The path to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6 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 two weeks ago.
Let’s get right to it and take a look at some of the big movers over the past couple of weeks of racing action as the focus of U.S. Thoroughbred racing centers on the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
1. High Oak
After a promising debut in which he rallied from off the pace to win by a neck June 26 at Belmont Park, High Oak made his stakes debut Aug. 14 in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite. Overlooked at 10.20-1 odds in the 10-horse field, the bay colt from the first crop of Gormley again swept to the front from off the pace and powered to a 4 ¼-length runaway win despite a wide trip. High Oak lugged in a bit through the stretch as he passed one opponent and then the next, but he coasted through the final sixteenth of a mile in an impressive victory. He relaxed in fifth early and then finished well after being just a half-length off a fast pace through a half-mile in :44.93, and the speed figures for the victory were solid. He earned a 95 Equibase Speed Figure, a nine-point improvement from his debut; a 90 Beyer Speed Figure, which is very strong for a 2-year-old in his second start; and likewise impressive 97 Brisnet and 106 TimeForm US ratings. Trained by Hall of Famer Bill Mott, High Oak is out of the winning Elusive Quality mare Champagne Sue, a half-sibling (same dam [mother], different sire [father]) to two graded stakes winners as well as the dam of 2010 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf winner Shared Account. Gormley, by Malibu Moon, won the Grade 1 FrontRunner Stakes as a 2-year-old and the Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby at 3, so he had a nice mix of precocity and stamina. We’ll see if he passes those traits on to his runners, but based upon High Oak’s Saratoga Special victory the early results look promising. Mott said he is considering for High Oak’s next start the $500,000 Champagne Stakes Oct. 2 at Belmont, a “Win and You’re In” race for the $2 million TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance Nov. 5 at Del Mar.
I was initially a bit skeptical of Code of Honor’s win in the $252,000 Philip H. Iselin Stakes Aug. 21 at Monmouth Park because I think the quality of opposition was suspect to say the least. But the more I think about it, the Iselin was really a perfect comeback spot for the 5-year-old in his first race since a somewhat disappointing fifth-place finish in the $3 million Pegasus World Cup Invitational Stakes in January. Code of Honor is a multiple Grade 1 winner at 1 ¼ miles in the hands of a patient Hall of Fame trainer, Shug McGaughey, who is a master of getting a racehorse ready to peak at the opportune time. Code of Honor made easy work of six overmatched opponents on his way to a 2 ½-length win that earned a new career-best 120 Equibase Speed Figure. That was a six-point jump from his previous best, so it seems the time away served Code of Honor well. “This is the first time he has run in a long time. With my training I don’t try to overdo it,” McGaughey said. “We got a win and hopefully we can go on to some other things down the road. We’ll see how he comes out of it but I think it sets us up pretty good.” Code of Honor earned a 105 Beyer Speed Figure, a 126 TimeForm US rating, and a 104 Brisnet rating, so he looks like a major player for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic with his next start expected to be the Grade 1 Woodward Stakes Oct. 2 at Belmont Park.
I profiled Tripoli this week in a Getting to Know feature on the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic hopeful, so check that out for a more in-depth analysis. In short, I believe the fair evaluation of his TVG Pacific Classic Stakes win Aug. 21 at Del Mar is to want to see him replicate that type of performance before jumping on the bandwagon while appreciating how much his stock has risen in just a few races. He’s a colt by top turf sire Kitten’s Joy out of a family that has had a lot of success on the grass and in sprints, so Tripoli made his first 11 starts on the grass at distances from 5 ½ furlongs to 1 1/8 miles. That’s not the typical profile of a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but Tripoli has improved with a switch to the main track. He equaled a career-best 109 Equibase Speed Figure in winning his first start on dirt June 19, ran second by a half-length in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap July 17, and then won the Pacific Classic by 1 ¼ lengths. He matched the 109 Equibase Speed Figure in winning the Pacific Classic for trainer John Sadler and the other speed figures also indicate he’s a serious racehorse on dirt at his best: 104 Beyer Speed Figure, 108 Brisnet speed rating, and 122 TimeForm US rating. There is an inclination to pump the brakes a bit given he made his dirt debut in June and stakes debut in July, but Tripoli is a 4-year-old colt on the rise in the older dirt male division.
