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.
I understand why people would be concerned that, in general, the speed figures came up rather slow for Serengeti Empress’ win in the Grade 2 Pocahontas Stakes on Sept. 15. She earned a 78 Beyer Speed Figure but a more promising 92 from both Equibase and BRISnet. Like many others, I also question the quality of competition after she won by 19 ½ lengths. But, she won by 19 ½ lengths! After leading through a quarter-mile in :23.17 and a half-mile in :46.94, she opened a commanding eight-length lead in early stretch and her final sixteenth of a mile essentially was just coasting to the finish line, similar to the way a horse gallops out after a workout. The Pocahontas followed a 13 ½-length runaway in the Ellis Park Debutante Stakes, and it also was her first try around two turns. With a win at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Titos Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies — she earned an automatic starting spot in that race for her victory in the “Win and You’re In” Pocahontas — and a dazzling performance on the main track that will host the Breeders’ Cup, Serengeti Empress figures to be very tough on Nov. 2 at Churchill Downs.
2. Fog of War
A $400,000 purchase at the 2017 Keeneland September yearling sale, Fog of War improved to 2-for-2 and punched his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf with a three-quarter-length win in the Grade 1 Summer Stakes on Sept. 16 at Woodbine. He was a little (OK, a lot) green in the stretch, but I think that just shows the scope of Fog of War’s natural talent because once jockey Javier Castellano got him straightened out he finished powerfully. He split horses, then had trouble changing leads, and still completed his final quarter-mile in a swift 23:60 seconds to complete the mile in an eye-catching 1:33.90. This regally-bred colt by War Front out of Irish group stakes winner Say, by Galileo — his grandam (maternal grandmother) is multiple Grade 1 winner Riskaverse — is also in the capable hands of trainer Chad Brown, who has won eight Breeders’ Cup races on the grass (from 10 overall wins) and five with 2-year-olds since 2008.
3. Roaring Lion
He would be No. 1 here (by a comfortable margin) if I felt really confident he would make the trip for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. As it stands, owner Qatar Racing’s Sheikh Fahad Al Thani said after his win by a neck in the QIPCO Irish Champion Stakes on Sept. 15 that the 3-year-old by Kitten’s Joy would target the QIPCO Champion Stakes on British Champion Day on Oct. 20. That would leave a short, two-week turnaround for a trans-Atlantic trip for the Breeders’ Cup on Nov. 3. After starting the year out competing in races at a mile, stretching out in distance brought out the best in Roaring Lion as he won a Group 2 stakes about 1 ¼ miles, finished third by two lengths in the Epsom Derby, and then won the Group 1 Coral-Eclipse Stakes and Juddmonte International Stakes. With a third straight Group 1 win in the Irish Champion Stakes, Roaring Lion looks like a budding superstar for four-time Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer John Gosden. Roaring Lion appears to be better at 1 ¼ miles than 1 ½ miles, but I have no doubt he could handle the 1 ½ miles of the Longines Turf in the U.S., where the turf courses have less undulation and typically offer the firmer ground he seems to thrive on.
Also-Eligibles: This was an incredibly difficult week whittling the heating up list down to three, and the toughest omission was undoubtedly Oscar Performance. Especially after he was pulled up in the stretch of the Arlington Million, his dominant victory in his return in the Grade 1 Ricoh Woodbine Mile on Sept. 15 served as a reminder that Oscar Performance can run with just about any turf horse when he’s at his best, and it looks like one mile is his sweet spot. He should be one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Mile on Nov. 3. … Making her North American debut in the Grade 1 Natalma Stakes on Sept. 16, La Pelosa rallied to win by a length and completed the one-mile race in 1:33.70, which was faster than Fog of War two starts later. Multiple group stakes-placed in England, La Pelosa looks poised to be a major factor in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf for trainer Charles Appleby, who has won two Breeders’ Cup races with only three starters. … Cairo Cat was profiled in this week’s Getting to Know feature, and I liked what I saw from him in winning the Grade 3 Iroquois Stakes on Sept. 15 at Churchill Downs. That race was at the 1 1/16-mile distance of the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and I think he is a serious contender in that race at the same track on Nov. 2. … Havana Grey is a pure five-furlong sprinter who picked up his first career Grade 1 win on Sept. 16 in the Derrinstown Stud Flying Five Stakes at the Curragh in Ireland. He’d add plenty of intrigue as a European invader for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. … Finally, I’m not sure where she fits from a Breeders’ Cup perspective as the Filly and Mare Turf might be a bit too long and the Mile against males would be a huge task with only four races to date, but Californiagoldrush clearly has a bright future after taking the Grade 2 Sands Points Stakes on Sept. 15 over a quality group of 3-year-old fillies. She’s one to drop in your Virtual Stable.
