The path to the 2017 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 3-4 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.
I’ve always been a Takaful skeptic … always. I’ve never picked him to win a race and never wagered a dime on him, so to rank first here after a weekend that featured a couple of dozen major Breeders’ Cup preps between North America and Europe, he’s earned his way onto this list. After a failed bid on the Triple Crown trail, Takaful returned this summer at Saratoga Race Course as a sprinter. He led from start to finish to win an allowance race against older horses by 5 ¼ lengths in July and then ran second to highly regarded Practical Joke, who passed him at the eighth pole, in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes. But his win in the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes on Sept. 30 was powerful for a number of reasons. First, he tackled top older males in a stakes for the first time and defeated top TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint contender El Deal by a length. Second, he showed a new dimension in the Vosburgh, which was his first victory in which he did not lead from beginning to end. He rated a length behind El Deal and dug in gamely when the time came to challenge to pacesetter, pulling away late. Expect those tactics to be especially useful in the Breeders’ Cup. Finally, he recorded a new career-best 122 Equibase Speed Figure, a 16-point jump from his previous top. While that is a bit concerning in that he could regress off such a big effort, keep in mind he’s an improving 3-year-old who received a three-month freshening midseason, and he probably only needs to pair that figure with five weeks rest to be a legitimate threat in the Sprint.
Ulysses was my pick for last year’s Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf as a 3-year-old with a Group 3 win to his credit and coming off a runner-up finish in a group stakes. He ran respectably to finish fourth in the Turf, beaten by 6 ¼ lengths by winner Highland Reel with 2016 champion Turf male Flintshire second and last year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe winner Found third. But Ulysses has been much better this season while racing against top competition in Europe. He won the Group 1 Coral Eclipse Stakes and Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes along with a season-opening group stakes win. Ulysses also ran third in the Group 1 Prince of Wales’s Stakes (beaten by 1 ¼ lengths by Highland Reel) and second to superstar Enable in the Group 1 King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Last weekend, Ulysses finished third in the 2017 Arc de Triomphe, won by the aforementioned Enable, and, along with Arc runner-up Cloth of Stars, he is scheduled to ship to Del Mar for the Longines Turf. If Highland Reel makes the trip as well for Aidan O’Brien, a Longines Turf featuring Cloth of Stars, Ulysses, Highland Reel, and the top American runners led by multiple Grade 1 winner Beach Patrol would make for a great race. But with how Ulysses has progressed this season for Sir Michael Stoute, I expect he’ll be my pick again.
There were SO many options for this last spot that I was tempted to hedge and make it a tie, but instead I’ll go out on a limb and pick one and review the rest in the honorable mentions section. I landed on Significant Form from the barn of trainer Chad Brown thanks to her impressive one-length win in the Grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes that should serve as an ideal springboard to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Brown has won two of the last three editions of the Juvenile Fillies Turf and three of nine in the race’s history, but more to the point Brown is a magician with talented, young horses on the grass. And make no mistake, Significant Form has talent. While her Equibase Speed Figure for the Miss Grillo (89) was not inspiring, I’ve mentioned before that I find turf races typically come down to which runners have the best closing kick. Significant Form has that and then some. She finished the final five-sixteenths of a mile in about 28 1/5 seconds, which is essentially flying on four legs for a 2-year-old making her second start, with a final sixteenth in 5.78 seconds. She finished almost as fast in her debut, pulling away to cross the finish line 2 ¼ lengths clear of her rivals only to be disqualified and placed seventh for interference entering the first turn of the race. Significant Form is from the second crop of Grade 1 winner Creative Cause and is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to Hay Dakota, winner of the Grade 3 Commonwealth Turf Stakes at Churchill Downs in 2016. Expect Significant Form to vie for favoritism in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, and a Brown-trained filly with tactical speed and an explosive finishing kick should be very dangerous.
