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 Gary and Mary West’s Game Winner, winner of the $300,000, Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita Park on Sept. 29, a “Win and You’re In” race for the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile on the Nov. 2 Future Stars Friday card at Churchill Downs.
With three wins in as many starts by a combined margin of 11 ¾ lengths and a couple of Grade 1 victories, Game Winner looks like the most likely favorite for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. In his first try navigating two turns in the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes, the bay Candy Ride colt delivered a dominant 4 ½-length victory as the 3-10 favorite. Let’s take a closer look at this unbeaten 2-year-old.
Ben Glass, the racing manager and bloodstock adviser for Gary and Mary West, purchased Game Winner for $110,000 at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale, a modest price for the second session of the prestigious sale. For comparison, the average price for the session was $248,562 and the median was $200,000.
Game Winner made his debut for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert on Aug. 18 at Del Mar and showed good early speed from the outside post in a nine-horse field, settling in just off the pace before taking command on the turn en route to a 5 ¾-length runaway.
He came a little wide into the stretch, but for all intents and purposes it was a professional debut. Game Winner earned a 96 Equibase Speed Figure.
He has continued to show that professionalism in two subsequent stakes starts and he flashed a new dimension in his stakes debut in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity. Game Winner bumped with the horse to his inside early and dropped well off a swift half-mile in 45.35 seconds – the official Equibase chart lists him as five lengths back after a quarter- and half-mile, but it looks on the replay like it could easily be seven or eight lengths – before he launched a sustained rally on the final turn. He switched leads effortlessly entering the stretch and then shifted gears to inhale pacesetter Rowayton inside the final sixteenth of a mile, pulling away to win by 1 ½ lengths.
He earned a 102 Equibase Speed Figure, and equally promising were a 93 Beyer Speed Figure from Daily Racing Form and a 97 speed figure from Brisnet.
Although Game Winner’s pedigree indicated he should have no problem stretching out in distance, moving from sprinting to a two-turn race is always a hurdle for 2-year-olds. He handled the challenge adeptly in the American Pharoah.
Following a much slower pace set by Rowayton – 47.50 seconds for the first half-mile – Game Winner tracked right off the leader’s outside flank from second and took charge when given his cue by jockey Joel Rosario entering the stretch. Using an efficient stride, he put away the pacesetter in early stretch and was able to coast to the finish line late in another dominant victory.
“He came out of the Del Mar Futurity really well,” Gary West said. “He’d been training well and we thought he’d like two turns. His family all liked a mile and a quarter, but you never know until they do it.”
Game Winner earned a new career-best 107 Equibase Speed Figure and a career-top 97 Beyer Speed Figure, which is very promising for his first try at 1 1/16 miles, and paired his 97 Brisnet figure.
“I can’t take credit for this horse. The Wests [owners Gary and Mary] and their team found this horse and trusted me with him,” Baffert said. “I just want to get there [Breeders' Cup] with a nice, healthy horse. This horse tipped us off this summer that he was going to be a good one. He is strong and he still looks a little heavy.
“I don’t plan to do too much with him before the Breeders' Cup. The good ones get there.”
We’ll get a little more into Game Winner’s pedigree below, but he looks like a true two-turn horse who has the speed to put himself in good position early in the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile. That tactical speed can be a huge advantage in a big field, like you typically see in Breeders’ Cup races.
There do not appear to be any glaring weaknesses with Game Winner, but there are a few concerns if you are looking for an opening. The Juvenile will be his first time shipping out of Southern California, and it’s fair to question the quality of competition he has faced in stakes to date – five challengers in the Del Mar Futurity and four in the American Pharoah. Game Winner also looks like more of a grinder than a 2-year-old with explosive acceleration.
Expect Game Winner to run well on Nov. 2 in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. I’d be surprised if he didn’t have a shot to win in the stretch and he looks like perhaps the safest bet to finish in the top three.
Game Winner is by top sire Candy Ride, who set a track record for 1 ¼ miles when winning the Pacific Classic Stakes in 1:59.11 in 2003. Candy Ride has been a versatile sire with elite runners on dirt, synthetic, and turf surfaces, led by 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner and champion Shared Belief. Candy Ride’s top runners typically possess good speed and the stamina to carry it a long way.
The bottom half of this pedigree also offers significant reason for optimism. Game Winner’s dam (mother) is Indyan Giving, by 1992 Horse of the Year and Belmont Stakes winner A.P. Indy. While Indyan Giving was unraced, her dam (Game Winner’s grandam [maternal grandmother]) is 2006 champion older female Fleet Indian, a Grade 1 winner at 1 1/8 miles and 1 ¼ miles who won 13 of 19 career starts.
Game Winner should continue to excel as the distances get longer, and he certainly looks well equipped from both a talent and pedigree perspective to win the Juvenile.