By Jonathan Stettin #P6K
Many people start looking at Kentucky Derby horses when they are two years old. While it is fun to do, and you may on occasion find a worthwhile advance bet, it is really a shot in the dark. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is another story all together. We have a pretty good idea about who is pointing for the race, and we have seen most of these horses at their best or near best. That gives us a better or at least a more calculated window into the contenders and pretenders.
Although I am NEVER a fan of early selections prior to a race being drawn, and race-day conditions known, I thought it would be interesting to take an early look at the Classic this year and fun to see if this column ages well.
The three-year old crop has taken a fair share of criticism this year. Not from me. I generally wait until the end of the year to judge a crop. Sometimes the depth, strength, or weakness of a crop is not known until the following year. To judge now I feel is premature. I’m not a fan of anything premature.
With all the criticism the three-year olds have taken, we may have as many as three in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year. If not for the recent illness and setback of Maximum Security we could have had four three year olds in the Classic. That is a decent amount by any standard. Another interesting note, if Maximum Security somehow makes the big race, which is highly unlikely, we would have had two Classic starters who came out of the same maiden claiming race at Gulfstream Park.
Let’s start looking at the contenders and pretenders for this year’s mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita:
This horse really came into his own in the Whitney at Saratoga. I don’t think things really went according to plan for him trip and pace wise in that race but Mike Smith was able to adjust and McKinzie came through with his best lifetime race to date. McKinzie has always been highly regarded and was an early Kentucky Derby favorite. He will go once more prior to the Classic most likely in the Awesome Again, at his home track Santa Anita. If he runs well he will head into the big dance as the favorite and horse to beat but not without a question mark. The mile and a quarter may be about an eighth of a mile farther than his best distance. That may make him vulnerable late to someone who comes up with a peak effort. Bob Baffert will have him right as dodgers, and running at his home track are huge positives in his favor. A true top contender to take it all.
UPDATE: McKinzie was upset in the Awesome Again by longshot Mongolian Groom. A lot of people will downgrade and question him, especially at the mile and a quarter off the loss. I won’t. I think it was an ideal set up race and Baffert and Smith knew exactly what they were doing. He should be set to peak at the Cup.
In what has to be seen as a surprise, Bob Baffert has announced he will make a rider change on McKinzie replacing Mike Smith. Mike has been McKinzie’s only jockey and is also the winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history. Baffert has not named a replacement yet. Even with this development, I think the last race, a second in the Awesome Again sets McKinzie up for a big run in the Classic. It will be interesting to see where Bob goes.
McKinzie continues to train well into the Classic. Top contender going in for sure. Joel Rosario should fit this horse and I’d think he may true to his strong suit may take McKinzie just off the pace and make one strong run.
Patience has paid off for Jimmy Jerkens and Centennial Farm as this five-year old has really developed into a tough, game, and competitive runner. Purchased for $485,000.00 back in 2014 at the Keeneland September Yearling sale, Preservationist today looks every bit worth the price. It took him a while to come around, but he has. He couldn’t handle McKinzie in the Whitney but prior to that took the Suburban and after that he took the Woodward. The mile and a quarter probably suits him better than McKinzie. That may be what this tough guy needs to turn the tables on his rival. Another strong contender.
UPDATE: Preservationist didn’t run that well in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Alvarado held him hard and it appeared he was loaded early, but when real race time came he was flat. Not the way you want to head to the Classic. I downgrade him off that race and poor effort.
Preservationist has been retired and won’t be running.
Code of Honor:
I loved this guy in the Kentucky Derby, and I still say if it didn’t rain he was the winner. I also loved him in the Travers and he came through with his best race to date. He is an improving three-year old and we probably haven’t seen his best with patient Shug McGaughey calling the shots. The Jockey Club Gold Cup will tell us a lot about whether he belongs in the Classic. He will need to improve again, but will also need some gas in the tank to go forward yet again come the big Saturday in early November. He will also have to handle Santa Anita. This is a lot to ask. While no pretender, I am not ready to label him a contender just yet. That would be premature and you know how I feel about premature anything. Let’s come back to him after the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
UPDATE: Code of Honor finished second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He was elevated to first by the stewards in a controversial call for interference from Vino Rosso, who did brush him twice in the stretch. He was only beat a nose, and simply put ran huge. This colt clearly moved to the head of the three year old class, and if he heads to California he will have to be taken seriously. That said, I won’t be surprised if Shug and Farrish past the Cup and bring him back fresh next year. Maybe even at the Pegasus. We’ll see.