HONORABLE MENTIONS: There really are too many to mention here, but I’ll start with Archaggelos, a half-brother to champion Big Brown who won the Grade 3 Grey Stakes on Oct. 1 at Woodbine impressively for trainer Michael Dickinson. He’s won on turf and the synthetic Tapeta Footings surface (invented by Dickinson) at Woodbine and could be a viable candidate for either the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile or the Juvenile Turf. … We skipped last week’s edition of this blog, but let’s not forget how impressive West Coast was in winning the Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 23 for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. He probably merits much more than a mention here and has a legitimate shot to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. … Moonshine Memories extended her unbeaten record to 3-for-3 by acing her first test around two turns in the 1 1/16-mile, Grade 1 Chandelier Stakes on Sept. 30. Trained by Simon Callaghan with two wins on the main track at Del Mar, Moonshine Memories already was a serious contender for the 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Chandelier confirmed that she’ll handle the distance. … I had to leave out a slew of winning favorites: Beach Patrol earned his second straight Grade 1 win and is in peak form for trainer Chad Brown, confirming his place as the top U.S. contender for the Longines Turf; Bolt d’Oro, profiled in this week’s Getting to Know feature, looked like an absolute superstar in winning the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes and will be my pick in the Juvenile; Elate overwhelmed the opposition as the 3-10 favorite in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes (her first test against older females) and looks like a top Longines Distaff threat; and Paradise Woods got back to her best with a win at 1-2 odds against older females in the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella. … Mubtaahij halted a 10-race winless stretch with a victory in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 30 and punched his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Classic for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. … Trainer Graham Motion’s Just Howard won his fourth straight with a visually impressive win over Voodoo Song on Sept. 30 in the Grade 3 Commonwealth Derby Presented by the Virginia Equine Alliance and the Virginia HBPA. … Seabhac stepped forward as a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf with a half-length score in the Grade 3 Pilgrim Stakes on Sept. 30.
After winning the Grade 2 Eddie Read Stakes and Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap in back-to-back starts, I thought Hunt might be a legitimate contender for the Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Of course, I wasn’t sure if he would have a better shot in the Breeders’ Cup Mile or the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf as the former seems a little short for him and the Turf probably is too long. But in the 1 ¼-mile, Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship Stakes on Oct. 1 at Del Mar, he came up empty late and faded to seventh in the eight-horse field. The steady drop from his career-high 120 Equibase Speed Figure in the Eddie Read to a 110 in the Del Mar Handicap and a 101 for the John Henry is alarming. It’s really tough to reverse form this late in the season when you are facing many of the best horses in the world, especially when the target race isn’t your best distance. The John Henry was a read head-scratcher from a 5-year-old gelding who had been very consistent this year.
The 4-year-old Tapit colt’s fourth-place finish in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes wasn’t a terrible race by any stretch, but I did expect Cupid to handle what was a fairly soft group of opponents in the 1 1/8-mile prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He was positioned well in third behind a moderate pace with every shot to win, but Cupid just didn’t have a whole lot left and faded to fourth as the 6-5 favorite while stablemate Mubtaahij surged past on his way to victory. Cupid entered the race off wins in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Harry F. Brubaker Stakes that both earned 113 Equibase Speed Figures. He looked like another strong candidate for the Breeders’ Cup Classic from the Bob Baffert barn that already has Arrogate, Collected, and West Coast. Instead it was Mubtaahij who punched his Classic ticket, while Cupid looks like he’s got significant ground to make up to be a Classic contender. Or, perhaps Baffert might consider sending him to the Las Vegas Dirt Mile.
After back-to-back runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Gamely Stakes in May and the Grade 2 John C. Mabee Stakes in September, I really thought Goodyearforroses would deliver a huge effort in the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes on Sept. 30 and earn her second graded stakes win. The bay 5-year-old mare was in great position in fourth then second, but she really flattened out late and faded to eighth as the 11-10 favorite in the nine-horse field. A multiple stakes winner at 1 ½ miles, I don’t think it was the 1 1/4-mile distance that caused the precipitous decline from 114-117 speed figures in her last two races to a 99 in the Rodeo Drive. She had three wins and a second in four previous starts at Santa Anita, so it’s also not the surface. With no obvious excuse, sometime you just draw a line through a race and move on, but for Goodyearforroses tackling the best of the best off a dud seems like a really tall order. I’d feel much better about her chances had she shown a little more fight in the Rodeo Drive stretch.
Of note: With no Heating Up, Cooling Down blog last week, we missed a couple of news items about talented horses who appeared to be on target for the Breeders’ Cup. Irap is recovering at the University of Pennsylvania’s New Bolton Center from a frightening career-ending injury suffered in his runner-up finish in the Pennsylvania Derby. He’d developed into a tough, consistent 3-year-old from the spring into the fall, so it’s sad to see his career come to an end but I’m absolutely thrilled he’s doing well in his recovery. Coal Front improved to four wins in five starts with a half-length score in the Grade 3 Gallant Bob Stakes on the Pennsylvania Derby undercard. He earned a new career-best 118 Equibase Speed Figure and rebounded from his first loss. But he, too, will be sidelined after he was diagnosed with a fractured condylar bone. Coal Front is expected to make a full recovery.