So You Think, Dude

The more you study the past performances of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) the more scenarios you find. We’re going to concentrate on two horses who we find intriguing in regard to the tactics they should or could employ.

Let’s start first with the pace, and even with the loss of Tizway, the pace on paper looks to be strong and contentious. But it doesn’t necessarily have to be the latter. If you’re riding Game On Dude, what do you do to avoid getting hooked up in a speed duel with Uncle Mo and To Honor and Serve, and to a lesser extent your own stablemate Prayer For Relief?

Uncle Mo’s ability to get a mile and a quarter at this stage of his career, especially coming off only two one-turn races, has been questioned by many and it is assumed his connections would prefer to see him sit off the pace and save as much as possible. To Honor and Serve showed in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) that those tactics suit him as well. The last thing either one wants is to lock horns with Game On Dude, who has proven on several occasions to be a fierce competitor when his blood is up. He likes to play rough and doesn’t give up easily. Look at him as your typical alley fighter who will kick, claw, and bite, and if you choose to fight him, you do so at your own risk.

So, with all that in mind, the strategy for Game On Dude is simple. This is a horse whose worst enemy is restraint. Let him run free and he’ll give you 100% every time. Forget everyone else in the field and just send him to the lead. What he has going for him, in stark contrast to most frontrunners, is his ability to run fast fractions, even at 1 ¼ miles and even under pressure, and still keep going. Such a noble attribute has to be used to good advantage. Chantal Sutherland, who has developed a good relationship with the colt, has to let him go to the lead even if someone is foolhardy enough to try to outrun him.

Again, fractions are of little concern to this horse, and in fact, the faster the better, as odd as that may sound to most. By going fast early he will take all the stalkers out of their comfort zone and make them use themselves just to stay within striking distance. That likely will take away from any closing punch they may have. And as for the deep closers, they’ll be coming, but they will have more ground than usual to make up due to the fast pace, especially if Game On Dude can get some separation in the stretch. It is reassuring to Sutherland and trainer Bob Baffert knowing that even if someone does challenge him in the stretch it’s not going to be easy to get by him.

Remember, 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 over the quick Santa Anita surface, but his fractions were fast enough to still make it a legitimate point. The main rule with all free-running speed horses is never wait and let the closers catch you by the quarter pole, because no matter how much you save for the stretch run you’re not going to out-close them.

That brings us to the intangible horse, So You Think, whose tactics in Europe this year have been all over the place. It is uncertain whether the Ballydoyle Boys know for sure just how this horse wants to be ridden, because he can do a little of everything. But in terms of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, his first ever start on dirt, here is one person’s opinion, based on having watched all his races this year.

First off, like Game On Dude, his is a tough horse to pass in the stretch, and you know he’s going to put up a fight. The only problem is, when he’s taken the lead one-to-two furlongs out he’s gotten beat on two occasions and just narrowly held on to win on another. To his credit, however, both defeats were at Ascot, with its testing uphill run to the finish. Compared to Ascot, Churchill Downs will be a piece of cake.

Only against lesser competition early in the year has he drawn off to win by big margins. In his important showdown against last year’s English Derby (Eng-I) and Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Workforce in the 1 ¼-mile Coral-Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I), he was kept under cover along the inside for as long as possible, then was pulled out and gamely wore down Workforce, demonstrating his grit and determination and his ability to catch a top-class horse in deep stretch. This was the race that truly defined this horse and what he’s capable of.

Running him in the Arc at a mile and half was a bold move, considering he’d never won going that far. They changed strategy and had him taken to the back of the 16-horse field, while using their Irish Derby (Ire-I) winner and English Derby (Eng-I) runner-up, Treasure Beach, as a pacesetter. No one could have predicted the dominating performance by the German filly Danedream, but So You Think ran a big race, weaving his way through the field in the final two furlongs. He rallied to finish fourth, and was only beaten three-quarters of a length for second. Not only did he demonstrate his closing ability again, this time from far back, he showed a great deal of courage to turn back the challenges to his outside of  French group I winners Meandre and Sarafina, who looked as if they were going to blow right by him in tandem. So, he was able to show all his attributes in this one race.

One can question the decision to run him back in two weeks in the Qipco Champion Stakes (Eng-I), but Aidan O’Brien has never stopped raving about this horse’s amazing constitution, so you would have to think coming back in another three weeks will not hurt him. Remember, in Australia last year, 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.

So, taking all this into consideration, it would seem this horse has a lot of leeway when it comes to strategy because of his versatility and high cruising speed. The best plan of attack in the Classic would seem to be to keep away from the likely hot pace and away from Game On Dude and Uncle Mo and run a race something between the Eclipse and Arc, which would put him in midpack, some eight lengths off the lead, depending on the pace, and then have him use that cruising speed and tenacity to pick off horses and wear down the leader or leaders in the final furlong.

If, of course, he loves the dirt and is on the muscle and just happens to take the lead earlier in the stretch, we don’t see anyone catching him. After all, this isn’t Ascot and the final furlong is going to be a lot less taxing on him. In short, there are several options regarding strategy. But taking him back and putting him in position to wear down the leaders in the stretch seems to be the way to go.

The one horse who can put a monkey wrench in anyone’s strategic plans is Uncle Mo, simply because we have no idea how good, or great, this horse is. It’s possible his critics are correct and he’s not able or ready to go a mile and a quarter. And it’s also possible those close to him are correct and he is no ordinary horse, and actually towers above every other horse not only in the Classic, but the country. His Kelso (gr. II) victory was so far beyond anything we’ve seen this year, he just may be capable of anything.

