Racing

Championship Saturday brings Quality, Diversity and Uncertainty to Churchill Downs

Thunder Snow (IRE), trained by Saeed bin Suroor, exercises in preparation for the Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs on October 29, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. ©Evers/ESW/CSM

Horseracing is commonly referred to as “The Sport of Kings.”

But Breeders’ Cup Championship Saturday at Churchill Downs features more diversity than the current British Royal Family in both its equine and human participants.

There is a Hall of Fame trainer and his jockey whose trophy rooms must be larger than your house to contain all their hardware, a BC Classic contender purchased for $10 thousand in 2015 that has won $1.4 million in 44 starts and his Caribbean-accented trainer from Trinidad, a Champion sprinter that has cleaned his plate at no more than 8 furlongs whose connections have instead entered him in the longer Classic, another trainer who has banked more than $113 million in winning over 2,100 contests and has never won a Breeders’ Cup race, and…

…well, we could go on, but you get idea: Bob Baffert, Mike Smith, Discreet Lover, Uriah St. Lewis, Mind Your Biscuits, John Sadler and a host of other notable and not-so-notables take to the biggest stage in North American (some say world) horseracing Saturday vying for a share of $30 million and a page in the sport’s history.

If “Future Stars Friday” features 2-year-olds with scant racing credentials, “Championship Saturday” is fat with facts, figures and decisive opinions. We’ll review all two days of Breeders’ Cup races and results later this weekend, so let’s race ahead to Saturday’s preview and prognostications. With nine Grade 1 races on the Breeders’ Cup card, let’s  begin at the end. We’ll spend a bit of time and words on the three biggest contests then canter through the remaining six as we approach post time on “Future Stars Friday”.

Race 9 (5:44 pm EDT)

BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC          

1 1/4 miles – $6 million

Accelerate dominated California racing this year and oddsmakers have him leaving far outside post 14 as the 5-2 favorite. Trainer John Sadler has amassed an enviable record with a 15 percent victory rate this year alone, but he has never won a Breeders’ Cup race. And this one has moved from the 5-year-old’s friendly confines in Southern California to a chillier Churchill Downs where the skies have cleared after heavy rain earlier this week but the temps remain in the 40s.

Sadler said post 14 “…is a perfect spot for him. He won’t be bothered out there.”

History says he probably won’t win either since only one Classic winner has started from that gate in 34 years. Jockey Joel Rosario will battle 13 other horses and that history.

Chad Brown’s Sprint Champion Mind Your Biscuits strikes the pose after his surprise defection to the BC Classic. ©Evers/ESW/Breeders Cup

Then there is the competition. Second choice 5-1 West Coast with John Velazquez aboard for this one was third in last year’s Classic. Mind Your Biscuits has been moved by Chad Brown from the Sprint to the Classic and leaves post 11 at a surprisingly short 6-1, the same odds as Baffert-trained McKinzie…

…who? OK, let’s get this out of the way. The 800-pound absence in this field is Bob Baffert’s second (American Pharoah, 2015) Triple Crown winner Justify, retired to stud very shortly after his Belmont win. That has left many fans unhappy.

McKinzie missed the Triple Crown with an ankle injury. Baffert brought him back on the track to win the G3 Sham Stakes at Santa Anita. He was disqualified for interference in the San Felipe and moved from first to second, then won a favorite BC prep, the G1 Pennsylvania Derby. According to Baffert, before his injury, “McKinzie was Justify before there was Justify.”

Baffert can be as good a showman as he is a trainer, but the oddsmakers seem to be taking him at his word and his new charge’s performance so far. Mike Smith chose the ride because West Coast will be retired to stud soon while McKinzie will continue racing.

‘Nuff said on the subject.

To demonstrate the quality of this field, consider the next choices.

There’s Catholic Boy who won the Travers, the “Midsummer Derby,” at Saratoga. There’s Japanese champion Yoshida, the past two UAE Derby winners, Thunder Snow who won this year’s Dubai World Cup, and Mendelssohn, who redeemed himself with a good third-place run in the G3 Dwyer after a disastrous mud-caked last-place finish in the Kentucky Derby and a great job finishing second in the Travers, then running down speed merchant Diversify before running out of gas to finish third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Speaking of which race, there is the feel-good story of the year, Discreet Lover, who won the JCGC.

Toss in Qatar Racing’s way-underpriced at 20-1 Roaring Lion, gritty fan-favorite Gunnevera, winner of the G1 Stephen Foster at Churchill Downs Pavel and 30-1 two-time G3 winner Axelrod, and you have yourself a horse race so full that Bafferts’ Collected and 2014 BC Classic runner-up Toast of New York didn’t make the cut.

