Trends and Tips for Picking a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Winner

Good Magic won the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar, the first year the World Championships were held at the Southern California track. (Eclipse Sportswire)

One of the Breeders’ Cup races that attracts the most attention each year – from dedicated lifelong racing aficionados to the casual fan — is the Juvenile. Almost everyone who has even a passing interest in sports has heard of the Kentucky Derby, and the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance is the first major platform for next year’s Triple Crown hopefuls.

Not only does the race offer a glimpse of what is to come on the next year’s Derby trail, the race typically determines the Eclipse Award for champion 2-year-old male.

While the winner of the Juvenile has not consistently carried that elite form into his 3-year-old season, last year’s race was a springboard to stardom for a deep contingent that includes Essential Quality, Hot Rod Charlie, Jackie’s Warrior and Rombauer. And the five editions from 2015 to 2019 produced racehorses like Nyquist, Brody’s Cause, Exaggerator, Rated R Superstar, Classic Empire, Practical Joke, Good Magic, Firenze Fire, U S Navy Flag, Game Winner, Mr. Money, Mind Control, Complexity, and Well Defined, who went on to graded stakes success in subsequent years.

This yearly feature looks back at past editions of the race to see what the last 20 editions of the Juvenile tell us about the main attributes of a typical winner. We’ll then apply that knowledge to assess the 2021 TVG Juvenile Presented by TAA at Del Mar on Nov. 5.

The first thing that jumps out to me is that this a race that frequently produces upsets with 14 of the last 20 winners paying at least $10 on a $2 bet and eight of the 20 producing winners at double-digit odds. So, that seems like the ideal place to start.

Looking for Longshots

Storm the Court upsets in 2019. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Favorites can and do win the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but six times in the last 20 years the winner has rewarded backers with a win payout of $29.80 or more for a $2 win bet. As valuable as that can be – an upset win can single-handedly give a bettor a profitable weekend – imagine how much even the 10 winners that paid $15 or more during this span boosted the value of multi-race tickets for gamblers who included them. Let’s explore the odds of the Juvenile winners and take a closer look at the upset winners.

  • Only four favorites have won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile in the last 20 years: War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010), Shanghai Bobby (2012), and Game Winner (2018).
  • While there have also been six winners between 7-2 and 5-1, that leaves quite a few longshot winners, including eight who crossed the finish line first at 10.50-1 or higher.
  • That has helped boost the average odds of the Juvenile winner to 11.4-1 with a median of 5.9-1. Even using the median, a $13.80 winner can be the key to a terrific score in vertical or horizontal bets.
  • Of the eight double-digit odds winners, four were higher than 25-1 odds: Action This Day, 26.80-1 in 2003; Wilko, 28.30-1 in 2004; Vale of York, 30.60-1 in 2009; and Storm the Court, 45.90-1 in 2019.
  • Let’s take a closer look at the double-digit winners, but we’ll start by eliminating from the equation Vale of York, who shipped in from Italy and posted a shocking upset on a synthetic main track.
  • All of the other seven double-digit longshots (not counting Vale of York) finished in the top three in their final prep race, but only two won and both of those winners came out of a maiden special weight race score.
  • Four of the seven ran third and were beaten by open lengths, with three running third in Grade 1 races and Wilko coming out of a Group 2 race in Europe. So, it might be worth looking closer at the horses who rounded out the exacta/trifecta in key prep races knowing 2-year-olds can improve dramatically at this time of year.
  • Storm the Court inherited an uncontested pace after 9-10 favorite Dennis’ Moment stumbled badly at the start in 2019, but the other six longshot winners profiled as stalkers or closers and four of them were eighth or worse after the first quarter-mile and half-mile. (Note: Storm the Court also profiled as a stalker entering the race.)
  • These seven double-digit longshot winners (not counting Vale of York) were on average more than 6 ¾ lengths back after a half-mile, but that dramatically changed by early stretch as on average the seven were about a head in front, which to me indicates an explosive turn of foot among this group.
  • Six of the seven had only one win to their credit entering the Juvenile. Wilko had two wins from 10 starts, but the other six longshots we are looking at averaged just under three starts (2.83) with a median of three races.
  • Six of the seven had posted an Equibase Speed Figure of at least 106 with an average of 107.1 and a median of 108.5.
  • My main takeaway from the seven double-digit longshots (not counting Vale of York) is to look for lightly raced prospects who have either been competitive against elite stakes competition or are coming off a maiden win. It also helps if they have shown the ability to rate off the pace and make a sustained late run.

