Taking a Stand Against McKinzie in 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic

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Fans take a closer looks at the horses in the paddock before the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic in this file photo. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The 36th running of the Grade 1, $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park brings together one of the most evenly matched fields in the history of the race. Six of the 11 horses entered come into the race off first- or second-place finishes at the highest level, with the other five having previous performances which, if repeated, would make them competitive in this year’s race. One of those leading the field in terms of name recognition is McKinzie, who won the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes in August before a disappointing runner-up effort in his most recent race. That race was the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes, won by Mongolian Groom in an upset at 25.40-1 odds. Still, neither horse has yet to win at the distance of the Classic. Vino Rosso and Code of Honor have both won at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic. Vino Rosso won the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita in May and most recently crossed the finish line first in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup but was disqualified to second for bumping his rival. That rival was Code of Honor, who had also won the Grade 1 Runhappy Travers Stakes at this 1 ¼-mile distance in August. Then, there’s the 5-year-old mare Elate, attempting to duplicate the feat of Zenyatta who defeated males in the Classic in 2009. Elate brings a perfect 3-for-3 record at the trip into the race, including a victory in the Grade 2 Delaware Handicap in July, but also enters this year’s Classic off a pair of runner-up efforts. Math Wizard won the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby in his most recent race and faces older horses for the first time, as does recent Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby winner Owendale and this year’s Grade 1 Preakness Stakes winner War of Will, who was third in the Pennsylvania Derby in his most recent race. Higher Power won the Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic at 1 ¼ miles in August but was a well-beaten third in the Awesome Again. Yoshida has yet to recapture the form of his victory in the 2018 Woodward Stakes as he is winless in six races since then, but the 5-year-old was a fast-closing third in this year’s Woodward. Seeking the Soul won the Grade 2 Stephen Foster Stakes in June but has run seventh and fourth since then.

Main contenders:

Vino Rosso (Eclipse Sportswire)

The rematch between Code of Honor and Vino Rosso is the number one story in this year’s Classic, in my opinion, and I will give slight preference to Vino Rosso in this case. His 4-year-old campaign has been all about pointing to this year’s Classic, and I think he’s on a pattern to run the best race of his career and win. Returning from six months off in March, Vino Rosso earned a new career-best 114 Equibase Speed Figure winning the Stymie Stakes, a one-turn mile race. One month later he faced one of the best sprinters in the country (World of Trouble) in the Carter Handicap, finishing fourth without showing any late kick at all. A brilliant move on the part of trainer Todd Pletcher was sending Vino Rosso west for the Gold Cup at Santa Anita in May at the Classic distance, and the colt proved resilient in tying his 114 figure with a powerful effort as he rallied from fourth to lead in the stretch and gamely held that lead to the wire. Given two months off, Vino Rosso returned in the Whitney and, just as in the Carter, he ran evenly throughout, never threatening to win. Stretched out to 1 ¼ miles again for the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, Vino Rosso once again showed a lot of mental toughness in not only leading from the start, but battling with a number of horses in the late stages, prevailing by a nose at the finish line over Code of Honor. Unfortunately, he had bumped his rival late in the race and the stewards felt that warranted a disqualification to second. Making his third start off a layoff in the Classic and on an improving pattern of figures (108, 112), I feel the previous race at Santa Anita may give Vino Rosso the slightest edge in experience which can help him to earn the glory of a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory.

Code of Honor is also on a solid pattern for improvement. Following his third-place finish in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve (moved up to second via the disqualification of Maximum Security), Code of Honor took two months off. That freshening did him a world of good as he won the Grade 3 Dwyer Stakes in July, the Runhappy Travers Stakes in August, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup (via disqualification of Vino Rosso) in September. Going from a 101 Equibase Speed Figure effort to 108, to 112, is a pattern we might expect of a still-improving 3-year-old in the summer and fall, with further improvement to come. Furthermore, having run three times at the distance of the Classic, winning twice and finishing second in the other start, there’s little doubt Code of Honor has what it takes to succeed in this race.

Elate is a powerhouse of a mare and deserves to face off against males in this year’s Classic. She’s also a perfect 3-for-3 at the 1 ¼-mile trip of this race. Although beaten a nose one race before last in the Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti at Saratoga, the same race she lost by a neck the previous year, Elate earned a 115 figure — as good or better than many of the males in this year’s Classic field. Tough as nails in the stretch in nearly every one of her 18 career starts, Elate has finished second seven times to match her win total. Trainer Bill Mott, who also saddles Yoshida, has given Elate a pair of three-furlong “blowout” workouts coming into the race, a superb strategy to have her on edge for her best, which is good enough to post the mild upset in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

About the rest:

There is little doubt most of the other eight entrants in this race can run well enough to win, and I would not argue with a single person who felt a win bet on any of them is warranted. However, there are little cracks in the armor on all of the rest, in my opinion, so although I will be considering them all for second place on exacta tickets and third place on trifecta tickets, I will confine my win bets to the three contenders above.

I’ll start with McKinzie, who has only finished lower than second one time in 13 races. His two tries at the Classic distance were below par in my opinion as he missed by a nose while having every chance to win the Santa Anita Handicap Presented by San Miguel Indian Bingo and Casino in April and ran 12th in last year’s Classic at 3.90-1 odds. Although the 123 speed figure earned in his most recent start in the Awesome Again is the second best figure in the field, he seemed to be running in place throughout the race. Although the jockey change to Joel Rosario may help, I would prefer a jockey familiar with the horse and Rosario is riding McKinzie for the first time. Mongolian Groom led from start to finish in the Awesome Again and earned a field high 126 Equibase Speed Figure in the process. He has two third-place finishes at this distance in his career, and I don’t feel his last effort is repeatable at this distance or against this field. Owendale faces older horses for the first time, which isn’t an impediment in the fall of a horse’s 3-year-old campaign, but the 110 speed figure earned in winning the Oklahoma Derby last month won’t be good enough to win if repeated and he, too, is winless in two tries at a Classic distance. Similarly, Preakness winner War of Will could not threaten in the Pennsylvania Derby and the 107 figure earned at 1 3/16 miles in the Preakness is another effort which, even if repeated, is not likely to win this race. Yoshida closes from far back in nearly every start and rarely gets up in time, but he should be in the top three or four at the end if he’s able to run as he did in the Whitney in August when second with a 115 speed figure. Higher Power posted the upset in the Pacific Classic this summer with a 112 figure, which appears to be an aberration as he was a non-threatening third in the Awesome Again following that win. Math Wizard was a great story for trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. when winning the Pennsylvania Derby with a 113 figure, which equaled the effort he put forth when second to Owendale in the Ohio Derby in June. Math Wizard is also facing older horses for the first time as well as trying the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Classic for the first time. Those two hurdles may be too much to overcome. Seeking the Soul has had a brilliant career, winning more than $3.3 million to date, but as he enters the race off seventh- and fourth-place finishes, particularly with most of the others in much better recent form, he is hard to endorse.

Top Win contenders:

Vino Rosso

Code of Honor

Elate

You can get Ellis Starr's full-card, detailed analysis and betting recommendations for all the races at Santa Anita Park for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup World Championships Nov. 1-2, at Equibase.com

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