Five Questions to be Answered in 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic

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Arrogate wins the 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.
Arrogate wins the 2016 Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Run at 1 1/4 miles on main track, the $6 million, Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park is expected to be a competitive race in a seemingly wide-open division. The field will feature several 3-year-old runners from the Triple Crown series, as well as the “who’s who” of older males from the last couple of years. 

With some questions surrounding expected and early favorite McKinzie, there are some opportunities to look around for alternatives.

With that in mind, the Breeders’ Cup Classic is just asking for a “Five Questions” deep dive into handicapping.

1. “Is McKinzie vulnerable at the 10-furlong (1 1/4-mile) classic distance?”

There are a lot of questions with McKinzie overall, though his ability to go the distance seems to be a popular one. When he ran in this race last year, his ability to get 1 1/4 miles was not asked nearly as much as the concern over the rider choice that year with Mike Smith jumping off stablemate West Coast to stay with McKinzie. While again the rider discussion will be in play with Smith being replaced by Joel Rosario taking the call here, the distance question still presents an important one. Physically and how he carries himself in running, he is not one that truly presents himself as a “classic” type. Talent and tactical speed have allowed for him to overcome some of that distance challenge, though he does seem to need that in his favor for this type of distance. He has the experience and a tight loss at 10 furlongs back in the Santa Anita Handicap presented by San Manuel Indian Bingo and Casino to Gift Box when catching a field and race shape that was able to flatter the pair for the distance.

Mongolian Groom defeats McKinzie in the Awesome Again.
Mongolian Groom defeats McKinzie in the Awesome Again. (Eclipse Sportswire)

McKinzie would benefit from a trip similar to the one he had in the Whitney Stakes, which was one of his better races this season at a two-turn (1 1/8 miles) distance. Looking at his form and in terms of fitness, that win in the Whitney and the manner in which he won might have played a role in his recent second-place finish behind Mongolian Groom in the Awesome Again Stakes. He ran three big races in a row between the Santa Anita Handicap, the Alysheba Stakes presented by Sentient Jet, and the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap. He was given time from that series before heading into the Whitney and seemed to be “fully cranked” by trainer Bob Baffert that afternoon. He was given time again prior to the Awesome Again and, while Baffert did not send out an unfit horse, some reasonable fitness aspects and recovery still could have been in play as the eye was on the bigger prize with the Classic looming.

While the 1 1/4-mile distance could create some vulnerabilities for McKinzie, he does still own speed figures that fit well with this field along with honest class as a multiple Grade 1 winner. From a player standpoint, value has to be factored in as he expects to be the favorite, however might not be as short of a price given the recent loss as well as other runner-up finishes this year.

2. “Which of the ‘Win and You’re In’ series races came up as the ones to follow in the Classic?”  

Five of the 11 horses in this field have earned their way into the race from the “Win and You’re In” series of Breeders’ Cup prep races. Two of those races were run locally in California: the TVG Pacific Classic and the Awesome Again. The 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Accelerate won both of these races leading up to his Classic win and championship season. His trainer, John Sadler, will look to repeat as he sends out Higher Power, the 2019 Pacific Classic winner. Higher Power was able to cruise to victory with a perfect trip, turning in a slight upset that afternoon at Del Mar. Losing his footing at the start, the trip for Higher Power was far from perfect next out in the Awesome Again, and instead a perfect trip found its way to the upset winner Mongolian Groom. Part of his favorable trip came in part to the stumble at the start by Higher Power, therefore allowing the early pace to be softer and less contested for front-running Mongolian Groom to coast for the win. With all things being equal, Higher Power and Mongolian Groom should present a challenge to each other in terms of trip. They must prove their recent Grade 1 wins were no fluke.

Across the country in New York, McKinzie was able to win his way into the race with his win in the Whitney, as was Code of Honor for his win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The Jockey Club Gold Cup was a bit controversial, and still is to this day due to the disqualification of unofficial winner Vino Rosso that afternoon. Vino Rosso crossed the finish line first, however it was ruled that due to contact nearing the wire and in part to the tight finish, Code of Honor would be promoted to the win via disqualification. Code of Honor also won the Runhappy Travers Stakes this summer and will look to follow the footsteps of 2016 Travers and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate, though noted in the “Five Questions” for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, that race has not been nearly as strong for the Breeders’ Cup Classic throughout the years. While that has been the case, it should be noted that both horses are coming into this race in good form and appear to be capable contenders in this race on their own merits.

3. “How do horses coming in off a loss fare in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?”

After finishing second in the Travers back in 2015, American Pharoah became the most recent Breeders’ Cup Classic victor to win the race having lost his previous start. While Baffert will look to repeat that with McKinzie coming off his second-place finish last out, there are six* others that will look to turn those minor awards into a Classic win. 

