A Classy Champion, 1989 Belmont Stakes Winner Easy Goer
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.
When I see a horse beating up on short, overmatched fields, I tend to maintain significant skepticism. This is especially true in 2-year-old races, where a fast, precocious racehorse can simply overwhelm the opposition. But in Instagrand’s case, while he’s only beaten nine opponents (five in his debut and four in his second start) in two starts, I believe the hype is justified. In the Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes from Aug. 11 at Del Mar, he clicked off quarter-miles in 23 seconds like it was an easy gallop and finished with a final quarter-mile in :23.73 despite the fact that he was geared down late and coasted home. Re-watching the race, the two most impressive moments for me were when he charged out of the starting gate like he was launched from a slingshot and when he accelerated on cue at the top of the stretch to turn a one-length lead into a seven-length advantage with just a few powerful strides. I feel pretty confident in saying that Instagrand is a special racehorse. Trained by Hall of Famer Jerry Hollendorfer, Instagrand was a $1.2 million purchase as a 2-year-old at auction and has thus far looked like a million bucks on the racetrack with two wins by a combined margin of 20 ¼ lengths and Equibase Speed Figures of 108 and 106. I never make Kentucky Derby predictions in the summer – it’s far, far too early for that – but I do think Instagrand has the talent and pedigree be able to excel at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
2. Robert Bruce
When elite racehorses from South America are sent to the U.S. to continue their careers, the range of outcomes is very wide. Sometimes the better competition is too much to overcome, in other cases horses hold their own and win a few stakes races, and still others remain elite no matter where they race. Robert Bruce fits into the final category. He came to the U.S. after he improved to 6-for-6 with his fourth Group 1 win in his native Chile in October 2017. After joining the barn of top turf trainer Chad Brown, he won the Grade 3 Fort Marcy Stakes in his U.S. debut in May and then ran sixth, beaten by only a length in a blanket finish, in the Grade 1 Manhattan Stakes in June. Sent off at 2.60-1 odds in the Grade 1 Arlington Million XXXVI Stakes on Aug. 11, he passed seven horses in the final quarter-mile to win by a half-length in a performance that was even more impressive visually than it sounds as he overcame a five-length deficit in the stretch. As I mentioned in this week’s Getting to Know profile on stablemate Sistercharlie, the Beverly D. Stakes winner, I really value closing speed in turf races where typically it is a sprint to the finish line, and Robert Bruce has plenty of that. He covered his final furlong in winning the Fort Marcy in an eye-catching 10.83 seconds, he finished his final quarter-mile in the Manhattan in less than 23 seconds, and he showed his explosive finishing speed in the final eighth of a mile in the Arlington Million (watch below). The Equibase Speed Figures for his last two starts (124, 123) indicate he’s legit and he has a Group 1 win in Chile at the 1 ½-mile distance of the Longines Turf. Robert Bruce is not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, but post-race comments from his connections suggested he will be supplemented and target the race.
3. Voodoo Song
It was kind of a mad scramble for the final slot here with the top two pretty clear standouts, but what determined my third choice was simply ability. Sure, it would be easy to dismiss Voodoo Song as a horse for course – he’s 5-for-5 at Saratoga and has three wins in 11 starts at other tracks – but I think that sells a very talented miler short. He beat some very nice horses in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap on Aug. 11, holding off Grade 2 winner Delta Prince by a neck after setting the pace. Also finishing behind him were Grade 1 winners Divisidero, Yoshida, and Heart to Heart. The point is, when Voodoo Song gets the lead he is a very game front-runner regardless of who is behind him. In his only starts outside of New York, he almost won the Commonwealth Derby at Laurel Park and was then unplaced in the Hawthorne Derby on a turf course rated as soft. Both of those races were at 1 1/8 miles, and I think a mile is his best distance. Furthermore, while he showed again in the Fourstardave that he can handle some moisture in the ground, I don’t think soft turf is ideal for him. So rather than assume he can’t take his talent on the road, I prefer to assume there is no reason he can’t. Would he be a bigger threat if the Breeders’ Cup Mile was at Saratoga? Sure. But it’s not, so instead let’s look at a horse whose won three of his last four with his three best career Equibase Speed Figures (his 117 for the Fourstardave was a career best) and wonder how far this improving 4-year-old might be able to lead them in the 2018 Mile.
