Maybe McKinzie can get the 10 Furlongs After All

For a Bob Baffert-trained horse who will be the likely favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, you would think that McKinzie would have a stronger fan base, especially considering Baffert won three consecutive Classics from 2014-16 and this year’s Breeders’ Cup is being run at his home track. But many of the experts still have reservations about McKinzie, based on his two defeats at a mile and a quarter and his recent upset at 1-5 in the Awesome Again Stakes, in which he was beaten by 25-1 shot Mongolian Groom, who had won only three of his 16 career starts.

One of those mile and a quarter defeats was a dismal performance in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic and the other was in this year’s Santa Anita Handicap when he was out-dueled by Gift Box.

I was one of those who had reservations until some of the puzzle pieces started to fit together to form a clearer picture. What began my search for clarity was McKinzie’s most recent work this week--seven furlongs in 1:24 2/5, which is an excellent time. But when it comes to the Breeders’ Cup, especially the Classic, I don’t put a lot of stock in workout times and fractions, as I do for the Kentucky Derby. These are all seasoned, classy grade 1 and grade 2 horses who are all coming into the race in top form, or they wouldn’t be here at all. We know pretty much what they are capable of in the morning.

So what was it about this work that caught my eye? Just watch the way he hugged the rail turning for home and galloping out. When a horse lays on that rail and cuts the corner that sharply, rather than fan wide in order to keep his momentum, it reveals to me an exceptional athlete with great balance who is loving the track and demonstrating his quickness and maneuverability, which he may have to use at any point in the race. I love it even more when they do it on both turns.

In this work, jockey Rafael Bejarano got down on him and started pushing nearing the wire, which is something I believe he needed. You always like to see a horse run through the wire, as they say, something he failed to do in the Awesome Again when he let Mongolian Groom draw clear of him in the stretch and then gallop out some 15 lengths ahead of him.

What I found most telling about the Awesome Again was Mike Smith, who has since been replaced by Joel Rosario, saying that he was blowing after the race. He added, “This should move him way up and will really get him where we want him. You can peak too soon with this horse. We’ll see the best of him in the Breeders’ Cup.” Those are confidence building words from someone like Smith.

And as far as him blowing after the race, he hadn’t run for two months, so it is possible he needed this race, as indicated by the way Mongolian Groom left him far behind on the gallop-out. Baffert wanted to see him on or right off the lead, but Smith obviously was not expecting Mongolian Groom, who was a hard-knocking stakes-placed horse in grade 1 company who had never been on the lead before, to just keep going and come home his final eighth in a sharp :12.32. Simply put, the winner ran a heckuva race alone on an uncontested lead. That will not happen in the Classic.

Now let’s look at the mile and a quarter. Obviously last year’s Classic was a toss, as we know that was not the real McKinzie. As for this year’s Big Cap, let’s break that race down. Earlier on the card they ran the Santa Anita Oaks and the Santa Anita Derby. Those races were run in fractions of :47 4/5 and 1:12 2/5 and :47 4/5 and 1:12 1/5, respectively. The Santa Anita Handicap was run in fractions of :49 1/5 and 1:13 3/5. During those fractions, McKinzie, who had broken on top and then taken back to third, actually dropped three lengths behind Gift Box, who was in a perfect stalking position.

Yes, McKinzie failed by a nose of beating Gift Box, but he had to make up those three lengths and closed his last two quarters in :24 1/5 and :24 2/5. Any horse who can come home that fast going a mile and a quarter, and over a dead racetrack, should not have any questions of distance hanging over his head.

Perhaps 10 furlongs is not his best distance, although it didn’t stop his sire from winning the Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes. That doesn’t mean he can’t win at that distance when he came so close against a very talented horse, who had a much better trip than he did under the circumstances. And let’s not forget those closing fractions.

And let’s not forget his brilliant victory in the Whitney, in which he blazed the mile and an eighth in 1:47 flat, two-fifths off the track record. And let’s not forget his troubled second in the Met Mile, run in 1:32 3/5, in which many felt he was the best horse after encountering traffic problems on two occasions in the stretch, yet still was beaten only three-quarters of a length by the brilliant Mitole.

Rosario’s agent Ron Anderson is as good as they get and he didn’t hesitate for a second taking off Yoshida to ride McKinzie because of his home court advantage and Bob Baffert advantage. But most of all he believes the Santa Anita track, which has been favoring speed big-time, will carry him the final furlong. He says you have to be forwardly placed, and you can bet McKinzie will either be on the lead or very close to it.

I am not saying that McKinzie is going to win the Classic or that he will relish the distance. I am just saying that we might be a bit premature and off base in questioning his stamina. After breaking down the Big Cap and his defeat in the Awesome Again, and looking at his recent work, perhaps this colt is a worthy favorite after all.

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