Countdown to the Cup: Think Twice About Classic Rankings

Most will think we’ve taken leave of our senses with our No. 1 ranking of the Breeders’ Cup Classic horses, but if you see this horse kick in on the far turn on Nov. 5, it means he’s handling the dirt and the race might very well be over at that point. He’s that good. But that’s still a big ‘if’ and we have no idea if he’ll even show up. Call it a gut feeling that this could finally be the year for Ballydoyle, who has never sent a horse like this before. This was a legend in Australia before they made him a three-time group I winner in Europe, all at 1 ¼ miles.

1— SO YOU THINK – It would be a surprise if Coolmore decided to conclude his campaign in the Champion Stakes when they can attempt to make history and conquer something that has been their Moby Dick for the past 11 years; a quest that even claimed the life of one of their most popular horses. Unlike most of their past Classic contenders, he is a true 1 ¼-mile specialist, and O’Brien spoke volumes about this horse’s amazing constitution when he said Sunday he would run him every week if it were up to him and is seriously considering running in both the Champion and Classic, despite having just run in the Arc last Sunday. O’Brien said he came out of the Arc in “unbelievable form.” In Australia, he won the 1 ¼-mile Cox Plate, won the 1 ¼-mile MacKinnon Stakes, and finished third in the two-mile Melbourne Cup in the span of 10 days, the last two coming three days apart.

Considering the trip he had in the Arc, being taken well out of his comfort zone, and the way he closed from the back of the pack to finish fourth over a hard, firm course, he could very well be set up perfectly for the Classic. Although he was 5 ¾ lengths behind the freaky German filly Danedream, he was only beaten three-quarters of a length for second and showed a great deal of courage to turn back the outside challenges of  French group I winners Meandre and Sarafina, who looked as if they were going to blow right by him in tandem. His broodmare sire Tights was a multiple stakes winner on dirt and grass, and Tights’ dam, Dancealot, won and placed in grade I stakes on dirt for Woody Stephens. Assuming he bounces out of the Champion in good shape and handles the dirt at Churchill he would give Coolmore their best shot to win the Classic since Giant’s Causeway, especially having had a two-month vacation over the summer.

It is also worth noting that the talented and rapidly improving Await the Dawn has made great progress since his serious illness and could still make the Breeders’ Cup. He would be formidable in either the Turf or the Classic. Watch out for this one.

2—FLAT OUT – His authoritative scores in the JC Gold Cup and Suburban and his strong seconds in the Whitney and Woodward are more than enough to establish his class and consistency and make him the horse to beat. Of the top four Americans, he’s the only one proven at 1 ¼ miles. There is a slight concern that he disappointed in the Foster over the Churchill surface, but he was stuck on a fairly dead rail, and it was only his second start in 6 ½ months and third start in more than two years, so we’ll give him a pass for that effort. Consecutive Beyers of 113, 106, 109, and 107 make him perhaps the most consistently fast horse in the country to go with his class and stamina. He did only what he had to in the Gold Cup, so he should have left enough left in the tank for the Classic.

3—HAVRE DE GRACE – She’s as talented and accomplished as any horse pointing for the Classic and has already knocked off the boys and has learned how to decimate her female foes, as indicated by her 8 ¼-length romp in the Beldame while still under cruise control. Only question is whether she is quite as effective at 1 ¼ miles. After watching her last two races and her pair of narrow defeats at 10 furlongs against Blind Luck, there is little doubt she’ll handle the distance, especially considering she’s a much better horse now and has developed into a true powerhouse who can beat you from anywhere.

4—UNCLE MO – We wrote an entire column last week about running too brilliant a prep race at Belmont, especially the JC Gold Cup, and all the horses who paid the price in the BC Classic. Well, Uncle Mo couldn’t have been more brilliant after his 1:33 4/5 mile and 118 Beyer in the Kelso Handicap (at least it wasn’t at 1 ¼ miles). Now the big question is whether he is special enough to overcome his over-zealousness and can avoid meeting the same fate as those who peaked a race too early over Big Sandy. What makes this horse so special is his ability to run fast early while just cruising and still be able to come home fast. Physically, you won’t find a more handsome and finely tuned horse and he just exudes class. We know he loves Churchill, but we don’t know if he can get the 10 furlongs off only a pair of one-turn races since April and coming off a career-high speed figure. The five weeks will help. This is a potentially great horse -- how great we’ll find out in the Classic.

