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

Mitile (fourth from left, white jockey cap) won the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita to close out a championship season. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Sprint races on the dirt are a fixture of North American racing and a staple of daily racecards at racetracks across the United States, so it comes as no surprise that the very best dirt sprinters typically are bred and race here and that the Breeders’ Cup Sprint regularly is a highlight of the World Championships.

Every year, I take an in-depth look at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, the FanDuel Mile Presented by PDJF, the TVG Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance, and the Longines Classic to try to uncover pieces of information that might be helpful to racing fans handicapping these races.

Using the past 20 years of data, we’ll kick off the 2020 series with the Sprint.

In the three years that I’ve produced this feature for the sprint, Roy H in in 2017 was my top choice and Mitole a year ago boasted the best profile, and both ran up to expectations. I was less enthusiastic about Roy H in 2018 because the Sprint is a very difficult race to repeat in and his speed figures were trending in the wrong direction, but I made the case that he remained a serious contender.

Before we get to evaluating the contenders for 2020, let’s take a look at the past to find out what is most important when looking for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner.

Recent Form Trumps All

This is a basic tenet of handicapping horse racing so it comes as no surprise, but the past 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint have been dominated by horses who were performing up to lofty expectations against quality opposition. How good have Sprint winners been?

  • Fourteen of the last 20 Sprint winners entered off a victory in their final prep race, including eight of the last nine.
  • The last four entered the race off Grade 1 wins and the last six won graded stakes in their final prep race.
  • Only one of the last 20 Sprint winners entered the Breeders’ Cup off an unplaced finish and that was Midnight Lute, who missed almost all of his 2008 season after winning the Sprint in 2007 and ran 10th in his only start before he scored a repeat victory.
  • Eighteen of the last 20 Sprint winners ran second or better in their final prep race.
  • Extending back beyond the final prep, the numbers are even more illuminating. From June of their respective year through the Breeders’ Cup (not counting the actual World Championships race), eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners amassed 33 wins from 53 starts with a remarkable 50 top-three finishes.

That’s right, only three times in the last 20 years did a Sprint winner finish outside the top three in a race from June through their final prep race. That is the type of consistency handicappers should be looking for when evaluating this race.

Trinniberg in 2012. (Eclipse Sportswire)

What Running Style Has Been Most Effective?

Some races set up better for particular running styles and the Sprint certainly fits into this category as the last 20 years paint a pretty straightforward picture of what type of runner historically has been most effective. Tactical speed is an extraordinarily valuable asset in just about every type of race, with the possible exception of turf marathons, and speed is a key theme here.

  • The main trend here is to avoid deep closers on top. Of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners, only Midnight Lute in 2007 and 2008 profiled as a true closer.
  • Eleven of the last 20 winners entered the race as pacesetters or press-the-pace types, and if you include three winners who fit a stalker/presser profile, the number rises to 14.
  • The race itself shaped up a bit differently, which makes sense because many sprinters boast high cruising speed and often horses who raced on or near the lead in preps were forced to drop back a bit farther than usual in the Sprint.
  • Average position after the opening quarter-mile was 3.9 (essentially fourth) with a median position at the first point of call of fourth. The average winner was within 2 ½ lengths of the lead with the median at 1 ½ lengths back after a quarter-mile.
  • Average running position after a half-mile was 2.95, so on average the winner was third with a quarter-mile remaining, while the median was 2.5, so between second and third. On average, the winner was a little more than 1 ½ lengths back at this point in the race and the median was 1 ¼ lengths back of the winner at the quarter-pole. Five winners were in front at the quarter-pole.
  • Winners typically did not leave too much to do in the stretch as, on average, the winners were less than a neck behind the leader at the eighth pole with a median of a head. Nine of the 20 winners had taken the lead by this point in the race.

Dancing in Silks in 2009. (Eclipse Sportswire)

How Do the Favorites Fare?

