Breeders’ Cup Under the Microscope: Analyzing the Sprint Contenders

Imperial Hint fits the profile of most Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners from the past 20 years as he prefers to race close to the early lead and enters the 2018 Sprint in excellent form. (Eclipse Sportswire)

For the second year in a row and the sixth time in the last eight years, the Breeders’ Cup Sprint will feature the previous year’s winner seeking a repeat victory.

Can Roy H succeed where many others have failed and become only the second back-to-back winner of the most prestigious dirt sprint in North America and, arguably, the world?

A deeper dive into the last 20 editions of the race should offer several helpful clues about Roy H’s chances on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs to join Midnight Lute as the second two-time Sprint winner.

Roy H wins the 2017 TwinSpires Sprint. (Eclipse Sportswire)

While Thoroughbred racing in the U.S. has been trending in recent years toward more races on grass, dirt sprints remain the most common races, meaning this division typically is loaded with talent. This year, the TwinSpires Sprint appears to be one of the most competitive races on the World Championships card.

Over the last 20 years, the Sprint favorite is clicking at only 25 percent with five winning favorites and there are quite a few interesting nuggets that come out of the historical data for this three-quarter-mile race.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the last 20 editions of the Sprint. First, let’s take a closer look all 20 races to try to identify some historical trends that could provide a key angle or two to consider. Since this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Churchill Downs, I’ll then narrow the scope to go in depth on the five editions of the Sprint held under the Twin Spires in Louisville over the last two decades.

Finally, we’ll evaluate this year’s contenders to try and identify the runners that best fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner and those that might be vulnerable.

What are some of the key takeaways from the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint?

  • As with many Breeders’ Cup races and handicapping in general, recent form is a powerful indicator. Fourteen of 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners won their final prep race with 19 finishing in the top three in their final prep race. Midnight Lute prepped for his repeat Sprint win in 2008 by finishing 10th in his first start in nine months.
  • Stretching back a few starts to take a deeper dive into recent form, the 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners amassed 34 wins, 16 seconds, and four thirds from 58 starts before the Breeders’ Cup from June through October in the year that they won.
  • The recent form numbers improved this year with Roy H replacing Elmhurst in the 20-year window: Sprint winners ran first or second in 86.2 percent (34 wins, 16 seconds in 58 starts) of their races from June through October over the last 20 years with only four unplaced finishes combined! Look for a string of 1s and 2s from June through October in the past performances.
  • Eighteen of the 20 winners were graded stakes winners, including nine Grade 1 winners (10 if you count Secret Circle, who had won an ungraded Breeders’ Cup race, the now-discontinued Juvenile Sprint). The two others – Dancing in Silks in 2009 and Thor’s Echo in 2006 – both were stakes winners.
  • Talented 3-year-olds have a big shot in this race. There have been seven 3-year-old Sprint winners in the last 20 years. Improving 3-year-olds, such as Promises Fulfilled this year, can be very dangerous.
  • Only five favorites have won the Sprint in the last 20 years, but it’s certainly not historically a bombs-away longshot race. Twelve of the last 20 winners prevailed at 5.20-1 odds or less with 10 winners less than 4-1 and six less than 3-1.
  • Six horses won at double-digit odds from 1998-2017 with four winners at 15-1 or higher. Dancing in Silks prevailed at 25.30-1 on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park in 2009 and Cajun Beat won at 22.80-1 odds in 2003. Cajun Beat briefly tried his hand on the Kentucky Derby trail before entering the Breeders’ Cup as an improving 3-year-old who had really excelled when shifting back to sprints.
  • Tactical speed appears to be another key component when evaluating past Sprint victors. Closers have won only two of 20 editions of the Sprint from  1998-2017. Both times it was Midnight Lute, a monster of a racehorse.
  • Twelve of the last 20 Sprint winners were racehorses whose preferred running style entering the race was either setting or pressing the pace. Some of them had to settle a little farther back than normal in the Breeders’ Cup to avoid a speed duel, but tactical speed is incredibly valuable in the Sprint.
  • Three Sprint winners led after the opening quarter-mile from 1998-2017 with that number growing to six after a half-mile. Ten winners were first in early stretch – roughly an eighth of a mile remaining – and all 20 winners were third or better at that point in the race.
  • The average winner was 2.14 lengths back after the opening quarter-mile and racing third/fourth, 1.34 lengths back after a half-mile, and dueling for the lead in early stretch. Median paints an even rosier picture for horses with tactical speed with the winner one length back at both the quarter- and half-mile points in the race and a head in front in the stretch.
  • The average margin of victory is 1.213 lengths with a median of three-quarters of a length over the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprints.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure for the last 20 editions of the Sprint is 118.6 with a median of 118.5.
  • Drefong failed in his repeat bid last year, finishing 7 ¾ lengths behind winner Roy H in a sixth-place finish. Roy H will get his shot to repeat this year and he will also need to buck history as only one of eight repeat bids in the last 20 years (Midnight Lute in 2008) was successful.

How do the stats change when we narrow the focus to the Breeders’ Cup Sprints held at Churchill Downs in 1998, 2000, 2006, 2010, and 2011?

