Using History to Handicap the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Turf

Gambling
St Nicholas Abbey won the 2011 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Churchill Downs, one of six winners for trainer Aidan O’Brien in the race’s history. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If beautiful grass courses and top-class international competition are elements of horse racing you find appealing, then your favorite race of the Nov. 6-7 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland Race Course should surely be the $4 million, Grade 1 Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Held over 1 ½ miles, the Turf typically draws an elite field featuring a handful of horses shipping in from Europe, making the race a classic “America vs. the World” showdown.

Of course, handicapping a field filled with foreign runners is easier said than done. With this in mind, we’ve taken a look at the history of the Breeders’ Cup Turf to uncover a few noteworthy tips and trends helpful for narrowing down the list of contenders.

Let’s examine some of the key data to consider:

Any running style can prevail

The Breeders’ Cup Turf tends to unfold in fair fashion, with every running style having a roughly equal chance at victory. Highland Reel (2016) went gate-to-wire, Found (2015) and Magician (2013) came charging from far behind, and many others have won from stalking or mid-pack closing positions. Class is what counts in the Turf – if you’re good enough, you can win from anywhere.

Year

Winner

Position after first 1/2-mile

½-mile & ¾-mile times

(course condition)

2019

Bricks and Mortar

7th by 2.75 lengths (12 starters)

48.44, 1:13.26 (firm)

2018

Enable

6th by 5 lengths (13 starters)

49.11, 1:14.22 (good)

2017

Talismanic

5th by 3.5 lengths (13 starters)

48.33, 1:12.86 (firm)

2016

Highland Reel

1st by 2.5 lengths (12 starters)

48.00, 1:12.70 (firm)

2015

Found

7th by 26.75 length (12 starters)

48.38, 1:12.64 (good)

2014

Main Sequence

9th by 4 lengths (12 starters)

47.76, 1:11.15 (good)

2013

Magician

11th by 14.5 length (12 starters)

46.94, 1:10.67 (firm)

2012

Little Mike

3rd by 3.5 lengths (12 starters)

46.77, 1:10.80 (firm)

2011

St Nicholas Abbey

5th by 3 lengths (9 starters)

50.09, 1:14.67 (good)

2010

Dangerous Midge

2nd by 2 lengths (7 starters)

50.17, 1:15.91 (firm)

2009

Conduit

7th by 16 lengths (7 starters)

45.14, 1:09.24 (firm)

Favorites must be included in the superfecta

Between 2004 and 2017, a span of 14 years, just one favorite managed to prevail in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. But recent years have seen a new trend emerge, with favorites Enable (2018) and Bricks and Mortar (2019) getting the job done at short prices. In addition, the favorite has finished fourth or better in the last 12 editions of the Turf, so if you’ve been betting against favorites entirely, you haven’t been cashing any superfecta tickets.

Bet foreign-bred runners, especially Irish-breds

Magician in 2013. (Eclipse Sportswire)

No country has dominated the Breeders’ Cup Turf as thoroughly as Ireland. Over the last 26 years, 13 Breeders’ Cup Turf winners have been bred in Ireland, with all but one of them shipping in from overseas to secure their Breeders’ Cup victory. Great Britain, France, and Germany have also produced winners of the Breeders’ Cup Turf, and all told, 21 of the 37 Breeders’ Cup Turf winners have been bred in Europe.

Foreign interests have also enjoyed Breeders’ Cup Turf success with horses bred in North America. Overall, 16 of the last 22 winners of the Turf were based overseas at the time of their Breeders’ Cup victory, leaving few wins for the home team.

Bet Aidan O’Brien and Sir Michael Stoute

Much of Ireland’s success in the Breeders’ Cup Turf is owed to trainer Aidan O’Brien. The acclaimed Irish conditioner has won the Turf a record-setting six times (all with Irish-breds), securing four of the last nine renewals with Highland Reel (2016), Found (2015), Magician (2013), and St Nicholas Abbey (2011). Furthermore, 14 of O’Brien’s 25 Breeders’ Cup Turf starters have finished in the top three.

The record of Sir Michael Stoute is just as impressive with four wins and two seconds in the Turf from just 15 starters, including back-to-back wins with Conduit in 2008-09.

Bet Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore

Two of the most successful jockeys in Breeders’ Cup Turf history are Frankie Dettori and Ryan Moore. Dettori has ridden five winners from 17 mounts while finishing fourth or better on 11 occasions. Moore’s record is arguably even more impressive – 4 wins, 2 seconds, 3 thirds, and 1 fourth from 10 rides. When Dettori and/or Moore are slated to ride in the Turf, it’s wise to sit up and take notice.

Grade/Group 1 winners are tough to beat

It usually takes a horse of proven quality to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Eight of the last ten winners had previously nabbed victory in a Grade 1 or Group 1 race, suggesting inexperienced and up-and-coming types are significantly less likely than established stars to win the Turf.

Fillies and mares hold their own against males

When a filly or mare enters the Breeders’ Cup Turf, it’s good to pay attention. Over the last five years, five females have tried their luck against males in the Turf, with Found nabbing top honors in 2015 and Enable leading home Magical for a 1-2 finisher in 2018. There’s no reason to assume fillies and mares can’t hold their own against males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf – to the contrary, they’re in the hunt for victory more often than not.

A recent victory isn’t critical

A major key to winning the Breeders’ Cup Turf is to peak in the championship event, not in your previous race. Six of the last ten Breeders’ Cup Turf winners were beaten in their final prep run, often while facing tougher competition in the prestigious Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in France. Four of the last ten Breeders’ Cup Turf winners contested the Arc a few weeks prior, though only Enable managed to prevail in both races.

Conclusions

Magical (Eclipse Sportswire)

Admittedly, in a year as bizarre as 2020, it’s hard to place much faith in historical guidelines. But assuming trends of the past hold true at the Breeders’ Cup, we can expect a European shipper to prevail in the Turf.

While the international contingent is still firming up, Aidan O’Brien could saddle a formidable duo. The Irish-bred mare Magical, runner-up in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Turf, looms a dangerous threat after winning Group 1 stakes this season. But the British-bred Mogul could be even tougher after posting a decisive victory in the Group 1 Grand Prix de Paris running 1 ½ miles at Longchamp. The son of Galileo has been ridden by Ryan Moore in four of his five starts this season and could become the third 3-year-old since 2013 to win the Turf.

But a victory for O’Brien isn’t guaranteed – not with Tarnawa in the mix. An Irish-bred filly conditioned by Dermot Weld, Tarnawa has compiled a perfect 3-for-3 record in 2020, most notably rattling off victories in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille and Group 1 Prix de l’Opera. She handles 1 ½ miles just fine and is proven over a wide variety of course conditions, so no matter what weather arises at Keeneland, Tarnawa shouldn’t be affected. The Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf is another option for Tarnawa, but if her connections opt for the Turf, watch out. She’ll warrant plenty of respect.

Good luck with your handicapping, and enjoy the race!

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