The Breeders’ Cup can always be counted on to produce two kinds of results over the two days: one, solidifying and validating results that are predictable and have champion confirming implications, and two, inexplicable head scratchers. Of those head scratchers, there are two types, the ones where we missed something and it all makes sense in the 20-20 hindsight, and the ones that just defy logic even after the results are in. The 2017 Breeders’ Cup was no exception whatsoever. It had it all.
On Friday it all started with the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf. Most of the knowledgeable handicappers with public profiles liked Happily from the loaded Aidan O’ Brien barn. Many also liked September also from O’ Brien’s powerhouse stable. The fastest filly in the race according to Thoro-Graph, Rushing Fall, from another stacked stable, Chad Brown, took the race down with a wide move into the stretch of the one mile turf affair followed by a nice spurt. Happily was pinned down on the inside the whole way and Ryan Moore was never able to get her out and ultimately wrapped up. She finished up the course. September may have actually been best. She was left at the gate. made up a ton of ground wide and flying for third.
In the Dirt Mile Battle of Midway wore down a tougher than most expected Sharp Azteca, who set the pace. Jorge Navarro who has been the pile on guy of racing with many calling for a ban after in classic numskull style he self proclaimed himself the juice guy, on video no less at Monmouth Park. I would imagine the second place finish by Sharp Azteca was a win of sorts for Jose who probably enjoyed proving he can compete under Breeders’ Cup scrutiny on our game’s biggest international stage, presumably with no “juice.” Battle Of Midway has always been a nice three year old and I actually bet on him at long odds in this year’s Kentucky Derby. I didn’t on Friday. Mor Spirit confirmed horses usually have just so many monster efforts in them after needing time off following a devastating romp in the Metropolitan Mile. He was flat as a pancake Friday. Bob Baffert said prior to the race it took a long time to get Mor Spirit back into the game following the Metropolitan. Horses can fool or humble anyone. Anyone at all.
In the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf we saw one of the more impressive performances of the weekend, and although the race was on turf, we may have seen a Kentucky Derby contender. Mendelssohn, again from the Aidan O’Brien stable tracked on the rail, swung out under Ryan Moore and powered home dominantly. After the race O’Brien declared he’d be pointed towards Louisville on the first Saturday in May.
The Distaff was won by the rock solid extremely classy and consistent Forever Unbridled. She comes from a great female family, shows up every time, and is just a super classy mare expertly handled by the always dangerous on a big stage Dallas Stewart. That should surprise no one, he learned from D. Wayne Lukas. Owner Charles Fipke fired Joel Rosario after Joel won a Grade 1 as her regular rider in Saratoga, and Dallas Stewart had already given him the call. This resulted in a meeting with the stewards which resulted in Fipke paying two mount fees, one to new winning rider John Velazquez, and one to Joel who made over 100k sitting in the jocks room without a mount. It can happen to anybody in this game.
Elate was a disappointment who just didn’t fire. Stellar Wind kept John Sadler’s record of horses he trains just not getting it done on the big stage intact. He can train, just not on certain days. Not yet anyway. Nonetheless Stellar Wind went out bad but had a great career and campaign. A date with Classic winner and likely Horse of the Year Gun Runner looms in the second running of The Pegasus at Gulfstream Park. Forever Unbridled reportedly will stay in training and look at the race.
Saturday proved to be more dramatic. We started with the Juvenile Fillies. Caledonia Road gave the winningest jockey in the Breeders’ Cup, Magic Mike Smith, or as some say Money Mike, yet another victory. There was a lot of talk by a lot of players about how the sheets today (Ragozins and Thoro-Graph) shape the odds. Well not here as Caledonia Road was allowed to leave the gate at 18-1 but won like a 8-5 shot and was a nice wager for yours truly. She had an outstanding pattern on Thoro-Graph, and people read sheets differently. The track also seemed to be playing to outside closers, and that surely helped.
The Turf Sprint run at five furlongs looked like it belonged to long shot Richard’s Boy from another always dangerous barn, Peter Miller, but just when he thought he had it, his other longer priced long shot Stormy Liberal came flying and nailed him for a Peter Miller exacta. Good job Peter. This was a bomb that made sense even at 40-1. We had both Peter’s horses pegged in our analysis as very live, and Lady Aurelia and the horse that beat her Marsha, were both fillies against colts, and both a tad overrated and beatable. Stormy Liberal gave Joel Rosario the Breeders’ Cup win he lost on Forever Unbridled and another nice check.
The Filly and Mare Sprint was one of those that made no sense even after the race. Even the morning after I couldn’t get to Bar of Gold who I always regarded highly, but not this high. She flew home under Irad Ortiz Jr. The John Kimmel trained New York Bred mare was 70-1. I couldn’t bet her in that field now, and apparently neither could a lot of other people. John Kimmel is a great trainer who has slowed down the last few years but he has always known his way around a good horse and did a great job here. Even knowing that I couldn’t back her in this spot.
If anyone deserved to go out a winner it was Lady Eli. She’s been good so long, danced every dance, and beat the dreadful laminitis not in one bit in two hooves. Remarkably she not only survived, she thrived and raced at the same level she had before. We’ll never know but she might have even won. She was sandwiched out of the gate, again a few hundred yards into the race causing Irad Ortiz to have to snatch her up hard, and afterwards it was revealed she suffered a nasty gash on her leg. It just wasn’t meant to be. That takes nothing away from the “Euro” winner Wuheida who spurted away under a really nice ride by William Buick. At $24.20 for $2, she made sense afterwards. Hopefully Lady Eli gets her Eclipse anyway…..