When it comes to the Breeders’ Cup, everyone poring over the past performances is looking for a longshot play. There’s nothing like uncovering a double-digit winner than can lead to a profitable weekend with a hefty score on just one race. But some races are better suited for upsets than others, so let’s take a closer look at how the Sprint has played over the last 20 editions.

  • The average odds for the winner over the last 20 years has been 8.09-1 with a median of 4.4-1 odds.
  • Five times in the last 20 years, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint was won by the favorite.
  • Eleven winners were less than 5-1 odds with another (Big Drama in 2010) prevailing at 5.20-1.
  • It’s been a bit of an all-or-nothing race when it comes to longshots with six double-digit winners in the last 20 years and four winners at 15-1 or higher odds.
  • Dancing in Silks, at 25.3-1 odds, is the biggest longshot during the 20-year span, while Cajun Beat won at 22.80-1 in 2003 and Work All Week prevailed at 19.10-1 for three winners that returned $40 or more for a $2 bet.
  • Four of the double-digit winners won their final prep and the other two ran second by a length or less, so keep an eye out for an overlooked contender in good form that might not have the name recognition of some of the others.

Other Interesting Tidbits

I’m not sure how much value there will be in several of these items. Some feel like they should be useful, and I’ll start with those, while others read more like fun facts.

  • Don’t rule out the 3-year-olds taking on older horses in the Sprint. Six times in the last 20 years, a 3-year-old won the race and there was value there with average winning odds of 10.60-1 and a median of 10.75-1. Four of the six entered off a win in a graded stakes and the other two ran second in their final prep.
  • If you are looking for a baseline speed figure, the average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint over the last 20 years has been 118.8 with a median of 119.5, so you want to be sure you’ve landed on a contender who is within striking range of that type of number.
  • The average margin of victory has been 1.3 lengths with a median of 0.875 (between a length and three-quarters of a length). Eight editions were decided by a half-length or less with four ending with a winning margin of a neck or less.
  • The average number of lifetime starts before the Breeders’ Cup for Sprint winners over the last 20 years is 13.15 with a median of 13. For the year of their Sprint win, winners averaged five races with 2.8 wins while the median was also five starts but with three wins.
  • Fifteen of the 20 winners were bred in Kentucky. Three others were California-breds with one Florida-bred (Big Drama, 2010) and one Illinois-bred (Work All Week, 2014).

Which 2020 Contenders Fit the Profile?

I think you have to start off with C Z Rocket here given he’s won all four of his starts since June and enters the Breeders’ Cup Sprint off a victory by a head in the Grade 2 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes. Sure, you’d like to see a Grade 1 win on his résumé, but the 118 Equibase Speed Figure he earned in his most recent race would be good enough to win the Sprint in many years. Trainer Peter Miller has won this race in two of the last three years. C Z Rocket won a race at Keeneland in July, he’s 2-for-2 at the Lexington track, and he has tactical speed. In short, C Z Rocket is a logical contender with a big shot.

The runner-up and third-place finisher from the Santa Anita Sprint Championship also bring impressive credentials into the race: Flagstaff and Collusion Illusion, respectively.

Flagstaff (Eclipse Sportswire)

Flagstaff has won only once this year, but he’s also run second four times in his six races in 2020. His fourth in the June 7 Triple Bend Stakes at Santa Anita Park is a knock against, but the Equibase Speed Figures (106 to 117 in 2020) indicate he’s fast enough and he typically races very close to the front. The lone exception was a fast-closing second in the Grade 3 Count Fleet Stakes when he broke slowly. Flagstaff has a chance to run well, but I think I prefer him underneath and I will want to see value on the toteboard. There is a chance his odds might drift up depending upon the overall strength of the field, in which case Flagstaff could offer significant appeal.

I actually slightly prefer Collusion Illusion to Flagstaff. As mentioned above, 3-year-olds fare well in the Sprint having won 30% of them in the last 20 years. Collusion Illusion has two wins and a third in three starts since June, including a win in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes in August. With a 116 Equibase Speed Figure for the Bing Crosby and a 115 for his third, beaten by 1 ¼ lengths, in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, the Twirling Candy colt is fast enough to win, especially if he can take a small step forward with six weeks rest entering his eighth career start. He already has a Grade 1 win on his résumé and tactically he can stalk or press the pace.