Shug McGaughey announced Code of Honor is heading to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I did not think he would, and the fact he is tells me Shug is confident and Code of Honor will be ready. He is a contender.
Code of Honor worked well the other day. He has the look of a dangerous and still improving three-year old. He is a strong contender.
The faster and more contentious the pace, the better chance this horse will have. He likes to lag early and that usually leaves him with a lot to do. I won’t be surprised if he can see them all in the early part of the race. That said, his best race is indeed good enough to win this. On that alone you almost have to label him a contender, albeit one that needs some help. His style does not really suit the old Santa Anita, but we have a new Santa Anita now, slower, maybe heavier, and that may help Yoshida. I think he will be closing in the stretch and he is a contender at a nice price.
Mike Smith who lost McKinzie to Joel Rosario picks up this closer. He reminds me of Drosslymeyer, who was also trained by Bill Mott. It will be tough to come from as far back as he will be over that track, but Mike has the knack and the feel for it. Dangerous contender.
His last race was his best, and really the only race that suggests he can run with these horses. He may be getting good at the right time, or maybe he liked Del Mar and the field he faced in the Pacific Classic. I lean that way and would need to see more class-wise, and consistency wise to think he can beat the best of this field. We will get to see him again before the Classic, and maybe John Sadler can work some more magic with him. Until I see it I call him a pretender.
UPDATE: Regressed as expected off the Pacific Classic. Too may others are better and going in better.
Trainer Todd Pletcher is not having the kind of year percentage wise we are used to but Vino Rosso have been both diversified and a bright spot. He can win from 7 eighths to a mile and a half. He handled traveling to California in the past. He will face some three-year olds in the upcoming Jockey Club Gold Cup. If he handles them he will come to the Breeders’ Cup with some confidence. Johnny Velazquez opted to stay with Code of Honor, definitely a knock, but riders are wrong more than right just like bettors. He probably gets overlooked and little respect on the big day, but his record says contender, especially his California race.
UPDATE: This guy ran huge in the Jockey Club Gold Cup only to have it taken away by the stewards. He responded to the removal of blinkers by Todd Pletcher and was into the bit all the way. He hit his peak at the right time, and we know he likes Santa Anita and the distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
This classy mare may go in the Classic but I suspect she goes in the Distaff. We’ll talk Classic here. As good as she is when right, I am not sure she has ever run good enough to win this race. Does she have one of those in her? Maybe, but I think she has had enough chances to show it already and she hasn’t. She will be tough as nails in the Distaff, and for sure is not hopeless here, but I think she is a pretender against the better ones in this race.
Elate runs in the Spinster at Keeneland this weekend. We’ll see. I still think Distaff. It makes more sense to me. She’d have to deal primarily with Midnight Bisou, as opposed to several in the Classic.
Elate was beaten by Blue Prize in the Spinster. I didn’t think she was heading to the Classic before, and I don’t think so now. She will have enough work to do to win the Distaff. She’s a pretender in the Classic in my book.
To my surprise Elate has been confirmed for the Classic over the Distaff. I don’t think she can beat this group, even at the mile and a quarter.
Seeking the Soul:
If he ran his best race, and a few of the others didn’t, and the pace set up just right he could win. That is a lot of ifs even for a horserace. He should sit a good trip, and will probably launch a rally, but I doubt it would be good enough without a few of the ifs. Dallas Stewart is deadly at big prices in big races. He is overdue for some major wins. Pretender. A sneaky one, but still a pretender.
This quality three-year old is overdue for some good luck. he has had his share of trouble on the racetrack. He has a lot of talent and deserves a better resume than he has. He would have to really step up to take this but if he finally starts getting lucky on the track, with his connections, and bloodlines he could be an apple-cart upsetter. As with Code of Honor labeling him now is premature. I suspect he goes forward and stamps himself a contender, but as of today the jury is still out. If he was my horse I’d give Joel Rosario the call if I could get him and tell him to take back and make one locomotive run.