It’s hard to choose Accelerate given the move East, the hard-luck 14 post and the harder-luck John Sadler. But there’s always room in racing for another feel-good story, so he should at least be in the mix.

Accelerate trains to go from favorite to victor in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. ©Evers/ESW/Breeders Cup

Aidan O’Brien has trained Mendelssohn before our eyes while bringing him back while learning himself about the American style of dirt racing: “It’s so aggressive! I’ve never seen anything like it in the world.” O’Brien is as good a student as he is a teacher. He’s learned this lesson.

Thunder Snow is said to be happy this time at Churchill, though he’s drawn post 1, close again to the bell, which may have spooked him in his Derby since it is not used in Europe or Dubai. These all should be in the mix at the end.

But you can’t completely dismiss Discreet Lover, or Yoshida, or…

…well, you get the idea. We end as we began. This field is full of quality, diversity and uncertainty. If ever there was a Classic any horse could win, it’s this one.

Race 8 (4:56 pm EDT)                           

LONGINES TURF           

1 1/2 miles – $4 million

Last year’s winner at Del Mar Talismanic is here. So is Great Britain’s Waldgeist. Both run for wonderful French trainer Andre Fabre. So is Aidan O’Brien’s 3-year-old Galileo filly Magical as well as Hunting Horn. Chad Brown is saddling Chilean star Robert Bruce. Ireland’s Glorious Empire is here as is Brazilian runner Quarteto De Cordas, Argentina’s Hi Happy, and Sadler’s Joy.

Unfortunately for them all, consecutive two-time winner of the FR-G1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe Enable is here, too.

Consecutive Prix de ‘Arc de Triomphe winning filly Enable has jockey Frankie Dettori hoping to do his trademark flying leap dismount in the BC Turf winner’s circle. ©Evers/ESW/Breeders Cup

Jockey Frankie Dettori rode for many years as the leading retained rider for Godolphin before moving on to Qatar where he reinvented himself with a new racing home and this 4-year-old filly.

She is so good that, after winning six G1s and a G3 in her 9-0-1 career, trainer John Gosden could say in typically understated British fashion: “I would have liked to come here on the crest of a wave…but she has won an Arc this year.”

If she loses this race, bet on the Arc de Triomphe to collapse.

Race 7 (4:16 pm EDT)                           

LONGINES DISTAFF      

1 1/8 miles – $2 million

Moving the Distaff to the same day as the Classic and the Turf is like having three birthdays on back-to-back-to-back days. Without a doubt, the Distaff is often the most compelling race on the two-day Breeders’ Cup card.

Who can forget beloved jockey Rosie Napravnik’s tearful goodbye to racing as she announced her pregnancy and retirement from the winner’s podium at Santa Anita after guiding Untapable to victory in 2014? Or the stirring stretch run between those two magnificents, Songbird and winner Beholder in 2016?

Want another one of those? You got it.

This year’s race is basically being viewed as a match race between the past two winners of the G1 Kentucky Oaks, Abel Tasman with Mike Smith up and Monomoy Girl with Florent Geroux in the saddle. Abel Tasman has won or placed in nine of her 12 graded races in an 8-4-0 career. In a year when there was no Triple Crown winner, Monomoy Girl might have been Eclipse Award Horse of the Year, and probably will still get some votes if she wins this race given her continued sterling performance and Justify’s abrupt retirement. She’s 8-2-0 and would be 9-1-0 save for her being moved from first to second for a controversial interference ruling by Parx stewards in this year’s Cotillion Stakes. She is the heavy 2-1 favorite over her 7-2 challenger.

Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl leaves the gate as the 2-1 favorite over last year’s Oaks winner Abel Tasman in the BC Distaff. ©Evers/ESW/Breeders Cup

There are a few wild cards in the 11-horse field. There’s Midnight Bisou, awarded first over Monomoy Girl in the Cotillion. John Velazquez will try to guide her to victory from post 7 without controversy for trainer Steve Asmussen.

Canadian filly Wonder Gadot, second in the Oaks, is flying from post 5. She is said to be emulating her Superstar actress namesake, Gal Gadot, jumping playfully during her morning workouts at Churchill to the delight of fans and the terror of trainer Make Casse. Irad Ortiz, Jr. gets to calm her down.

