A turbulent year for horseracing that began with the still not fully understood deaths of now 36 horses at Santa Anita and the controversial disqualification of apparent Kentucky Derby winner Maximum Security returns to the self-proclaimed Southern California “Great Race Place” in Arcadia for this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
Later today, the five Juvenile events labeled Future Stars Friday, will begin to sort early Kentucky Derby favorites while Saturday’s 12-race card places the focus on older horses and potential Eclipse Award honorees.
Industry and California government officials as well as fans hope the focus can remain on racing, particularly since the Eclipse Award’s Horse of the Year Honors are likely riding on the outcome of three Saturday races: the Turf, the Distaff and the Classic.
Enable and Magical together staged perhaps the most exciting of last year’s Breeders’ Cup races in the Breeders’ Cup Turf. When Waldgeist upset Enable in the Oct. 6 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp in Paris, owner Prince Khalid Abdullah made the surprise decision to sit out his stellar mare for the remainder of the year and aim for a 2020 Arc return.
Waldgeist earned an automatic berth in the BC Turf as part of the “Win & You’re In” program of worldwide challenge races, but also is a no-show. Magical defected after it was reported the four-year-old mare spiked a fever before departing for Santa Anita.
That means Bricks and Mortar, a five-year-old son of Giants Causeway, will try to solidify his hold on the Eclipse Award Turf crown while vying for HOY honors.
Midnight Bisou will do the same in the Distaff.
But the real action figures to be Saturday’s BC Classic. It will be an almost win and you’re in as HOY for Kentucky Derby runner-up Code of Honor. War of Will, determined to have been interfered with in the Derby, will test that certainty along with Elate, the superb five-year-old daughter of Medaglia d’Oro who takes on the boys for the first time.
But as is usually the case, one of the contenders was once thought to be a pretender. Last year, it was Discreet Lover, so little known the Belmont race track announcer repeatedly mispronounced his name as he won a Classic berth with a huge upset in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and a first trip to the Breeders’ Cup for the Pennsylvania Parx-based colt and his little known owner/trainer, Uriah St Lewis.
This year, it’s Math Wizard, once again bringing Pennsylvania racing into international focus by figuring a longshot 31-1 upset victory in the “Win & You’re In” Sept. 21 Pennsylvania Derby.
The numbers don’t look good for the three-year-old son of – duh – Algorithms. Arriving just Tuesday night after a weather-delayed flight, he presently is the longest shot among Classic contenders at 31-1. He owns only three wins in 13 starts, but did progress over the year, from third in the Grade 3 Indiana Derby to second in the Grade 3 Ohio Derby to his Grade 1 triumph at Parx in Pennsylvania.
A win and he would join 1984 Classic winner Wild Again as one of only two horses to win at those odds. The all-time odds upset holder is Volponi, winner of the 2002 Classic at 50-1.
So it has been done.
A further complication is the draw. Math Wizard drew the pole position. Only three horses have won from the #1 post: Skipaway (1997), Awesome Again (1998) and Ghostzapper (2004). That’s Hall of Fame competition. None have won at that post position at Santa Anita, which will host the Breeders’ Cup a now-record 10 times.
The winningest post position is #4 with five winners, two at Santa Anita: Zenyatta (2009) and Fort Larned (2012).
Speaking shortly after their arrival in California, trainer Saffie Joseph Jr. was near exuberant about what is often regarded as a bad post-position draw.
“I like the one. We actually wanted the one. A lot of people don’t like the one but in Pennsylvania he was one and in Ohio he was one, and those were his two best races,” said Joseph. “We actually were rooting for the one. He’s not a front-runner, so he can sit off them and save some ground.”
Improve as he has throughout the year, more improvement is needed if he is to shock the racing establishment.
“On the numbers, he needs to improve four or five lengths,” reasons Joseph. “Seeing his behavior and his attitude arriving here, he’s giving me the confidence that he could. But he definitely needs to improve.”
Similarities between last year’s longshot Discreet Lover and this year’s Math Wizard extend beyond the horses. St. Lewis was a native of Trinidad, Joseph a native of Barbados—both Caribbean trainers flying under the radar until their Classic opportunity.
Math Wizard was claimed for $25,000 following an 18 1/2-length victory at Gulfstream Park Jan. 31 and was multiply graded stakes-placed before scoring his 31-1 upset in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby.
Similarly, Discreet Lover was a $25,000 purchase by owner/trainer Lewis.
“It’s fortunate we’ve picked up good owners and have a good team,” said Joseph, who attended one year at Florida International University before returning home to pursue a training career. “Once we get the horses, we know what to do with them. We need the horses. That’s the important piece of the puzzle.”
Math Wizard is owned by John Fanelli, Khalid Mischref, Cash Is King LLC, LC Racing LLC, Collarmele Vitelli Racing Stables LLC, Ioannis Zoumas and Bassett Stables.
“To win the Pennsylvania Derby, especially with a horse that was claimed, is amazing,” Joseph said. “He’s the horse, who is probably the one who will define my career.”
While Discreet Lover did not fare well in a Classic dominated by Accelerate, Math Wizard’s connections and fans of underdog horses everywhere hope that career-defining victory is in his calculus Saturday.