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The Conscience of Thoroughbred Racing


The Breeders’ Cup has something in common with afternoon delight. Even when they are not terrific, they are still pretty darn good.

Only a publicist would argue next weekend’s renewal of the Breeders’ Cup is one for the ages. With the rash of insanely endowed races around the globe, it could be the Breeders’ Cup is losing some of its allure?

Or maybe it was the problems at Santa Anita? In any case entries are down substantially from a year ago, 221 to 188.

Prominent among the missing are Maximum Security, first under the wire in the Kentucky Derby and Country House, the stewards’ Derby winner. Belmont champion Uncle Winston is another no-show. At least Preakness winner War of Will, who dances all the dances, will give the Classic a shot.

Game Winner, last year’s juvenile champion, is staying in the barn, awaiting his 4-year-old season.  Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial winner Tacitus, second in the Belmont and awarded third in the Derby, also is taking the rest of the year off.

Grade 1 winner on dirt and turf Catholic Boy, who was under consideration for three BC races, was instead retired after a dull effort in the Knickerbocker.

Inasmuch as he didn’t launch his 4-year-old campaign until mid-May, then raced only twice more, in July and October, it’s fair to speculate that there never was any intention to bring him back in less than three weeks for the Breeders’ Cup.

Acorn and Coaching Club American Oaks winner Guarana, who would have dressed up the Filly and Mare Sprint or the Distaff, was taken out of consideration this past week, supposedly with some sort of ailment, which wasn’t specified.

The biggest loss of all came when the connections of Filly of the World and defending Turf champion Enable was put on the shelf after the Arc.

Only six of the 14 races have limit fields even before final race choices and scratches are factored in.

The Classic, the nominal main event, is headed by McKinzie, who has finished second twice as often as he has won this year, and Code of Honor, twice blessed by the stewards in calls that will be talked about for decades. Not exactly Easy Goer-Sunday Silence; Ferdinand-Alysheba; California Chrome-Arrogate, or super filly Zenyatta taking on the boys. 

Nevertheless it will be a scintillating two days of racing. HRI will have a complete rundown with staff selections of all 14 BC stakes next week. In the meantime, these are the three events I am most anticipating.

Filly and Mare Turf—Sistercharlie, winner of six straight including three Grade 1’s this year, looked like a lock. Then Aida O’Brien decided to drop Magical, off a win in the Champions Stakes at Ascot last weekend, into the box. The quick turnaround, with a trans-Atlantic ship, is nothing new to O’Brien.

Magical is cross-entered in the Turf, where she gave Enable all she could handle last year. But O’Brien, who has Epsom Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck pointing for the Turf, has indicated Magical will stay against her own kind this season. Her performance will provide an interesting gauge on how Sistercharlie might measure up to Enable.

Sprint—This should be a barn-burner from gate to wire. Mitole, the likely Eclipse winner, is a deserving favorite but last year’s Sprint favorite, Imperial Hint, beat him in the Vanderbilt at Saratoga then took the Vosburgh.

A word of caution about both. Mitole has a string of six furlong wins but against lesser company. The six-furlong Vanderbilt is his only loss in his past four, sandwiched by two Grade 1 wins at seven furlongs and the Met Mile.

Imperial Hint came into last season’s Sprint off wins in the Vanderbilt and Vosburgh and ran third to Roy H, who will not be back.

The wild card is freaky speedball Shancelot, who’s less than a length away from being five-for-five. He got nailed on the money in the seven furlong Jerkens at Saratoga and was run down late by Omaha Beach in the Santa Anita Sprint championship. If anyone can find a few extra feet for his horse, it’s Jorge “The Juiceman” Navarro.

Speaking of Omaha Beach, when Richard Mandella chose the Dirt Mile for him, John Sadler redirected Catalina Cruiser here. Consider the significance of Sadler thinking he has a better shot against Mitole, Imperial Hint and Shancelot than he would have had against Omaha Beach.

Juvenile—No BC race in memory has ever had the bizarre coincidental angle of this year’s renewal. The two big horses, Dennis’ Moment and Eight Rings, are each undefeated in races in which the jockey was able to stay aboard.

Dennis’s Moment threw Robbie Albarado in his debut at Churchill Downs. He bounced back to break maiden at Ellis Park by more than 19 lengths then took the Iroquois at Churchill geared down.

Eight Rings was odds-on in the Del Mar Futurity off a big maiden win when he said adios to Drayden Van Dyke shortly after the start. He, too, came back big, running away with the American Pharoah in his BC prep.

There’s another undefeated contender with a pair of wins, Maxfield, who made an Arazi-type move on the turn to crush the Breeders’ Futurity field at Keeneland.

Whoever emerges on top from these three, or some other Arazi from a talented bunch of young horses, will immediately become the pro tem favorite for the 2020 Kentucky Derby.

