The path to the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs on Nov. 2-3 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 14 championship races.
Over the next few months, this blog will provide a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders’ Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were a week or two ago.
On a weekend that featured multiple important prep races for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint, I thought this diminutive 5-year-old sent the loudest, clearest message to the division: come and get me. In my view, Imperial Hint, runner-up to Roy H in last year’s Sprint, stated his case as the top sprinter currently in training in the U.S. with a powerhouse 3 ¾-length victory in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap on July 28 at Saratoga despite conceding from five to nine pounds to the opposition. As regular readers of the blog know, I don’t say that lightly as a big fan of last year’s champion sprinter Roy H. But Imperial Hint was simply dominant. He could have won by more had jockey Javier Castellano been so inclined as he opened up a 4 ½-length lead in early stretch and simply coasted to the finish line through the final sixteenth of a mile. His only defeat in four starts this year came on a sloppy track at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby undercard when he faded to sixth going seven-eighths of a mile in the Grade 2 Churchill Downs Stakes Presented by TwinSpires.com. I am a bit concerned that Imperial Hint is winless in career two starts at Churchill, host of this year’s Breeders’ Cup. His two defeats at Churchill came at one mile in his third career start and seven-eighths of a mile, however, and I view Imperial Hint as a true three-quarter-mile sprinter. Sure, he can stretch out to 6 ½ furlongs or seven furlongs thanks to elite talent, but he is a monster at three-quarters of a mile and those types of sprinters historically do very well in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
Sticking in the Sprint division, 3-year-olds often run very well in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint and I really liked what I saw from Promises Fulfilled in his 3 ¼-length victory in the Grade 3 Amsterdam Stakes on July 28 at Saratoga. The Shackleford colt was very impressive in winning the Xpressbet Fountain of Youth Stakes in March, but after unplaced finishes in the Florida and Kentucky Derbys he was returned to sprint distances. Promises Fulfilled faded to third in the Grade 2, seven-eighths-of-a-mile Woody Stephens Stakes in June after he was pressed through a scorching half-mile in :43.68 (yep, you read that right). Cutting back to 6 ½ furlongs for the Amsterdam, Promises Fulfilled showed a new dimension by settling just off the pace in second and he had plenty left for the stretch. With the win, he improved to three wins and a third in four lifetime sprints. Promises Fulfilled has dazzling natural speed and, if he can continue to rate, he’ll be especially dangerous with a bit more experience. Sure, tackling older males looms a major challenge, but in races where it’s basically full throttle from start to finish, age/experience are far less important than speed.
3. Good Magic
The retirement of Triple Crown winner Justify left a gaping hole in the 3-year-old male division, which Good Magic capably started to fill in the Grade 1 betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes on July 29. He was three lengths clear of runner-up Bravazo, a horse he finished behind in the Preakness, and nine lengths clear of Lone Sailor despite covering the final eighth of a mile in about 13 seconds. The 109 Equibase Speed Figure equaled the career-best he earned as a 2-year-old when winning the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, but as I explained in this week’s Getting to Know profile of Good Magic, he still has a long way to go from a speed-figure perspective to be competitive against the elite older males. So, while I was happy to see Good Magic get back to the winner’s circle in the Haskell and solidify his credentials as a 3-year-old to be reckoned with, I remain skeptical about his chances as a Breeders’ Cup Classic contender until I see some consistently faster races from him. I do believe improvement is very likely in the second half of the year for Good Magic, whose sire, Curlin, emerged as a force in the second half of 2007. He has his work cut out for him.
Also-Eligibles: Elysea’s World picked up a nice win n the Grade 3 WinStar Matchmaker Stakes on July 29 at Monmouth Park, reeling in stablemate Dream Awhile late to prevail by a neck. But the female turf division is deep and talented, and I’m just not sure this filly is ready to compete with the best of the best – yet. … Ransom the Moon scored repeat win in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes to punch his ticket to the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint, defeating last year’s champion sprinter and Breeders’ Cup victor Roy H by 2 ¼ lengths. I really respect Ransom the Moon, who was fifth in last year’s Sprint, but I don’t think Roy H was fully cranked up for this one in his first start since March and long-term I prefer other sprinters at this point. … Unique Bella won the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes to punch her ticket to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, but this was not one of her most visually impressive victories. She won by a measured half-length under Mike Smith in the 1 1/16-mile race after setting a swift pace. The 104 Equibase Speed Figure was 16 points off the 120 she earned for winning the Grade 1 Beholder Mile and 24 points off her career-best 128 earned in February. The race was more of a workout than a test. The Distaff is shaping up to be a very nice race, so hopefully Unique Bella will face some serious competition before then to make sure she’s at her best in November.
Coming off a Grade 2 win in the San Carlos Stakes on June 23 that earned a career-best 117 Equibase Speed Figure, I though American Anthem had a chance to settle in a serious contender for the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but he was never really a factor in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby on July 28 and finished a nonthreatening sixth. It was his first loss of the year against easily the best competition he’s faced in 2018, and in his career he’s finished third twice in four tries in Grade 1 races. American Anthem is very fast and a capable graded-stakes sprinter, but he’ll need to improve to be a factor against the best of a deep sprint division.
2. Core Beliefs
Core Beliefs looked to me like a promising 3-year-old ready to break out in the second half of the season entering the July 29 betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes. Bypassing the Triple Crown races, Core Beliefs had run second in the Grade 3 Peter Pan Stakes and won the Grade 3 Ohio Derby, establishing in that race a new career-top 110 Equibase Speed Figure. He looked like a real threat in the Haskell, but he never really factored in the 1 1/8-mile race and faded late to finish fourth, beaten by 10 ½ lengths. Make no mistake, this is a quality 3-year-old with the potential to win some nice races between now and the end of the year, but right now he appears to be a cut below the best 3-year-olds and, because of that, he does not looks like a serious threat to be a Breeders’ Cup Classic contender.
3. Hi Happy
He didn’t run a terrible race in the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes on July 28 at Saratoga, but Hi Happy’s sixth-place finish, beaten by eight lengths as the favorite, was pretty disappointing. When he won the Grade 2 Pan American Stakes in March and the Grade 1 Man o’ War Stakes in May in back-to-back starts, I thought he was emerging as a top contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. I expected he’d get back to the winner’s circle in the Bowling Green after a close third in the Grade 1 Woodford Reserve Manhattan Stakes, but he showed little in the stretch. Two factors give me some home he can get back to top form. First, he was coming off a career-best 125 Equibase Speed Figure in defeat in the Manhattan and perhaps that race took some punch out of him. Second, and probably far more importantly, the Bowling Green was held on a rain-soaked turf course rated soft. I don’t think he needs firm turf to excel, but it’s reasonable to think there just might have been too much moisture in the grass in the Bowling Green that it did not suit Hi Happy. I’m willing to roll the dice one more time on this 6-year-old; I just think the talent is real.
Also-eligible: Switzerland disappointed as the 3.20-1 second betting choice in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap on July 28 at Saratoga, setting a strong pace and fading to finish fifth, beaten by 8 ½ lengths. He’d won four straight entering the Vanderbilt, which was a significant class hurdle in only his second stakes attempt, but it looks like he might not quite be ready to compete at the Grade 1 level just yet.