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 a week ago.
Let’s get right to it and take a look at some of the big movers over seven days of racing action as the focus of U.S. Thoroughbred racing centers on the 2021 Breeders’ Cup with less than four weeks to the main event.
1. In Love
Talk about a meteoric rise over the last few months. In Love went from finishing eighth at 29.70-1 odds in the Wise Dan Stakes in June at Churchill Downs to earning an expenses-paid berth in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF with a win in the $750,000 Keeneland Turf Mile Stakes Oct. 9. In between, he won an allowance-optional claiming race on yielding turf at Arlington International Racecourse and a division of the $400,000 TVG Stakes at Kentucky Downs. In those three starts, he’s earned a string of solid 108-113-109 Equibase Speed Figures and emerged as a real threat in the Breeders’ Cup for Paulo Lobo, who also trains Keeneland Turf Mile fourth-place finisher Ivar. (A year ago, Ivar won this Grade 1 race at Keeneland before running fourth in the Breeders’ Cup Mile and will again be pointed to the race on the Nov. 6 World Championships card at Del Mar.) In Love looked terrific in winning the Keeneland Turf Mile, passing five horses in the final quarter-mile by coving that distance in 22.91 seconds according to Trakus data. He turned a 3 ½-length deficit into a 1 ½-length win that earned a 109 Equibase Speed Figure, 103 Beyer Speed Figure, 100 Brisnet speed rating, and 120 TimeForm US rating. The Mile is not shaping up as quite as deep of a race as it has been in recent years, although that could change quickly with the addition of a couple of European runners, so I view this Brazilian-bred, 5-year-old gelding as a serious contender. He’s really improved since Lobo added blinkers two starts back to improve focus, but a lot will depend on how he handles shipping cross-country and the firmer ground in Southern California.
2. Juju’s Map
There were quite a few 2-year-old winners last weekend who jumped up and won key Breeders’ Cup preps, but I picked Juju’s Map to profile in this week’s Getting to Know feature because I viewed her as the most impressive. She led from start to finish for a runaway win a maiden race at Ellis Park in September and Oct. 8 at Keeneland was similarly dominant in winning the $400,000 Darley Alcibiades Stakes by 4 ¼ lengths from just off the pace. Sure, Echo Zulu looks like the logical favorite for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Nov. 5 at Del Mar, but outside of her, I view Juju’s Map as right there in the second tier of contenders with a chance to win the race with just a bit of improvement. The speed figures – 95 Equibase, 84 Beyer, 90 Brisnet, 112 TimeForm US – indicate she’s a viable win candidate, trainer Brad Cox won four Breeders’ Cup race (two with 2-year-olds) a year ago, and Juju’s Map has tactical speed that will be especially valuable at Del Mar.
3. Royal Flag
Letruska looked dominant yet again in winning the Juddmonte Spinster Stakes at Keeneland Oct. 10 and almost certainly will be heavily favored in the $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff Nov. 6 at Del Mar. But Royal Flag has been excellent in four starts this year and her off-the-pace running style could be effective in the Distaff if Letruska is challenged early by Shedaresthedevil and Horologist, both of whom boast early speed and proven class. Two starts back, Royal Flag came up a half-length short of Letruska when third in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti, so she doesn’t have too much ground to make up on the probable heavy favorite. She won her final prep for the Distaff Oct. 10 at Belmont Park with a 4 ¼-length romp in the $250,000, Grade 2 Beldame Stakes when she rolled past Horologist in the stretch as the 7-10 favorite. Royal Flag earned a 109 Equibase Speed Figure, 99 Beyer Speed Figure, 104 Brisnet speed rating, and 120 TimeForm US rating. I honestly believe she has a legitimate chance to turn the tables on Letruska in the Distaff for trainer Chad Brown and owner-breeder William S. Farish. Never worse than third in 12 career starts with six wins, Royal Flag is an elite racemare.