Maximum Caution

What’s going on with Maximum Security and why isn’t he at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup?

The unofficial Kentucky Derby winner skipped the Preakness and Belmont. After atoning for a loss in a minor Monmouth stakes by running off with the Haskell, he skipped the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby.

Now his connections have opted out of the Breeders’ Cup, where he could have clinched the Eclipse Award for his generation.

There’s no sickness or injury excuse. He’s running Saturday in the Bold Ruler. If he can run seven furlongs at Belmont this week, there’s no reason why he couldn’t run in the Sprint, the Dirt Mile or even the  Classic next week. He does have a win—OK, first-place finish—at a mile and a quarter.

There is nothing to gain prestige-wise if he wins the Bold Ruler by a pole. If either Code of Honor or Omaha Beach take their Breeders’ Cup races, they vault over him for divisional honors. Even a win in the Cigar Mile or Clark Handicap, each a Grade 1, might not put him back on top.

The decision to stay back East is extra puzzling inasmuch as his owners, Gary and Mary West, are California people.

Something is not right, so I would proceed with extreme caution when handicapping the Bold Ruler.

Score a Big One for Racing

If baseball is the national pastime, the ratings for the first game of the World Series indicate thoroughbred racing is in a lot better shape than doom-and-gloomers say.

The Fall Classic opener between Houston and Washington (both top 10 markets) on Tuesday attracted an average audience of about 11.6 viewers, according to preliminary Nielsen ratings.

NBC’s telecast of the 2019 Kentucky Derby thrashed that number. Approximately 16.5 million tuned in to the controversy marred Run for the Roses. This was an increase of about 10 percent over the year before when the much hyped Justify headed the field.

Meanwhile, the 2019 World Series opener was down about 8 percent from 2018.

Note that the World Series is telecast in prime time, so called because the available audience is at its peak between 8 and 11 p.m. The Derby is on Saturday afternoon, one of the lowest viewership periods of the week.

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19 Responses

  1. I’m with you in your assessment of the Sprint and Juvenile. The sprint division has been the toughest, most competitive group of either sex. There are plenty of fast horses around and if either Mitole or Imperial Hint had passed, the other would be a prohibitive favorite.

    As for the Juvenile, I need to see Bob Baffert’s colt run in a straight line. Of course he can improve dramatically. In any other year, I wouldn’t be concerned.

    But in a race including both Maxfield, the probable favorite, and Dennis’ Moment, probable close second choice, if not the favorite, I’m not willing to guess with the west coaster, even with Johnny in the boot.

    With respect to Maximum Security, this seems to be a projected economic decision. Come back in a winnable spot, stretch out to a mile in the G1 Cigar Mile, then the Pegasus. You talked about money which makes the mare, and the males, go.

    The purse for the Pegasus if 50% higher than the Classic’s $6 million, you don’t have to ship 3,000 miles, skip a 10 furlong test and stretch out to nine furlongs, arguably his best trip, over a track on which you’re 4-for-4. I might have done the same…

  2. I don’t disagree. The game has changed from “my horse is faster than your horse, let’s race,” to how can I best avoid a horse who might be faster than my horse for the best purse.”

    This has caused me to rethink the whole concept of the Eclipse Awards. An Eclipse doesn’t bring you an extra cent when it comes to breeding. They excite us in the racing media but mean little to breeders, where the big money is in racing.

    If Tacitus can win a Grade 1 or a couple of them as a 4-year-old against an attrition-depleted crop, because of his extraordinary bloodlines, he will be worth more than whoever wins the BC Classic. So it makes sense to skip the Classic and await easier pickings in 2020.

    Maximum Security is an other-side-of-the-tracks horse, who started out as a $16K claimer, so he’ll never be one of the elite sires–unless his offspring start performing like the American Pharoah’s. Maybe not even then.

    So he has to make it on the track, which is why the game plan you mapped out for him makes sense.

  3. Actually TJ, it’s their plan, really, and I think it’s the right one. Think of the options for Max: Mitole and Imperial Hint at six furlongs; Omaha Beach going a mile, or going a mile and a quarter against older coming off a layup. Two rocks and two hard places.

  4. JP,
    I get your point but Maximum Security has won at a mile and a quarter, something few of the others have done.

    I’m totally with you on the Sprint.

    This is not aimed at you but why don’t we just put Omaha Beach right into the Hall of Fame off one close win at 6f in six months over a 3YO on his home course. Rarely has a horse been so over-hyped for doing so little.

    Besides, isn’t there an expression that you don’t duck one horse. The rest of the Dirt Mile field isn’t much.

    I will keep that in mind.

    Moreover, it feeds into my comment on Omaha Beach beating Navarro’s 3YO, who was first time over the track.