Globetrotting, grizzled Argentinian Champion Vale Dori will try to get a piece of the purse from post 8 for Bob Baffert with Joe Talamo up. Fellow Argentinian Blue Prize in joins his countryman from gate 10. Chilean Wow Cat gets to separate the Argentinian foes from gate 9.

Abel Tasman starts from post 2 and Monomoy Girl from post 11. If this race follows—and history—they will be post 1-2 at the end.

Race 6 (3:36 pm EDT)                           

BREEDERS’ CUP MILE   

1 mile  $2 million – Turf

UPDATE: Polydream scratched

The 5-1 favorite, Polydream, is a late scratch. There is no further information at this writing of the reason. We hope it is not serious. Condolences go to trainer Freddy Head, who had hoped his new miler would emulate three-time Mile Champion Goldikova. There also are feel-bad stories in racing.

The late scratch of the favorite in this race is likely to shuffle the odds more dramatically than the earlier scratch of 30-1 Hunt.

There were three 6-1 second choices, one of which is likely to assume the favorites position.

Oscar Performance will hope to give one for jockey Jose Ortiz and trainer Brian Lynch. Chad Brown saddles Analyze It. Irad Ortiz, Jr. gets the ride and gets to renew his friendly sibling jockey rivalry. Catapult will hope to…right, catapult…first across the finish line for trainer John Sadler, who is…right, saddled with an 0-for-Breeders’ Cup career so far. Drayden Van Dyke will try to fix that picture.

Aidan O’Brien fields Happily with Wayne Lordan his rider and Gustav Klimt paints with Ryan Moore holding the palette for Ireland, and I Can Fly with Jamie Spencer is in the irons for Great Britain. Happily started at 15-1, the other two runners both formerly at 10-1. That may change. We never count out the Ballydoyle Master and his team.

Be wary of former 8-1 choice, Expert Eye, representing Great Britain for trainer Michael Stoute and nicely placed in post 7 in the now 13-horse field. Frankie Dettori is in the saddle of this lesser-known runner. Dettori is known for his flying leap when he dismounts in the winner’s circle of Grade 1 races. After this race and the Turf with Enable, the 47-year-old may be in need of knee replacement.

Race 5 (2:46 pm EDT)                          

TWINSPIRES BREEDERS’ CUP SPRINT

6 furlongs – $2 million

This is the horseracing equivalent of the 100-meter dash in track and field. So we’ll be quick!

Reigning 2017 winner Roy H comes in a very slight underhorse to Imperial Hint. Both of their chances were improved when X Y Jet was scratched.

There’s a lot of competition but the scratch of X Y Jet puts the favorite label on last year’s BC Sprint winner Roy H to repeat this year. ©Jamey Price/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup

Roy H started his year with a win, then finished a very solid third in the Dubai Golden Shaheen on World Cup Day, losing by only 3/4 of a length. He also won the G1 Santa Anita Sprint Championship in October.

Imperial Hint has three consecutive wins, two of them G1s.

Among the remaining challengers in the small field of nine, Promises Fulfilled, Whitmore and Limousine Liberal will get a second glance after finishing 1-2-3 in nearby Keeneland’s G2 Phoenix.

We believe you have to beat the Champion to claim the title, so we’ll go with 6-year-old veteran Roy H to retain the crown.

RACE 4 (2:04 pm EDT)

MAKER’S MARK FILLY & MARE TURF    

1 3/8 miles – $2 million

There is a full field of 14 in this race. Sistercharlie is the 3-1 favorite and has earned three wins since coming to the U.S. from France and entrusted to trainer Chad Brown. Among the wins were the G1 Diana at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Beverly D. at Arlington. She has been rested since that Aug. 11 win.

Wild Illusion is a daughter of the great Dubawi and one of the high hopes for Godolphin this Breeders’ Cup. Racing in England and France, she won the Group 1 Qatar Nassau at Goodwood and the Group 1 Prix de l’Opera Longines at Longchamp. The second choice in this race at 7-2, she also was runnerup in the Group 1 Investec Oaks at Epsom earlier in the year. William Buick has the ride for trainer Charlie Appleby.

Magic Wand has split her two races with Wild Illusion. The Galileo filly bested her in the Group 2 Ribblesdale and was second to her at Longchamp.

After those come Fourstar Crook and Magic Wand, both at 5-1 for Chad Brown and Aidan O’Brien respectively. Fourstar Crook won the G1 Flower Bowl after finishing second in the Beverly D. Brown has gone all in for this race, also fielding long shot trio Santa Monica, A Raving Beauty and Thais.

