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This year the Breeders’ Cup will once again return to southern California, marking the 7th time in the last decade that the year-end championship event for thoroughbred racing will take place there. The previous six meets were all held at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia. This will be the first edition to be held at Del Mar, where the turf meets the surf, just outside San Diego. All of the major prep races are now complete as the last Breeders’ Cup Challenge ‘Win and You’re In’ race takes place on Wednesday at Keeneland with the Jessamine Stakes, an automatic qualifier for the Juvenile Fillies Turf. While the final fields will take shape over the next several weeks leading up to the races on November 3rd and 4th, we already know who the primary contenders are. Today we’ll take a look at three of the more interesting races, the Distaff, Mile and Classic.
There is very little doubt that Stellar Wind will end up the favorite in the Distaff at 9 furlongs for fillies and mares 3-years old and up. In a division largely dominated by Beholder for the last 4 years, Stellar Wind has been perfect in just 3 starts this year, and is also perfect in 3 lifetime starts at Del Mar. At the top of her game she is the unquestioned leader of this division. However, there are a number of reasons that could dissuade punters from taking a short price on her. She will enter the Distaff off a layoff of more than 3 months as she has been idle since a neck decision in the Clement Hirsch on July 30th. While she has performed well returning from similar breaks in the past, this is the first time she will face Breeders’ Cup quality competition without the benefit of a prep race. Stellar Wind is also winless at the 1 1/8 mile distance. She finished 4th as the favorite in the Kentucky Oaks, 2nd in the 2015 Distaff, and ran a dull 4th as the 2nd choice in the race last year. She has not been asked to do much serious work since the Clement Hirsch, but you would expect John Sadler to begin tightening the screws this week. To see her wind up in the winner’s circle would be no surprise, but there are almost as many questions as there are answers. Forever Unbridled will likely go off as the 2nd choice in the wagering. She beat Stellar Wind in last year’s Distaff, finishing just over a length behind that epic duel between Beholder and Songbird. The daughter of Unbridled’s Song has raced only twice this year, but won impressively each time, following a facile score in the Fleur de Lis at Churchill with a determined nose victory over Songbird in the Personal Ensign at Saratoga. In contrast to Stellar Wind, Forever Unbridled is proven at 9 furlongs with 4 prior wins at the distance. She is a certified closer, but getting the necessary pace to run at is not usually a problem in the Breeders’ Cup. After the top two choices, things open up quite a bit, and the strongest remaining contenders appear to be from the 3yo crop. Three-year olds have been quite successful in the Distaff, winning 10 of 33 races in the event’s history.
Abel Tasman became the pro-tem leader of the 3yo filly division on the strength of her 3 straight Grade 1 victories in the Kentucky Oaks, Acorn, and Coaching Club American Oaks. She most recently finished as runner-up in the Grade 1 Cotillion when her patented middle move left her without enough gas in the tank to fend off a winning challenge from It Tiz Well. That improving daughter of Arch has now won 2 of her last 3 and may well be peaking at the right time for trainer Jerry Hollendorfer. The most intriguing prospect for the Distaff from this vantage point is Elate. She has been very well thought of by the Bill Mott barn since prior to her November debut as a 2yo. The daughter of Medaglia D’Oro had a somewhat disappointing spring in that she did not improve as quickly as was expected of her. However, she has come to hand strongly over the past few months. She came within a head of upsetting Abel Tasman in the Coaching Club, despite a difficult trip along the rail. She followed that game runner-up effort with a breakout performance in a dominating victory in the Alabama at Saratoga where she was 5 1/2 lengths clear of It Tiz Well in second. Most recently, she crushed a mediocre field of older rivals in the Grade 1 Beldame by 8 plus lengths. She will enter the Distaff as the only 3yo with a victory over older females and has proven on multiple occasions now that the distance is most certainly not an issue. Hall of Famer Mott leads all trainers with 5 Breeders’ Cup Distaff wins, 2 of which came with 3yos.
