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.
It took only about a dozen strides for me to identify my most likely winner of the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. As the field crept up on Newspaperofrecord approaching the stretch of the Grade 3 Miss Grillo Stakes after she had set a fairly easy pace, albeit on yielding turf, jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. gave her a shake of the reins and she unleashed an explosive turn of foot to blow away the competition. Watching the four horses behind her battle for second while she surged away from the bunch was really impressive visually, and she finished her final sixteenth of a mile in 6.08 seconds and the final five-sixteenths in :29.35, so she was moving late. Trainer Chad Brown has won the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf four times, including three of the last four editions of the race, and Newspaperofrecord looks like a monster. I usually over-respect the European invaders, but I’m sticking with a U.S.-based horse who was purchased out of a sale in England with a nice pedigree: by French Derby winner Lope de Vega out of Group 3 winner (and Group 1-placed) Sunday Times, by Holy Roman Emperor. She earned a 100 Equibase Speed Figure and an 88 Beyer Speed Figure and only needs to improve slightly to win on Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs, a turf course that typically plays very fairly for horses with speed. I’m all in on her.
2. West Coast
I might take some heat for having West Coast this high, but I loved what he showed me in the stretch of his first start since running second in the Dubai World Cup. He was clearly beaten and could have easily packed it in, but he fought back on the inside after setting the pace and finished willingly to come up only 2 ¼ lengths short of winner Accelerate in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes. He looked like a horse who needed a race and Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert found one that should get him fit to go 1 ¼ miles on Nov. 3 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. While Awesome Again winner Accelerate probably will go off as a deserving favorite in the Classic off three straight, dominant Grade 1 wins, he’s only shipped out of California once – second in the Grade 2 Oaklawn Handicap in April. West Coast has won Grade 1s in New York and Pennsylvania and tangled with the best of the best when second in the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup in January in Florida and in the Dubai World Cup in March. Coming off the first extended layoff of his career, he posted a 121 Equibase Speed Figure for arguably the best trainer on the planet. I think he could be sitting on a career-best performance on Nov. 3 for a trainer who won the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
The final spot was essentially a four-way shake between Lukas Classic Stakes winner Mind Your Biscuits, Chandelier Stakes winner Bellafina, Rodeo Drive Stakes winner Vasilika, and Channel Maker. I landed on Channel Maker off his win in the Sept. 29 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes at Belmont Park because I think he is at his absolute best at 1 ½ miles, peaking at the ideal time, and possesses the ratable speed that could place him in an ideal position in a race, the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, that often lacks a ton of pace. He’s also won on soft ground, which could be an asset in November in Louisville. This is a racehorse whose always had talent — he was a classic winner in Canada as a 3-year-old after being a stakes winner at two – but he seems to have really come into his own in the second half of his 4-year-old season. After placing in a pair of Grade 1 races in fall 2017 and spring 2018, Channel Maker has won the Grade 2 Bowling Green Stakes, finished second in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes, and won the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic in his last three starts. The Europeans typically are formidable in the Turf, but Channel Maker could have the best shot among the U.S. contingent to land a top-three finish.
Also-Eligibles: It was really close between Vasilika and Channel Maker for the last spot, but Vasilika got edged out because she’s not Breeders’ Cup nominated and trainer Jerry Hollendorfer seemed lukewarm about shipping her to Churchill and supplementing her for $100,000. Based solely on performance, Vasilika has become incredibly consistent in her meteoric rise from the claiming ranks in February to Grade 1 winner. Vasilika entered the Grade 1 Rodeo Drive Stakes on Sept. 29 riding a six-race winning streak on the heels of her first career graded stakes victory in the Grade 2 John C. Mabee Stakes. She delivered a career-best performance (116 Equibase Speed Figure) to win her Grade 1 debut by a half-length. ... Bellafina made this list on Aug. 8, and she was already among the favorites for the Tito’s Handmade Vodka Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies entering the Sept. 29 Chandelier Stakes. Already highly regarded, she did nothing to dissuade her supporters with a 6 ½-length runaway in her first try around two turns, earning a career-best 105 Equibase Speed Figure in her third straight stakes win. … Count me among the many who were skeptical about Mind Your Biscuits’ chance to excel when stretching out in distance, but the multiple Group/Grade 1-winning sprinter won the Grade 3 Lukas Classic Stakes at 1 1/8 miles at Churchill Downs on Sept. 29. That followed runner-up finishes in the Grade 1 Met Mile and the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes. With a win on the main track that will host the Breeders’ Cup Classic and a 123 Equibase Speed Figure, his best in the U.S., going two turns, Mind Your Biscuits should be viewed as a serious threat in the Classic should his connections target that race. … Discreet Lover’s win in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup