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.
He disappointed as one of the favorites for the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile a year ago at Keeneland and didn’t look great in his 4-year-old debut back in June at Churchill Downs, but Art Collector seems to have regained his top form of late and might even be better than he’s ever been. The Bernardini colt posted a front-running, 1 ½-length win in the Alydar Stakes Aug. 6 at Saratoga Race Course and three weeks later won the $800,000 Charles Town Classic Stakes by the same 1 ½-length margin. In the Alydar, Art Collector established a new career-best 110 Equibase Speed Figure and improved that by five points to a 115 in the Charles Town Classic. There are quite a few runners in recent memory like Mucho Macho Man, Gun Runner, and Vino Rosso who showed elite talent as 3-year-olds but really put it all together a year or two later with a little more time to develop physically and emotionally. We know 2020 Toyota Blue Grass Stakes winner Art Collector has natural ability and he really seems to be figuring things out now. His 102 Beyer Speed Figure, 107 Brisnet speed rating, and 123 TimeForm US rating for the Charles Town Classic indicate he might be more prepared to compete with the best of the best at the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships. Given his two most recent wins came at 1 1/8 miles, I’m inclined to think he might be better-suited for the 1 ¼-mile Longines Classic than the Big Ass Fans Dirt Mile.
2. Echo Zulu
Echo Zulu improved to 2-for-2 with a four-length win in the $300,000, Grade 1 Spinaway Stakes Sept. 5 at Saratoga Race Course. Her second straight overpowering victory has this Gun Runner filly primed to be a major player in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Nov. 5 at Del Mar. Trained by Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen, Echo Zulu earned strong speed figures for a 2-year-old filly in the Spinaway. There is a long way to go before the World Championships in November, but the 99 Equibase Speed Figure, 90 Beyer Speed Figure, 99 Brisnet speed rating, and 113 TimeForm US rating support her status as the top early contender for the Juvenile Fillies and an incredibly promising prospect. Echo Zulu was bred to be a star and has lived up to her pedigree. From the first crop of Gun Runner out of Grade 2 winner Letgomyecho, by Menifee, Echo Zulu is a half-sister to Grade 1 winner Echo Town and graded stakes winner J Boys Echo.
Ginobili had shown flashes of potential from early in his career as he was entered in the Grade 1 Del Mar Futurity in his third career start in 2019 and ran fourth and subsequently finished second in his 3-year-old debut in the Grade 2 San Vicente Stakes in February 2020. He then tried sprinting, stretching out in distance, and racing on turf in a sequence of allowance-optional claiming races while trainer Richard Baltas sought to find the talented Munnings colt’s ideal distance and surface. This summer at Del Mar with the addition of blinkers, Baltas found the ideal range with Ginobili as he posted a front-running, 9 ¾-length win in a one-mile allowance race July 17 and then returned to stakes company for the first time in 1 ½ years in the seven-furlong Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes Aug. 28. In the Pat O’Brien, Ginobili (named after four-time NBA champion Manu Ginobili) pressed the pace from second and edged clear in the stretch to win by 1 ¾ lengths and earn a guaranteed starting spot in the Big Ass Fans Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile Nov. 6 at Del Mar. In back-to-back races, Ginobili earned 113 and 110 Equibase Speed Figures, the two highest of his career, and it is promising that his best race came at the track and distance of this year’s Dirt Mile. Likewise, the 102 Beyer Speed Figure, 104 Brisnet rating, and 122 TimeForm US rating for the Pat O’Brien paint a promising picture when evaluating his chances to run a big race on this main track in the Dirt Mile.
