Breeders’ Cup Mile Tip Sheet: Using Trends to Help Spot the Winner

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Activity picks up in the Del Mar paddock before a race on Nov. 3. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Breeders’ Cup Mile has always been one of my favorite races on the World Championships card. The race typically lures a deep field of contenders that includes the top U.S.-based turf runners as well as several standout European milers.

It doesn’t hurt that the race has produced quite a few upsets over the years or that two of the best selections I’ve made publicly – Karakontie at 30-1 in 2014 and Miesque’s Approval at 24.30-1 in 2006 – came in the Mile. But what I like best about the race is that it almost always features a close, thrilling finish with 13 of the last 20 editions decided by one length or less.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. First, let’s take a closer look at all 20 races to try to identify some historical trends that could provide a handicapping key. Then, because this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Del Mar near San Diego, I’ll narrow the scope to go in depth on the eight editions held in Southern California over the last two decades. This is the first time the Breeders’ Cup has come to Del Mar, but in general Southern California turf courses have a lot more in common with other SoCal tracks than those on the East Coast, Midwest, Southeast, or in Canada. Finally, we’ll explore some of the expected participants for this year’s event to try and identify a couple of runners that fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner.

What are some of the key takeaways from the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile?

  • The race has been won exclusively by horses who had at least one Grade or Group 2 victory or better to their credit entering the race. The last 10 editions all were won by Grade or Group 1 winners.
  • No horse in the last 20 years has led from start to finish in the Mile. If you’ve landed on a pacesetter, you might be better off slotting him/her in for second or third. This is not a race for speed horses.
  • Over the last 20 years, Breeders’ Cup Mile winners have been on average 5.69 lengths behind the leader after the first half-mile and 4.67 lengths back at the midway point of the race, with an average position of 7.1 after the first half-mile. Looking at the median, winners have been seventh or eighth, about 5 ½ lengths back, after the first quarter-mile; and sixth or seventh, about 3 ¾  lengths back, at the midway point.
  • Mile winners typically have a great turn of foot and make up ground quickly. Consider the numbers in the above bullet point and compare with a median of half a length back in the stretch for Mile victors.
  • Eleven of the 20 winners won their final prep race and only three finished outside of the top three – Karakontie, 11th by 7 ¾ lengths in in a French Group 1 in 2014; Court Vision, seventh by three lengths in the Woodbine Mile in 2011; and Miesque’s Approval, fourth in the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes at Keeneland in 2006. Karakontie and Miesque’s Approval as mentioned earlier won at 30-1 and 24.30-1 odds, respectively, while Court Vision is the biggest longshot in the race’s history at 64.80-1 odds.
  • Favorites have won seven of the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The average odds of the Mile winner were 11.73-1 with a median of 5.45-1.
  • There have been seven winners at 11.6-1 odds or higher and four winners at 24.3-1 or higher. Those were the aforementioned Karakontie, Court Vision, and Miesque’s Approval, as well as Domedriver, who won at 26-1 in 2002. All were deep closers who were positioned ninth or worse after the first quarter-mile. Karakontie was a French classic winner, Court Vision was a Grade 1 winner who had competed in two previous editions of the Mile (finishing fifth in 2010 and fourth in 2009), Miesque’s Approval’s final prep was sneaky good and he was a leading miler earlier in the season, and Domedriver entered the race off a Group 2 win in France for top trainer Pascal Bary.
  • The average age of the Breeders’ Cup Mile winner is 4.45 with a median of 4. Four 3-year-olds have won the race; three were elite European invaders who either won or placed in classic races and the other was a U.S. Kentucky Derby runner who shifted to grass.
  • Seven of the last 20 Mile winners completed their final prep race in France, including Goldikova before each of her three wins from 2008-2010. Five winners prepped at Keeneland and four at Santa Anita Park.
  • This is a milers race (there are eight furlongs in one mile). Breeders’ Cup Mile winners averaged 4.7 starts before the Breeders’ Cup in the year they won with a median of five starts and the average and median of those prep races was 8.25 furlongs (right between one mile and 1 1/16 miles). If you remove Da Hoss (1998), who only had one start in 23 months before his second Mile win, and War Chant, who was on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2000 before shifting to turf for the fall, only two of the other 18 winners fell outside of 7.75 furlongs and 8.4 furlongs for average distance raced.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure of the winner is 119.8 with a median of 119.5.

