A mere 30 days separate this writing and one of racing’s most popular afternoons-- Breeders’ Cup Championship Saturday at Santa Anita. It’s a bit frightening to realize that this will be the BC’s 36th renewal. Present at Hollywood Park on a sunny Saturday afternoon when 7 races worth a total of $10 million played out before a hearty crowd of 68,000, we boldly predicted that the event likely would be ‘one and done.’
Unfortunately, that wasn’t the last time a prediction of mine finished off the board.
This year, Breeders’ Cup is a two-day, 14-race extravaganza worth $30 million in purses and prizes. It will be contested at Santa Anita for a record 10th time and yours truly couldn’t be happier. Santa Anita is my home away from home. It was my ‘office’ for 30 years—6 a.m. to 6 p.m. I love it, miss it and return whenever possible. The mountains, sunshine, history, paddock, grandstand, Clocker’s Corner, etc. make it a special place. My heart ached as my Great Race Place family struggled through a painful 2019 season. Extensive determined efforts have been made to rectify the situation and it’s impossible to imagine that those measures won’t prove effective. Still, when dealing with any athletic event, injuries always are part and parcel and forever disheartening.
With merely a month until the newest BC edition, it’s time for horses and horseplayers to accelerate preparations. Several major events were decided last weekend on both coasts and things will heat up even more in the coming days at Keeneland, Belmont and Santa Anita.
Here’s a look at last week’s stakes races and their possible influence on Breeders’ Cup events:
Santa Anita - Friday 9/27
Bast, a 2-year-old daughter of Uncle Mo trained by Bob Baffert, was a prohibitively short price in here to defeat five foes going a mile and one-sixteenth…and she did. She had to work for it, though. The winning margin was a mere neck over 11-1 shot Comical and the pair were three lengths clear of the rest. It was just Bast’s third lifetime start and first around two turns. More experienced Comical was making her fifth lifetime start and fourth in a graded stakes race. Bast will head to the Juvenile Fillies and can be expected to attract decent support. Tough call at this point to determine just how talented she is. Stay tuned.
With the victory aboard Base Hall-of-Fame jockey John Velazquez surpassed Jerry Bailey to become the all-time leader in graded-stakes race wins at 660. After the race, the quote of the moment belonged to Bob Baffert who said, “(trainer) Todd Pletcher is the one who got him (Velazquez) all those graded wins. I only threw him a couple of bones.”
Pee Wee Reese drove through an opening along the rail and proved best in the Eddie D. It was another outstanding riding performance by Flavian Prat and sets the 6-year-old horse up perfectly for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, contested over the identical layout. Can ‘Pee Wee extend his awesome Santa Anita turf record to seven wins in eight tries on the first Saturday in November? Obviously, competition will be much deeper in the Breeders’ Cup.
Eddie Haskell closed well on the outside behind Pee Wee Reese but was too late. Defending BC Turf Sprint champ Stormy Liberal appears to have lost a step since last year and the 7-year-old finished third.
All things considered, it’s too bad the BC Turf can’t take advantage of Santa Anita’s downhill turf course that’s temporarily closed. That layout is one of the most interesting in the entire nation. Hope it comes back into service for the big Santa Anita meeting.
Eight Rings, the 2-year-old son of Empire Maker who ducked in early during the Del Mar futurity and dumped jockey Drayden Van Dyke, kept a straight course Friday around two turns in the American Pharoah for a convincing win. He’s unbeaten in two starts when he finishes with a jockey and seems very talented. Trainer Bob Baffert added blinkers for the race, and they helped the colt. Jockey Velazquez suggested that ‘Rings is still learning and that could be true. He’s the best on the left coast but will be challenged by some talented eastern invaders.
Saturday, Sept. 28 - Santa Anita
Maiden Special Weight
Donna Veloce lived up to sparkling morning works when she disposed of five rivals with prejudice in 1:16 for six furlongs. The daughter of Uncle Mo, trained by Simon Callaghan and owned by Kaleem Shaw, looked sensational. Don’t know if she’s headed to the BC Juvenile Fillies or not, but she can run.
John Henry Turf Championship (Grade 2)
In the John Henry Turf Championship Cleopatra’s Strike made it four wins in 25 starts—including two seconds (head and nose) and this win since moving from Malcolm Pierce’s stable at Woodbine. This 6-year-old may just be getting good. No real Breeders’ Cup threats out of this race.
Mirth was the only speed in the mile and one-quarter race and she took advantage of that edge to lead wire-to-wire under Mike Smith for red-hot trainer Phil D’Amato. Beau Recall was second and Elysea’s World finished third. It’s best not to consider any California-based fillies or mares for success in the F&M BC Turf. California-prepped runners are 0-for-44 all-time in the F&M Turf with only 5 in-the-money finishes.
Mongolian Groom, third in the Grade 1 Santa Anita Handicap and runner-up in the Grade 2 San Diego Handicap, posed for a win photo for the first time since an allowance race score Feb. 1 and for just the third time in 13 career starts. To say he was a surprise winner of the Awesome Again would be an understatement.
In this, his eighth start in a graded-stakes race this year, he broke at odds of 25.40-1, third highest during that time—he was 53-1 in the Santa Anita Handicap and 28-1 last out in the Woodward at Saratoga. Most of Saturday’s money went toward heavily backed McKinzie at 30 cents to the dollar and to second choice Higher Power at 3.20-to-1. A stumbled start immediately negated Higher Power and McKinzie appeared disinterested—especially when he responded to a left-handed Mike Smith strike by wringing his tail. After the race, Smith said all the right things…’horse was blowing hard…race will do him a lot of good, etc’ but that didn’t help. The Hall-of-Fame jockey will be replaced on McKinzie for Breeders’ Cup. After the way the son of Street Sense ran in the Awesome Again that might be a blessing in disguise for Smith. A mile and one-quarter probably isn’t McKinzie’s most effective distance and the colt didn’t have much fighting spirit. Smith was criticized for surrendering an early pace advantage, but I’ll always take a 1-5 shot breezing along outside a pair of 25-1 and 60-1 pacesetters. Guess it’s easier to fire the jock than it is to fire the horse?