One of five entries by trainer Chad Brown in the BC Filly & Mare Turf, German mare A Raving Beauty looks the part on an autumn morning at Churchill Downs. ©Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

A final interesting choice is Eziyra, a Teofolo filly ridden by Frankie Dettori. This is his first ride with this horse, which may account for the longer 15-1 odds also shared by another Aidan O’Brien entry, Athena.

The Euros and particularly O’Brien’s team, are always a threat in these races, but Brown must be feeling good about the hand he’s holding, so the odds suggest one of his cards is an ace.

But, remember, the Joker is wild.

RACE 3 (1:16 pm EDT)

DIRT MILE       

One mile – $1 million

This is a one-turn race at Churchill. With the scratch of Awesome Slew, nine runners will enter the gates.

Catalina Cruiser at 8-5 with Drayden Van Dyke the rider is picked to cruise to a win for John Sadler. He’s won all four of his races at distances ranging from 6 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles, so we don’t really know his proper distance. His wins have all come in California, so we really don’t know if that streak can be stretched coming East to chilly Churchill. And he’s drawn the outside post. We really do know about that.

City Of Light is close behind in the odds at 5-2 and on the rail. His 4-4-1 resume over nine races is enhanced by four graded-stakes wins including one in the Oaklawn Handicap over Classic favorite Accelerate earlier this year.

Seeking The Soul and Firenze Fire round out the top choices at 6-1 and 5-1, but Bravazo will probably get some support at a curious 20-1.

The post and experience seems to favor City Of Light in this race, particularly with the questions surrounding the favorite.

RACE 2 (12:38 pm EDT)

TURF SPRINT       

5 1/2 furlongs – $1 million

This is one of those races where predictions are hazardous to your lungs and/or your wallet.

There is a full field of 14 for this quick trip. Stormy Liberal, Disco Partner and Richard’s Boy are back to give it a go in the race won last year by Ireland’s Obviously.

Perhaps because of his third-place finish last year, Disco Partner returns to the grass as the 7-2 favorite. Weather may have a say in his chances since the 6-year-old may not be as impressive on the rain-softened turf at Churchill.

Stormy Liberal and Richard’s Boy previously met in Dubai in the Al Quoz Sprint on World Cup Day. Stormy Liberal ran well but lost to Jungle Cat and Richard’s Boy was an unimpressive sixth.

You could read over the form guides, check the weather forecast or pour over their records, but none of those will tell you much more than you would learn from getting out your dart board.

Save your lungs and/or your money.

RACE 1 (12:00 pm EDT)

FILLY & MARE SPRINT  

7 furlongs – $1 million

Well, here we are at the end. Or, rather, the beginning.

You might be able to learn early if this will be the day John Sadler gets the proverbial monkey off his back…or if Bob Baffert jumps on. Both trainers have an entry in this race. They couldn’t be much farther apart on the track with Sadler’s Selcourt in gate 1 and Baffert’s Marley’s Freedom in gate 13. Nor could they be much closer on the oddsmakers’ books, with Baffert holding the favorite’s hand at 8-5 and Sadler’s the second choice at 4-1. Mike Smith is on Marley’s Freedom and “Big Money Mike” is always an advantage, while Tyler Baze is on Selcourt.

Marley’s Freedom is a daughter of Blame, who famously beat Zenyatta by a pug’s nose in the 2010 BC Classic, her last race and only defeat in 20 starts, at…guess where? Right, Churchill Downs. Oh, and Zenyatta’s jockey that day? Right, Mike Smith.

Favorite Marley’s Freedom wants clear sailing for Bob Baffert with Mike Smith captaining in the BC Filly & Mare Sprint. ©Jamey Price/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

One could make a case for Finley’sluckycharm, Skye Diamonds or Golden Mischief, all at 10-1, but the well-known Horseracing Gods, worshipped by all the hopefuls at the $2 window seem to have ordained this one as a large dose of redemption for John Sadler or a smaller one for Mike Smith.

***

With that, we end our lengthy, and we hope enjoyable, preview of both days’ Breeders’ Cup races. Be sure to catch up on our earlier articles for information that might not be included in this one.

And check back with us Saturday morning BEFORE post time for our profile of a perfect Breeders’ Cup underdog story to start YOUR coverage of Saturday’s races.

We’ll also have a complete wrap-up of the results from both days of racing over the weekend.

Until then, enjoy the races and let’s all hope the horses and riders come home safely. And, if you choose to wager, do it wisely and leave the deed to your house in the safe!

XXX