On Track With Johnny D: 2019 Breeders’ Cup Recap

For two magnificent days, at the foot of the beautiful San Gabriel Mountains under warm Southern California sunshine, Santa Anita Park played the perfect Breeders’ Cup host. That’s not surprising. I love Santa Anita. Spent 30 years there, even lived in a condo on Huntington Avenue directly across from the track. Will always call it my ‘home away from home,’ rich with history, beauty and memories. The place and people mean a great deal to me.

For many reasons, it’s the perfect track to host Breeders’ Cup. And few could have argued with that…right up until the last 300 yards of Saturday’s finale. That’s when Mongolian Groom, last out winner of the Awesome Again Stakes over this very track, went wrong, was pulled up and later euthanized.

Just writing about the incident develops a pit in the stomach. Because a horse died? Yes. But also, because extensive protective measures didn’t pitch a perfect game. No runs, no hits, one error. And that was one too many.

Make no mistake, as long as horses run there will be injuries and deaths. At the track, on the farm and in the wild. This weekend, however, under the most intense scrutiny ever, the game, the track, the sport wanted and needed to jump clean. And they did…right up until the very last unfortunate hurdle.

One could argue that a single incident can’t erase two days of magnificent racing. And that’s partly true. Sensational media coverage and unfair demands to close the track from politicians and radical animal rights activists mean that only part of the story is being told.

Below is some of what else happened Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita, in a recap of the outstanding performances, triumphs and defeats overlooked by many.

Friday
Race 5 – Juvenile Turf Sprint
In just the second edition of this race Four Wheel Drive, from the Wesley Ward barn, made all the running to win in style. Going in, he seemed the speed of the race and that proved to be a correct assumption. Two editions, two American speedsters as winners. An early trend? Perhaps. This race isn’t suited for the Euros at all as five furlongs around a bend usually is a speedy affair that they’re just not trained to win.

Race 6 – Juvenile Turf
Don’t know how I missed a Chad Brown turf winner. Guess I got caught looking too far east…Europe instead of New York. Americans dominated the race with Structor in first; Billy Batts, a local Peter Miller bomb, second; Gear Jockey, saddled by Rusty Arnold, third and Decorated Invader, one of trainer Christophe Clement’s hopes to crack his 0-36 BC slump, fourth. Best the Euros could do was Arizona, from the Aidan O’Brien outfit, fifth.

Race 7 - Juvenile Fillies
British Idiom validated her Alcibiades victory and moved her unbeaten string to three races with a win in the BC Juvenile Fillies. This could be the beginning of one of those dominant careers. She’s got a nice combination of speed and stamina.

Donna Veloce made a race of it and appeared for a moment as if she just might successfully make that grand leap from first-out maiden sprint victor to Grade 1 BC route race queen. In the end she just couldn’t contain the more experienced ‘Idiom. ‘Veloce’s certainly got a bright future. Bob Baffert’s Bast finished third, less than two lengths back in a good try.

Race 8 – Juvenile Fillies Turf
Sharing parlayed a Selima triumph at Laurel into a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies score. She’s a mere neck away from being unbeaten in four starts for trainer Graham Motion. Blinkers were added in the Selima, the filly’s second turf start.

Euro invader Daahyeh, from Roger Varian’s stable, transferred decent Euro form to Santa Anita and finished second. She’s quality and never been worse than second in six lifetime starts in Group 1, Grade 1 and Group 2 company. Nice stuff.

Chad Brown’s selflessly, first and second in two previous starts wasn’t able to transfer that good firm to Santa Anita.

Race 9 – Juvenile
Sometimes things just go your way. Saturday was that kind of day for Storm the Court. BC Juvenile favorite Dennis’ Moment went to his knees out of the gate and second choice Eight Rings didn’t show. That left Storm the Court to seize the moment in an upset of the BC Juvenile at a whopping $93.80! Third last out in the American Pharoah behind Eight Rings, over eight lengths in arrears, Storm the Court stormed to the Juvenile lead and battled tenaciously through the lane to keep a head in front of 28-1 shot Anneau d’Or.

The latter runner had started once previously in a turf race at Golden Gate for trainer Blaine Wright. It was at a mile around two turns and he won by 8 lengths. Still, a switch to dirt against much stronger made 28-1 a fair price.

Wrecking Crew, runner-up in the bolting incident-marred Del Mar Futurity behind stablemate Nucky, finished third, well in front of the rest. Dennis’ Moment never recovered and was last.