What changes when narrowing the focus to Breeders’ Cup Mile races held in Southern California?

  • All eight winners had at least one Grade or Group 1 win entering the Mile.
  • Five of the eight editions held in Southern California were won by favorites. Average odds for the winner were 6.95-1 with a median of 1.95-1.
  • Five of the eight Mile winners prepped for the race in France and the other three made their final starts at Keeneland.
  • Four of the eight winners of Southern California editions of the Mile won their final start and seven of eight finished in the top three. The aforementioned Karakontie was the only exception.
  • The average margin of victory is 1.03 lengths for SoCal editions of the Mile with a median of 0.87 lengths (between three-quarters of a length and a length).
  • The winner typically has been sixth/seventh after the first half mile, an average of 5.35 lengths back; and sixth at the midway point of the race, 5.13 lengths back. The median places the winner seventh/eighth after a quarter-mile and sixth/seventh after a half-mile. Both average and median place the winner third in early stretch, no more than five lengths back.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure of the winner has been 120.25 with a median of 120.

Which of this year’s runners fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner?

World Approval (Eclipse Sportswire)

I think this list has to start with World Approval. Breeders’ Cup Mile favorites have done well in Southern California, winning five of the last eight editions of the race, and the 5-year-old enters off back-to-back Grade 1 wins. He looked extremely powerful winning the Ricoh Woodbine Mile by 2 ¼ lengths in his final Breeders’ Cup prep. Two of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Mile victors made their final start in the Woodbine Mile, and Wise Dan won the race in 2012 and 2013, two starts before winning the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Additionally, World Approval really seems to have found his ideal distance since cutting back to a mile to win the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap in August at Saratoga. His tactical speed could allow him to carve out a stalking trip similar to the ones Wise Dan enjoyed when winning as the favorite in 2012 and Goldikova used to win as the favorite in 2008, both at Santa Anita Park.

While I was not thrilled at first with trainer David O’Meara’s decision to ship Suedois back to Europe after he won the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 7, the 6-year-old Le Havre gelding is beginning to look much better. The Shadwell Mile has produced three Breeders’ Cup Mile winners from the last eight Southern California editions of the race. He’s a European invader who seems to have really found his calling at one mile, and he comes from off the pace. If World Approval gets caught pressing a hot pace, it could be Suedois that sweeps past to pick up the pieces.

Ribchester will make the final start of his career in the Mile, and he really fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner as a European invader with impeccable credentials, who does his best work at a mile on firm turf. He’s raced exclusively in Group 1 races in Europe and Dubai this year with three wins, two seconds, and one third. After a runner-up finish on Oct. 21 on British Champions Day, he'll make a quick two-week turnaround for the Breeders’ Cup and the 4-year-old colt should be considered a top threat.

While the Shadwell Turf Mile has produced three of the eight Southern California Breeders’ Cup Mile winners in the last 20 years, only one was the Shadwell Mile winner. It makes sense to also take a long look at third-place finisher  Ballagh Rocks. He’s finished third in Grade 1 races in his last two starts and was fourth by a half-length earlier this season in the Grade 1 Maker’s 46 Mile Stakes, but he’s only got a Grade 3 win to his credit, so he’d be bucking history there.

Blackjackcat has won four straight, all at one mile, including a Grade 2 win in August at Del Mar in which he earned a career-best 120 Equibase Speed Figure. He typically races just behind the pace and figures to be tucked in right behind front-running Heart to Heart.

Leading European trainer Aidan O'Brien pre-entered four horses in the Mile, the most interesting to me is Roly Poly, a 3-year-old filly who has won three Group 1s in her last four starts, with the only loss a sixth-place finish in a race on yielding turf. She prefers firm ground and probably will see that at Del Mar. Her last seven starts all have been at one mile and she enters off a 1 1/4-length win in the Group 1 Bahrain Sun Chariot Stakes on Oct. 7. She's listed as having first preference for the Longines Filly and Mare Turf, however, so she might opt to try and stretch out an extra eighth of a mile for that race.

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