Message from our sponsor:
Have you ever wanted to roam the paddock at Keeneland between races? Have you ever imagined what it would be like to see your horse line up in the starting gate? Have you ever dreamt of having your picture taken in the winner’s circle? Owning a race horse is easier and more affordable than you might think. Let Pocket Aces Racing LLC show you how. Thoroughbred racing partnerships are forming now.
As of this writing, we are just over four weeks away from the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar, a first time venue for the event. The last weekend of September and first weekend of October have traditionally served as the dates for the last and most vital round of prep races for the year-end championship event. This year however, a number of these historically significant Breeders’ Cup preps are coming up light due to an increasingly popular phenomenon. Several trainers of the biggest equine stars in the sport are skipping the last round of preps in favor of training their horses up to the Breeders’ Cup off of extended layoffs of six weeks or more.
This recent trend can be traced back to Bob Baffert in 2014. After winning the Pennsylvania Derby on September 20th, the Baffert-trained Bayern did not race again until winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic – a layoff of six weeks after running every four weeks from July through September. Baffert pushed the envelope even further the next year. Triple Crown hero American Pharoah did not race for 9 weeks between his only loss of the year in the Travers Stakes and his tour de force in the Classic for his career finale. Last year the Baffert-trained Arrogate had ten weeks between his 13 1/2 length romp in the Travers and his thrilling half length victory over California Chrome in the Classic. Drefong had the same 10 week gap between his Kings Bishop and Breeders’ Cup Sprint victories.
This year, at least the top 3 wagering choices in the marquee event, the Classic, will enter the Breeders’ Cup off extended layoffs. Reigning Horse of the Year and defending champion Arrogate will enter off an 11 length layoff, having not raced since a runner-up finish to his stablemate Collected (who will run off the same break) in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar. Gun Runner, a 3 time Grade 1 winner this year, has not run since his Woodward victory at Saratoga on September 2nd. In the Sprint, defending champion Drefong will compete following a 10 week break since his victory in the Forego at Saratoga. Likely Distaff favorite Stellar Wind has not raced since her Clement Hirsch win on July 30th. Forever Unbridled will challenge Stellar Wind following a 10 week break of her own. Lady Eli will vie for favoritism in the Filly and Mare Turf after a similar 10 week absence from racing.
The net effect of all these stars sitting on the sidelines for so long in advance of the Breeders’ Cup is that the last round of preps – which have largely been very meaningful races in their own right since long before the Breeders’ Cup ever existed – are beginning to lose some significance. Last week at Santa Anita, Mubtaahij won the Awesome Again (formerly the Goodwood Stakes), the traditional west coast prep for the Classic. One could argue that Mubtaahij is only Baffert’s 4th best chance to win the Classic, behind Collected, Arrogate, and 3yo division leader West Coast. It’s unlikely that any of the other six horses that ran in the Awesome Again will make the field for the Classic. The Zenyatta Stakes, a prep for the Distaff, was a 4 horse race won by Paradise Woods, who was beaten by nearly 30 lengths combined in her most recent two starts prior to the Zenyatta. The race was missing both of the west coast leaders in the Distaff division, Stellar Wind and Vale Dori. Belmont ran another traditional prep for the Distaff last weekend, with Elate, an emerging 3yo filly and the only Grade 1 winner in the field, winning the Beldame. This weekend Belmont will stage the Jockey Club Gold Cup, considered by many to be the championship race of the handicap division prior to the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Not one of the participants in this year’s race will be among the top 5 wagering options in the Classic. Keeneland will struggle to pull together a Grade 1 caliber field on Sunday in the Spinster, another Distaff prep, with Forever Unbridled, the best mare based in Kentucky, sitting out.
Time will tell if this trend holds, but thoroughbred racing can be a copy cat game. Baffert’s recent run of success with the longer layoff strategy is certainly not dissuading other trainers from employing it themselves. This year’s Breeders’ Cup results will likely dictate what we can expect from these suffering prep races next year.