Countdown to the Cup: Gold Cup or Cold Cup?

This column has nothing to do with the defection of Tizway from next Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, as disappointing as it was, or the horses that will be competing in the mile and a quarter event, even though at this point a good portion of the field appears as if it will be made of horses more likely to point for the BC Marathon.

The column is about the Gold Cup’s influence on the Breeders’ Cup Classic and how to approach the race, as prestigious as it is, with the Classic in mind. Remember, the Gold Cup is one of the most peculiar races in the country, with the starting gate oddly placed on the first turn, making the opening quarter mile a bit confusing to watch, with some horses, especially those on the outside, scrambling to get position and others being taken hold of and ridden tentatively, which often results in a slow opening quarter.

The harsh fact is that only three Gold Cup winners in 27 years have won the Classic, and only five Classic winners have even run in the Gold Cup. In addition, of the five Classic winners to have competed in the Gold Cup, two of them came when the Classic was run at Belmont.

The Gold Cup fields usually are small, and top-class horses, ripe for huge efforts, are in danger of peaking here instead of the Classic. Since the race was switched from 1 ½ miles to 1 ¼ miles in 1990, we’ve seen horses such as Pleasant Tap, Albert the Great, Aptitude, Borrego, Bernardini, and Haynesfield all turn in spectacular performances in the Gold Cup only to regress in the Classic.

When the race was run at 1 ½ miles, it often dulled the winner when dropping back to 1 ¼ miles in the Classic, as was likely the case with Slew o’Gold, Vanlandingham, Waquoit, and especially Easy Goer.

History, of course, has shown that you can win the Gold Cup and Classic…as long as your name is Cigar, Skip Away or Curlin…or are in the same class as those great champions. Or you can stumble badly and get creamed coming out of the gate, as A.P. Indy did in the 1992 Gold Cup. A.P Indy basically plodded around there far back in last and passed horses late to finish a well-beaten third, while Pleasant Tap romped in a blazing 1:58 4/5. In the Classic, A.P. Indy was able to turn the tables on Pleasant Tap, who likely peaked in the Gold Cup.

Last year, the Suburban winner Haynesfield got loose on the lead in the Gold Cup and poured it on late, opening up a seven-length lead in the stretch and easily defeated the favorite, Blame. Fortunately for Blame, he was allowed to stick to his game plan and go about his business as usual. He picked up horses late and settled for second, instead of being persevered with to try to catch Haynesfield, which easily could have gutted him for the Classic. That enabled him to bounce back and defeat Zenyatta, while Haynesfield stopped badly, finishing 11th, beaten 23 lengths.

In 2001, Aptitude turned in one of the most brilliant performances ever in the Gold Cup, blowing by horses on the turn and winning by 10 lengths, earning a whopping 123 Beyer figure. Back at the barn, trainer Bobby Frankel, normally ebullient following a big stakes win, was uncharacteristically subdued. All he kept saying was, “How am I going to get this horse to come back in three weeks in the Classic and not ‘bounce’ to the moon?” As it turned out, he wasn’t able to, as Aptitude, breaking from that tricky outside post at Belmont, made another big move on the turn, but fizzled out in the stretch to finish eighth.

Watch Borrego’s spectacular Gold Cup victory in 2005 and then watch him plod around the track in eighth in the Classic at 5-2. Watch the 3-year-old Albert the Great crush older horses in the 2000 Gold Cup, running the fastest 1 ¼ miles by a 3-year-old in the history of New York racing, and then tire to finish fourth in the Classic. The following year, Albert the Great flopped in the Gold Cup, but came back to run a strong third in the Classic behind Tiznow and Sakhee.

You can even add Bernardini, who demolished his opponents by almost seven lengths in the Gold Cup, earning a career-high 117 Beyer figure, but after looking like a sure winner on the turn in the Classic, he was unable to sustain his move and gave way to Invasor in the final furlong.

Of the three who did manage to score a Gold Cup—Classic double, Cigar turned in one of his least dominant performances in the Gold Cup, winning by only a length at 1-5 and earning one of his lower Beyer speed figures. He came back to win the Classic impressively over the same track, running nearly two full seconds faster than he did in the Gold Cup.

Curlin just eked out a gutsy head victory in the Gold Cup in 2007, then came back and demolished the best horses in the country in the Classic, run in the slop at Monmouth.

The bottom line is that trainers and jockeys should tread carefully when sending their horses to the Jockey Club Gold Cup. It is a great race to win, but you have to make sure you don’t do it at the expense of the Classic. Because of the complexities of Belmont Park, with its mile and a half circumference, long sweeping turns, and often speed-favoring nature, it can be a nightmare to some horses and a dream to others.

If the Classic is your ultimate dream, just try to get through the Gold Cup and leave all the blissful images of grandeur for four weeks later.

Unless the Breeders’ Cup is being run at Belmont, which hasn’t happened in six years, horses who compete in the Gold Cup must make the transition to a smaller track with much sharper turns and a totally different surface than the sandy loam of Belmont. Blame was able to do it last year, in good part because he was not as comfortable at Belmont and was virtually unbeatable at Churchill Downs.

A mile and a quarter at Belmont is geared toward two types of horses – those with excellent tactical speed who like to be on or right off the pace, and long-striding, athletic horses who are capable of making their move on the turn and reaching contention at the head of the stretch. The key is saving ground for as long as possible and not getting hung wide too early on that agonizingly long turn. These horses can either stay on the rail, which can be golden, or ease out at around the five-sixteenths pole.