Meanwhile, take nothing away from Mongolian Groom. It was his day and he ran fast. Could he be a danger in the BC Classic? If he runs like that he could. First, his connections will need to cough up $200,000 to get him into the race. Can you say, ‘Go Fund Me?’ Even though Breeders’ Cup billed the event as a ‘Win and You’re In’ event, for non-nominated horses like ‘Groom its more of a ‘Win and You’re In if You Pay a Bunch of Money.’ The latter tagline isn’t quite as catchy, so BC suits use the former.
Don’t fall asleep on Higher Power. Jockey Prat was willing to forgive the colt’s effort because of the slow start. Maybe he just got good at the right time in winning the Pacific Classis, but maybe not. Watch him train up to a lackluster BC Classic and home game at Santa Anita. He could be a real sleeper.
Sunday, Sept. 29 - Santa Anita
Paradise Woods returned to her best form to take the Zenyatta from five foes. It was nice to see the 5-year-old strut her stuff. It’s clear she appreciates the Santa Anita main track—now five for 12 there. Jockey Abel Cedillo added this Grade 1 triumph to an already memorable weekend. The rider, who first established himself as a talented rider in Northern California, had a solid Del Mar and appears to be headed toward the top in SoCal, too. ‘Woods probably will try the BC Distaff and she’ll be hard-pressed to outrun Midnight Bisou.
Saturday, Sept. 28 - Belmont Park
Imperial Hint and Firenze Fire battled tooth and hoof to the wire in the six-furlong Vosburgh. At first, in the stretch, it appeared as if swift early fractions had cooked favored Imperial Hint and that Firenze Fire had him dressed, cooked and served under glass. However, like a true Thoroughbred racehorse, Imperial Hint bravely battled back from the inside and the pair went to the wire together. The finish was so close to the naked eye that it couldn’t be comfortably called. A slow-motion replay of the finish suggested that on the money Imperial Hint’s head was ‘down’ while Firenze Fire’s nose was ‘up.’ A photo finish confirmed that interpretation.
Imperial Hint is a world class 6-year-old sprinter who’s had two previous shots at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint—second and third, respectively, to Roy H. Trainer Luis Carvajal, Jr. used a winning Vosburgh effort as a springboard to the BC Sprint last year and has done the same this year. Will the third time be the charm for Imperial Hint? Or, has the 6-year-old lost a step?
Firenze Fire is an interesting 4-year-old sprinter in the care of high-percentage trainer Jason Servis. He’s best as a mid-pack closer who appreciates some pace to run at. He’ll have that in the Breeders’ Cup, for sure. The winner of seven of 20 starts could be a real sleeper in California.
The Marvelous Midnight Bisou added another victory to her already stellar resume by winning the Beldame—her seventh tally in seven 2019 starts. Even though she’s faced five and six horse fields all year, she’s likely to be a short price to win the BC Distaff. In fact, she’s been so dominating that she’s been mentioned in the Horse of the Year conversation. Elate, who lost to Midnight Bisou by a desperate nose in a thrilling Personal Ensign at Saratoga, may be headed to the BC Classic instead of the Distaff because she appreciates a mile and one-quarter. If that’s the case, ‘Bisou ought to be a free Distaff bingo square come Saturday, Nov. 2.
Jockey Club Gold Cup
In the stretch of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Code of Honor and Vino Rosso raced to the wire as one. Originally, it appeared as if the former couldn’t get by the latter, despite having dead aim through the length of the stretch. Upon further review of the stretch run, the stewards ruled that original winner Vino Rosso had interfered with Code of Honor and demoted him from first to second. The disqualification wasn’t entirely popular. Not surprising. They seldom are.
From this seat, NYRA stews made the right call. Vino Rosso clearly bumped Code of Honor several times and drifted out through the lane. The offense wasn’t equivalent to first degree murder, but aggravated assault was a no-brainer. It would be best if stews nationwide would interpret and enforce rules on a more consistent basis. Unfortunately, few of us will live long enough to see that day.
Meanwhile, lost among bickering about the disqualification, Code of Honor and Vino Rosso both ran huge races. The compact 3-year-old Travers hero has developed into a tiger and has legitimate claim toward sophomore of the year honors. Vino Rosso has become a solid 4-year-old with two wins in five starts, including the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita. That latter success will not be lost on horseplayers handicapping the BC Classic in Arcadia, CA. Third, last out in the Whitney when wide, Vino Rosso ran the best race of his career in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
Tacitus finished third and has lost some supporters…finally. He hasn’t won a race since the Wood Memorial in April but has been second three times and third once in Grade 1 or Grade 2 races. He’ll be hard to have on top in the BC Classic, but he’s one to use in exotics.
Sunday, Sept. 29 – Belmont
Selflessly closed strongly to just miss in her maiden race in August at Saratoga. That proved a perfect prep for her second start Sunday at Belmont Park when she won the Miss Grillo. It was the fourth time trainer Chad Brown has won this race. And that’s particularly notable because his runners have won the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf 5 times in 11 years, including 3 straight--Newspaperofrecord (’18), Rushing Fall (’17) and New Money Honey (’16). Only two of five winners were favored. Also, Belmont Park’s Miss Grillo Stakes has produced five winners of the Juvenile Fillies Turf, including two of the last three.