Making the Grade, which will run through the 2019 Belmont Stakes, focuses on the winners or top performers of the key races, usually from the previous weekend, who could impact the Triple Crown. We’ll be taking a close look at impressive winners and evaluating their chances to win classic races based upon ability, running style, connections (owner, trainer, jockey) and pedigree.
Forecasting how a 2-year-old who is clearly the class of his generation will stack up against a largely unknown group of peers six months down the road is an impossible task akin to predicting which way the wind will blow on a random April day in 2019 at Wrigley Field. So much can happen between now and then. For example, the next Triple Crown winner could be more than three months away from making his career debut (see, Justify in 2018). It’s hard to predict how any horse will perform in a single race, much less one six months away. But, since we’re always on the lookout for the next Derby winner, let’s take a closer look at Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner Game Winner and why he appears to have a terrific chance to make an impact as a 3-year-old.
Ability: Undefeated in four starts as a 2-year-old, Game Winner capped a perfect 2-year-old season with his fourth straight win by a clear margin in the Juvenile. He won his second start in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity by 1 ½ lengths and each of his other four wins has come by a greater margin than that decisive triumph.
Game Winner was a $110,000 purchase by Ben Glass on behalf of Gary and Mary West at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale. He won his debut on Aug. 18 at Del Mar by 5 ¾ lengths and earned a 96 Equibase Speed Figure before overcoming trouble to rally from just off the pace for another win in the Del Mar Futurity on Sept. 3. He improved six points to a 102 speed figure in a race in which trainer Bob Baffert showed confidence in Game Winner’s mental capacity by removing the blinkers — equipment used to help a racehorse focus — that he wore in his debut.
Stretching out in distance from seven-eighths of a mile to 1 1/16 miles for the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes, Game Winner raced closer to the front and was even more dominant, rolling to a 4 ½-length runaway that earned a new career-best 107 sped figure.
Favored in the Juvenile at even money, Game Winner seized command from a determined Knicks Go in deep stretch and powered clear to win by 2 ¼ lengths.
While his Equibase Speed Figure for the Juvenile dipped to a 102, Game Winner closed the season with four wins in as many starts and his speed figures ranged from a 96 to a 107. He is a lock for the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old male.
Game Winner was fast enough to overwhelm the opposition at three-quarters of a mile with the combination of speed and stamina to excel at 1 1/16 miles.
It would be easy to say that Game Winner never really faced a test in the stretch, but he made up 2 ½ lengths in the final furlong to defeat pacesetter Rowayton in the Del Mar Futurity and Knicks Go fought back when challenged in the Juvenile, but in both cases Game Winner was simply a significantly better racehorse on that day. From the last few years, the Juvenile winner he reminds me most of if Nyquist, who also was versatile, talented, and consistent. Nyquist went on to win the Kentucky Derby in 2016.
Running style: You have to love that Game Winner is fast enough to race within a neck of an opening quarter-mile in 22.41 seconds and win, as he did in his debut, and responsive enough to drop four or five lengths back, as he did in the Del Mar Futurity and Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, and still win in dominant fashion. That type of emotional maturity from a 2-year-old is pretty rare and lends credence to the idea that this is a smart, talented racehorse with room to grow rather than a precocious type simply further developed than his peers.
Connections: Baffert has trained two Triple Crown winners in the last four years. He’s a Hall of Famer with a special knack for knowing how to get dirt horses to peak at the opportune time for marquee races. The four-time Eclipse Award winner has amassed 15 victories in U.S. classic races since his first Kentucky Derby win with Silver Charm in 1997. Simply put, there is no better trainer at getting a talented classic hopeful ready for the Triple Crown.
Gary and Mary West have been involved in the Thoroughbred industry for more than three decades and previously won the Juvenile with New Year’s Day, who was trained by Baffert but never raced again after the Breeders’ Cup.
The Wests also race West Coast, a multiple Grade 1 winner who ran third in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic and second in the 2018 Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup. The Wests are winless with three Kentucky Derby starters.
Jockey Joel Rosario had a fantastic 2018 Breeeders’ Cup World Championships, winning three races, including the Juvenile Fillies with Jaywalk and the Classic with Accelerate, to bring his career total to nine. Rosario has won more than 2,500 career races with classic victories in the 2013 Kentucky Derby with Orb and the 2014 Belmont Stakes aboard Tonalist.
Pedigree: Game Winner is from the 11th crop of Candy Ride, who was unbeaten in six career starts and set a Del Mar track record for 1 ¼ miles in 1:59.11 when winning the 2003 Pacific Classic Stakes by 3 ¼ lengths. His success carried over to his second career as a stallion.
A versatile sire, Candy Ride has proved capable of siring elite racehorses sprinting and going around two turns as well as on turf and dirt. Candy Ride is probably best known as the sire of 2017 Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic victor Gun Runner as well as champion Shared Belief. His best runners seem to combine his dazzling turn of foot with a healthy dose of stamina. In addition to the aforementioned Gun Runner, Shared Belief, and Game Winner, other Candy Ride runners with a blend of this combination of speed and stamina include Grade 1 winners Misremembered, Sidney’s Candy, Twirling Candy, Ascend, and Mastery.
The bottom half of this pedigree likewise offers reason for optimism. Game Winner is out of an unraced mare named Indyan Giving, by 1992 Belmont Stakes winner and Horse of the Year A.P. Indy. Game Winner’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Fleet Indian, was a Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles and 1 1/8 miles who was named champion older female in 2006.
It’s almost impossible to make any statements on the following year’s Triple Crown in November, but Game Winner absolutely looks like a colt who will be heard from as a 3-year-old and with a better chance than most Juvenile winners to become only the third horse to sweep the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Derby.