The path to the 2016 Breeders’ Cup is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 13 championship races. This blog provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders’ Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were a week or two ago.
For this week’s edition, there were so many great candidates to choose from that I had to leave out quite a few impressive winners. Among them was California Chrome, who confirmed his credentials as the top racehorse in training and the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But Chrome was already on top, so the focus this week was the big risers and fallers.
In hindsight, it’s pretty clear that Gormley did not get the respect he deserved for winning his career debut by 4 ¼ lengths. That should not be the case after he dominated the FrontRunner Stakes on Oct. 1 at Santa Anita Park, setting the pace and winning by a comfortable three lengths over heavily favored Klimt. The race was run a bit strangely in that Secret House broke with his jockey standing on the side of the starting gate and it looked like the riders of two other runners were not expecting the gates to snap open, but Gormley looked incredibly powerful, improved his Equibase Speed Figure by 20 points to a 104 when stretching out from 6 ½ furlongs to 1 1/16 miles and won at the track and distance of the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. He’s also in the capable hands of John Sherriffs, who is best known as the trainer of Hall of Famer Zenyatta but also won the Kentucky Derby in 2005 with Giacomo. Gormley’s dam (mother), Race to Urga, won five of eight starts, including a stakes race on the grass at 1 1/16 miles.
Entering the Grade 1 Zenyatta on Oct. 1 at Santa Anita, I felt pretty confident Beholder would turn the tables on Stellar Wind. I was wrong. Last year’s champion 3-year-old filly appears to have developed into an even better 4-year-old. She’s defeated three-time champion Beholder in back-to-back races, and both times she outfinished her rival in a thrilling stretch duel. Right now, she is the best horse in training in the older female division and looms a major threat in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. Unbeaten Songbird will be the big star leading up to this year’s Distaff, but Stellar Wind is battle-tested and has never been better. She’s also only raced three times so far this year, so Stellar Wind should be plenty fresh for the Breeders’ Cup. She’s also improved her speed figure in each race this year.
The yielding turf at Belmont Park this weekend led to some unusual results, most notably a dull effort from superstar Flintshire in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes, so I had trouble deciding what to make of the 2-year-old races on the grass. My biggest problem is that I really like both winners — Oscar Performance in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes on Oct. 1 and New Money Honey in the Grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes on Oct. 2 — but for very different reasons. Oscar Performance has won his last two races in front-running fashion by 10 ¼ lengths on firm turf and by six lengths on the yielding ground in the Pilgrim. It’s a style that should work well in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf and he a horse with the pedigree to continue to improve: he is by 2004 champion turf male Kitten’s Joy out of stakes winner Devine Actress, by 1987 champion turf horse Theatrical. I really like his chances to vie for the early lead and hold on for at least a top-three finish in the Juvenile Turf. As for New Money Honey, I’ve always gauged turf runners by how they finish their last quarter-mile or so. Pace is always a question on the grass — sometimes you’ll get a nice tempo to close into and other times, like the Miss Grillo, the runners will stroll through a half-mile in :51.57. But turf races most often are won with finishing speed and New Money Honey completed her last five-sixteenths of a mile in the Miss Grillo in a blistering :27.25. Keep in mind that was on turf rated as yielding. Now, I’m not sure how she will fare on what promises to be firmer ground in Southern California in November for the Juvenile Fillies Turf, but I do expect her to be flying late for a trainer, Chad Brown, who has won the race twice, including 2014 with Lady Eli. Six of Brown’s seven Breeders’ Cup wins came on grass and he has eight other top-three finishes in the Breeders’ Cup, all on turf.
I feel almost guilty not including Avenge in the top three of this week’s list, but there were so many terrific races last weekend that I had to eliminate a few worthy candidates. Avenge won the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes in front-running fashion on Oct. 1 for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. All seven of Mandella’s Breeders’ Cup wins have come at Santa Anita Park, host of this year’s World Championships, and Avenge looks like she’s really come into her own as a 4-year-old for a patient trainer. She’s now won three straight races after primarily sprinting for the first nine races of her career. She’s shown improved ability at longer distances (although she’s also very good on the unique downhill turf course where the Turf Sprint will be contested) and she’s posted Equibase Speed Figures between 108 and 113 in her last three races, so she’s been consistently good. Give her a long look on Breeders’ Cup day and let your eyes hover over the name Mandella for a few extra seconds when deciding whether to include Avenge on your tickets.
Heading into the Grade 3 Eddie D. Stakes, held in two divisions on Sept. 30, I felt pretty strongly that Lady Shipman was the best turf sprinter in the United Stakes. But she had never run on the unique downhill turf course at Santa Anita Park, which is the course for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. Unfortunately, it did not go as well as I had hoped. Lady Shipman ran sixth and never really threatened. She really had nothing left for the stretch run after tracking from fifth. When the Turf Sprint is held at Santa Anita Park, the race is won by runners — often specialists like Mizdirection — who relish that particular turf course. I didn’t see anything from Lady Shipman in the Eddie D. that indicated she felt at home on the downhill turf course.
It looked like Klimt got away a little slowly in the FrontRunner Stakes after the race started with Secret House’s jockey still standing on the starting gate and a riderless horse scampering to the front. He still ran respectably to finish second, beaten by three lengths by Gormley, but I expected more from the 3-10 favorite who four weeks ago I proclaimed the favorite for the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. The biggest concern is that Klimt didn’t appear to have quite the late punch in the FrontRunner, which was his first time stretching out in distance to a race longer than seven furlongs (seven-eighths of a mile). My hope is that the FrontRunner provides Klimt with a little more foundation and his second attempt going around two turns in the Juvenile leads to an improved effort. That said, FrontRunner winner Gormley sure looked strong in victory and Not This Time was impressive in winning the Iroquois Stakes on Sept. 17, so Klimt is no longer the leading contender for the Juvenile.
This is a tough one to write because Runhappy is a personal favorite of mine, but in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Handicap on Oct. 1 he didn’t look like the horse I thought was the fastest in training when he won the Malibu Stakes on Dec. 26 to wrap up the Eclipse Award as champion sprinter. To be fair, the Ack Ack was his first race in more than nine months, but it seemed to me to be an unusual spot for his return. Here is a racehorse who has been an absolute beast in sprints and struggled in his only previous race beyond seven-eighths of a mile when ninth in the 2015 Lecomte Stakes. I understand his connections have been targeting the Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and, hopefully, in January the $12 million Pegasus World Cup at 1 1/8 miles. But coming off the bench at one mile when Runhappy is the best sprinter in the world seemed like an odd choice rather than a gradual progression to a mile. Runhappy faded to fourth in the six-horse field after leading through six furlongs in 1:10.22. It was not a terrible race from the champion, but it also wasn’t the freakish display of raw ability we’ve become used to seeing from Runhappy. Hopefully, he’ll get enough out of that race to be at his best in the Breeders’ Cup.