This will be only the second time in the last decade that the field for the Breeders’ Cup Mile has not included either Goldikova, Wise Dan, or Tepin. Those three brilliant milers dominated the event over the last ten years, accounting for 6 wins, a second and a third over that time span. Also taking into account the retirement of 3-time participant and last year’s winner, Tourist, this year’s Mile really does involve a changing of the guard. The greatest American hope is once again stabled in the Mark Casse barn in the form of World Approval. He’s really done nothing wrong this year with the only blemish on his record coming in the Manhattan, a race well beyond his preferred distance. Aside from that, he is unbeaten in 4 other starts this term with dominating performances at the one mile distance in his last two, the Grade 1 Fourstardave at Saratoga and the Grade 1 Woodbine Mile. No one has been more impressive, or more consistent, in the turf mile division in North America this year. It will be interesting to see which international invaders ship in to contest the event as the ‘Win and You’re In’ series included 6 qualifying races for the Mile that took place outside North America. In addition to that, Suedois, a fairly unimposing European, shipped across the pond to take down the Shadwell Mile at Keeneland on Saturday. In a year when European shippers have largely taken it on the chin from their American counterparts in the longer grass races, one would have to believe that the win from Suedois would embolden the connections of any European that may have been sitting on the fence regarding Breeders’ Cup participation. It’s very unclear at the moment who might show up, but the field for the Mile is certainly one worth following in these final weeks of preparation.
If not for Steve Asmussen, Bob Baffert would be a 1 to 10 favorite to take home his 4th straight Breeders’ Cup Classic trophy. Baffert will saddle defending champion and reigning Horse of the Year Arrogate, Pacific Classic winner Collected, Awesome Again winner Mubtaahij, and Travers winner and leading 3yo colt West Coast in this year’s edition of the race. One would expect them all to be amongst the top half of the wagering choices, with Arrogate and Collected competing with Asmussen’s Gun Runner for favoritism. Arrogate was the runaway leader of the handicap division after 4 straight spectacular Grade 1 triumphs in the Travers, Classic, Pegasus, and Dubai World Cup, but he has not been the same horse in two subsequent starts since his return from Dubai. He was a considerably lackluster 4th in the San Diego, and while he did look markedly better in the Pacific Classic he had every chance to get by stablemate Collected and could not do it. What is probably most concerning, even beyond the two sub-par results, is that Arrogate just does not seem to move over the Del Mar surface the same way he does elsewhere. His powerful, fluid stride is just not the same at the seaside oval. It is possible he is just not the same horse as he was prior to Dubai, but he is definitely not the same horse at Del Mar. The son of Unbridled’s Song has had a relatively easy time since the Pacific Classic, but you can bet that Baffert will get to work now with less than a month to go. He gave Arrogate 5 works in 25 days last October leading up to the Classic, and the horse just had his 2nd work of the month this morning, posting a 5 furlong bullet at Santa Anita. It seemed like Baffert might be testing the limits of his colt’s pedigree when he entered Collected in the Pacific Classic, but the son of City Zip handled it with aplomb, leading every step of the way to stamp himself as the new top dog in his barn and a leading Classic contender. He was given ample time off after a dismal effort in last year’s Preakness and has returned this season with 4 wins in as many starts. The Pacific Classic marked his first Grade 1 win, and the Speedway Stable color-bearer may well still be improving. Gun Runner shipped west not too long after his 3rd consecutive Grade 1 victory (Stephen Foster, Whitney, Woodward) in order to acclimate to the weather in southern California and go through his final Breeders’ Cup preparations alongside his primary competition at Santa Anita. He will be the only one of the top 3 colts without a prior race at Del Mar, but with wins at 5 different race tracks and solid 2nd place finishes at 3 others, he seems to be the kind that takes his track with him. No horse in the country was more impressive over the summer than the chestnut son of Candy Ride, but he has not seen the likes of Arrogate or Collected since being outrun by the former in Dubai at the end of March. This year’s Classic has all the makings of an epic showdown, and if most of the field shows up with their best stuff, it will undoubtedly go down as one of the all-time greats.