Also-Eligibles: Special Reserve just missed the cut for the third spot. Like Royal Flag, he’s simply been fantastic all year with five wins and two seconds in seven races and a pair of graded stakes wins. He held off Aloha West by a neck Oct. 8 at Keeneland to win the Grade 2 Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes and punch his ticket to the Qatar Racing Breeders’ Cup Sprint Nov. 6 at Del Mar. He’s raced at five different tracks this year and won at four of them, so his talent travels and he’s right in that second tier of win contenders behind probable favorite Jackie’s Warrior. … Trainer Chad Brown really strengthened his hand for the World Championships last weekend when Blowout (Grade 1 First Lady Stakes Presented by UK Healthcare at Keeneland), Rockemperor (Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes at Belmont Park), and Sacred Life (Grade 3 Knickerbocker Stakes at Belmont) won their final prep races, as did the aforementioned Royal Flag. Brown also had a couple of quality seconds last weekend and could be sitting on a big Breeders’ Cup. … A couple of other 2-year-olds warrant a mention here: Rattle N Roll looked very good in winning the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity Oct. 9 at Keeneland and Averly Jane always looked like a winner when dominating the Indian Summer Stakes Presented by Keeneland Select by three lengths Oct. 10 at the Lexington track. Rattle N Roll enters the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by TAA on a two-race winning streak for trainer Kenny McPeek. Averly Jane has won all four of her starts by open lengths, winning by a combined margin of 22 ¼ lengths. She looks like a budding star and should be formidable against males in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint for Wesley Ward. Averly Jane was bred, foaled, raised, and prepped for the sales ring by University of Kentucky students at Maine Chance Farm.
Order of Australia returned to the U.S. for the first time since his 73.20-1 upset in the 2020 FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF, but on the same Keeneland turf course he earned that career-defining win last November he failed to live up to favoritism when last of 13 Oct. 9 in the Keeneland Turf Mile. The 4-year-old Australia colt had won only one of five starts this year, but he’d been consistently solid in his last four starts before this trip to Keeneland, where he finished nine lengths behind winner In Love. “We got a great post position. Going to the first turn we had a great spot, but he didn’t show up,” jockey John Velazquez said. “Sometimes you get a good position and you ask them, but there’s nothing.” His performance in the Keeneland Turf Mile was a real head-scratcher. While it’s never good for a racehorse to disappoint in his final prep race before the Breeders’ Cup, it is worth noting he was beaten by 43 ¾ lengths in his final start before last year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile. You can never count out top European trainer Aidan O’Brien, so if he ships him to Del Mar for a repeat bid, he must be confident he can bounce back. I’d still be very skeptical.
I really expected Gufo to win the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes Oct. 9 at Belmont Park. He didn’t run an awful race by any stretch but he faded late and finished third, beaten by 2 ½ lengths as the 1.85-1 favorite by a longshot winner in Rockemperor. Entering the Joe Hirsch, I viewed Gufo as a major contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf and probably the best U.S.-based candidate. It’s tough to get as excited about his chances now after he came up short against a field that I thought he should have handled somewhat easily. The 4-year-old War Front colt remains a contender and his odds will now be significantly better if trainer Christophe Clement ships him to Del Mar, but I can’t see him handling top European invaders after his Equibase Speed Figured dipped 12 points to a 103 from the 115 he earned for winning the Grade 1 Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Stakes in August at Saratoga.
Another Aidan O’Brien runner, Japan joins stablemate Order of Australia on the cooling down section of this list after he finished sixth in a seven-horse field in the Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Stakes Oct. 9 at Belmont Park. A multiple Group 1 winner in Europe, Japan has had an up and down year but looked to be trending in the right direction after winning a Group 3 race in Ireland in July and then finishing second by a neck to Gufo in the Grade 1 Sword Dancer Stakes in August. Sent off as the second betting choice in the Joe Hirsch, Japan just never fired as he was fifth in the early stages and didn’t pass a single horse in the final quarter-mile. I think he’s better than he showed at Belmont Park last weekend – considerably better – and he did encounter some trouble on the final turn when launching his bid, but he’s another contender that came up empty in what appeared to be an ideal spot to prep for the Breeders’ Cup.
Of note: Baby Yoda turned heads with a “wow” performance when winning an allowance race by 4 ¼ lengths Sept. 4 at Saratoga. The water got a little rough and deeper when he made his stakes debut in the $250,000, Grade 2 Vosburgh Stakes Oct. 9 at Belmont Park. Baby Yoda broke a step slow and was jostled early while finishing third of four as the 3-2 second betting choice. It wasn’t a great result for his stakes debut, but deserves a second chance, Baby Yoda does.