Using History to Profile the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Winner: Who Fits the Bill in 2019?

The starting gate opens for the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita, with eventual winner Drefong breaking from post 2 near the inside. (Eclipse Sportswire)

Even though two-time defending Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner Roy H will miss out on a chance to secure a historic three-peat, this year’s 36th renewal of the $2 million Sprint on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita Park should still feature as much firepower at the top as almost any race held during the two-day World Championships.

If Mitole and Imperial Hint – both multiple Grade 1 winners this year –  load into the Santa Anita starting gate along with some combination of freaky-fast 3-year-old Shancelot, powerful closers Firenze Fire and Whitmore, improving recent Grade 2 winner Engage, and 7-for-8 lifetime multiple graded stakes winner Catalina Cruiser … well, we are in for a doozy of Sprint. 

Looking back at the last 20 editions of the race should offer several helpful clues about the chances of some of this year’s leading candidates when compared with past Sprint winners.

Over the last 20 years, the Sprint favorite is clicking at only a 25% win rate, and the historical data for this three-quarter-mile race reveals quite a few interesting tidbits for handicappers and racing fans to consider when evaluating each contender’s chances.

With that in mind, let’s take a deeper dive into the last 20 editions of the Sprint. First, let’s take a closer look all 20 races to try to identify historical trends that could provide a key angle to consider.

Since this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita, I’ll then narrow the scope to go in depth on the seven editions of the Sprint held at the Southern California track over the last two decades, with special consideration to the five held on a dirt main track.

Lastly, we’ll examine this year’s field to try and identify the runners that best fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, and also those that might be vulnerable.

Midnight Lute in 2008. (Eclipse Sportswire)

What are some of the key takeaways from the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint?

  • Recent form is a powerful indicator. Fourteen of 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners won their final prep race, with 19 winners finishing in the top three in their final prep race. The lone exception was Midnight Lute, who finished 10th in his first start in nine months while prepping for a repeat Sprint win in 2008.
  • Stretching back a few starts to take a deeper dive into recent form, the 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners amassed 33 wins, 16 seconds, and four thirds from 57 starts from June through October in the year that they won. Look for 1s and 2s from June through October in the past performances.
  • Eighteen of the 20 winners were graded stakes winners, including 10 Grade 1 winners (11 if you count Secret Circle, who had won an ungraded Breeders’ Cup race, the now-discontinued Juvenile Sprint). The two others – Dancing in Silks in 2009 and Thor’s Echo in 2006 – both were stakes winners.
  • Talented 3-year-olds have a good shot in the Sprint. There have been six 3-year-old Sprint winners in the last 20 years. A fast 3-year-old like Shancelot or Landeskog this year is dangerous.
  • While only five favorites have won the Sprint in the last 20 years, it has by no means been a parade of longshots. Twelve of the last 20 winners prevailed at 5.20-1 odds or less with 10 winners less than 4-1 and seven less than 3-1.
  • Six horses won at double-digit odds from 1999-2018 with four winners at 15-1 or higher. Dancing in Silks prevailed at 25.30-1 on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park in 2009; Cajun Beat won at 22.80-1 odds in 2003 as an improving 3-year-old who had really excelled when shifting from the Kentucky Derby trail back to sprints.
  • If you’re looking for a longshot, take a chance on a horse coming out of a strong performance in a non-traditional Sprint prep race. Of the six double-digit winners, four won their final prep and the other two were second by a length or less. Trinniberg (2102) finished second in a stakes at Parx Racing, Dancing in Silks (2009) won a state-bred sprint in California, Silver Train (2005) won a Grade 2 race at a mile, and Cajun Beat (2003) won a Grade 3 race at Turfway Park.
  • Tactical speed appears to be another key component when evaluating past Sprint victors. Closers have won only two of 20 editions of the Sprint from 1999-2018, and both times it was Midnight Lute.
  • Eleven of the last 20 Sprint winners were racehorses whose preferred running style entering the race was either setting or pressing the pace, although some of them had to settle a little farther back than normal in the Breeders’ Cup to avoid a speed duel.
  • While only two Sprint winners led after the opening quarter-mile from 1999-2018, that number rises to six after a half-mile, and 10 winners were first in early stretch – roughly an eighth of a mile remaining. All 20 winners were third or better at that point in the race.
  • The average margin of victory is a little more than 1 ¼ lengths with a median of three-quarters of a length over the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprints.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure for the last 20 editions of the Sprint is 118.95 with a median of 118.5.