Let’s Discuss the Favorites

Uncle Mo dominates in 2010. (Eclipse Sportswire)

The Juvenile has produced quite a few upsets in recent year, but what stands out when taking a closer look at the winning favorites? Over the last 20 years, they have definitely fit a specific profile.

  • The four winning favorites mentioned above – War Pass (2007), Uncle Mo (2010), Shanghai Bobby (2012), and Game Winner (2018) – combined for 12 starts before the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and won them all.
  • All four capped unbeaten, Eclipse Award-winning campaigns in the Juvenile.
  • All four came out of Grade 1 wins and three came out of a victory in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.
  • The only one of the four who did not lead from start to finish was Game Winner, who profiled as a stalker entering the 2018 Juvenile. He raced four lengths back in sixth after a half-mile and was within a head of the lead in early stretch.
  • Three of the four won by 2 ¼ lengths or more; only Shanghai Bobby, who won by a head in 2012, was seriously challenged in the stretch.
  • Only one of the four had previous experience in two-turn races.
  • The six winners in the 7-2 to 5-1 range all had different running styles, but all six had a graded stakes win to his credit. Five of the six entered the Juvenile off a graded stakes win – Vindication (2002), Stevie Wonderboy (2005), Nyquist (2015), Classic Empire (2016), Essential Quality (2020) – with the other, Midshipman in 2008, coming off a runner-up finish by less than a length in a Grade 1.
  • Like the four winning favorites over the last 20 years, Vindication, Nyquist, and Essential Quality all capped unbeaten 2-year-old seasons with Juvenile wins.
  • The six winners in the 7-2 to 5-1 range had won 16 of their 20 lifetime starts entering the Juvenile. Four of the six had a career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figure or better and five of them had experience in two-turn races.

Other Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Tidbits

2014 Juvenile winner Texas Red. (Eclipse Sportswire)

We covered quite a bit of information in the segments above as far as how they pertained to longshot winners or favorites, so rather than revisiting all of the same points as it relates to the 20 Juvenile winners on the whole, let’s focus on some key overall takeaways from this sample of races.

  • Eight of the 20 winners came out of a final prep race in California and four came out of the Champagne Stakes.
  • All 20 winners were third or better in their final prep race.
  • Eighteen of the 20 won or were within three lengths of the winner in their final prep race with only Texas Red (third by 4 ¾ lengths behind American Pharoah in the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes) and Storm the Court (third by 8 ¼ lengths in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes) serving as exceptions.
  • Only two winners were not stakes winners or graded stakes-placed entering the race and they both entered off maiden special wight wins.
  • Nine of the 20 winners had already won a Grade 1 race.
  • Running style is not especially important as stalkers-closers have won the majority of the 20 races but six winners profiled as pace/press-the-pace types.
  • In 2017, which was the lone previous Breeders’ Cup held at Del Mar, the winner (Good Magic) shipped in from New York off a runner-up finish in the Champagne Stakes. The second- and third-place finishers were the runner-up (Solomini) and winner (Bolt d’Oro) from the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes at Santa Anita Park.
  • Good Magic was fourth, three lengths back, after an opening half-mile in :46.75 in the 2017 edition at Del Mar and had opened a one-length lead in early stretch.
  • This is more of a fun fact, but 19 of the 20 were bred in Kentucky with Irish-bred Vale of York the lone exception in 2009.

