Early Lowdown on the BC Classic

With only one prep to go for all the Breeders’ Cup Classic hopefuls, and with a lull in the action, this seems like a good time to get an early glimpse at how the race might shape up and what each horse has to do to give him the best chance of winning and what he has to avoid.

There is an old adage in advertising, which goes: “Sell the sizzle not the steak.” You can always expect a steak in the Classic, but only on rare occasions do you get the sizzle leading up to the event. This year, the sizzle is California Chrome and Shared Belief.

There are two types of rivalries in racing – rivalries of the battlefield and rivalries of the mind. The battlefield rivalries are the ones where the two antagonists have already staged memorable duels and are looking to decide once and for all who the true champion is. You know those kinds – Affirmed and Alydar, Dr. Fager and Damascus, Sunday Silence and Easy Goer, Silver Charm and Free House, Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, Alysheba and Bet Twice, and Kelso and Gun Bow.

Then there are rivalries of our imagination – two horses traveling on parallel roads who we yearn to see cross paths. All we can do is envision what a battle between them would be like. Those phantom rivalries that stirred the imagination but never materialized include Zenyatta and Rachel Alexandra, Curlin and Big Brown, Buckpasser and Graustark, and to some degree Holy Bull and Cigar, who did square off, but only for a half-mile before Holy Bull broke down, leaving us to speculate to this day who would have won that Donn Handicap.

So, will California Chrome and Shared Belief provide us with a budding rivalry, beginning in the Classic or will they fall into that second category and leave us wondering? Even if they win their respective final preps and meet only that one time in the Classic it would capture the public’s imagination and set the stage for an epic Breeders’ Cup.

Can anyone remember two 3-year-olds facing each other for the first time in the Classic with this much on the line? Perhaps Fusaichi Pegasus and Tiznow? We remember Alysheba and Ferdinand in the first BC Classic battle of Kentucky Derby winners. We remember Seattle Slew and Affirmed in the first ever battle of Triple Crown winners in the Marlboro Cup. But those were 3-year-olds vs. older horses.

California Chrome was truly America’s horse throughout the Triple Crown and one of the most popular athletes, human or equine, in the country during those five weeks. The story of this California-bred, winner of the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Santa Anita Derby, touched people, many of whom latched on to the handsome chestnut like barnacles to a ship, calling themselves “Chromies.”

Shared Belief, last year’s champion 2-year-old, owned in part by noted TV sports host Jim Rome, looked to be destined for great things until an injury knocked him off the Derby trail. It had to be tough in some ways on the gelding’s connections to see another California horse come along to steal the glory that was meant for him. Given time to recover, he has returned with three sensational victories, including a track record performance in the Los Alamitos Derby and a powerful score over Game On Dude and other top-class older horses in the rich Pacific Classic.

On the latest NTRA poll, Shared Belief is tied for second with California Chrome in number of first-place votes behind two-time reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan and ahead of California Chrome in total number of points.

One factor involved is California Chrome’s absence from racing and the national spotlight since his troubled fourth-place finish in the Belmont Stakes, in which he was injured at the start of the race when another horse stepped on the back of his ankle, ripping off a good chunk of skin.

California Chrome, who recently turned in a brilliant six-furlong work between races at Los Alamitos, is scheduled to make his return to the races in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing outside Philadelphia, former home of 2004 racing idol Smarty Jones. Shared Belief will remain in California to again face older horses in the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

If both horses emerge from those races untainted and unscathed, then the Breeders’ Cup Classic will have its sizzle, in what should be one of the most anticipated showdowns in years.

So, as of now, how does each horse fit in this year’s Classic, which lacks an older superstar, but as usual will draw several top-class horses, including several other 3-year-olds who will be formidable foes?

California Chrome’s strength is his tactical speed and ability to accelerate with enough power at the right time to blow a race open quickly. However, he has not had to do that against the quality of competition he’ll be facing in the Classic, especially with the number of talented horses with front-running and tactical speed that are pointing for the race. In the Derby and Preakness, California Chrome’s powerful turn of foot nearing the quarter pole enabled him to open big leads in mid-stretch. But in both races, his margin of victory was less than his margin at the eighth pole, so that would be a concern when classy stretch runners come charging at him in the final furlong. It is, however, unlikely he will be able to spurt away from horses like Shared Belief, Game On Dude, Moreno, and Itsmyluckyday, all of whom have either front-running or tactical speed, so, timing is very important.

That’s not to say that California Chrome doesn’t have the ability to crush his opponents. He won the Santa Anita Derby by 5 1/4 lengths, the San Felipe Stakes by 7 1/4 lengths, the Cal Cup Derby by 5 1/2 lengths, and the King Glorious Stakes by 6 1/4 lengths. He’s also won at seven different distances from 4 1/2 furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, at five different racetracks, so he’s more than adaptable to pace, distance, and surface. And he is extremely professional when it comes to the important basics, such as switching leads smoothly and keeping a straight course down the stretch.