Secret Circle in 2013. (Eclipse Sportswire)

How do the stats change when we narrow the focus to the seven Breeders’ Cup Sprints held at Santa Anita in 2003, 2008, 2009, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016?

  • Recent form again holds significance as five of seven Sprint winners at Santa Anita won their final prep, one finished second by a half-length, and repeat Sprint winner Midnight Lute faded badly in his first start in nine months but rebounded at the Breeders’ Cup.
  • This group combined to win 17 of 29 races (58.6%) in the calendar year leading into the Breeders’ Cup.
  • Six of the seven Sprint winners at Santa Anita from 1999-2016 had won at least one graded stakes with Dancing in Silks, a stakes winner, the lone exception in 2009.
  • Secret Circle at 5-2 in 2013 was the only winning favorite from the seven editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Santa Anita from 1999-2016.
  • There were four double-digit longshots that paid from $29.40 to $52.60.
  • The average odds for the winner in the seven editions of the Breeders’ Cup held at Santa Anita from 1999-2016 is 12.9-1 with a median of 13.7-1.
  • Midnight Lute on the all-weather surface in 2008 was the only horse among this group who profiled as a closer to win.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure for was 117.4 with a median of 116.

Trinniberg in 2012. (Eclipse Sportswire)

If we hone in on the five Breeders’ Cup Sprints at Santa Anita that were contested on a dirt main track – 2003, 2012, 2013, 2014, and 2016 –  we find some interesting trends.

  • Of the five editions of the Sprint held on the dirt at Santa Anita, four were won by pacesetters or press-the-pace type runners, with stalker Secret Circle rounding out the group.
  • Those four were all in the top three after the opening quarter-mile and first or second after a half-mile, and all five were in front in early stretch.
  • On average, Sprint winners on dirt at Santa Anita were between a half-length and three-quarters of a length back after the first and second call and slightly under a length in front in early stretch.
  • Median places winners a half-length back after the first quarter-mile and about a head back after a half-mile.
  • The aforementioned Secret Circle was the only winner to come from off the pace in these five Sprints on dirt at Santa Anita. He was less than two lengths back after the opening quarter-mile and three lengths back after a half-mile.
  • These are very small sample sizes, but it is interesting that three of the six 3-year-old Sprint winners over the last 20 years came in five races on the dirt at Santa Anita.
  • Four of the five winners won their final prep race and the other was second by a half-length, so look for a horse coming off a quality start.
  • Similarly, this group of five winners combined for seven wins and five seconds from 13 starts from June through October, not counting the Breeders’ Cup.
  • The dirt main track at Santa Anita has produced winners that paid $29.40, $40.20, and $47.60, so keep an eye out for talented runners that might fly just under the radar.

Which of this year’s contenders fit the typical profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner?

The potential depth of quality for this field is pretty remarkable when you consider that have to go seven deep to get to Catalina Cruiser at 15-1 on Daily Racing Form’s list of contenders for the 2019 Sprint. He’s only won seven of eight races lifetime, won all three starts since June, and enters the race off a stellar 120 Equibase Speed Figure for his repeat win in the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes. If you are looking for a longshot, start right there if Catalina Cruiser winds up in the Sprint. But for now, let’s begin with the powerful duo of Mitole and Imperial Hint.

Mitole (Adam Mooshian/NYRA Photo)

Mitole really fits the part here as a 4-year-old with five wins and a third in six starts this year, including two Grade 1 wins and a third-place finish in three races since June. He comes into the race off a three-length win in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes Presented by Encore Boston Harbor that earned a 117 Equibase Speed Figure and a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, so he’s in terrific form and absolutely fast enough on paper to win. His ideal running style is to press the pace, which has been very effective in the Sprint over the last 20 years and especially so in editions on the dirt at Santa Anita. Mitole also is versatile enough to rate just behind the speed if necessary, which probably will be the case this year with Shancelot in the field. Mitole also has stamina, which he proved when he stretched out to a mile to win the Grade 1 Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap in June. Mitole is a serious player in the Sprint, but at very short odds I might be inclined to look elsewhere. With so many viable candidates, value really comes into play and Mitole’s appeal is much greater at 4-1 than at 9-5 odds.

