With the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” schedule underway for 2018, the time has come to begin sorting the contenders from the pretenders for this year’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
In this week’s Getting to Know feature, we focus on Diversify, winner of the $1.2-million Whitney Stakes on Aug. 4 at Saratoga Race Course to earn a starting spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs.
Last fall after winning the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup, trainer Rick Violette chose to bypass the Breeders’ Cup Classic with Diversify in favor of the Grade 1 Clark Handicap Presented by Norton Healthcare later that November. It was a long-term decision for his then-4-year-old gelding, knowing it was in everyone’s best interest to take a conservative approach with a racehorse who had given his connections so much and still had plenty of racing left in his future with no stallion career on the horizon.
Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic featured a rematch between champion Arrogate, who had won both the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai World Cup, and eventual Horse of the Year Gun Runner, who had emerged as a dominant force.
Like Diversify, Gun Runner also boasted a ton of early speed and the class to carry it a long way, as did eventual Classic runner-up Collected and third-place finisher West Coast. At the time, Violette said he thought it was asking a lot for Diversify to duplicate a career-best performance against a deep field on short rest in a race that would very likely require Diversify to settle off the pace rather than his preferred style, which is leading from start to finish. Looking at the 2017 Classic result, you have to credit Violette and owners Lauren Evans and Ralph Evans for not letting the potential of a huge payday cloud their judgment.
Fast-forward nine months and the future looks fabulous for Diversify.
After closing out his 4-year-old season with a fourth in the Clark and opening his 5-year-old campaign with an unplaced finish in the $1.2-million Charles Town Classic, Diversify has reeled off three straight victories.
He returned to the winner’s circle in the Commentator Stakes at a mile in June before announcing his return to elite form with a 6 ½-length runaway win in the Grade 2 Suburban Stakes on July 7, both at Belmont Park. Improving from a 107 to a 114 Equibase Speed Figure in the Suburban, Diversify looked a racehorse Violette was gradually cranking up to his best.
A dominant, front-running victory in the Whitney on Aug. 4 gave Diversify his second Grade 1 win. Violette said before the race that he considered skipping the race in favor of the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes later in the meet to give Diversify more time to recover from the Suburban, but the Bellamy Road gelding gave him every indication he was ready to race.
Diversify was never seriously challenged in the Whitney, surging away entering the stretch to a 3 ½-length win while completing the 1 1/8 miles on a sealed, sloppy Saratoga main track in 1:49.62. The 118 Equibase Speed Figure was just a tick off the career-best 119 he earned for winning the 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Considering it looks like the Classic division features considerably less high-end speed this year, it stands to reason that Diversify could be able to control the pace if he makes it to the race happy and healthy.
The Classic distance is no issue for Diversify, whose top speed figure came at that 1 ¼-mile distance. And if he ends up in the starting gate, we’ll know he is well intended because Violette has shown he’s willing to take a conservative approach.
While I agree with some of the buzz from the weekend that Diversify must be considered an early favorite for the race, I’m not quite ready to tab him THE favorite.
There is a lot of racing left to go between now and Nov. 3, and Diversify’s two starts outside of New York both were unplaced finishes.
The Clark fourth in November was a race in which Diversify set uncontested pace and still faded late and lost by 3 ¼ lengths. That race came on the main track that will host this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. said: “He was cruising, but about the three-eighths pole it seemed he didn’t handle the track well. He was stumbling a little bit, and I think he lost the bit.”
So, there look to be some legitimate concerns about whether Diversify liked the main track at Churchill last fall, and Diversify probably needs to continue to improve from a speed-figure perspective.
The average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the last 10 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Classic is 121 with a median of 120.5. Some of the main probable top contenders — West Coast (125 career-best Equibase Speed Figure) and Accelerate (126) — both have run faster at this point in their careers.
If I had to pick a Classic winner right now without odds, I’d choose Diversify … but the race looks wide open.
We already know Diversify is capable of a top performance at the 1 ¼-mile distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic; he’s proved as much on the racetrack. So let’s take a look at pedigree to see where he gets his speed and his ability to carry it a long way.
His sire, Bellamy Road, was a dedicated front-runner whose four wins all came leading from start to finish, including a 17 ½-length runaway win in the Grade 1 Wood Memorial Stakes that made him the favorite for the 2005 Kentucky Derby. Unable to get to the front early in the Derby, Bellamy Road finished seventh.
Diversify is Bellamy Road’s top career earner through Aug. 6 and one of 13 group/graded stakes winners by his sire. In addition to Diversify and Canadian champion Sisterly Love, Bellamy Road has sired Grade 1 winners Land Over Sea and Toby’s Corner, both closers, and Constellation, a speedy type.
New York-bred Diversify is out of the Street Cry mare Rule One, who was winless in six starts with one second at 1 1/16 miles. Rule One is a half-sister (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to Lady Digby, a graded stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles on the grass.
Diversify’s grandam (maternal grandmother), Compete, by El Prado, was a winner at one mile on the grass.
It looks like Bellamy Road passed along his high cruising speed to Diversify, along with some stamina, and he gets a nice addition of stamina from the bottom half of this pedigree that includes long-winded broodmare sires Street Cry and El Prado.