5—TIZWAY – Missing the Gold Cup with a fever won’t help answer his distance questions, so he’s still a bit of a guess on that front. He’s already shown he runs well fresh. His journey to Churchill Downs parallels Invasor, who also missed the Gold Cup with a fever and was able to win the Classic off the Whitney. But it’s still eight weeks and Invasor had no distance question marks. What he has going for him are back-to-back victories in the Met Mile and Whitney, and that alone stamps him as one of the leading contenders. You just don’t run any faster than he did in the Met (1:32 4/5), and he has proven he can rate off the pace. He is one you definitely want to follow in the morning as the race gets closer.

6—RULER ON ICE – Yes, this is a bit of a shocker, but loved his performance in the Pennsylvania Derby, giving 10 pounds to the winner, To Honor and Serve, and totally changing his running style, showing a whole new dimension to him. He leveled off beautifully and came home like a veteran stretch runner who had been doing it his whole career. Also loved the way he lowered his shoulder and was extending himself in the final furlong, flying home his last three-eighths in :35 3/5, despite having to go 8-wide. And the winner set a new stakes record. He now looks like a serious stretch threat with plenty of bottom under him, if, of course, they can get him to run that way again at Churchill. Garrett Gomez, who won the Classic last year, is a perfect fit and should know him a lot better second time aboard. And let’s not forget he is a classic winner who handles any kind of track. Strictly from a visual standpoint, his Pa. Derby stretch run makes him an enticing longshot – at the very least to juice up the exotics. If we had one future book bet to make at a big price he would be it.

7—GAME ON DUDE – He’s tough and game with excellent tactical speed and has turned in two of the gutsiest stretch runs seen all year, winning the Big Cap and just getting nipped in the Hollywood Gold Cup. He occasionally disappoints when he’s taken hold of, but is a tiger when given his head, and at the very least will make life miserable for any horse willing to engage him in battle. He loves a fight and seems to thrive on the competition, so it’ll be interesting to see how the pace scenario plays out with him and Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve. His three victories this year have come when he’s run his fastest early fractions -- :46 and 1:09 3/5; :46 3/5 and 1:10 3/5; and :45 1/5 and 1:09. When he was slowed down to 1:13, 1:11 1/5, 1:12, and 1:12 4/5 he’s gotten beat. That is a bit misleading, because the faster races were all at Santa Anita, but his fractions were fast enough to make it worth mentioning.

8—STAY THIRSTY – He didn’t get the kind of trip he needs in the JC Gold Cup, and had little chance, having to catch Flat Out in the stretch, which was never going to happen. He needs to be right there turning for home so he can utilize his grinding, staying style, but inexplicably lost his position on the far turn and appeared to be dropping out of it. He did find his best stride again and tried to launch a bid after swinging wide, but had too much ground to make up on Flat Out, who had already broken the race open. He still was beaten only 2 ¾ lengths, so he at least showed he can compete with older horses. He’s the only 3-year-old to put together three straight huge efforts in top-class company – Belmont, Jim Dandy, and Travers. He’s proven at 1 ¼ miles and still has room for improvement, but could go either way, depending on how he handles the Churchill surface. The Ky. Derby was not a good indicator, so throw that race out.

9—TO HONOR AND SERVE – Patience has paid off with him and he’s now getting good at the right time. His Pennsylvania Derby score was big, but he still was a bit green in the stretch, ducking in from a right-handed whip and jumping back to his left lead. He has that regal look and demeanor about him and you have to be optimistic about his future. He may be ready to peak on Breeders’ Cup day, but he definitely is a horse to watch next year. He cannot afford to get hooked up with Uncle Mo and Game On Dude early, so he’ll either have to take back and stalk or be the aggressor and try to dictate the pace himself, hoping Dude and Mo leave him alone and wait for him to come back to them.

10—GIANT OAK – He looked good for a while in the Hawthorne Gold Cup, but was all over the place in the stretch and was unable to sustain his move. He didn’t get the kind of trip he wants. He was wide four-wide every step of the way and too close to the lead entering the far turn. He was only beaten 4 ½ lengths, but all that matters with him is getting back to Churchill Downs, his favorite track. You still might want to consider him as a longshot exotics play, as he’s run some of his best races at Churchill Downs, where he can take advantage of the long stretch. His third in the Whitney was better than it looks on paper, as he had to overcome a snail-like pace and then got hung 6- to 7-wide turning for home. When he got a rare fast pace in the Donn Handicap he blew by Morning Line and Rule to win going away in fast time, earning a career-high 105 Beyer. He should get that kind of pace in the Classic. Remember, we’re talking 30-1 or higher.