And then of course there is Havre de Grace and Flat Out, and, well, now we’re getting way ahead of ourselves. For now, this is all about Game On Dude and So You Think, the two horses dependent on nothing but their own ability and getting the right trip in order to utilize that ability to its fullest.

Gio goes for the Goldi

So, it looks as if we will never know if Gio Ponti can handle the dirt or if he could have closed out his career in grand style with a Breeders’ Cup Classic victory. All that dirt pedigree and 1 ¼-mile brilliance gone to waste, not to mention the fact that the Churchill Downs dirt track has always been conducive to grass horses. By the way, if it happens to rain next Friday and Saturday and the Churchill turf course turns bog-like, you have to wonder how they will feel about their decision (slop probably would have helped him). But let’s hope that doesn’t happen for his sake and Goldikova’s.

Even several analysts, including Jeff Siegel of HRTV, were ranking Gio Ponto high on their list of Classic contenders once they saw his first preference in that race. Siegel, in fact, had him ranked at No. 5, saying, “I’m not sure I wouldn’t be taking a shot at (the Classic). Who knows how good he’d go on dirt, especially at a mile and a quarter?”

Trying and failing would have had no effect on the horse’s legacy or popularity as a stallion, but not knowing what he could have done is regrettable, at least to one person. Anyway, we tried. Now we can only wish him good luck in the Mile. If anyone can beat Goldikova and still remain popular it is Gio Ponti, who has a long list of admirers himself.

Bye, bye Turf

It was a smart move to knock the Turf out of its traditional spot right before the Classic and replace it this year with the Mile in order to give Goldikova a primetime spot. The Turf in recent years has lost its relevance as a top international race, with the decline of the American turf horse and the race becoming pretty much a playground for Europeans. This year, Europe will have the top five favorites. Oh, and by the way, they have won nine of the last 11 runnings, not counting the dead-heat between Ireland’s High Chaparral and America’s Johar in 2003. The ultimate embarrassment was Cape Blanco making an unprecedented three transatlantic trips to America and winning three of its most prestigious grade I stakes – the Man o’War, Arlington Million, and Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Now it is up to Dean’s Kitten, Brilliant Speed, Teaks North, and Stately Victor to defend whatever honor remains of the American grass horse. Teaks North did defeat Euro invaders Chinchon and Stacelita in the United Nations (gr. IT), but did not fare well in his only attempt at 1 ½ miles, and Dean’s Kitten came within a nose of beating Cape Blanco in the Turf Classic, so there is a slight glimmer of hope.

Bombs away

We still haven’t deviated from our original longshot selections published a couple of weeks ago. We’ll go into more detail next Friday, but the megabomb specials remain, Miss Match (Ladies Classic), Ruler On Ice (Classic), Cambina (Filly & Mare Turf), Champagne d’Oro (Filly & Mare Sprint), Optimizer (main pick) and Take Charge Indy (Juvenile), and Caracortado (Turf Sprint; liked him originally for the Mile, but will stick with him here, despite the 5 furlongs). Also taking a long look at Tapizar for the Dirt Mile; one of the most impressive 3-year-olds we’ve seen this year before he got knocked off the Derby trail with an injury.

Juvy Sprint an inauspicious opener

The new Juvenile Sprint field makes for kind of an odd opener to the Breeders’ Cup festivities. Not only will no more than 10 go to the post, but the six-furlong race attracted mainly a mish mash of horses highlighted by a horse who could wind up the shortest BC favorite of the two days, despite having won only a listed stakes. The race failed to attract the winners of any of the recognized major six-furlong sprint stakes for juveniles, and can be summed up in a simple question: can anyone hope to outrun the Bob Baffert-trained bullet, Secret Circle, whose two Beyer speed figures dwarf all the others? It is highly unlikely if he runs anywhere close to those figures. In addition to Secret Circle, the race pretty much boils down to the first three finishers of the revamped Nashua Stakes (gr. II) and the second- and third-place finishers of the Kip Deville Stakes at Remington Park.

Why?

-- Why would Bob Baffert run The Factor in the Sprint (gr. I) when he has Euroears, and those two would likely kill each other off? Also, The Factor would be the controlling speed in the Dirt Mile (gr. I), assuming Sidney’s Candy goes in the Mile, which brings us to the next question.

-- Why would Sidney’s Candy run in the Dirt Mile when he’s been beaten a total of 68 lengths in his only two starts on dirt?

-- Why not run Switch in the Ladies Classic when she’s been a close second in two-turn races to Zenyatta, Blind Luck, and Havre de Grace? Then again, she’s also pretty darn good at seven furlongs. Tough decision.

-- Why can’t Caracortado win at five furlongs when he is undefeated in four starts going 6 ½ furlongs and shorter? He’s won at 4 ½ furlongs on dirt, six furlongs on synthetic and grass, and 6 ½ furlongs on synthetic.

-- Why isn’t anyone talking about Grace Hall in the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I)? All the talk is about My Miss Aurelia and Weemissfrankie, but this filly is also undefeated in three starts, also is a grade I winner, and has won going two turns under wraps.

-- Why can’t a filly win the Marathon this year? Meeznah has a ton of class and stamina, having won group races at 1 13/16 miles and 1 ¾ miles and was beaten a neck in last year’s English Oaks. And she is by Dynaformer.

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