For California Chrome, it is all about fitness and timing his move right. He will need a fairly stiff test in the Pennsylvania Derby in order to win the Classic off one race in five months. But the Shermans have tightened the screws with some long, fast works and he does have plenty of bottom from the first half of the year and last year. Without having a break from his career debut to the Belmont, he needed that time off, and could return a sharper horse than he was in the Triple Crown.

Shared Belief at this point in his career appears to have no weaknesses, and no one has been able to make him dig down, so we don’t even know how deep his reservoir is. He has run six times at five different distances from six furlongs to 1 1/4 miles, and has won them all with relative ease. And, like California Chrome, he runs nearly the exact same race each time. He’s averaged over six lengths a victory sprinting and over four lengths a victory in two-turn races.

Also, like California Chrome, he can beat you on the lead if he has to or he can beat you laying off the pace. While California Chrome’s best races are when he’s within two to three lengths of the lead, Shared Belief showed he can win coming from as far back as seven lengths, as he did in the Pacific Classic when Game On Dude and Mystery Train went out there on a suicide mission. He also demonstrated a lightning-fast turn of foot, inhaling Game On Dude at the quarter pole and then drawing off from a classy synthetic specialist, the globe-trotting Toast of New York, winner of the UAE Derby in Dubai. So it appears he will be less affected by the pace. Whether it’s fast or slow he can adapt.

He does have an advantage having beaten older horses already in grade I company, but five of his six starts, including the Pacific Classic, have been on a synthetic surface. He was extremely impressive beating Candy Boy on the dirt at Los Alamitos, but we will want to see how he does on the dirt at a major track like Santa Anita when he goes in the Awesome Again.

If both these 3-year-olds are on top of their game on Nov. 1, there is no reason to think they won’t put on a memorable show, even though there are a number of others in the race who will have a lot to say about that.

Another unknown factor regarding these two exceptional horses is how they will respond in a good old fashioned street fight. Neither of them has been involved in a photo. Horses like Will Take Charge, Moreno, Itsmyluckyday, Game On Dude, Wicked Strong, Tonalist, and V.E. Day are all battle-tested in head-to-head combat and all have shown their courage under fire. So, no one is going to be backing down when California Chrome and Shared Belief mount their challenge.

We pretty much already know that Game On Dude, despite getting a bit long in the tooth at age 7 and having to have things go his way, and Moreno, a front-running brawler, will be eyeballing each other on the lead. How fast they go early and how much they take out of each other and those chasing them will determine their fate and the fate of the others.

Will Take Charge, who has been victimized several times by having to chase horses like Lea and Game On Dude in record-breaking performances, and who just missed taking last year’s Classic, may finally get a pace scenario that sets up well for his late run. If anyone makes a mistake early and expends too much energy, there are several who will be waiting to pounce on them in the stretch in addition to Will Take Charge.

It will be interesting to see how Majestic Harbor, runaway winner of the Gold Cup, responds to a return to the dirt in the Awesome Again after a dull, even effort on Polytrack in the Pacific Classic. And if the European-based Toast of New York shows up for the Classic, how will he take to the dirt?

We know that Whitney winner Moreno and three-time Big Cap winner Game On Dude are free-running horses who want to be on or near the lead. Moreno is capable of slowing the pace down and trying to steal it, but Game On Dude wants nothing to do with those tactics. With him, it’s ‘go’ and running his opponents into the ground with testing early fractions. But he prefers doing that as a solo act and not having some horse going out there hell bent for leather, as was the case in the Pacific Classic and Gold Cup. He and Moreno did hook up for most of the running in the Charles Town Classic and it cost both of them the race, as 26-1 shot Imperative came on late to pick up the pieces. Neither Game On Dude or Moreno is as effective chasing another horse, so that scenario seems pretty well set.

We know that California Chrome, Shared Belief, Woodward winner Itsmyluckyday, and Belmont Stakes winner Tonalist are most comfortable chasing the leader or leaders and staying in close attendance. But as mentioned earlier, Shared Belief is capable of coming from farther back and unleashing a rapid-fire move. We also have to keep an eye on Lea, the brilliant winner of the Donn Handicap in record time. But he hasn't run since, and having to play catch-up and missing the Woodward, the Dirt Mile might be an alternative. But he's a very talented horse with great tactical speed.

Wood Memorial winner and Travers runner-up Wicked Strong raced close to the pace in the Travers, but the feeling here is that he was taken out of his game, chasing Bayern and Tonalist, and that his best style is to make one run, as he did in the Wood Memorial, despite the addition of blinkers in the Jim Dandy that apparently have made him sharper.

And then there are the closers – Will Take Charge, Travers winner V.E. Day, Suburban Handicap winner Zivo, who was coming fast in the Woodward, Majestic Harbor, and Imperative, who occasionally picks up a piece of a big purse when there is a pace meltdown.

So, that’s where we stand at this point. All we can hope for is that we don’t have too many defections between now and Nov. 1, especially California Chrome and Shared Belief. Racing and the Classic need that sizzle.

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