Vekoma (Eclipse Sportswire)

Vekoma has not raced since July, but he’s been absolutely dominant in three starts this year since shortening up to compete exclusively in sprints after he was on the Kentucky Derby trail in 2019. Vekoma won the seven-furlong, Grade 1 Runhappy Carter Handicap by 7 ¼ lengths (116 Equibase Speed Figure) June 6 and followed with a 1 ¼-length win in the Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (118 speed figure) July 4, both at Belmont Park. The four-month layoff is a concern, but Vekoma won the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes on the main track at Keeneland in 2020, he’s been flawless this season, he’s proven at the Grade 1 level, and he’s a press-the-pace type with an ideal running style for the Sprint.

Complexity is an interesting candidate given his success this season while racing exclusively in one-turn races. He’s posted two wins and a second in three starts in 2020 with all of his races coming since July, but his races came at distances ranging from seven-eighths of a mile to a mile so he might be better-suited to the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile. He dueled for the early lead in the Grade 2 Kelso Handicap Oct. 3 at Belmont and pulled away to win by 2 ¼ lengths for a 115 Equibase Speed Figure. With a Grade 1 win on his résumé, comparable speed figures, and an ideal running style, Complexity would merit consideration should trainer Chad Brown decide to try him in the Sprint.

Like Complexity, Diamond Oops has not spent the year competing against the dirt sprint division. He started out the year running in the Pegasus World Cup Invitational, won a Grade 2 turf sprint in September, and most recently won the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes at the track and distance of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Although he does not have a Grade 1 win on his résumé, he’s posted Equibase Speed Figures in the 116-117 range three times sprinting on dirt and boasts terrific recent form with two wins and a second in three starts since June. He got off to a terrible start in the 2019 Dirt Mile, but tactically he profiles as a stalker/presser type that usually is dangerous.

Yaupon (Eclipse Sportswire)

Another intriguing contender is 3-year-old Yaupon, who improved to 4-for-4 lifetime in winning the Grade 3 Chick Lang Stakes Oct. 1 at Pimlico and has led at every point of call in his last three wins. He did not debut until June 20 at Churchill Downs, but each of his last three wins has been by open lengths for trainer Steve Asmussen, who won the Sprint a year ago with Mitole. Yaupon will need to take a step forward – he earned a 106 Equibase Speed Figure winning the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes in August and a 105 for the Chick Lang – and he does not have a Grade 1 win to his credit, but he has some appeal as an improving 3-year-old with plenty of early zip.

Asmussen also has lightly raced Nashville, who improved to 2-for-2 with a 9 ¾-length runaway victory in allowance company at Keeneland on Oct. 10. While he has terrific cruising speed, impressive speed figures, a win at Keeneland, and strong recent form, the complete lack of experience against stakes competition is a big concern for me. I don’t think this is an especially strong group for the Sprint, so that gives me some reason for optimism, but in an ordinary year I’d definitely be playing against him.

Several contenders I’m not as optimistic about in general and specifically using what recent history has taught us are: Firenze Fire, Whitmore, and Echo Town. Firenze Fire is just a bit too inconsistent for me and I think a faster pace than he’s been facing will force him farther back than optimal. Whitmore enters off back-to-back unplaced finishes, and I think he’s been a more logical contender in past years in the Sprint when he ran third (2019) and second (2018). I needed to see more from Echo Town in the Phoenix, when he was third by 2 ¾ lengths after an unplaced finish in the Grade 2 Pat Day Mile Presented by LG and E and KU at Churchill. He might be able to close for a share if the pace is especially fast, but I have trouble envisioning him winning the race.

I think Vekoma is the most likely Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and I expect Collusion Illusion and Flagstaff to run very well. I’ll make the former my pick to win and box the three for my Breeders’ Cup Sprint exacta.

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