Using Breeders’ Cup Mile History to Build Profile of Winner, Evaluate 2020 Contenders

The field for the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Mile hits the homestretch, with eventual winner Tourist (second from right, white jockey cap and silks) splitting horses to bid for the lead. (Eclipse Sportswire)

One-mile races on the grass are, in my opinion, the best races in the sport of Thoroughbred racing for betting and pure enjoyment. It is a distance and surface that draws sprinters stretching out, true milers, and more stamina-oriented racehorses cutting back in distance and often seeing a completely different race shape.

These one-mile grass races are a true test of ability and class, and over the years the Breeders’ Cup Mile has often produced a winner almost as notable, if not more so, than the Classic victor.

Mile winners like Goldikova, Wise Dan, and Tepin brought enough star power to headline their own racecard and shined on the brightest stage.

The 2020 FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF figures to follow suit as a terrific race that could produce the fourth repeat winner in the last 20 years as Uni attempts to become the sixth horse to win the Mile twice since its inception in 1984.

The Mile typically draws an exceptional field and this year’s event should boast a depth of quality runners that equals and/or exceeds almost all of the races at the World Championships. There are some significant trends to consider when looking for a winner, so let’s dig into the last 20 years of Breeders’ Cup Miles (2000-2019) and build the profile on a winner.

When it Comes to Speed: Better Late Than Early

Wise Dan in 2012. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In most races on the Breeders’ Cup card, you’ll be looking to identify racehorses with an advantage as it pertains to tactical speed. Horses who can set, press, or stalk the pace depending upon race shape are especially dangerous in dirt races, and they can also parlay that into a big advantage in the Juvenile Turf races and Turf Sprint as well. But in the Mile, deep closers with explosive finishing speed have dominated.

  • The Mile has not been won by a pacesetter or a horse that profiled as a pacesetter in the last 20 editions. In fact, no runner who was in front after the opening quarter-mile or half-mile has won the race during this 20-race sample.
  • Eight of the last 20 winners were 10th or worse after the first quarter-mile, and 13 of the last 20 winners were sixth or worse after the first half-mile.
  • World Approval in 2017 entered the Mile as a press-the-pace type runner; the other 19 winners included three who profiled as press the pace/stalkers and 16 who profiled as either stalkers, stalker/closers, or closers. Six winners profiled as closers.
  • Mile winners from 2000 through 2019 were, on average seventh/eighth (7.6) after the opening quarter-mile and between 5 ¾ and six lengths back. The median for the opening quarter is in eighth position and 5 ¾ lengths off the pace.
  • Similarly, after the first half-mile the median winner was seventh and 4 ¾ lengths back with an average of a little more than five lengths off the pace (5.1625).
  • I’ve mentioned this in previous editions of the blog, but explosive turn of foot seems to be the common characteristic among the winners. Note the average winner improved to less than 1 ½ lengths (1.34) back in early stretch with a median of third, 1 ¼ lengths behind the leader.

Class is Key

Goldikova in 2009. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Strong recent form is almost always the most important element to handicapping races, especially stakes. It makes sense – horses who have been running well typically continue to do so, while horses come off a bad race or a string of bad races are far more unpredictable. While Mile winners over the last 20 years have been very good, winning 51 of 99 races (51.5%) during the calendar year BEFORE the Breeders’ Cup, proven class seems to be a better indicator than impeccable form.

  • Thirteen of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Mile winners had at least one Grade/Group 1 win to their credit entering the race and the other seven all were at least Grade/Group 2 stakes winners.
  • Twelve of the last 13 Mile winners were Grade 1 winners.
  • While the past 20 editions of the Mile indicate proven class is a must, a victory in the final prep race has been only 50/50 as 10 of the last 20 winners entered the race off a victory.
  • In fact, three of the Mile winners in the time frame entered the race off an unplaced finish and seven were third or worse in their final prep.
  • Seven runners entered the Mile off a Grade/Group 1 win and three others entered off a Grade/Group 2 victory.

