Is Pavel a Serious Breeders’ Cup Classic Contender?

Pavel earned a place in the Breeders' Cup Classic with his win in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs.
Pavel earned a place in the Breeders' Cup Classic with his win in the Stephen Foster Handicap at Churchill Downs. (Eclipse Sportswire)

With the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” schedule in full swing 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 Reddam Racing’s Pavel, winner of the Grade 1, $500,000 Stephen Foster Handicap on June 16 at Churchill Downs to earn a guaranteed starting spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

After running fourth in his previous four starts, three in Grade/Group 1 races, Pavel halted a six-race winless stretch with a dominant 3 ¾-length win in the Stephen Foster. The victory was Pavel’s most important in his career to date and his third win in 10 lifetime races.

Over the previous eight months, Pavel had battled some of the top runners in the Classic division, finishing behind Diversify, eventual Horse of the Year Gun Runner, and City of Light in his final three starts of 2017. He then finished fourth behind the accomplished Accelerate in the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes, shipped over to Dubai where he was fourth in the $10 million Dubai World Cup, and finished fourth again behind Accelerate in the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita Park.

While he ran well in several of those races, he had only come close to winning one time during the six races that followed a six-length romp in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes in September 2017.

What Pavel had shown during that winless stretch was that he was very capable of holding his own against top-level competition, but he had not quite been able to match strides with the best of the best … until the Stephen Foster.

O'Neill pats Pavel after his win.
O'Neill pats Pavel after his win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

In the 1 1/8-mile Stephen Foster, Pavel stalked the pace from fourth and opened up a three-length lead in early stretch as 4-5 favorite Backyard Heaven faded badly late. Second betting choice Irish War Cry reacted poorly to the heat (he subsequently was diagnosed with a severe case of the “thumps”) and was pulled up in the stretch.

Pavel completed his final three-eighths of a mile in 37.26 seconds for a convincing victory. He tied a career-high with a 117 Equibase Speed Figure – matching the number he got when third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup – and earned his first Grade 1 win at the racetrack that will host the Breeders’ Cup in November.

Pavel has been highly regarded since his debut, a 4 ½-length runaway that gave his trainer, Doug O’Neill, the confidence to test him in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes in his second start. While he ran fourth in his stakes debut, he bounced back to win the Grade 3 Smarty Jones with a 111 Equibase Speed Figure in just his third start and since then has competed in six Grade/Group 1 races and one Grade 2 race.

Pavel is an improving colt with plenty of experience competing against the best dirt horses in the world. My biggest concern about his chances in the Breeders’ Cup Classic hopeful is Pavel’s track record in 1 ¼-mile races against elite competition.

Pavel has made four starts at 1 ¼ miles and his best finish was third, beaten by 1 ¾ lengths by Diversify, in the 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup.

In three tries at 1 ¼ miles since the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he’s been beaten by 34 lengths when 10th in last year’s Classic, beaten by 7 ¾ lengths while fourth in the Dubai World Cup, and lost by 9 ¾ lengths in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita.

It’s fair to wonder if the extra eighth of a mile stretching out from the Stephen Foster distance to the 1 ¼ miles of the Breeders’ Cup Classic might be the deciding factor come November.


Pavel is from the first crop of Grade 1 winner Creative Cause, who won the Norfolk Stakes as a 2-year-old in 2011 and ran second the following year in the Santa Anita Derby and third in the Preakness Stakes.

Pavel is Creative Cause’s leading earner to date, but he has sired several other talented runners: multiple graded stakes winner My Boy Jack, who finished fifth this year in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve; graded stakes winners Skyler’s Scramjet and Significant Form; and multiple stakes winner Twisted Tom.

Pavel is out of the unraced Maria’s Mon mare Mons Venus, who also has produced multiple graded stakes winner Caracortado, a stakes winner at 1 1/8 miles; and He’ll Pay, a stakes winner at 1 1/16 miles.

Pavel is a well-bred individual and it’s pretty easy to see why he’s developed into a classy colt. I don’t think Pavel’s pedigree suggests he has any clear distance limitations, but when considering his chances for the 1 ¼-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic, more important than pedigree is his established track record at the distance.

A 4-year-old with only 10 career starts, Pavel could continue to improve after a career-best win in the Stephen Foster and I think he will need to do just that to become a serious threat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

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