With wide-open 3-year-old male and older male divisions, this group of five of runners will look to follow the footsteps of recent winners Cigar (1995), Skip Away (1996, 1997), Mineshaft (2003), Bernardini (2006), Curlin (2007, 2008), and Summer Bird (2009) by using the Jockey Club Gold Cup as the pathway to a year-end Eclipse Award.
The focus of today’s “Five Questions” will be to provide analysis of this competitive field. Outside of Olympic Village, who comes in a bit short on class in his graded stakes debut, a case can be made for each of the four remaining contenders.
Continuing the theme, this week features questions from Twitter users and from selected comments for this upcoming race. As always, questions are welcome and can be submitted through reaching out on Twitter using @EmilyOptixEQ.
1. How do 3-year-old runners fare in the Jockey Club Gold Cup? And how do horses generally perform coming out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup and into the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
Tonalist winning 2015 Jockey Club Gold Cup. (Eclipse Sportswire)
For many of the 3-year-old runners this will be their first test against older horses, and it’s a factor to consider in general handicapping. With the calendar year winding down and the Breeders’ Cup looming, the top 3-year-olds have a chance to define their season and cement their place in the division.
In the last five years, 3-year-old runners have been present for three of those five editions for the Jockey Club Gold Cup with one winner, Tonalist in 2015, as well as two third-place finishers.
Since 2000, and starting with that year and Albert the Great, there have been five 3-year-old winners of the Jockey Club Gold Cup: Albert the Great, Bernardini, Curlin, Summer Bird, and Tonalist. Fourteen of 31 3-year-old starters in the Jockey Club Gold Cup since 2000 have finished in the top three.
Looking ahead to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, over the last five years there have been 12 horses that made their final Breeders’ Cup Classic prep in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. None went on to win the Classic during that time frame, and only two of the 12 runners hit the board — Effinex finished second in 2015 and Thunder Snow ran third in 2018.
Preservationist comes into this race as one of the more established older horses in this field and with some momentum coming off the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets win Aug. 31 at Saratoga. He turned in a gritty effort that afternoon under good handling from regular rider Junior Alvarado. He was able to find a favorable pace scenario for his running style, and a more preferred “stalk-and-pounce” trip compared with his previous start when racing on the lead in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes. Trip again will be in play for him given the Jockey Club Gold Cup’s small field and projected race shape. His ability to show early speed could land him on the lead in this race. While that would typically give him a pace advantage tactically, Alvarado might not want to inherit that role. That could make the trip more difficult for him as it could cause the field to bunch up and create a sprint late. His advantage in both the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes and Woodward was the ability to get first run on the closers, and a tighter, more bunched race shape would make that trip tougher for him.
While the above comment is a bit tongue in cheek with the five-horse field, it still has some merit given the clear trouble Tacitus has found himself in throughout his career. Without getting into detail for each trip, the trouble has been quite obvious to anyone following this division and the 2019 Triple Crown season. It has been significant enough at times to suggest it cost him a better placing in the race, and it also is worth pointing out that he’s a horse who has often created his own trouble. Trying to clear that pattern, his trainer, Bill Mott, added the blinkers last time for the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes. The addition of blinkers that afternoon also came with a change in running style and tactics used. Typically one that rates off the pace and comes with a late run, Tacitus found himself close to the early Travers pace at Saratoga. The runner-up finish that afternoon — given the change in running style as well as racing inside against the track bias that afternoon — was a very credible effort to gamely hold on for second while showing stamina behind winner Code of Honor. With today’s field and potential pace scenario, a similar approach in tactics could work in his favor. There are not many in this field that want to challenge for the lead. He has that ability, proven class, and he showed some grit in the Travers fighting back to hold on for second.
Those that follow “Five Questions” on the regular will recognize the name Code of Honor and, most recently, the case made for him going into the Grade 1 Travers Stakes Aug. 24 at Saratoga. He was well prepared for that race and had been pointing to the “Midsummer Derby” all season. It was his race to win that afternoon, and Code of Honor answered many questions about his ability to handle the 1 ¼-mile distance that day. He had a lot going for him in the Travers, but even with the win in that race, Code of Honor seems to lack those advantages in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He will have to run back on shorter rest than probably is ideal for him. While he’ll be racing on a main track that he has run well over, the dirt main track at Belmont Park does not appear to be his preferred surface. A lot of this race also will come down to trip, and with Code of Honor’s off-the-pace running style and this track configuration, regular rider John Velazquez will have his work cut out for him. This will be a crucial race for him going forward with Code of Honor’s connections still trying to decide where to run next. It seems that they are looking at this race more as a “prep” for his racing future. That intention is unlike the Travers, a race his connections had targeted immediately after he placed second in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve.
5. “The Jockey Club Gold Cup this Saturday at Belmont Park ¿A quién le vas?” — @Jorgenymartinez
The right trip could finally find the talented 3-year-old Tacitus his elusive Grade 1 win, and the class of Code of Honor could carry him to victory and extend his winning streak to three straight graded stakes, including back-to-back Grade 1s. There is, however, a viable alternative in proven older runner Vino Rosso. Of all the horses in this field, he comes into this race spotted to win this Jockey Club Gold Cup by his owners and trainer Todd Pletcher. He was scratched out of the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga last month and has since been pointed to this race. Watching his recent workouts, he appears to be sitting on go and coming into this race the right way. He has already proven himself at the classic distance and at this Grade 1 level, having won the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita back in May. He looks capable of finding a similar trip to the one that he enjoyed in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, racing close to the pace with enough class to finish strong and hold on late.
Next week, we will return with a feature race from Keeneland Race Course and then on to the Breeders’ Cup. Thanks as always for reading, and buena suerte horseplayers.