Any chance for an upset?

Tepin in 2015. (Eclipse Sportswire)

When looking at this race, keep in mind there were a number of superstars who prevailed as the heavy favorite. While the Breeders’ Cup Mile has been won seven times in the last 20 years by the post-time favorite, this is a race that often produces a longshot winner if you know where to look.

  • Of the aforementioned seven favorites to win the Mile from 2000 through 2019, Goldikova (2008, 2009, 2010) and Wise Dan (2012, 2013) accounted for five of those chalk winners. The other two were War Chant at 7-2 in 2000 and World Approval at 2.70-1 in 2017.
  • The median odds of the Breeders’ Cup Mile winner from 2000 through 2019 was 5.2-1 with the average ballooning to 11.30-1 thanks to four winners at 24.30-1 odds or higher.
  • The Mile has produced six winners at double-digit odds over the last 20 editions: 12.40-1 Tourist in 2016, Singletary at 16.50-1 odds in 2004, Miesque’s Approval at 24.30-1 in 2006, Domedriver at 26-1 in 2002, Karakontie at 30-1 in 2014, and Court Vision was the biggest longshot in the race’s history, winning at 64.80-1 odds in 2011.
  • Digging deeper into the double-digit longshot winners, only Domedriver in 2002 entered the race off a win, taking the Group 2 Prix de la Rochelle by head in France.
  • The other five were all third or worse in their final prep race with three unplaced while beaten by open lengths. Of course, two of the three were proven Grade 1 winners.
  • It’s worth taking a closer look at the “other” European invaders, because typically their connections have good reasoning behind shipping across the Atlantic. While European shippers who are well-regarded can and do run well, another longshot shipper, Karakontie in 2014, was a Classic winner in France who struggled when stretching out in distance but regained his elite form when cutting back to a mile and racing on firm turf.
  • From the group of six double-digit winners, four profiled as closers, Tourist was a stalker/closer, and Singletary profiled as a stalker. None was better than fifth after the opening half-mile and five of the six were seventh or worse after the opening quarter-mile.
  • I’ll be keeping an eye out for closers with proven class who might be coming out of final prep races that are better than they look on paper. In turf mile races where eight to 12 horses are in a pack sprinting for the finish, traffic trouble can lead to a result not necessarily indicative of performance.

Anything else of note?

Expert Eye (#7) in 2018. (Eclipse Sportswire)

There is so much to dissect with the Mile, which is why it is probably my favorite race of the year, so let’s dig into some other fun nuggets.

  • Three of nine repeat bids over the last 20 editions have been successful: Goldikova in 2009 and 2010 (she failed in 2011) and Wise Dan in 2013. Four of the other six finished in the top three, so there is a strong chance Uni runs well, especially give she’s coming off a win on this turf course at Keeneland.
  • Three-year-olds have won 25% of the last 20 editions of the race: War Chant in 2000, Six Perfections in 2003, Goldikova in 2008, Karakontie in 2014, and Expert Eye in 2018. The last four all shipped over from Europe, so give European 3-year-olds a closer look.
  • Likewise, females have performed quite well in the Mile, winning six times in the last 20 years and 10 times overall – including eight European shippers – since the first edition in 1984.
  • Eleven of the last 20 Mile winners were bred outside of the U.S.
  • The race is typically won by true milers rather than sprinters stretching out or longer-distance runners cutting back as the average race for the last 20 winners was 8.21 furlongs (eight furlongs in a mile) with a median of 8.25.
  • Ten of the last 20 editions of the Mile were decided by less than one length with the average margin of victory 1.125 lengths (between a length and 1 ¼ lengths) and the median 0.875 lengths (between three-quarters of a length and a length).
  • The average winning Equibase Speed Figure was 120.2 with a median of 120.5.
  • Seven of the last 20 Mile winners came out of a final prep race in France, six prepped in Kentucky, three raced at Santa Anita Park, three more raced at Woodbine, and one raced at Belmont Park in New York.