on Sept. 29 might be the feel-good story of the year as the $10,000 purchase won a $750,000 race for under-the-radar connections. I’m just skeptical that he can repeat that performance in five weeks against even better competition. … Mendelssohn far exceeded my expectations for him in the Jockey Club Gold Cup by holding on for third after pressing a blistering pace. If that race didn’t take too much starch out of him, he could be a factor in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Last weekend, several overwhelming favorites lost. I don’t think a bad performance completely disqualifies an elite racehorse from having a shot to perform well at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, but it certainly hurts their chances. To win a race at the Breeders’ Cup level, it takes star talent, some racing luck, and usually impeccable current form. Occasionally, you’ll see a horse rebound from a clunker to win a Breeders’ Cup race, but far more frequently it’s the racehorses clicking off firsts and seconds that take home the trophy, which is why it was really disappointing to see Diversify pack it in late in the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup and fade to fifth in the six-horse field. His Equibase Speed Figure dropped 10 points to a 108 after nearly equaling his career-best figure when winning the Whitney Stakes in August. Diversify had a reasonable excuse in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as he was challenged early on the lead, which led to a blistering opening half-mile in :45.64. It would have taken a heroic effort to win the race after setting that pace. My main concerns are that he does seem to perform best when he allowed to set an uncontested pace, which I doubt very highly would be the case in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and the fact that he’s finished out of the top three both times he shipped out of New York. You can see why some of the shine has faded from Diversify. The good news is, if you liked him before the Jockey Club Gold Cup, you’ll get a much better price in the Classic on Nov. 3, and he seems to have come out of the race in good order. “I’ve gotten nothing but good reports on him this morning,” co-owner Ralph Evans said Sunday morning. “He scoped clean and hopefully, we’ll fight another day. We have no apparent excuse, it seems, except just going too fast early.”
2. Abel Tasman
Talk about a head-scratcher: Abel Tasman’s fifth-place finish as the 1-9 favorite in the Zenyatta Stakes on Sept. 30 was a sobering reminder that there is NEVER a sure thing in horse racing. When you are dealing with an animal, you always will have some level of unpredictability. Abel Tasman got off to a slow start and never really got fully engaged in a race that left Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith and trainer Bob Baffert wondering is she came down with a flu virus that had been going around the barn area. “I’m just really not sure what happened with her today. I’m kind of at a loss for words,” Smith said. “For whatever reason she was lethargic loading and she was slow into stride and never wanted to pick it up. … There’s been a bit of the flu going around the backside with some of these horses so hopefully it’s not hitting her, but it certainly could have.” Added Baffert: “I’m worried about [Abel Tasman] because Mike said she was lethargic, and she’s up there where all these sick horse are, so I hope she’s not getting sick. … That’s not the Abel that we know. She’s never run a bad one.” Almost nothing shocks me any more in horse racing – I’ve learned to expect the unexpected – but I have to admit this race caught me off guard. Abel Tasman has been so good and so consistent for so long that you have to assume there is some explanation for this uncharacteristic performance in her final Breeders’ Cup prep. But even if there is one, perhaps a fever or virus, the Zenyatta result significantly impacts the complexion of the Longines Distaff as Abel Tasman clearly was the top older female targeting the race just a few days ago, and now we just don’t know.
3. C Z Rocket
C Z Rocket was a Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile win contender for me if he turned in a strong race in the Grade 3 Ack Ack Stakes on Sept. 29 at Churchill Downs. He had run a career-best 122 Equibase Speed Figure going seven-eighths of a mile at Churchill in June in the Kelly’s Landing Stakes, and I viewed the one-turf Dirt Mile as an ideal spot for him on what looked like his favorite main track. But after setting a moderate pace in the one-mile Ack Ack, C Z Rocket faded late to finish fourth. It was by no means a disastrous performance, as he was beaten by only 1 ½ lengths as the 6-5 favorite, but it did make me wonder if this lightly-raced 4-year-old colt is ready to face truly elite competition. He’s unplaced in three tries in graded stakes and with only eight career starts – four this year and four as a 3-year-old – maybe he still has some maturing and development to do before he’s a serious contender for the Breeders’ Cup. I still believe in the talent but I’m not sure his time is now.
Also-eligible: I don’t think the conditions suited Robert Bruce ideally in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes, in which he finished second by 4 ½ lengths as the 1.15-1 favorite. The pace was slow and the turf was soft, and front-running winner Channel Maker was all alone in front and spurted away from Robert Bruce when he challenged him in early stretch. While I’m willing to give Robert Bruce another chance, the Joe Hirsch did leave me wondering if he really wants to go 1 ½ miles. He looked like a winner for a few strides leaving the final turn but really flattened out late. Robert Bruce ran his best race to date in the 1 1/4-mile Arlington Million, but in the Longines Turf he’ll need to duplicate that effort while facing top Europeans and true stayers at a distance that might not be his best.