News broke on Sept. 18 that Grade 2 Best Pal Stakes winner would bypass the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. According to Daily Racing Form, there is nothing physically ailing the unbeaten Into Mischief colt but Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer told DRF that owner Larry Best “wants to freshen the horse up.” The news was surprising, to say the least, because Instagrand had won both of his starts by 10 or more lengths and has the best Equibase Speed Figure to date posted by a 2-year-old male in stakes competition. In my mind, he was the overwhelming favorite to win the Juvenile, but perhaps he’s in a maturation phase physically or mentally or his connections think he has a better shot at the Triple Crown races if they ease off the accelerator now. The Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile lost a top contender (and another later in the day when Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert said Roadster would be sidelined for two months).
2. Ami’s Mesa
Ami’s Mesa won the 2017 Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes by a length during a sensational season in which she won four of five starts with the only blemish — OK, not really a blemish — a runner-up finish by a nose in the 2017 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint. After opening her 2018 campaign with a sixth-place finish, beaten by only 1 ½ lengths, in the Grade 1 Madison Stakes at Keeneland, I thought we’d see a much better version of Ami’s Mesa in her bid for a repeat in the Presque Isle Downs Masters. She had won six of seven starts with one second on synthetic surfaces entering Monday’s race, but Ami’s Mesa came up empty when asked to accelerate and faded to eighth as the 1.70-1 favorite. The 94 Equibase Speed Figure was Ami’s Mesa’s lowest since December 2016 and right now her prospects for the Filly and Mare Sprint don’t appear to be nearly as strong as they were a year ago at this time.
3. Delta Prince
I really liked Delta Prince’s chances in the Sept. 15 Ricoh Woodbine Mile. He had won on the Woodbine turf course at the one-mile distance in June in the Grade 2 King Edward Stakes and entered the Woodbine Mile off a runner-up finish by a neck in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap. The 4-year-old looked like he was just beginning to find his best stride but he didn’t fire his best at Woodbine. The Woodbine Mile was by no means a disaster for Delta Prince — he finished fourth and was beaten by less than three lengths — but it was a 20-point drop to a 97 Equibase Speed Figure, and more importantly he didn’t show his usual explosive finishing speed. I’m definitely willing to give him another chance because I’m convinced the talent is real, but the Woodbine Mile was disappointing and hurt his chances to be a serious player in the Breeders’ Cup.
Also-eligible: Hawkbill came to North America in 2017 for the Northern Dancer Turf Stakes and finished second by a head as the 3-5 favorite to Johnny Bear. He returned for the 2018 Northern Dancer but not in nearly as good form and it showed on Sept. 15 as he finished a nonthreatening eighth as the favorite. With four straight losses by at least four lengths, it’s tough to view Hawkbill as a top Breeders’ Cup candidate. … Good Samaritan returned to the grass for the first time since July of 2017, a surface on which he was a graded stakes winner and Grade 1-placed, but he did not look like the same racehorse who won the Grade 2 New Orleans Handicap on the dirt in March. I thought the surface switch might help after Good Samaritan was unplaced in both the Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap and Grade 1 Whitney Stakes, but he looks like he’s just gone off form and is not at his best right now.