Like Mitole, Imperial Hint is fast enough to win and in terrific form with two wins in two starts since returning from Dubai. He posted back-to-back 125 Equibase Speed Figures for winning the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap in July at Saratoga, where he beat Mitole by 7 ½ lengths, and the Grade 1 Vosburgh Stakes Sept. 28 at Belmont Park. Mitole was fully extended to fend off Firenze Fire in the closing strides of the Vosburgh after that rival headed him in the stretch and he was blowing really hard coming into the winner’s circle, so much so that my immediate thought was that the win might have taken a little too much out of Imperial Hint. It also could have provided some additional foundation for a small horse, who dominated in his final preps for the Sprint in 2017 and 2018, only to finish second and third, respectively. Imperial Hint can stalk, press, or set the pace as he did in the Vosburgh, but I think he’s best when he has a target. He could get a trip similar to the one Secret Circle got in 2013, when he was sixth, three lengths behind a blistering half-mile in :43.72, before winning with a sweeping bid into the stretch. Imperial Hint made that kind of move to beat Mitole in the Vanderbilt.

Three of the six 3-year-olds to win the Sprint from 1999-2018 came from five races on the dirt main track at Santa Anita and all three were speedy types coming off of a strong prep. Shancelot certainly fit that description.

Shancelot has a chance to offer nice value as a colt who came up short as the 3-10 favorite in back-to-back starts. While he could not hold on to win, he battled gamely in the closing strides of both the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes Presented by Runhappy in August and Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes Oct. 5 and lost both by a head. I thought he had an excuse in the Jerkens – I think he reacted negatively to a career-best performance in the Grade 2 Amsterdam Stakes July 28 when he earned a 122 Equibase Speed Figure and a 121 Beyer Speed Figure. As for the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, he blistered the opening quarter-mile in :21.87 and still was fighting like hell in the stretch before giving way grudgingly to highly regarded Omaha Beach. Like the other contenders we’ve discussed above, Shancelot is fast enough to win, has an ideal running style for this race and track, and he’s in great form. I think he could be sitting on a monster race, and he most likely will be the leader at the top of the stretch. If he gets even a slight breather in mid-race, I expect he’ll be very tough to catch. 

Catalina Cruiser (Eclipse Sportswire)

I’d be surprised if Catalina Cruiser is anywhere near 15-1 odds when the gate opens Nov. 2, but even in the 6-1 to 9-1 range, he would offer terrific value. His only defeat in eight races came in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, when he faded to finish sixth as the 9-10 favorite while shipping out of California for the first time. It turns out the horse who beat him that day, City of Light, was pretty good as he closed out his career with a 5 ¾-length win in the $9 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational. Catalina Cruiser is 3-for-3 since June with three Grade 2 wins, and he has the tactical speed to stalk and pounce. While the Dirt Mile might be the more likely option for him, the 5-year-old by Union Rags has won twice at this distance at Santa Anita and with a career-best 127 Equibase Speed Figure, he’s arguably the fastest horse on paper. He’s eligible to take a step forward with 10 weeks of rest. I think he’s the most likely winner from the group that could pay $14 to $20 to win.

Firenze Fire and Whitmore both earned their Grade 1 wins by closing from off the pace, but both have also shown the ability to track a bit nearer to the pace over the last year or so. Firenze Fire enters the Sprint off a terrific but heartbreaking second to Imperial Hint in the Vosburgh Sept. 28, which earned a 125 Equibase Speed Figure and a 103 Beyer Speed Figure. He definitely has a shot at a top three finish at double-digit odds if he fires in the Sprint, and Firenze Fire has an outside chance to win in the event of a pace meltdown. I think Whitmore also would need a blistering early pace to set up his closing kick, but he’s a racehorse who has finished in the top three in 23 of 29 career starts and his career-best 118 Equibase Speed Figure is competitive.

Engage (Eclipse Sportswire)

Given that three of the five winners on the dirt at Santa Anita from 1999-2018 paid $29.40 or more, a Sprint hopeful who could surprise at a nice price is Engage. He’s won two straight and enters off a half-length win from off the pace in the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes Oct. 4 at Keeneland. His speed figures are a little light, but he’s in good form for a trainer, Steve Asmussen, who has won six Breeders’ Cup races. Closers have not done well in the Sprint, but he’s shown the ability to stalk and, given the abundance of speed expected in the race, Engage could get an ideal setup.

This is shaping up as a great race with elite quality at the top and depth of talent. I’m leaning toward Shancelot right now, but a lot could change in the next 10-12 days.

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