Also-Eligibles: I profiled Sistercharlie in this week’s Getting to Know blog following her win on Aug. 11 in the Beverly D. Stakes, but she didn’t make the cut because I already had her atop the turf female division. … Yuvetsi looked good in winning the Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo Handicap over a couple of highly regarded fillies on Aug. 12, and if she can deliver a repeat performance in her next start, she could be a serious contender for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. … Carrick won the Secretariat Stakes nicely in his fourth career start and first try in a Grade 1, closing boldly to nail Analyze It at the finish line. But U.S.-based 3-year-olds have not fared well in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. Not counting Tikkanen, who made his final prep for the 1994 Turf in the U.S. but was based in Europe with Jonathan Pease, the last U.S.-based 3-year-old to win the Turf was Prized in 1989. Manila in 1986 is the only other. … I wasn’t blown away by either of the 2-year-old stakes winners from Saratoga last weekend, Sue’s Fortune in the Grade 2 Adirondack Stakes or Call Paul in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite. Both could be nice 2-year-olds, but neither race was giving anyone – at least anyone not listed among their owners – goose bumps.
1. Dona Bruja
Dona Bruja was very consistent in 2017, winning a pair of graded stakes and running second in a Grade 1 in four races, and I thought she might be poised for big things after she opened the year with a four-length romp in the Grade 3 Lambholm South Endeavour Stakes in February at Tampa Bay Downs. She faded late in the Grade 1 Coolmore Jenny Wiley Stakes but was only beaten by three lengths after setting the pace, however, she really came up empty in the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes on Aug. 11. Reserved well off a slow pace, Dona Bruja was unable to pass a single horse in the stretch and finished last of nine. A winner of 11 of 17 career starts, she just doesn’t look like the same racehorse we saw last year and early in 2018.
Similar to Dona Bruja, Yoshida delivered a monster race in his season debut, surging to victory in the Grade 1 Old Forester Turf Classic Stakes on yielding turf at Churchill Downs on the Kentucky Derby Presented by Woodford Reserve undercard. That race earned Yoshida a new career-best 114 Equibase Speed Figure and gave his connections the confidence to test him against the best milers in the world at Royal Ascot in the Group 1 Queen Anne Stakes. In that race, Yoshida encountered a bit of traffic trouble but ran well to finish fifth in a 15-horse field, beaten by 1 ¼ lengths. While that fifth-place finishing was promising, another fifth in his comeback race on Aug. 11 in the Grade 2 Fourstardave Handicap was far more disappointing as he showed little throughout. He raced in fourth early, dropped back to last with a quarter-mile remaining, and passed only a fading Heart to Heart to finish one spot from the back. I still wholeheartedly believe in his talent, but the Fourstardave did not inspire much confidence.
3. Analyze It
I might take a beating for this one because for the third straight race Analyze It ran well in defeat, posting his third runner-up finish in a row in graded stakes company, but the second-itis seems to be becoming a habit. In the first two, he took command in the stretch from pacesetter Catholic Boy only to passed by that rival late in both races, the latter the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes on July 7. I thought maybe he was just running into a gutsy rival who absolutely relished a fight and getting away from Catholic Boy might allow Analyze It to show his true colors. But deep in the stretch of the Grade 1 Secretariat Stakes on Aug. 11, Analyze It again was passed, this time by Carrick, and finished second by a neck. In April, I pronounced Analyze It the best turf horse in training and an absolute freak, so I’m wiping a bit of egg off my face. Look, there is no doubt this horse has the natural ability to compete with the best, but last week made me wonder about his will to win, so that’s why he finds his way into the third spot over several other runners that probably don’t have near the upside of Analyze It.
Also-eligible: I’ve always respected Skye Diamonds, but last weekend was a reminder that she can be a bit inconsistent. Coming off a career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure for running second in the Grade 2 Great Lady M Stakes on July 7, Skye Diamonds ran third in a four-horse field, beaten by 6 ½ lengths on Aug. 12 in the Grade 3 Rancho Bernardo Handicap at Del Mar. She won the race a year ago and has had her bright spots, but the 95 Equibase Speed Figure she earned for this year’s Rancho Bernardo and the 88 from her unplaced finish in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff in May make her an enigma in the Filly and Mare Sprint division. … Deauville has had a very nice career, winning group or graded stakes in England, Ireland, and the United States, where he posted his biggest win in the Grade 1 Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes in 2016. But he’s now lost 11 straight races after his sixth in the Grade 1 Arlington Million on Aug. 11. While he has been competitive in many of those races during the losing streak, the 5-year-old definitely looks like he’s lost a step this year.