In the Sprint favored, classy and fast Drefong, lost the race at the draw getting stuck inside in the two post/hole. That’s exactly what happened to the favorite and most likely winner before the race in the race. He was pinned on the inside down the backstretch under Mike Smith, and by the time he got out there was no gas in the tank. Roy H figured to get a perfect stalking trip from the outside under Kent Desormeaux, and he certainly did giving Peter Miller his second win on the big card. Imperial Hint, the fastest minor leaguer around held second. He’s no joke sprinting.
The Turf Mile was a grab bag on paper and sometimes those races where anything can happen, play out just like you draw it up. Favored World Approval enjoyed a perfect stalking trip and won giving John Velazquez another win in this year’s event.
The Colts and Geldings Juvenile saw a flop from everyone’s best bet and early Kentucky Derby favorite (present company excluded) Bolt D’ Oro. He ran a well beaten third proving his mortality. Good Magic was awesome, and although a maiden was already stakes placed and looked best or close to it on Thoro-Graph. Bob Baffert announced don’t forget his name or that of Zayat Stables when talking about next year’s Kentucky Derby as Solomini, who ran a very fast improved race last out in his second start, albeit second to Bolt D’ Oro, proved that was no fluke and this is a talented improving horse. He ran on the lead on a track that at least up until that point seemed to be kind to closers and stalkers. The one-two finishers in the Juvenile look like runners to me.
Highland Reel took a lot more money in the Turf than I expected. After Ulysses the likely favorite scratched late Friday, Highland Reel inherited that role but was really over bet. He ran well, stalking pace setting three year old Oscar Performance who really couldn’t be expected to wire that field, but couldn’t rally strong enough to catch Andre Fabre trained Talismanic. Talismanic ran really well, and made a lot of sense after the race with 20-20 hindsight. He liked firm turf, and Fabre doesn’t bring anything but live horses to the Breeders’ Cup. I’d add it was far from impossible to feel that way before the race as well. I didn’t.
The 2017 Breeders’ Cup Classic was a classic – just not the one we expected. Arrogate broke inwardly, threw a shoe, and despite some early hustling by Mike Smith just didn’t have his head or body for that matter in the game. Gun Runner certainly did. Just when it was a foregone conclusion closers were winning, and the outside was the place to be, Gun Runner wired the Classic at the mile and a quarter distance he was 0 for 3 at. He did so with Collected parked outside him the whole way. It was pretty much a merry go round from there the exact opposite of how the track had played Friday and Saturday until then. Was Gun Runner that good? That would mean Collected was too. Did the track change with the Del Mar tide and cooler weather? Who knows, that was the last one they ran Saturday. Gun Runner was every bit as impressive as he had been since he was beaten by Arrogate in Dubai. Arrogate goes out bad, on a low after being called one of the greats. Gun Runner is looking forward to dancing with Forever Unbridled in The Pegasus, a classic meeting between a Distaff and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner.
Mike Smith padded his most Breeders’ Cup wins record by one in the Juvenile Fillies Dirt, he now has 26. William Buick, and Michael Barzalona each got their first Breeders’ Cup wins in the Filly and Mare Turf and the Turf respectively. Both being European jockeys that isn’t surprising but that is was Buick’s first is.Five horses tried to defend their wins in Breeders’ Cup races they won in 2016 and none could do it. Highland Reel (Turf) came closest but finished third after a not perfect but not all that bad trip, Arrogate (Classic) dead-heated for fifth, Queen’s Trust (Filly & Mare Turf) finished fifth, Drefong (TwinSpires Sprint) finished sixth after a bad inside draw and a slow break, and Finest City (Filly & Mare Sprint) finished eighth.
Rockingham Ranch’s Stormy Liberal came off the longest layoff of any Breeders’ Cup winner in the 34-year history of the event by 10 days. He had not run in 147 days since he finished eighth in the Jaipur Stakes at Belmont Park. The previous longest layoff was 137 days by Magician in the 2013 Breeders’ Cup Turf. Precisionist, winner of the 1985 Sprint and Calidoscopio, winner of the 2012 Marathon had each been away for 132 days before their wins.
HIGH FIVE: All the winners!!!! Peter Miller gets a special mention for two wins, and an exacta…..Mendelssohn, Louisville reservations, Forever Unbridled and Gun Runner sticking around and flirting with each other……Del Mar….Past the Wire and yours truly for calling Caledonia Road, Stormy Liberal, and calling bet against Unique Bella, Lady Aurelia, Bolt D’ Oro and Drefong based solely on the draw. Flavien Prat…..nice riding. Johnny V…. nice riding……both Ortiz brothers….nice riding
LOW FIVE: Charles Fipke, firing your Grade 1 winning rider late…without knowing the reason, low five! Past the Wire and yours truly for going all in on Arrogate redeeming himself, some of the coverage, not calling anyone specifically here but some things that hurt my ears and required the mute button between races; a strong favorite in a 14 horse field being called tepid, a horse who had a ton of trouble and was 5 lengths best being described as had the whole stretch to go bye and wouldn’t, nothing about Lady Eli’s horrendous trip…there was more but you get the idea…love you but gotta have people who get it up there! Anyone and everyone who posted a picture of a Breeders’ Cup horse getting a bath, double down if your a credentialed member of the media, if you can’t come up with something better than that…