  • Recent form again holds significance all five winners finished first or second in their final prep with three coming in off a win and two horses that ran second by a length or less.
  • Looking at the pre-Breeders’ Cup starts from June through October (not counting the Sprint), the five winners won half of their combined 14 starts with four seconds and two thirds. Thor’s Echo’s fourth in a stakes race on the grass is the only unplaced finish among the 14 total starts, good for 92.9 percent in the top three from June through October.
  • Four of the five Sprint winners at Churchill Downs from 1998-2017 had won at least one graded stakes with Thor’s Echo, a stakes winner, the lone exception.
  • One of the five winners was a 3-year-old.
  • Three of the five winners came out of a final prep race at Santa Anita Park.
  • Only one favorite, Kona Gold at 1.7-1 in the 2000 Sprint, won from the five editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Churchill from 1998-2017.
  • Three of the five winners prevailed at odds between 3.8-1 and 7.9-1 with Thor’s Echo at 15.6-1 the lone winner at double-digit odds.
  • The average odds for the winner in the five editions of the Breeders’ Cup held at Churchill from 1998-2017 is 6.84-1 with a median of 5.2-1.
  • No horse that profiled as a closer has won in the five editions of the Sprint at Churchill from 1998-2017. The running style of the victor has varied, however, with two pacesetters, one horse that typically pressed the pace, and two stalkers.
  • Both average and median running position after the opening quarter-mile were third for these five editions of the Sprint. The winner was an average of 1.6 lengths back with the median at one length back after a quarter of a mile.
  • Three of the five winners were in front after the first half-mile and another runner was second. The lone exception was Amazombie, who was only two lengths back in fourth at that point in the 2011 Sprint.
  • All five winners were first or second in early stretch (about an eighth of a mile remaining) and three were in front by at least 1 ½ lengths.
  • Three of the Sprint winners at Churchill prevailed by at least 1 ½ lengths. The other two were decided by a half-length or less.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure for was 116.4 with a median of 115.
  • In the five editions of the Sprint at Churchill from 1998-2017, only Big Drama entered the race looking for a repeat. He ran seventh in the 2011 edition after winning the race at Churchill the year before.

Which of this year’s contenders fit the typical profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner?

Unlike Drefong a year ago, Roy H does not enter the 2018 TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint as a slam-dunk to be favored in his quest for a repeat. In fact, it’s more than likely that last year’s Sprint runner-up Imperial Hint will enter the starting gate as the favorite on a three-race winning streak.

Let’s start with Roy H and evaluate his chances to win. After running third by three-quarters of a length to Mind Your Biscuits in the Dubai Golden Shaheen Sponsored By Gulf News in March – fellow Sprint hopeful X Y Jet ran second in that Dubai race –  Roy H was given an extended break from training. He looked a little rusty when second by 2 ¼ lengths in July in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes, but the now-6-year-old gelding bounced back to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes by 2 ¾ lengths on Oct. 6. I think his running style fits well for Churchill, he’s shipped east and run a monster race before (2017 True North Stakes at Belmont Park), and he’s been extremely consistent with six wins, two seconds, and a third in nine starts since May 2017 when he found his calling sprinting on dirt. I am concerned that his speed figures have taken a step back from 117 to 128 during a four-race stretch at this point a year ago to a 103 and 111 in his two most recent starts, but I expect Roy H to run well.

Like Roy H, Imperial Hint is about as consistent as a racehorse can be with nine wins and one second in his last 11 starts dating to December 2016. He enters the Sprint off back-to-back clear wins in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap in July at Saratoga and the Vosburgh Stakes on Sept. 29 at Belmont Park, both Grade 1s. Imperial Hint has an exceptionally high cruising speed that allows him to rate off the pace or take command early. He’s too fast naturally to allow another horse to coast through easy fractions; he’d just blow right on by without breaking a sweat. While the Equibase Speed Figures are down slightly from a year ago, he’s run three-quarters of a mile in 1:08.98 and 1:08.27 in his last two races and won comfortably. He is unplaced in two starts at Churchill, which is a concern, but the most recent start came on a sloppy track going seven-eighths of a mile in May and the first was going a mile. I hate to take a favorite on Breeders’ Cup day, but if the track is dry Imperial Hint will be tough to deny.

Promises Fulfilled (Coady Photography)

Promises Fulfilled fits the profile of an improving 3-year-old who could take down the Sprint, and he defeated older males, including solid Sprint contenders Whitmore and Limousine Liberal, to win the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes on Oct. 5. Promises Fulfilled is another with an abundance of speed and does his best running while controlling the pace. After taking a crack at the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve, he cut back to sprints and has won three straight graded stakes, posting Equibase Speed Figures of 113-108-113. Promises Fulfilled might have to take back just off the pace in this race with so many other talented speed horses to avoid getting burned out. He’s done so before, but he’s at his best on the lead and will need to take a step forward to win from a speed-figure perspective. I’m looking elsewhere for my win candidate.

In a couple of his starts this year, Whitmore has shown enough speed to race nearer to the pace than his preferred style, which might be necessary in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. The problem is that seems to sap some of his finishing speed. He has the consistency, the recent form, and a Grade 1 win coming in the Forego Stakes on Aug. 25, but I worry he might just be slightly behind the best of a strong group, and with his running style I’m looking at him for second or third.

Limousine Liberal absolutely loves Churchill Downs, where he has six wins and a second in eight starts, including his last five in stakes races. He’s won on a fast track at Churchill, a wet-fast track, and a sloppy track, so if the rain comes, as is possible next weekend, give him a long look. Limousine Liberal is pretty strong away from Churchill, too, and perhaps ran a winning race in his most recent start at Keeneland when a troubled third behind Promises Fulfilled and Whitmore, beaten by a half-length, in the Phoenix Stakes at Keeneland on Oct. 5. There are many pundits, myself included, who think he would have won the Phoenix with a clean trip. While his last four starts – three thirds and a Grade 2 win in July – don’t look as strong on paper as some others in here, he’s fast enough to win at his best and he will be my key horse in the trifecta.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention X Y Jet. He’s a dazzling speedster capable of a monster race when at his best, but he’s a need-the-lead type who does tend to fade late if he has pressure early. With so much speed in the race and no starts since a Grade 3 win in June, I’ll pass and let him beat me in this spot off a long layoff.

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