Tom Jicha

Tom Jicha grew up in New York City and worked with John Pricci at the short-lived revival of the New York Daily Mirror. Tom moved to Miami in 1972 for a position in the sports department at the now defunct Miami News.

Tom became the TV critic in 1980 and moved to the South Florida Sun Sentinel in 1988. All the while he has kept his hand in sports, including horse racing. He has covered two Super Bowls, a World Series and the Breeders Cup at Gulfstream Park.

He's been the Sun Sentinels horse racing writer since 2007 as a staff member, and continues to this day as a free-lancer.

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Thursday, November 02, 2017

Beating favorites key to a successful Breeders’ Cup

The key to prosperity on any racing day is being able to beat short-priced favorites. This is especially true on Breeders’ Cup weekend when reputation horses tend to get seriously over bet.
I think there are at least four such opportunities in Breeders’ Cup heats, two each on Friday and Saturday, including the climactic races on both afternoons.

I see some big names going down Friday and Saturday at Del Mar. I want to stress that I am not knocking these horses. They have earned their rankings at the top of the sport. But circumstances make them vulnerable.

One caveat: I am a win, daily double, Pick 3 and Pick 4 player, so I am looking at only the top slot. It would be folly to think these extraordinary runners won't find their way into the vertical exotics.

Classic--Gun Runner (9-5): He has earned his status as the top rated main track horse in America but he faces hurdles here he hasn’t had to deal with during his three-race, post-Dubai winning streak.

He has never won at a mile and a quarter. He has never run over what Bob Baffert calls “the tricky” Del Mar surface. All you have to know is how it brought Horse of the World Arrogate back to the pack. Gun Runner could wind up loving it. But you shouldn’t have to take 9-5 to find out.

Most important, Gun Runner has never beaten Arrogate. If it wasn’t for Arrogate’s seeming dislike for Del Mar, there would be no reason to believe Gun Runner ever would beat him, considering the trouncing he got in the Travers and Arrogate coming from dead last to run him down in Dubai.

Finally, Gun Runner has never beaten a top notch field. As a 3-year-old he was third in the Kentucky Derby, fifth in the Pennsylvania Derby, third in the Travers and second in last year’s BC Dirt Mile. He didn’t start dominating until many of the best of his generation fell by the wayside.

In his four wins this season, the place and show horses behind him have been Hawaakom, Domain’s Rap, Rally Cry, Keen Ice, Honorable Duty, Neolithic and Breaking Lucky twice. With the exception of Keen Ice and Neolithic, who would have been in the 20-1 to 30-1 range, any of the others would be in the 50-1 or more zip code if they were even allowed to break into the race.

To put it another way, none would be shorter odds than the longest of Baffert’s quartet, Mubtaahij. All Baffert’s entrants will be on my horizontal exotics but I’ll be leaning hard on Arrogate and West Coast, after Collected drew the extreme outside gate.

Distaff—Stellar Wind (5-2): She has had an exceedingly easy route to a 2017 three-race winning streak. She faced only five rivals in the Apple Blossom, four in the Clement Hirsch and two in the Beholder, one of whom, Vale Dore, ran second to her in both California stakes.

The last time she had to deal with a field as large as eight, not to mention a field of this quality, she was fourth in last year’s BC Distaff. It’s no disgrace getting beat by certain Hall of Famers Beholder and Songbird. However, the third-place finisher in that race, Forever Unbridled, also is back.

It’s a commentary on the state of American racing at the highest level that Forever Unbridled also beat only three in her win in the Personal Ensign but she did come out on top in a field of eight in her other 2017 start, the Fleur de Lis. An ankle injury, from which she has shown she is fully recovered, limited her to only those two starts.

In the Personal Ensign she did something Stellar Wind couldn’t do, running down Songbird, who had it all her own way in soft fractions.