Which 2020 Contenders Fit the Profile?

Unlike the Longines Classic and TVG Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance and more like the Breeders’ Cup Sprint – all of which I did a similar race profile looking at the last 20 years – I think the Mile is a race where you can really build a profile of what the winner should look like. 

A quick glance at the past performances for this field reveals an unusually deep, talented group in the U.S., plus a number of intriguing European invaders headlined by Two Thousand Guineas winner Kameko and Irish Two Thousand Guineas winner Siskin. There is not an obvious standout but there really are a ton of quality milers this year. I don’t think it’s a stretch to say any one of maybe 10 or 11 horses could legitimately win. Let’s see which of this year’s contenders fit the mold of a Mile winner and which ones might have a big chance at a big price.

Uni (Eclipse Sportswire)

Starting with the U.S.-based hopefuls, Uni is seeking a repeat in the Mile which has proven a significant challenge over the past 20 years with only a 33% success rate. She does have quite a few historical positives going for her as she was bred outside the U.S., she’s a closer with explosive finishing kick, comes out of a Grade 1 win in the First Lady Stakes Presented by UK HealthCare on the Keeneland turf in which she was a bit closer to the pace than usual, and is proven capable of the 120ish Equibase Speed Figure it most likely will take to win. 

Uni’s Chad Brown-trained stablemate Raging Bull also is a multiple Grade 1 winner bred outside U.S who enters off a solid second at Keeneland in Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile Oct. 3. He is winless in his last three at Keeneland and has a habit of leaving too much ground to make up late. He might be a better play to round out the trifecta unless there is a blistering early pace, which is a possibility.

A Brazilian-bred multiple Group 1 winner in Argentina, Ivar turned heads with a powerful victory from off the pace in the Shadwell Turf Mile. According to Trakus data, Ivar completed the final quarter-mile in an ultra-swift 22.39 seconds to rally from seventh of nine to first by a length. He won earlier this year in the U.S. while setting the pace, so Ivar has some versatility in his arsenal and he’s fast enough to win with a career-best 119 Equibase Speed Figure on the turf course that will host the Mile.

Factor This has won five of his last six and according to Beyer Speed Figures the multiple Grade 2 winner is the fastest horse in the race. Combined with that consistency, Factor This probably will be a somewhat popular pick, however, he is MUCH better when setting pace or at least pressing, and I expect he’ll have company up front from elite milers Halladay and Newspaperofrecord, which could compromise the chances of all three. I’m looking elsewhere for a winner, but Factor This is a serious threat to finish in the top three.

Newspaperofrecord is another hopeful from the barn of Chad Brown. The Irish-bred 4-year-old filly is a multiple Grade 1 winner, including the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. But running style is a significant negative here as five of her six wins were wire-to-wire victories and she faded late in First Lady despite a fairly easy pace after facing competition up front. I’ll probably play against Newspaperofrecord, but keep her in mind in the case of rain and softer ground that would boost her chances.

Another possible female contender is Beau Recall, an Irish-bred 6-year-old mare who will be making her 31st start in the Mile. She is a multiple Grade 2 winner and a closer, but I think she might be in a little too deep against this quality of competition, although she ran well when second to Uni at this course and distance in the First Lady.

Digital Age (Eclipse Sportswire)

One of my favorite longshots for Breeders’ Cup weekend is Digital Age, an Irish-bred Invincible Spirit colt who has taken a big step forward as a 4-year-old as evidenced by his explosive late surge to win Grade 1 Old Forester Bourbon Turf Classic Stakes Sept. 5 at Churchill Downs for Chad Brown. Digital Age was always well-regarded and has finished very well in his last two races. One mile might be a little short for him, but he won his first two career races at this distance, and in his fourth start of 2020 could be primed big effort. Brown has been complimentary when discussing Digital Age, so I’m hoping he doesn’t become a “buzz” horse thereby depressing his odds.