Saturday
Race 4- F&M Sprint
I thought Covfefe was worth going against at a short price. Boy, was I wrong. A 3-year-old against older, plenty of other early speed, a huge, possibly bounce-inducing pre-BC effort and a rail draw…none of that mattered. She rated nicely for jockey Joel Rosario and won definitively. She’s fast and talented, which we knew before the race. Now, we can add versatile to the mix. That’s a powerful combination.

Bellafina returned to her best form and ran very well to be second. Dawn the Destroyer finished late, as expected, to round out the top three. Bottom line: a race that seemed to this horseplayer to be wide-open turned out fairly formful, although Come Dancing did disappoint.

Race 5 - Turf Sprint
Before this race, I noted that there wasn’t much speed in this five-furlong dash. Turns out, there was. It all belonged to Belvior Bay. Right out of the gate, she left foes wondering where she went. She cleared from the far outside 12-hole, got to the rail and kept going.

Om, previously known to be effective in longer races, fired well to finish second. Trainer Peter Miller trained both the first and second-place finishers and had developed a reputation for cultivating top sprinters, grass and dirt.

Pure Sensation, an expected speed factor, didn’t break well and lost his best chance. Shekky Shebaz, also a speedy entrant, did his best to be third but couldn’t match Belvoir Bay’s early foot.

Race 6 Dirt - Mile
There were two questions that needed to be answered in the Dirt Mile: Could Omaha Beach duplicate his outstanding comeback effort? And, if not, who could upset him? The answer to the first question was compromised immediately out of the gate when Omaha Beach stumbled a few times for several strides. The misfire cost him his early position in the race and he had too much to do to make up ground. The answer to the second question clearly was Spun to Run.

Hats off to the Parx-based colt that went to the front and improved his position while validating his stunning 110 Beyer Speed Figure victory in a $106k stakes at Parx. Omaha Beach ran well to be second, and one wonders if the outcome would have been reversed had the favorite not been handcuffed. But ‘wonders’ don’t spend at the grocery store. Spun to Run got the money for the third time in five starts since blinkers were added.

Blue Chipper, forging new ground by from Korea to SoCal, showed speed and held third in a creditable performance.

Race 7 - F&M Turf
Joseph O’Brien became only the second person to both train and ride BC winners and also the youngest to accomplish each feat. Makes sense. He’s bred for it. Sired by Aidan O’Brien, one of the world’s top trainers, young Joe finally had to give up the saddle when his body outgrew that profession. Following the race, the clean-cut young man who looks about a day over 12 dutifully thanked owners, lads at the barn and Irish-bred Iridessa, the winning mare, as an Irish flag floated in the background. Iridessa has now won 4 Group or Grade 1s. Impressive. She rode the rail under jockey Wayne Lordan, angled out for the stretch drive and outlasted a determined Vasilika.

As always, Vasilika ran her heart out. She loves the Santa Anita course and now is an incredible 11-for-13 over it. She’s been an absolute joy to watch both this winter and last. As honest as a saint and as determined as an ant. She’s a true pro.

Also proudly wearing a figurative ‘P’ on her chest signifying ‘Pro’ was beaten favorite Sistercharlie. She had no real excuse in the race, except that she may not have enjoyed the firm Santa Anita course. She certainly got the pace she required, even without pacesetter Thais in the lineup, but she didn’t quicken enough late to get the job done. Still, she’s been a star for the last two years, winning 7-of-9 starts, including last year’s edition of this race.

Race 8 - Sprint
Once Imperial Hint scratched, on paper this looked like a two-horse race. Turned out that way on the track, too. Love when that happens. Shancelot figured to make the lead and Mitole was expected to stalk. The question going in was would Mitole be able to run Shancelot down? The answer was a definitive ‘yes.’

Mitole has had a tremendous season, is a cinch to earn an Eclipse Award as Outstanding Sprinter and his name is prominent in the Horse of the Year conversation. It’s a bit strange, too, because earlier this season Mitole was hailed as a superhorse. He won the Met Mile, but post-race conversation predominantly revolved around how much trouble runner-up McKinzie had experienced. A loss next out in the Vanderbilt really sucked the bloom from the rose. He bounced back to take the Forego before winning the Sprint, but his bandwagon never was quite as full as it was earlier in the year.

This writer can’t remember a horse running as well as Shancelot has in in three consecutive races…and losing them all. Coming off a scintillating 121 Beyer figure in the Amsterdam, the son of Shanghai Bobby fired a reactionary 96 Beyer to finish third, beaten a head by Mind Control and Hog Creek Hustle, in the Jerkens at Saratoga; he then was nailed by Omaha Beach in the Santa Anita Sprint Special, despite a 102 Beyer, and was caught by Mitole in the Sprint. Tough stuff.