  5. TTT

    With respect to jockeys “falling off,” maybe they should be chained or tied to the animal; problem solved. On a serious note, love the Cup, but this game is difficult enough as it is, and the inevitable introduction of unknown factors created by foreign horses who have not raced in this country, often inhibits me from reaching for my wallet. Please no accusations of equine xenophobia.

  6. T, funny line about equine xenophobia. With respect to foreigners, it’s about the success of human connections at B Cup; stats very useful here. Hint: Circle the G1s and G2s of foreigners and see how they fared. Says a lot about class, then you can decide if Americans are better or worse.

  7. Andy, glad you said that, maybe you can expound. Santa Anita has made the track safer, probably more resembling eastern tracks than in the past. In fact, at first they might have gone too far in that direction.

    Can you tell us anything about SA past and present as you’ve observed it?

  8. TJ, also a funny line and you’re correct; Omaha Beach has been hyped to death.

    As a matter of opinion, I think he is a better horse than Maximum Security. Maybe we’ll all find out if they meet in the Pegasus at what should be for both their optimal distance with a natural speedy bias that also suits their styles.

  9. You want an overload on horse hype? If Dennis’ Moment draws away, it is gonna be relentless for a few months solid.

  10. Dr. D,
    You are partially correct. Any one of the big three–Dennis’s Moment, Eight Rings, Maxfield–draws off we’ll be overwhelmed by hype.

  11. Could it be that Jason Servis isn’t running Max in the BC Sprint because he thinks he can win with Firenze Fire?

    Maybe J.Ortiz moved too soon with FF against Imperial Hint in the Vosburgh.

    IMO the PPs suggest that FF may have physical problems that interfere with his giving his best consistently, but 6f is likely his best distance.

    The improving 3YO, Shancelot, seems a more likely winner to me than either the older Mitole or Imperial Hint, especially with Omaha Beach going in the Dirt Mile.

  12. Good points made by all. We all have our equine “prejudices” but I’m trying to avoid committing to any horse until after Monday’s post draw. The draw will be televised on TVG from 6 to 8 p.m.

  13. Dennis’s Moment draws rail position. Is this a jinx like in Derby or does it not matter? I guess if you get off fast it’s no big deal. The horse is a lock. As for the Euros, I agree that they make for a difficult decision making problem. I do not have the requisite handicapping chops to take this on. Good luck to all who do. As Harvey Pack used to say, “May the horse be with you.”

  14. Mal,
    The 1 hole is the kiss of death in the Derby because the race starts in a small chute at the top of the stretch with the main track rail dead ahead. The gate can’t be moved out because every inch is needed in a 20-horse field. Also the entire field is trying to work its way over before the turn, so the #1 has to gun, which takes its toll later, or ease back and get buried.

    With only 11 in the Classic, the gate can be moved well out, so the inside isn’t staring at the main track rail. Ergo, post is no factor in this mile and a quarter race.

    This is not the case in the Juvenile, which starts in mid-stretch, making it the shortest route home and a potential ground-saver without 19 other horses coming over on you. Post should not be a factor.

  15. I retract that comment about DM being a sure thing. Have no idea and should not make statements to that effect. If I’ve learned anything in the last 48 years participating in this sport is that there are no locks. Ok, Seattle Slew in Wood Memorial but that’s a long time ago. Paid $2.20 and was Mike Warren’s 5-Star Special. Does anyone remember Keats? There was an older man selling this sheet at Port Authority on busses that were heading out to The Big M. Now that’s a trip down “Memory Lane.”

  16. The two races I find myself most eagerly anticipating are the F&M Sprint and the Distaff. It’s all about the ladies, which given the fact that Inside Information unleashed the greatest performance in BC history, is sort of fitting.

    I feel like Come Dancing does gain a bit of a tactical edge with Covfefe drawing the rail. Obviously if she is going to continue to break poorly though, this spot will probably be the one where she won’t be able to overcome it.

    RE: Horse of the Year. Bricks and Mortar caught the huge break with Magical staying home – the field just doesn’t look that daunting for him now. I personally have Midnight Bisou as the Horse of the Year at the moment, but it has to be very close either way. I hear a lot of people saying that Bricks and Mortar takes the award with a win, but what about this scenario: Bricks wins, Bisou wins; and then Saturday night, Elate upsets the Classic field – or loses a photo at the wire. That to me would turn Bisou’s H2H wins over Elate into even better looking performances and the deciding factor. If Bricks and Bisou win, and Elate doesn’t seriously threaten the Classic field, then it’s just debate time.

  17. .Agree that Covfefe wasn’t helped by post draw. Meanwhile Spiced Perfection, sitting outside, was. Don’t overlook her, especially with Johnny V aboard.

    Let’s wait until Saturday night to deal with HoY. It’s interesting that you didn’t include Code of Honor. He would have to win theClassic while other top contenders misfired. This isn’t likely but neither are some of your scenarios.

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