11—AWESOME GEM – Will this year mark a third attempt at the Classic for this 8-year-old warrior? After finishing third behind Curlin and Hard Spun in the 2007 Classic as a 4-year-old, he was sixth in the 2008 BC Mile, seventh in the 2009 Classic, and seventh in the 2010 Marathon. So, do you try the Classic again after his fast-closing second in the Goodwood Stakes or go for the BC Dirt Mile, considering he won the Longacres Mile in 1:34 4/5 and 1 1/16-mile Lone Star Handicap this year, having been infused with a jolt of brilliance at his advanced age? Wherever he goes, it’s good to have him aboard again.

12—DROSSELMEYER – This is a first – a horse using the JC Gold Cup as a prep for the BC Marathon and then running so well he winds up in the BC Classic. Although they are still considering both races, will WinStar actually run a horse who closed fast to finish second in the Gold Cup in the Marathon? That’s obviously where he has the best shot to win or finish in the money, but the temptation is pretty strong to try to pick up a piece of the big one. Last year’s Belmont Stakes winner has proven to be on the slow side, with a career-high 94 Beyer prior to the Gold Cup, so you have to wonder if he’s just reaching his peak now or whether he merely got up for second by default in a cavalry charge stretch run for the place and show spots.

NOT RANKED (Pointing for other races at this time, but still outside possibilities)

ACCLAMATION – By prepping in the Clement Hirsch, one would think that all but assures he’ll point for the BC Turf. His pedigree is about 90% turf and he ran miserably in the slop in the Charles Town Classic this year, so that’s probably where he belongs, although he did finish second at Fairplex Park in his only start on a fast dirt track. It is also worth noting he’s traveled back East twice in his career and ran up the track both times – the other being in the United Nations at Monmouth. He’s won his last five races, including a gutsy victory over Twirling Candy in the Pacific Classic on Polytrack and has proven to be a dangerous frontrunner, whose M.O. has been simple – go slow early and come home fast. The fastest three-quarter fraction he’s run during his winning streak is 1:12 1/5. When he was forced to go in 1:09 4/5 in the Frank Kilroe in his ’11 debut he finished fifth.

GIO PONTI – Chris Clement on several occasions after the Shadwell Turf Mile used the word “probably” in regard to Gio Ponti making his next start in the BC Mile, adding it’s up to the owner. Again, that’s “probably,” not “definitely.” We admit he looked impressive enough running down Get Stormy to suggest the Mile would be a good spot for him, and probably the best spot, but we’re still not convinced it’s the right spot. If his connections are content with the Mile and have no desire to take a chance and do something bold and sporting to accomplish something memorable, that’s fine. There’s nothing wrong with doing the logical thing, and a victory over Goldikova would be a crowning finale to a magnificent career. Gio Ponti displayed a good late turn of foot in the Shadwell, turning apparent defeat into victory, but will he be able to find room in time in the large field and match Goldikova’s turn of foot in the Mile, something he couldn’t do last year? We still remember the horse’s connections watching the replay of the 2009 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, in which he finished second over a bog. Clement immediately turned to owner Shane Ryan and said, “We’re going to the Classic, right?” Yes, the Classic was on Pro-Ride that year, but it still was music to our ears.

TWIRLING CANDY – While he hasn’t ruled out the Classic, trainer John Sadler, said he most likely will point for the “BC Mile,” although he probably meant the Dirt Mile. He would have been ranked in the Top 5 or 6 if he were being pointed for the Classic and didn’t get sick. A foot bruise kept him out of the Goodwood and he would have to train up to the race off an unprecedented nine-week layoff. That alone would scare most people away. Many feel he is not a 1 ¼-mile horse, as evidenced by his 0-for-3 record at the distance, but he is extremely talented, has made great strides mentally and visually, and could very easily erupt on the Churchill Downs dirt. His narrow defeat in the Pacific Classic was a terrific effort and we loved the way he was striding out down the stretch, while closing in blistering fractions against an exceptional horse in Acclamation.

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