Stellar Wind also will have to contend with a quartet of talented sophomores--Kentucky Oaks winner Abel Tasman; streaking Elate, coming off a huge Beldame win; last year’s BC Juvenile Fillies champion Champagne Room and speedball Paradise Woods, who will play catch me if you can and gets really brave if left alone.

Other significant stats: Stellar Wind has not won beyond 1 1/16th miles. She’s 0-for-3 at nine furlongs. Trainer John Sadler is 0-for-39 in Breeders’ Cup races. Sadler is too skilled a trainer to stay on the duck forever. However, it’s not prudent wagering strategy to take a short price that this is the race in which he will finally break his Breeders’ Cup maiden.

The keys to my Distaff-Classic two-day daily double and Friday’s final Pick 3 will be Forever Unbridled and Elate.

Filly & Mare Sprint—Unique Bella (9-5): On the West Coast, she’s being talked about in the same sentence as Songbird. So she could break at appreciably less than her morning line odds.

Why not? Since a poor start second in her maiden effort, she’s won five in a row by more than 32 lengths.

But there are red flags. Only her most recent start, the L.A. Woman, was against older. She has yet to face Grade 1 competition. She has not won at six furlongs. (To be fair, she hasn’t been asked to run less than 6 ½ furlongs after her 5 ½ furlong debut.) Typical of Southern California, only one of her races had as many as eight starters.

If you want to stretch the comparison, Songbird failed in her only Grade 1 against older rivals, albeit the memorable 2016 Distaff against Beholder.

Unique Bella will be confronted by some crack elders, including Grade 1 winners Finest City, the defending champion; Paulassilverlining; By the Moon; Constellation and Carina Mia.

Also not to be discounted, even though they lack a Grade 1 win, are Ami’s Mesa, on a four-race winning streak; Finley’s Lucky Charm, a winner of 9-of-12 with two photo-finish seconds; Highway Star, coming off a win in the Grade 2 Gallant Bloom and Skye Diamonds, five of six this season, including a score in the Rancho Bernardo over the Del Mar strip.

This looks like a spread race, not one in which to key a possible odds-on favorite, who has gotten off to a poor start in two of her six races.

Dirt Mile—Mor Spirit (3-1): When pre-entries were disclosed, I planned to include Practical Joke as a fourth short-priced bet-against. The fact that he drew the extreme outside No. 10 with a short run to the first turn undoubtedly was a factor in him being 6-1 on the morning line, double what I had penciled in for him.

I didn’t like him to win because he has never gotten up around two turns. To think he can do it with an atrocious draw seems to be wishful thinking.

This still might be a race to buck the chalk. Mor Spirit is 3-1 on the morning line but usually cocky Bob Baffert cold-watered him in a conference call last week. He labeled Mor Spirit’s Met Mile “pretty incredible.” If he runs back to that race, he’ll be tough to beat, Baffert said.

Then he warned that Mor Spirit, who hasn’t run since, might not be up to another effort like that. “After he ran that big race, it sort of took a lot out of him. It’s taken him a long time to come around. I would have loved to put a prep race into him but I didn’t get a chance.”

This isn’t the only negative Baffert ticked off. “He’s never run at Del Mar…He struggled with that track earlier but now he’s doing much better. But he’s coming off a layoff that long, so he’s got his work cut out for him.”

This could be a case where “the other Baffert” is the one to key. Cupid was the beaten favorite in the Awesome Again (behind “other Baffert” Mubaahtij) but he won his two previous 2017 starts, including the Gold Cup at Santa Anita and the Harry F. Brubaker over the same Del Mar mile as this race.

One Baffert favorite I am not going to try to beat is Drefong, the defending champion in the Sprint. I’m also going all in on globe-trotting Lady Aurelia in the Turf Sprint.

I’m seeing Saturday as “Lady’s Day” with Lady Eli, in the Filly & Mare Turf. I won’t single her but I’ll be rooting as hard for racing’s greatest story as any horse over Breeders’ Cup weekend.

Miami, Nov. 2, 2017

Written by Tom Jicha

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