I’m a big fan of Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap winner Halladay, but not so much in this spot. Like a few others I mentioned, he is a need-the-lead type who has been out since that Aug. 22 victory at Saratoga, and this is a tall order off 11 weeks rest.

Starship Jubilee is a superb multiple Grade 1-winning 7-year-old filly coming off a career-defining victory over males in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile. While she faced a strong field in the Woodbine Mile, I still think this is a fairly big step up in competition. Her first preference is the Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf, and I believe that is a better spot for her.

A Group 1 winner in his native England, Without Parole has three Grade 1 placings in the U.S., including a third in last year’s TVG Mile, but he has not been able to get over hump in the states as he’s winless in six starts. The price will be right on this stalker-closer, but I view others as better finishers from the expected group that will be rallying from off the pace.

Moving onto the probable European invaders, I found this to be a really intriguing group.

I'm probably going to come out of this looking like a fool, but I think Siskin is a little bit overrated and I look forward to playing against him in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Mile. The Irish Two Thousand Guineas winner enters the Mile off disappointing starts in his last two (third and fourth in Group 1 races) after opening his career with five straight wins. He’s had some starting gate trouble in the two recent races, but I’m more concerned that maybe his 2-year-old form was elite but his peers have caught up to him. A European classic winner from a powerful Juddmonte Farms family passes the class test, but I worry that this looks like a late addition to the schedule after Juddmonte announced he would be retired at season’s end. I prefer others.

I'm a big fan of English Two Thousand Guineas winner Kameko, who enters off a nice Group 2 win. Two of his three defeats this season came at 1 ½ miles and 1 5/16 miles, which I hope improves his odds because I think he's best at one mile. In his other defeat, he was hemmed in along the rail for much of final quarter-mile of the Group 1 Qatar Sussex Stakes and really had no chance because of the brutal trip. That race was better than it looked and I think his Sept. 25 win in the Group 2 Shadwell Joel Stakes at one mile is more in line with what to expect at the Breeders’ Cup. He enough speed to tuck in behind the early leaders or drop back to mid-pack depending upon pace, and I think he fires big at Keeneland.

Circus Maximus (Eclipse Sportswire)

There are some positives and negatives when it comes to Circus Maximus, an Irish-bred 4-year-old multiple Group 1 winner who has finished in the top three in 10 of 16 career races and is a true miler in every sense of the word. Fourth in last year’s Mile, Circus Maximus had an excuse in his last race with soft turf, but has really has not been very good of late. He’s a bounce-back candidate worth watching on tote board, but I would absolutely demand value and prefer him underneath.

The last two European invaders I’ll touch on are sprinters stretching out in distance, One Master and Safe Voyage, which is not an angle that has been especially productive in this race. One Master was bred in England by Lael Stables of Barbaro fame and the 6-year-old mare ran fifth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 2018. She’s run seven times in 2020 with a Group 1 win in France and five top-three finishes. I prefer Safe Voyage slightly and the Irish-bred multiple Group 2 winner has been very good this year in his 7-year-old campaign, especially his last five races with three stakes wins and a third on heavy ground. He’s won a pair of Group 2 races and most recently finished third by a neck to One Master in the Qatar Prix de la Foret on heavy turf. He’s fast enough to stalk and was ultra-game in victory in Group 2 Boomerang Mile Sept. 12 at Leopardstown. I’m not a huge fan of European sprinters stretching out in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, but I like what I see from Safe Voyage and I expect to get great value.

As you can see, there looks to be a ton of quality lining up for the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Mile and it could be the best betting race on the card. I plan to center my bets around Kameko and Digital Age and also use Safe Voyage heavily, especially underneath. I’ll plan to bet against the speed horses and against Siskin on top and in multi-race wagers.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!