Also-Eligibles: The two hardest final cuts this week for the top three spots were Gufo and Max Player. I profiled Gufo last week and he appears to have emerged as a serious challenger to rival Domestic Spending as the top turf male in training in the U.S. While he has yet to defeat that familiar foe, Gufo should love the 1 ½ miles of the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf and is in terrific form coming off of wins in the Resorts World Casino Manhattan Stakes June 5 and Resorts World Casino Sword Dancer Stakes Aug. 28. I was admittedly somewhat skeptical of Max Player’s victory in the 1 ½-mile Suburban Stakes in July, but his powerhouse four-length win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup Sept. 4 at Saratoga cannot be ignored. Like Art Collector above, he seems to be maturing into a nice racehorse in the older male division and the speed figures from the Jockey Club Gold Cup – 113 Equibase, 102 Beyer, 101 Brisnet, 120 TimeForm – support his cause as a serious contender for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Classic. … Gunite was another runner who I gave serious consideration for one of the top three spots after his 5 ¾-length runaway win in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes Sept. 6 at Saratoga. He seems to be improving with more distance and is another promising runner from the first crop of 2017 Horse of the Year Gun Runner. … I thought both winner Jackie’s Warrior and runner-up Life Is Good, the latter returning from a 5 ½-month layoff, ran terrific races in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes Aug. 28 at Saratoga and I wouldn’t be surprised to see either in the winner’s circle after the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Nov. 6 at Del Mar. … Speaking of sprinters, Yaupon was game as can be in winning the Grade 1 Forego Stakes by a head despite runner-up Firenze Fire trying repeatedly to bite him through the stretch run Aug. 28 at Saratoga. All of the post-race buzz was about the savaging incident, but Yaupon has quietly developed into an elite sprinter and he’s better prepared this year for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. He was unplaced in the race in 2020 as the 13-10 favorite in the first of only two losses through eight career starts. … Sticking with the sprinters, a pair of lightly raced 3-year-olds in Baby Yoda and Flightline earned matching 114 Beyer Speed Figures last week for allowance victories at Saratoga and Del Mar, respectively, sparking debate over which was the more impressive runner. Being a “Star Wars” and “The Mandalorian” fan, my heart goes with Baby Yoda but my eyes tell me Flightline is the faster individual – he earned a remarkable 130 Equibase Speed Figure for the Sept. 5 win at Del Mar. I always show restraint in these instances and wait until a racehorse shows the ability to win at the graded stakes level before I start thinking Breeders’ Cup. Neither Baby Yoda nor Flightline has competed in a stakes race yet; both look exceptionally promising. … Finally, Essential Quality (Longines Classic), Letruska (Longines Distaff), Gamine (Filly and Mare Sprint), and War Like Goddess (Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf) continued their march toward the Nov. 5-6 World Championships with Grade 1 wins as heavy favorites, but we already knew they were really good.
1. High Oak
Sometimes this column involves eating a bit of crow and such is the case with High Oak, a 2-year-old Gormley colt who occupied the top spot in the Aug. 25 edition of this blog coming off a 4 ¼-length win in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special Stakes Presented by Miller Lite on Aug. 14 at Saratoga. I really though he had the makings of a special 2-year-old colt – and he still might – but the shine came off more than a little when he ran fourth, beaten by 9 ¼ lengths, in the Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes Sept. 6. After improving from his maiden win to take the Saratoga Special, the Hopeful was a significant step backward for High Oak as he just didn’t really have any punch in the stretch. I thought he had a chance to upset heavily favored Wit in the Hopeful, but it was 11.60-1 longshot Gunite who stepped forward and stole the show. High Oak most likely will need a bounce-back effort in his next start to be considered for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance on Nov. 5 at Del Mar.
After winning the Grade 1 Beholder Mile Stakes in March, last year’s Preakness Stakes heroine Swiss Skydiver is winless in her last three races. Her training schedule got shaken up by an outbreak of equine herpesvirus, so much so that trainer Ken McPeek had to scrap plans to run in a Grade 3 race against fillies and instead start her against males in the Grade 1 Whitney Stakes Aug. 8 at Saratoga. She finished a well-beaten fourth in that race when she was up against it, but her next start on Aug. 28 in the Personal Ensign Stakes Presented by Lia Infiniti against fillies and mares was disappointing in my view. Swiss Skydiver has an ideal trip stalking the pace from third and then failed to fire her best in the stretch and faded to fifth, 8 ½ lengths behind winner Letruska. In fairness, the Personal Ensign was also a stacked field of talented racemares, so I’m not ready to give up on Swiss Skydiver by any stretch. She needs to show improvement, however, in her next start for me to have any confidence backing her in November at the Breeders’ Cup.
I decided to use the final spot as I often do to pay homage to a retiring racehorse, and Whitmore is the battle-tested gelding hanging up his saddle after a fantastic career that made him a fan favorite. It’s hard to believe it was 5 ½ years ago that Whitmore was on the Kentucky Derby trail after running second in the Grade 2 Southwest Stakes and Rebel Stakes and third in the Grade 1 Arkansas Derby, but it turned out sprinting was his game and Whitmore was damn good at it. He won 11 career stakes races, including four straight editions of the Hot Springs Stakes and three editions of the Count Fleet Stakes (both races at Oaklawn Park) while amassing more than $4.5 million in earnings. But Whitmore’s pièce de résistance undoubtedly was his 3 ¼-length runaway win at 18.40-1 odds from off the pace in the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland. You’ll rarely hear a longshot greeted with such robust cheers as Whitmore was when the likeable gelding powered clear in the stretch to a career-defining win for trainer Ron Moquett. He finished second twice and third twice in five starts in 2021 and was retired sound and healthy after an unplaced finish in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes Aug. 28. Fare thee well, Whitmore. Thanks for the memories!