UPDATE: He was disappointing in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and we all know it is not the first time. He was given a somewhat indecisive ride as Jose took him to the front but did surrender it readily when challenged. I don’t think it made the difference, and I am not faulting the ride, the jock played it as he saw it. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is a tough spot to turn things around, not impossible, but very tough.
Tacitus is done for the year. He is passing the Breeders’ Cup Classic and is scheduled to race next year.
It is very doubtful we see him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic this year. he had a bout of colic that kept him out of the Pennsylvania Derby and nearly killed him. His spleen was blocking his intestine and preventing bowel movements. It resolved without surgery, but it is a setback. His speed and gameness, along with Jason Servis’ ridiculously high winning percentage would have made him a contender, but we probably won’t see it.
Maximum Security is possibly pointing for the Malibu, but we won’t see him in any Breeders’ Cup race this year.
She loves Santa Anita, and will be one of the favorites in the Distaff if she goes there as I suspect she will. She always tries, is always coming, can move early or late, and loves to win. She has not faced thus beaten colts yet, but she has done everything asked of her. This would be an awfully tall order even for her. I’ll reluctantly call her a pretender in here if this is where she winds up.
UPDATE: Stayed undefeated on the year with a nice win in the Beldame against girls she is just better than. You can’t underestimate her, but I still don’t think she runs in the Classic, or can win it.
Steve Asmussen has said MIdnight Bisou will go in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and not the Classic. Smart move.
His Pennsylvania Derby would not win this race and that was a quirky race over a quirky track. Even with as sharp a trainer as Saffie Joseph is, this looks too tough for him at this point. Pretender.
He hit the board in the San Diego and Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Neither of those efforts, his two best to date, put him in the mix for the win here. I don’t see any indications he is going to move up to this level right now. Pretender.
UPDATE: Flopped in the Awesome Again regressing off his race at Del Mar.
He’s a late comer if he goes, and I think he will. They will have to supplement him as he was not nominated. So much for “win and you’re in.” He upset McKinzie in the Awesome Again on the lead. He will have more pace to deal with in the Classic, and probably a more aggressive ressive McKinzie. I doubt he repeats. Pretender.
Mongolian Groom has been supplemented to the Classic. He will be running. That doesn’t change my opinion he is a pretender.
Well we don’t know if he is heading to the Classic, the Mile, or even the Sprint. Sort of like Wise Dan, this guy would be a contender wherever he goes. He can even run on the turf. The talent is there and Mandella did nothing short of a fantastic job getting him ready to win a sprint off the layoff. I think he will opt for the Mile, but that is just speculation. If he runs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, you know Mandella is confident, and that Omaha Beach moved forward off that giant sprint. Mike Smith would ride, and the Hall of Famer, and winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history will be well aware of McKinzie. Interesting. I am taking him very serious off that last sprint.
Omaha Beach has been confirmed for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. I think that is the best spot for him at this point.
War of Will:
War of Will showing up here was a surprise to me. While a three-year old can improve in leaps and bounds, sometimes without much notice, I think he would have to move way up to contend here. He has the look of a pretender to me against these.
As far as any European or other foreign invaders I am not aware of any confirmed. Hopefully we will get one or two to throw in the mix.
We’ll update this column right up until Breeders’ Cup. Let’s see how it ages and changes. It will also be very interesting and also telling how the “new” Santa Anita dirt track plays. Although track management continually stated the racetrack was non contributory to the rash of breakdowns at the last meet, they did tear it up and replace it while dark and racing moved to Del Mar. How will this new track play remains to be seen. I suspect slower, deeper and heavier. That may change Santa Anita from the fast speed friendly strip we all came to know.
We have watched about a week of races at Santa Anita. There is no significant bias of yet. The racetrack seems somewhat slower than it has been but is playing fair enough. We’ll continue to watch it. It does seem heavy and horses are coming back tired. This will give horses that train over it regularly an advantage. That said Bob Baffert told me the good horses run over anything. I’d still ship in sooner than later.