategy A
$5 exacta: 3 with 1,2,6 ($15)
$3 exacta: 1 with 2,3,6 ($9)
Wagering Strategy B
$2 trifecta: 1,3 with 1,2,3,6 with 1,2,3,6 ($24)
Good luck, and enjoy the race!