Race 9 - Mile
I could use one of about a million canned lines about ‘Girl Power’ to describe the conclusion of the Mile, but I won’t. Uni, a 5-year-old mare who has now won 3 of 4 starts this year and 10 of 18 lifetime, and Got Stormy, a 4-year-old filly who claims 3 wins in 7 starts this year and 4 of 14 lifetime, finished one-two in the Mile. Success in this race has been a fairly common experience for females, but a cold all distaff exacta was a minor surprise.

Without Parole, bred in Great Britain by John and Tanya Gunther who brought us Triple Crown winner Justify, began his career across the pond and won his first 4 starts. He then lost his next five before being moved to the US-based barn of Chad Brown. ‘Parole, reportedly, had trained very well for the BC Mile, in company with eventual Turf winner and probable Horse of the Year Bricks and Mortar. Notable money showed early and steadily for Without Parole and he ran well to be third. Keep an eye on him going forward.

Race 10 - Distaff
Yours truly got drunk on Midnight Bisou and it cost him. Going in, I thought she was the most probable winner on the BC card. I was wrong. No disrespect to Blue Prize, but this horseplayer considered that her best races had come in Kentucky and that she already had had her sunny moment at Keeneland in the Spinster. Wrong again. That I was wrong about both Midnight Bisou and Blue Prize’s chances definitively proves the adage that two wrongs don’t make a right.

If I had more accurately estimated Blue Prize’s chances of victory, I would have elevated her from a ‘C’ to a ‘B’ on my pick six sheets and collected $55k instead of a measly $650 for four consolations. Ouch!

Race 11 - Turf
Bricks and Mortar proved once more that he doesn’t need to take his turf course with him. Over a rich, bright green, Santa Anita swath that seemed to favor those most familiar with it, the son of Giant’s Causeway—a confirmed closer—mounted another strong finish to triumph in the shadow of the wire. It is the sixth different turf course he has won on this year!

The victory solidifies the Chad Brown-trained 5-year-old’s case as Horse of the Year and caps an outstanding unbeaten season that began with victory in Pegasus World Cup Turf and ends triumphantly in the Breeders’ Cup Turf--at a mile and one-half, a distance he’d never tried. Lifetime, he has won 11 of 13.

United, a 51-1 shot trained by Hall-of-Famer Dick Mandella and ridden by local star Flavien Prat, seemed to have made a first run, winning move in the Turf until Bricks and Mortar came calling in the final jumps. United rallied back on the inside but missed by a head. An improving 4-year-old, United really hadn’t done much beforehand to suggest he was ready for this type of challenge. Such is the case, though, with improving horses: they sometimes surprise with explosive positive efforts.

Top Euro prospect, 3-year-old Anthony Van Dyck, finished third. Old Persian, another Euro that had attracted this horseplayer’s attention (and money) pulled against the rider throughout and faded into oblivion when the real running began.

Race 12 - Classic
Trainer Todd Pletcher, a certain Hall-of-Fame occupant the minute he becomes eligible, added an important missing piece to his incredible resume when Vino Rosso charged home best of all in the 2019 BC finale. It was Pletcher’s first victory in the race. The trainer has done an outstanding job with Vino Rosso, permitting him to develop into a much better horse at 4 than he was at 3. In the future, when folks say, ‘Curlin’s get better with age,’ think Vino Rosso as an example. It would be fine to see the horse continue to develop, but that’s not in the cards. After the race, before anyone could say Pegasus World Cup, he was whisked-away to the stud.

Bob Baffert-trained McKinzie finished second, tail swishing his way home under new rider Joel Rosario. It’s probably true that a mile and one-quarter is not his favorite distance, but he really never seemed at his best. Higher Power was a well-beaten third, never a threat to the winner. Elate finished an unremarkable fourth.

As previously mentioned, my Breeders’ Cup wagering experience came down to a share of four Pick 6 consolation payoffs totaling roughly $650. Compared to the $55k that went to those who had all six winners, they really didn’t provide much consolation. Nine Xpressbet account holders correctly turned the pick-six carryover trick Saturday. Winning sheets ranged in cost from $216 to $15,750.

Other successful Xpressbet weekend hits included several Breeders’ Cup Betting Challenge contest wagers: A cold $2k exacta in the 11th race with Bricks and Mortar over United was worth $137,200; A $32,500 win wager on Bricks and Mortar returned $65k and a $10k win wager on Covfefe in the 4th race earned $25k. A 9th race non-contest $5,500 win and place wager on Uni collected $38,500.

Nice to hear. At least some of my fellow Xpressbet account holders emerged victorious. I got next!

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: 2019 Breeders’ Cup Recap

On Track with Johnny D |