If you have a pure stretch runner, like Blame, you’re at a huge disadvantage, especially with a lone speed horse like Haynesfield in there. So often, horses make a long sustained move on the turn and look like they’re going to sweep by everyone, but by the time they hit the stretch, they’re done. You can get away with it if you’re Forego or if you are a true stayer and the horses in front of you want no part of 10 furlongs.

Tizway, despite question marks at 1 ¼ miles, would have had the perfect scenario in the Gold Cup, with his running style, but he’ll now have to try to emulate Invasor, who also won the Whitney and then was forced to miss the Gold Cup with a fever, but was able to win the Classic off a two-month layoff.  

Stay Thirsty is reminiscent of Summer Bird, coming into the Gold Cup off a Travers victory and a big effort in the Belmont Stakes. Like Summer Bird, he looks to be a grinder who can run all day and wear his opponents down the farther he goes.

The big older horse will be Flat Out, and, frankly, if he can come close to duplicating his performance in the Suburban Handicap, at 1 ¼ miles at Belmont, the others will have their work cut out for them. But it must be noted that Flat Out relished the mile and a quarter, was within a head of the lead at the quarter pole, and none of his opponents really wanted any part of 10 furlongs. But he ran extremely fast, and his subsequent second-place finishes in the Whitney and Woodward at 1 1/8 miles stamped him as a leading Classic contender.

The same principle regarding the Belmont dirt preps for the Breeders’ Cup applies to the Beldame and Vosburgh. Only three Beldame winners have gone on to win the BC Distaff/Ladies Classic, and no filly has accomplished it since 1999 when Beautiful Pleasure wired her field in both races. Before that, you have to go back to Personal Ensign in 1988, so it’s only been accomplished every 11 years.

You also have to go back 11 years to Artax to find the only Vosburgh winner to capture the BC Sprint.

In the 81 combined runnings of the aforementioned three major Belmont Breeders’ Cup dirt preps, only seven winners have gone on to capture the Breeders’ Cup. Therefore, it is important to remember not to go into the Gold Cup, Beldame, and Vosburgh intent on turning in a lights out performance or it could very well be lights out in the Breeders’ Cup.

Philly flyers

The Breeders’ Cup Classic could wind up being dominated by 3-year-olds, despite the harsh criticisms of this year’s crop. With Stay Thirsty already entrenched at the top of leading contenders list, you can add To Honor and Serve and Ruler On Ice following their 1-2 finish in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby.

To Honor and Serve finally is beginning to show the talents he exhibited last fall following a dubious winter 3-year-old campaign and taking most of the spring and summer off. He’s back and better than ever, as indicated not only by his comfortable victory in stakes-record time of 1:47 1/5 over a lightning-fast track, but the way he looked down the stretch. Having a tendency to run with his head high in the past, you had to love the way he leveled off and was striding out down the stretch. He still isn’t quite there yet, ducking in from a right-handed whip and jumping back to his left lead, but there is still a good deal of room for further improvement, which should bode well for the Classic. This horse has a regal look to him and was a standout in the paddock.

Ruler On Ice may have lost the battle, but it could win him the war if he runs back to this performance next month at Churchill Downs. And it could result from an accident in strategy. Ruler On Ice normally is a stalker who likes to be within two or three lengths of the pace. He did win the Belmont Stakes in the slop using that strategy, but has made only minimal impact in his other races. In the Pennsylvania Derby, under new jockey Garrett Gomez, he uncharacteristically dropped far off the pace, having only one horse beat, a dozen lengths off the pace.

What was so encouraging about his performance is that he looked like a totally different horse down the stretch. He didn’t look like an accidental closer, but a horse who has been closing from far back all his life. He was four wide going into the first turn and had to swing at least six-wide at the head of the stretch, but once he straightened for home, he kicked into another gear, dropped his shoulder, and began reaching out with great extension, cutting into To Honor and Serve’s lead with every stride.

Considering he came home his final eighth in :12 flat and the fact he was giving 10 pounds to the winner, this was a tremendous performance that just might open new doors for the colt if he runs a similar type of race in the Classic, assuming the pace is legitimate. Unlike the Belmont, when he returned the cleanest horse in the field, he came back Saturday caked in dirt that was still wet from heavy rains the day and night before.

And don’t give up just yet on third-place finisher Rattlesnake Bridge, despite his inability to sustain his move and threaten the top two in the final furlong. The son of Tapit had run a monster race in the Travers, closing fast in the stretch, despite never having run beyond 1 1/16 miles. Dropping back to from 1 ¼ miles to 1 1/8 miles, he made a good move around the turn, but flattened out. Philly Park can be a bit quirky, and this track was wet and blazingly fast, as indicated by the record six-furlong time of 1:07 2/5 in the Gallant Bob the race before. Rattlesnake Bridge is still a work in progress and should be given another chance, stretching back out to 10 furlongs.

Even fourth-place finisher Arthur's Tale bears watching after making a decent run on the far turn after having been sidelined since the Wood Memorial back in April. He also made a tremendous appearance in the paddock.

In other Breeders’ Cup news, trainer Richard Mandella said he’s leaning toward trying Crown of Thorns in the Oak Tree Mile on grass, after which he will weigh his BC options. Wherever this colt shows up, keep a close eye on him. He is a very talented horse who has had several setbacks and has never been able to show what he is really capable of.

Mandella said that Santa Anita Handicap runner-up Setsuko has been gelded and will be given some time off. It is hoped this will allow him to remain in training for several more years and give him the opportunity to get rid of his losing ways.

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