The path to the 2020 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 6-7 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 14 championship races and $31 million in purses and awards.
This blog provides 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 few weeks ago.
In this week’s edition of Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down, we take a look at some of the big movers over the past week of racing action.
I think you have to start here given how easily he defeated Maximum Security, who had made a compelling case as the top contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic, in the Sept. 26 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. Improbable was reserved at the back of the field in the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile race and swept past Maximum Security and pacesetter Take the One O One with remarkable ease on his way to a 4 ½-length runaway victory, while Maximum Security edged Midcourt by a half-length for second. The Awesome Again was the third straight dominant performance from Improbable since he opened his year with a runner-up finish on a sloppy track at Oaklawn Park, where he returned from a layoff of more than five months. Since then, Improbable won the Grade 1 Hollywood Gold Cup by 3 ¼ lengths, shipped east to win the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes by two lengths over By My Standards and Tom’s d’Etat (two elite older males), and then romped in the Awesome Again. Improbable is a City Zip colt that always flashed elite talent for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert but has some struggles with immaturity in the starting gate and inconsistency. He seems to have put that behind him during what has been a remarkably consistent season. Take a look at the speed figures for his Hollywood Gold Cup, Whitney, and Awesome Again wins: Equibase (116, 120, 120), Beyer Speed Figure (105, 106, 108), BRISNet speed rating (108, 104, 108), TimeForm US rating (126, 123, 127). That’s a terrific profile for a Breeders’ Cup Classic contender who seems to really run well fresh and will have six weeks to recover before the World Championships. The 1 ¼-mile win on the résumé in the Hollywood Gold Cup also really boosts Improbable’s credentials for Baffert, who won the Classic in 2014, 2015, and 2016.
2. New Mandate
There were several U.S. performers that were worthy of consideration here, but for the second week in a row I ventured overseas for one of the top three spots with New Mandate. The New Bay gelding won the Group 2 Juddmonte Royal Lodge Stakes at Newmarket on the Rowley Mile – a straight mile race with no turns – Sept. 26 to extend his winning streak to three after beginning his career with a pair of thirds for trainer Ralph Beckett. Top European 2-year-olds are put away for the winter after a big group stakes win or two, especially having shown an affinity for the turf course that will host next year’s Two Thousand Guineas, but as a gelding New Mandate is not eligible for the British classics. Thus, a race like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf become a more appealing option and Beckett said he would strongly consider the race for his promising juvenile with a nice turn of foot. Beckett has started five runners in the Breeders’ Cup with his one winner to date coming with Muhannak in the 2008 Marathon. Depending on which other Europeans might target the Juvenile Turf – and Ballydoyle’s Aidan O’Brien typically sends a strong contingent to the World Championships – New Mandate probably profiles as one of the leading contenders should Beckett decide to ship him to Keeneland for the Nov. 6 race.
3. C Z Rocket
The 6-year-old City Zip gelding has ripped off five straight wins since being claimed by trainer Peter Miller for $40,000 on April 30 at Oaklawn Park. Subsequently cut back in distance to focus on sprints, C Z Rocket won a claiming race and then a pair of allowance-optional claiming races before earning his first stakes win since 2018 when he won the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes at Del Mar in August. He pressed the pace and battled gamely in the stretch Sept. 26 to win the Grade 2 Santa Anita Sprint Championship by a head from Flagstaff. The victory punched C Z Rocket’s ticket to the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint via the “Win and You’re In” Challenge Series and gives Miller a chance to win the Sprint for the third time in four years after victories by Roy H in 2017 and 2018. With the recent retirement of Volatile, the Sprint division looks considerably more wide open than it did a few weeks ago and you could make a case that C Z Rocket, who earned a career-best 118 Equibase Speed Figure in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship, looks as good on paper right now as any contender not named Vekoma.
Also-Eligibles: I was tempted to give United the third spot after he rebounded from his first defeat of the year with dominating 1 ½-length win in the Grade 2 John Henry Turf Championship Stakes Sept. 26, but he really didn’t lose much in defeat when second by a head in the Grade 2 Del Mar Handicap on Aug. 22. He’s won four of five this year and rates, pretty clearly, as the top U.S.-based contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, a race he ran second in a year ago. … After winning the De La Rose Stakes by a neck in her second start in the U.S., Juddmonte Farms homebred Viadera closed with an explosive late rush to win the one-mile, Grade 3 Nobel Damsel Stakes Sept. 26 at Belmont Park. The final time was an eye-catching 1:32.06, with the final quarter-mile a tick under 23 seconds according to the Equibase chart. The FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF typically is a very tough race, but I could see Viadera as a threat if her connections opt to try her against males. … I’ve really liked what I’ve seen from Harvest Moon in five career starts and she definitely proved her class when tackling older females in the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes and extending her winning streak to four for trainer Simon Callaghan. She would be facing much better quality of competition in the Longines Distaff and her connections have been intentionally conservative with this Uncle Mo filly, so I’m not sure they would ship her to Keeneland to take on a loaded group of elite females Nov. 7. … Get Her Number made the successful switch from turf to dirt to win the Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes Sept. 26 at Santa Anita, but I have to admit I’m skeptical of the quality of that group and the 88 Equibase Speed Figure was solid but unspectacular. I think the Dialed In colt is a nice 2-year-old but I can’t see myself betting on him in the TVG Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.
To be honest, I have not been impressed by Maximum Security in his three starts since coming back from Saudi Arabia and being transferred to Bob Baffert. He won the first two, the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap and Grade 1 TVG Pacific Classic, but I didn’t think he looked like the same racehorse we had seen as a 3-year-old and in the Saudi Cup. In the Sept. 26 Awesome Again Stakes, he really was no match whatsoever for stablemate Improbable in the stretch at Santa Anita and finished 4 ½ lengths behind the winner. Baffert has six weeks to tighten the screws on the New Year’s Day colt, but I’m just not convinced he can make up that much ground on Improbable and there are several others like By My Standards and Tom’s D’Etat that I prefer for the Longines Classic.
2. Fighting Mad
This is a very talented 4-year-old filly with a bright future and she proved as much with back-to-back wins in the Grade 2 Santa Maria Stakes and Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes in May and August, respectively. After the Hirsch, I was really encouraged by her trajectory but in a loaded Distaff division she needed to take a step forward in the Grade 1 Zenyatta Stakes Sept. 27 at Santa Anita and instead she took a slight step backward when setting the pace and fading to third behind winner Harvest Moon and runner-up Hard Not to Love. Her Equibase Speed Figure slipped seven points from a 112 in the Hirsch to a 105 for the Zenyatta, which is 12 points off the career-top she earned in the Santa Maria. The competition in the Longines Distaff will be significantly better than she faced at Santa Anita, so I could see Bob Baffert rerouting this one to the Filly and Mare Sprint, which might be a softer landing spot since I’m not enthusiastic about her chances to excel when stretching out to 1 1/8 miles.
The Grade 2 Vosburgh Invitational Stakes Sept. 26 at Belmont Park was Engage’s first race since running fourth in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Sprint, so I can’t be too harsh on the 5-year-old Into Mischief horse’s disappointing fifth-place finish, beaten by 8 ¾ lengths, after a layoff of more than 10 months. But at the same time, I can’t imagine last year’s Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes winner moving on to the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint off just the one disappointing prep race. The reality is, Engage obviously needed the race but also needed to show much more to prove he is a contender for the World Championships. Engage improved in his second start off a long layoff last year and I would expect similar improvement this year, but the Sprint would be a monumental challenge given what he showed in the Vosburgh.