Also-Eligibles: There was no shortage of options over the last two weeks and one of the most popular wins during that stretch came from Got Stormy, who defeated males again in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap Aug. 14 at Saratoga Race Course. She also won that race in 2019 and finished second a year ago, and she’s a proven elite miler when at her best. I wrote a Getting to Know profile on Got Stormy outlining why I think she is a key contender for the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF. … Malathaat came back nicely after her first career defeat in the Coaching Club American Oaks when second to Maracuja to dominate that rival and five others in a 1 ½-length victory Aug. 21 in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes at 1 ¼ miles. Now 6-for-7 lifetime, Malathaat equaled her best 107 Equibase Speed Figure and recorded a 95 Beyer Speed Figure, 107 Brisnet speed rating, and a 116 TimeForm US rating. The older females for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff look tough this year, but Malathaat looks like clearly the cream of the 3-year-old filly crop. … Two Emmys posted his first career stakes win in a 27.10-1 upset in the Grade 1 Mr. D. Stakes Aug 14 at Arlington International Racecourse (formerly the Arlington Million). I want to see him do it again but it’s hard to deny how much his stock has swelled in just a few weeks. … Likewise, Astronaut earned his first stakes win by rallying for a half-length score in the Grade 1 Del Mar Handicap Presented by The Japan Racing Association Aug. 21. Coming out of a runner-up finish in his stakes debut, the 4-year-old Quality Road colt is trending in the right direction, but he’ll need to show he’s capable of a much faster race to be a true player for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. … Santa Barbara topped my heating up list in the July 21 edition after winning the Belmont Oaks Invitational and her status as a top contender for the Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf was bolstered by a dominant win over older females in the Grade 1 Beverly D. Stakes Aug. 14 at Arlington. If the 3-year-old Camelot filly makes the trip to Del Mar in November, Santa Barbara will be a handful to say the least for the U.S. turf females. … I couldn’t make a compelling case for Mo Forza here because he’s now won seven of his last eight races, so we already knew he was really good, but it’s worth mentioning he won his first start in 9 ½ months in the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile Stakes Aug. 21. He has also won his last three races on the grass at Del Mar, host track for this year’s Breeders’ Cup. … After disappointing as the overwhelming 2-5 favorite in the Grade 3 Indiana Derby, Fulsome regained his winning form Aug. 24 at Parx Racing in the Grade 3 Smarty Jones Stakes. He was a clear standout on paper entering the race and lived up to expectations as the odds-on favorite in the Smarty Jones.
He got off to a great start to the year in winning a pair of Grade 2 races in his first five starts along with a runner-up finish in the Santa Anita Handicap. He had finished in the top three in each of his five races this year entering the Aug. 21 TVG Pacific Classic Stakes and just came up empty that day at Del Mar. He encountered some traffic entering the first turn in the 1 ¼-mile race and was seventh after the opening half-mile, which is farther back than he prefers, but Express Train never made up any ground and finished sixth, beaten by 10 ¾ lengths. I say this often in the cooling down section: horses are not machines and sometimes a bit of adversity takes them out of their comfort zone or they have an off day. It happens. Let’s hope that was the case with Express Train, who had emerged as a key player in the older male division, as he’ll need to turn things around in his next start to be a bona-fide contender for the $6 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic.
I was pretty high on Maracuja after she beat Malathaat in the Coaching Club American Oaks July 24 at Saratoga Race Course, but she was not up to an encore performance in the Grade 1 Alabama Stakes Aug. 21. Maracuja got off to a slow start and faded late to finish last of seven, beaten 13 lengths by Malathaat. “She got pinned down on the inside, taking dirt. It was kind of a rough trip,” trainer Rob Atras said. “Ricardo [Santana Jr.] tried to get her outside a couple times and wasn't able to. … I think if we'd got a good outside trip, she'd probably have run a lot better, but Ricardo said she struggled the whole way around. I don't want to make any excuses. That's racing. She came out of it good.” Atras said he believes Maracuja runs better fresh and will try to give her more time between starts moving forward. For a 3-year-old filly who got a mention among the also-eligibles for the heating up list on Aug. 4, however, this was not an ideal steppingstone to the big fall races on the path to the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
3. Raging Bull
He’s been an elite and consistent turf miler for three-plus seasons and typically mows down horses in the stretch with his patented closing kick, but the 6-year-old Dark Angel horse came up surprisingly empty in the Grade 1 Fourstardave Handicap Aug. 14. It wasn’t a terrible race by any stretch, but Raging Bull did fade from fourth to sixth in the final quarter-mile where he’s usually doing his best running. He won the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Mile Stakes in April at Keeneland, so I don’t think this is a case of “Father Time” catching up to Raging Bull in four months. But he was 10th last year in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF, so in order to be a serious player this year you’d ideally like to see him building up to a peak effort rather than going the opposite way. On the bright side, he does seem to really relish the firm ground in Southern California where he is 2-for-2, including a win on the turf course at Del Mar, host of this year’s Breeders’ Cup.
Of note: Caravel was second on the heating up list for the Aug. 4 edition of this blog after winning the Grade 3 Caress Stakes July 24 at Saratoga Race Course to extend her winning streak to three. The run was halted Aug. 22 at Woodbine with a third-place finish in the Grade 1 Highlander Stakes, but I’m not going to go overboard here given it was both her first time competing in a Grade 1 race and facing males. It also was the first time she shipped away from the East Coast, so under the circumstances she held her own in Canada. I’m interested to see where she winds up next and how she responds. I still think she’s a serious contender for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, albeit with significantly less hype.