A pair of those runners will be sent out by Bill Mott, including Elate, the lone female in the field with the preference to run in the Classic over the Distaff in part because of the 1 1/4-mile distance of this race. She is coming off a pair of runner-up finishes, though she has a pair of wins from earlier this summer including a win at this distance. She comes into the Classic in good form with the potential to move forward in this event. In addition to Elate, Mott also will send out Yoshida, coming off a second-place finish in the Whitney and a more recent fourth in the Woodward Stakes over the summer at Saratoga. Yoshida has some class as he is a Grade 1 winner on both turf and dirt, enough to make up for the distance as he is another that does not quite present himself physically as one that is a true Classic type. His preferred running style is one that does require some pace to run at, and the more competition there is among the pacesetters, the better for him to launch his late run. While the pace is expected to be honest, there are not too many true early speed types in the field, and the tactics of those riders will be crucial for Yoshida’s trip. It is interesting that Mike Smith picks up the mount having recently been replaced on McKinzie, and he does fit the style of Yoshida particularly in this type of race and home track for Smith.

After a loss as the favorite in the Pacific Classic, Seeking the Soul finished fourth in the Awesome Again and will need to improve his recent form. While his back class is still there, his recent results this year indicate he needs a massive turnaround. In addition to this form and some distance questions of his own, his speed figures for those recent two races are on the lower end of today’s race par as well as on the lower end of races he has run throughout his career. Higher Power, the winner of the Pacific Classic, will look to rebound off the third-place finish last month the Awesome Again. He certainly has the ability to rebound as the stumble at the start seemed to impact his performance that afternoon. He still will be tested in this field, and in terms of trip will have to contend with others that project to race right where he wants to be: on or near the lead.

Vino Rosso technically is coming off a “loss” as he was placed second after hitting the wire first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. His finish that afternoon takes nothing away from him coming into this race. While he might not be as “flashy” as some of the others in this field, he has something not a single other runner has coming into this race – a win over this course and distance from his Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita Stakes score here back in May.

Code of Honor and Vino Rosso hit the wire in the Jockey Club Gold Cup
Code of Honor and Vino Rosso hit the wire in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Eclipse Sportswire)

4. “How do 3-year-olds generally perform in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?”

Three of the last six Classic winners were 3-year-olds, and all three were trained by Bob Baffert: Bayern in 2014, American Pharoah in 2015, and Arrogate in 2016. With McKinzie as the favorite, it’s important to note has not fared as well with older horses while favored during that time. Game On Dude finished ninth as the favorite in 2013, and Arrogate fifth as the favorite in 2017. Non-favored older runners trained by Baffert haven’t fared particularly well either with Hoppertunity finishing fourth in 2016 and West Coast seventh last year.  

This year, the Breeders’ Cup Classic will feature four 3-year-old runners, each with different paths into this race. As mentioned earlier, the leading 3-year-old of the group, Code of Honor, enters the race off a pair of wins in Grade 1 company, most recently against older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. That class and experience edge gives him a push in this 3-year-old contingent.

War of Will has some name recognition following his trouble in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve and follow-up win in the Preakness Stakes. He has been looking to get back on track since that race and will have a real test in the Classic. His current form leaves a lot to be desired coming off the Triple Crown campaign. He lacked finish in the Jim Dandy Stakes in his first start back after the Belmont Stakes and recently ran to an even third-place finish in the Pennsylvania Derby. His speed figures are on the lower end of the field and, from a trip perspective, he does not look to have any advantage as he shares a running style, one that prefers to be forwardly placed, with many in this field. War of Will may race in blinkers for the first time in the Classic, though it’s hard to see that making much of a difference for this event based on his recent races.

The upset winner of the Pennsylvania Derby, Math Wizard, ran a game race that afternoon but will need to find more as he steps up into this field. He matched his career-high speed figure and most likely would need to improve off that number for a top spot in this Classic. On the line of class, Owendale will take another shot at a Grade 1 field following his win in the Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby. While he comes into this race with class and distance to prove, he has shown to be an honest and even improving type coming into this race. Those are positives for a 3-year-old runner, and I can see why some “wise guy” attention has been directed his way.

5. “Who’s going to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic?”

It is a bit of a gamble to put out a “pick” as this analysis comes out a week ahead of the race, although one piece of analysis unlikely to change is the opinion that McKinzie isas a “soft” favorite. While capable, he does not have much in terms of an edge over others in this field, something that is necessary with any betting favorite. One of the “key” horses, Code of Honor, is coming into this race the right way as he is in form and has been improving during the second half of the year. By association and offering some value, Vino Rosso, the horse he finished right next to last out, is worth consideration off that form line as well as being proven at the course and distance. Elate is another player in this field. It is possible she would receive a lot more attention, and perhaps even be the second choice, if those recent tight finishes were wins instead of second-place finishes. Her running style should fit right in with this field and she may even appreciate the fuller field here instead of the smaller fields she exits, where she has had to abandon some of her preferred running style based on the complexion and dynamics of those recent races. The Classic has been talked about for her by Mott for quite some time, and he has had success over the years pointing horses to this particular race.

I appreciate everyone reading, submitting questions and offering feedback; for more information and extended race analysis for the Breeders’ Cup visit OptixEQ.com.  

Best of luck next weekend!

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