On Track With Johnny D: Don’t Look Now

Don’t look now but Breeders’ Cup is approaching faster than Winx in the stretch. Those two wonderful watch-and-wager days are less than a month away. That means now is the time to make like a squirrel and gather nuts. Not actual nuts. We’re talking Breeders’ Cup notes, gems, tidbits. They’ll come in handy in less than one month’s time.

Churchill Downs is the BC site. You know, home of the Kentucky Derby. Beneath the iconic Twin Spires. House that Matt Wynn built. Cup’s been there before--this will be the 8th time—so we have history. Maiden voyage was in 1988; most recently in 2011, a parlay from 2010. The Cup also played out in Louisville in 2006, 2000, 1998, 1994, 1991, 1989. Churchill’s staff knows how to do BC right. Louisville folks, too. They’re used to entertaining large gatherings, annually for Oaks and Derby. Plus, the entire metropolis supports the event. Unlike what happens in megacities like Los Angeles where two of racing’s most significant days surrender to background noise.

This year, ‘Cup races are arranged differently. ‘Future Stars Friday’ presents five 2-year-old races—Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies Turf, Juvenile Turf Sprint. Saturday, there are nine events—Classic, Distaff, Turf, Mile, F&M Turf, Dirt Mile, F&M Sprint, Turf Sprint and Sprint. (Not in official order.) Do the math and you’ll cipher that’s a total of 14 championship tests. Entertaining, but a real bankroll-busting challenge! And don’t forget about supporting non-BC races. Early info suggests a 12:55 pm first post Friday, with the Juvenile breaking at 6:05 pm. The Friday finale will go at 6:43 pm. Saturday’s first post is 10:45 am, Classic off at 5:44 pm and the final field dispatched at around 6:25. (All times Eastern.)

One possible drawback to hosting the Cup in Louisville, compared to Los Angeles or San Diego, is that weather might not cooperate. But, hey, racing’s a gambling game, right? Why not roll bones with Mother Nature? Then again, we remember when Monmouth came up ‘Seven Out!’

First-Friday-and-Saturday-in-November temps should benefit east-coast and European-based invaders. They tend to melt a bit in the Golden State sun as mercury often approaches 90. For travelers, ‘Louisville Station’ is a few stops and three hours closer than either LA or San Diego.

Those factors aside, results of BC races—wins, losses, exactas, trifectas, superfectas, etc.--are determined between the rails on dirt and turf. To that end horseplayers ought to begin now to analyze major stakes races and to develop ‘opinions’ about probable BC participants. Please note: Now is not the time to make final decisions. At this stage, ‘opinions’ ought to be categorized as either ‘positive,’ ‘lukewarm’ or ‘negative.’ Later, other important factors must be considered before players risk hard-earned bread.

Based on results from two of the highest profile races of the past weekend, yours truly maintains the following opinions regarding a few BC Classic contenders: Accelerate has done everything asked of him this year. He’s been the leader of the division for a while and his effort in the Awesome Again at Santa Anita was solid. However, it would be foolish to ignore the performance of runner-up West Coast off a six-month vacation, especially when Bob Baffert-training is factored into the equation. Expect the trainer to drive West Coast hard in the coming weeks, preparing him for his very best in Louisville. If West Coast responds affirmatively he will give Accelerate all he can handle.

On the opposite coast, also in the Classic division, Diversify’s odds-on crash and burn in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont can be attributed to pilot error. Jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr., one of brightest new stars in the jockey constellation, must have taken a ‘silly’ pill before the Gold Cup. He hustled Diversify from the gate like they were contesting an 870 dash at Los Alamitos instead of a mile and one-half route over Big Sandy. He asked…no demanded…that Diversify duel with Mendelssohn through blistering, unsustainable fractions--:22 3/5, :45 3/5, 1:09, 1:33 4/5. That ill-advised kamikaze mission understandably cooked both horses and set the stage for longshot Discreet Lover--a horse that had been defeated by Diversify by eight and four lengths, respectively, in August and July races. While it was nice to see a low-profile trainer like Uriah St Lewis win a Grade 1 race, it’s difficult to imagine Discreet Lover making big noise in Louisville where he won’t enjoy such a generous setup.

Also aided by blistering Gold Cup fractions, while enjoying a perfect stalking trip behind the leaders, was Irish-bred, world-traveler Thunder Snow. He assumed the lead from a gutted Mendelssohn in the stretch, appeared to bobble a bit while on the wrong lead, drifted in and couldn’t last. He, also, won’t ever experience the stars more perfectly aligned.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup’s hot-paced foolishness either will knock the stuffing out of Diversify and/or Mendelssohn or make one or both stronger. If they join Accelerate and West Coast in the Louisville gate there could be another lively pace in the BC Classic. However, it’s safe to assume that, lesson learned, cooler heads will prevail, and Gold Cup silliness will not be repeated. Bottom line, yours truly is lukewarm on Diversity and Mendelssohn and negative on Discreet Lover and Thunder Snow.

