Countdown to the Cup: Classic Appeal

Let’s be honest, this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) needs a boost, especially with Zenyattamania and even a double dose of Curlin still fresh in everyone’s mind. The most obvious boost would be the inclusion of Havre de Grace. Even better would be a showdown between Havre de Grace and Blind Luck. The latter scenario appears doubtful at this time, but Havre de Grace’s owner Rick Porter has already stated he wants to run the Woodward (gr. I) winner in the Classic. That would leave it up to Blind Luck’s connections.

We have a solid base of males to work from this year, with Tizway, Stay Thirsty, and Flat Out heading what looks to be a dominant Eastern contingent. But the race still needs that extra ‘oomph’ to elevate its interest level.

Late blooming 3-year-olds such as Prayer For Relief, To Honor and Serve, and Rattlesnake Bridge, and of course Uncle Mo, could make an impact (boy, do the performances of Triple Crown stars like Animal Kingdom, Shackleford, Ruler On Ice Mucho Macho Man, and Nehro seem like ages ago), but, except for the presence of Uncle Mo, we need more, which brings us to the names listed below, even with the question marks surrounding them.

TWIRLING CANDY – Yes, we know, he’s not a mile and a quarter horse. At least that’s what many people think. We also know that premise is based on three grade I races, in which he was beaten in photos in two of them (a head and a neck). We also know he’s had his problems settling early in a race, but he’s shown improvement and has run three bang-up races since having blinkers removed. Yes, he pulled hard in the Californian Stakes (gr. II) two races back, but they were crawling in :49 2/5 and 1:14 1/5 and he still closed from sixth to win going away.

In the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), he sat right behind the leader, was in between horses, and was beaten only a nose and a neck, giving six pounds to the victorious First Dude. In his most recent start, the Pacific Classic (gr. I), he rated three lengths off the pace, as the top-class Acclamation was able to get away with a :48 3/5 half in 1:12 4/5 three-quarters. He ran hard through the stretch, but fell a head short, while finishing four lengths ahead of the third-place finisher. To demonstrate how strong a performance this was, he came home each of his last two quarters in :23 2/5. Even on a synthetic surface, when you can close in :46 4/5 going 1 ¼ miles, that is impressive.

Just look where this horse is now compared to last year when he was an erratic and unpredictable youngster who created such havoc in the Del Mar Derby (gr. IIT). His pedigree is loaded with stamina, he’s already won a grade I and grade II on dirt, he’s won stakes on grass, dirt, and synthetic, and most important, he looks like a horse who is just coming into his own and figuring things out.

He is also the kind of horse who could very well relish the Churchill Downs surface a lot more than the synthetic and turf surfaces he’s run on most of his career.

In short, don’t dismiss this colt because of some pre-conceived notion he’s not a 10-furlong horse. He is as brilliant and naturally gifted as any horse out there, and that alone should take him a long way. This is the time to load up on him in the future book.

GIO PONTI – They had the right idea two years ago when they ran him in the Classic – synthetic surface or no synthetic surface. He ran a winning race and there are no Zenyattas this year. This is a versatile, classy, mile and a quarter specialist who is one of those Breeders’ Cup lost children with no home they can call their own. The Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) and Mile (gr. IT) are either too long or a tad too short, and are merely ‘make do’ races that provide someplace to perform on racing’s biggest stage. Yes, he has proven to be effective at a mile, but at his age does he really the explosive burst you need to out-kick top European milers, especially Goldikova?

Gio Ponti is nearing retirement following a sensational career that has seen him take home three Eclipse Awards. But before he makes his exit there is one final crossroad to encounter – at least in one person’s opinion. We all know the BC Turf is not an option, which leaves the Mile. But if Gio Ponti couldn’t beat Goldikova in last year’s running when he was razor sharp coming off a victory in the Shadwell Mile (gr. IT), what is there to indicate he can beat her and any of the other classy Euros that come this year?

Let’s not forget that this is a horse who is bred for the dirt and has the perfect running style for a race like the Classic, but has never been given the opportunity to see what he can do on dirt. In addition to his second in the Classic on Pro-Ride, he was beaten 1 ¼ lengths and 1 ¾ lengths in the past two runnings of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on Tapeta. Do we know for sure there isn’t a dirt horse in there crying to get out? One thing we do know – he has as much class as any horse in training and horses often win big races on class alone.

Gio Ponti has finished second in seven grade I stakes (six on grass one on synthetic) in the past two years and hasn’t won a grade I since last October.. He just may need to find a different path to the winner’s circle. If dirt isn’t that path, no harm done; he’s already earned nearly $5.7 million and deserves a chance to go out in the proverbial blaze of glory, especially considering the Churchill Downs dirt course has proven to be extremely conducive to grass horses (just look at the winners of this year’s Stephen Foster and Kentucky Derby).

Chris Clement is a top trainer and knows his horse better than anyone, but sometimes horses do the unexpected (although it may not be unexpected at all) and it’s worth the gamble to attempt something bold and historic before heading to the breeding shed. Maybe it’s because some of us from the old school were weaned on the bold and historic, at least by today’s standards. Back then they were the norm.

The chances of Gio Ponti running in the Classic appear to be slim to none, but it’s at least something for his connections to think about.

SO YOU THINK/AWAIT THE DAWN – Aidan O’Brien always adds interest and intrigue to the Classic, a race he’s been trying to win since Giant’s Causeway’s narrow defeat to Tiznow in 2000. At this point it looks as if Euro titan So You Think is headed for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) and is only being quoted by Stan James for the Classic. Depending on what he does at Longchamp, the Classic would be a good spot for him, considering his best distance seems to be 10 furlongs and he just may be the most talented classic-distance horse in the world. He definitely would add glamour to the race, as he attempts to become a grade/group I winner in America, Europe, and Australia.

O’Brien already has Cape Blanco pointing the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT) and possibly the BC Turf, but that would mean four trips across the Atlantic for the Man o’War (gr. IT) and Arlington Million (gr. I) winner unless O’Brien decides to keep him here until the Breeders’ Cup.

Await the Dawn, another horse who has excelled at 1 ¼ miles, is being quoted by seven bookmakers for the Classic at odds ranging from 7-1 to 12-1. But the son of Giant’s Causeway came out of his third-place finish in the Juddmonte International (Eng-I) “very sick,” according to O’Brien, and his plans are up in the air right now,  With his participation in doubt, that would seem to enhance the chances of So You Think coming for the Classic.

Winter Thrills

If there is a more exciting horse in the country than Winter Memories it sure has escaped us. She doesn't win all the time, but with her number of horrible trips piling up with every start, it's amazing she wins at all. How she pulled off the Garden City Stakes (gr. IT) still is baffling and gets more baffling each time we watch it.

Another top-class Darby Dan product from the Golden Trail family, the daughter of El Prado continued her daredevil ways by overcoming a seemingly hopeless wall of traffic at the head of the stretch that had her bottled up for an agonizingly long period of time. But as she did in her victory in the Lake George Stakes (gr. IIT), she finally found room to unleash her now-patented rocket-like burst of speed and inhaled the entire field in one fell swoop to defeat a strong, deep field of grass fillies.

Whether she beats you by a head or six lengths, there is nothing more exciting in racing today than watching this remarkable filly come storming down the stretch.


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