Evaluating the 2021 Juvenile Contenders

Last year, all four of the horses identified as most likely winners (2) and live longshots (2) for the Juvenile were among top five finishers with Essential Quality winning and Keepmeinmind rounding out the top three at 30.90.1. The only runner among the top five not in that group was 94.40-longshot runner-up Hot Rod Charlie.

Corniche (Eclipse Sportswire)

For the 2021 Juvenile, I think you have to start with Champagne Stakes winner Jack Christopher and American Pharoah Stakes winner Corniche. The former is 2-for-2 for three-time Eclipse Award winner Chad Brown, who won this race in 2017 with Good Magic, and the latter totes the same record for Hall of famer Bob Baffert, who is seeking his fifth win in the Juvenile.

Jack Christopher would be the fifth Champagne winner in the last 15 years to win the Juvenile should he prevail. He’s proven at the Grade 1 level coming off a win and he’s an undefeated runner who probably will be the favorite. His 100 Equibase Speed Figure and 102 Beyer Speed Figure for the Champagne win cement his credentials as a win candidate, although you could make a case that he might have distance limitations and has yet to race around two turns.

Like Jack Christopher, Corniche could cap an unbeaten season in the Juvenile, something that has happened in nine of the last 20 editions. He enters off a 3 ¼-length runaway win in the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita, a race that has produced the Juvenile winner four times in the last seven years. Corniche has been dominant in his two starts, is proven at the Grade 1 level and at the 1 1/16-mile distance, and pacesetters have won four of the last 20 editions of the Juvenile. The Quality Road colt is a very real threat to give Baffert his fifth win in the race.

Pinehurst (Eclipse Sportswire)

Like Corniche, Pinehurst in an unbeaten Grade 1 winner trained by Baffert. He has not raced since winning the Runhappy Del Mar Futurity Sept. 6 in his second career start and has never raced beyond seven-eighths of a mile. He’s 2-for-2 on the main track at Del Mar. It will be interesting to see if all-time leading Breeders’ Cup jockey Mike Smith opts for Corniche or Pinehurst, but I would lean toward Corniche.

For those looking for an appealing longshot in line with some of the identifying characteristics mapped out above, I see positives in Oviatt Class, Commandperformance, and Giant Game.

Oviatt Class is a deep closer trained by Keith Desormeaux, who won the Juvenile in 2014 with another runner with that profile, Texas Red. He did not get much in the way of pace to set up his finishing speed in the American Pharoah when closing from more than 11 lengths back to finish third. Given that Jack Christopher, Corniche, and Pinehurst all boast early speed, Oviatt Class could get an ideal setup on the track where he ran his best race when winning at one mile and earning a 91 Equibase Speed Figure.

Commandperformance, like 2017 Juvenile winner Good Magic, is winless in two starts before the Juvenile and comes off a runner-up finish in the Champagne Stakes. He also did not get an ideal setup from a pace perspective in the one-turn mile race but ran the fastest final quarter-mile and eighth of a mile in that race and could take a step forward at a big price for trainer Todd Pletcher, who has won the Juvenile twice.

Giant Game is the one I think could really light up the toteboard Nov. 5 at Del Mar. He improved significantly when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles Oct. 9 at Keeneland and showed more tactical speed compared with his debut third-place finish. He won by three lengths in a race that was just so-so from a speed figure perspective, but this half-brother to multiple graded stakes winner Isotherm could take a step forward for Dale Romans. Two horses coming off maiden wins in the last 20 years orchestrated upsets in the Juvenile: Action This Day (26.80-1 odds in 2003) and New Year’s Day (10.50-1 odds in 2013).

I really respect Jack Christopher, but it’s tough to look past Corniche on top and when I’m putting together exotic tickets, I’ll be liberally using both Oviatt Class and Giant Game.

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