Imperial Hint, probable favorite for the BC Sprint, didn’t merely get a ‘base on balls’ in the Vosburg at Belmont, he got an intentional walk. He absolutely galloped home in front of an assortment of tomato cans. He’s going to be a ‘tough out’ in November.

The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, at a mile and one-half, was taken by Channel Maker over a soggy course. Jose Ortiz seized opportunity out of the gate, assumed the lead and held off favored Robert Bruce late. This group has a tired feel to it--as if any one of them might beat the rest on another afternoon over different footing. As usual, we’ll look for a Euro to win the BC Turf.

In the Pilgrim, for 2-year-olds at a mile and one-sixteenth on turf at Belmont, Forty Under proved best. There doesn’t appear to have been much in the race. Somelikeithotbrown, fittingly from the Chad Brown outfit, finished second, same as last out in the With Anticipation. Opry, winner of that stakes race, went favored in the Pilgrim but didn’t fire. We maintain positive feelings about Forty Under, but the division is open for much discussion and anticipated Euro influence.

Sunday at Belmont, Newspaperofrecord won the Miss Grillo on turf with authority. She looks like another in a long line of developing Chad Brown-trained filly superstars. She’s got early pace and quickens in the lane. That’s an unbeatable combination. Expect big things from her.

Out west Saturday at Santa Anita, Vasilika won her 7th in a row and first Grade 1 in the Rodeo Drive. She was claimed for $40k off a win by Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer and then finished second by a mere neck next out before initiating her incredible run. That means she’s a neck away from having won 9-in-a-row! Big props to Vasilika, she’s consistent and fun to watch. We don’t like any California-prepped fillies or mares to win the BC F&M Turf because it hasn’t ever happened before. Why? Don’t know. Just the facts, ma’am.

Bellafina proved much best over five other 2-year-old fillies going a mile and one-sixteenth in the Chandelier at Santa Anita. Don’t know what it is about this filly, but she doesn’t impress this observer as much as her three open-length victories ought to. She’s now won three-out-of-four races but doesn’t look particularly powerful in the lane. It’s like she never really levels out to attack the finish. Maybe SoCal freshman fillies behind her aren’t much? Still, she’s won by more than four lengths twice and now by more than six around two turns. What’s not to like?

On the other hand, Game Winner, star of the American Pharoah at a mile and one-sixteenth at Santa Anita, looked strong as he powered through the Sant Anita lane. Trained by Bob Baffert, this one is legit. He’s going to give a good account of himself in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.

Sunday at Santa Anita in the Zenyatta, Abel Tasman, the odds-on favorite, didn’t show up. She wasn’t scratched. She just didn’t show up. That is to say she never lifted a hoof. Trainer Baffert’s guess is that she may have been fighting illness. If so, by the end of the race, she wasn’t the only one. Those that backed her at the windows and singled her in multi-leg wagers weren’t feeling so hot. It’s interesting to note that Abel Tasman desperately battled Elate hoof to hoof in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga in late August. Elate was not the same after the race and has been shelved for the season. Might the struggle also have taken a toll on ‘Tasman?

Val Dori, also trained by Baffert, rebounded toward top form and won the Zenyatta. ‘Blinkers on’ may have done the trick for the 6-year-old mare. She’s now won 10 of 21 and 6 of 11 at Santa Anita. Is a Fountain-of-Youth-like return to glory in the cards for Val Dori in Kentucky? We’re not currently leaning in that direction.

At Churchill Downs Saturday night, Mind Your Biscuits claimed victory in the Lukas Classic. ‘Biscuits has been a tremendous one-turn performer and recently spread wings to finish second to Diversify in the Whitney at Saratoga, and to win the Lukas--both at a mile and one-eighth. His competition in the Lukas wasn’t deep, but he dispatched them with authority. Normally not a fan of older horses trying new distances, this one’s earned our respect. Still, he’s going to be challenged like never before in the mile and one-quarter BC Classic, if that’s where connections decide to run. We’d like his chances better in the Dirt Mile, but a Classic run isn’t crazy.

This weekend several more potential Breeders’ Cup participants will appear on the track—at Santa Anita, Belmont and Keeneland. Watch carefully and form ‘positive,’ ‘negative,’ or ‘lukewarm’ opinions. Remember: Don’t etch anything in stone—it’s too early for that—however, a little pen to paper or keyboard to screen now will help come Breeders’ Cup Friday and Saturday.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: Don’t Look Now

On Track with Johnny D |