Questions Facing Breeders' Cup Classic Horses

Well, all the Breeders' Cup preps are over, and now comes the waiting; first for the pre-entries, then the entries to determine the starting fields.

The biggest interest in the makeup of the Classic field will be whether Liam’s Map will try to stretch out to 1 1/4 miles or contest the Dirt Mile, which around two turns might as well be a mile and 70 yards or 1 1/16 miles. It is not a true mile. So even though the two turns likely would make him a virtual lock, the chances of him passing the Classic would appear to be extremely slim, so let’s consider him a Classic starter.

The presence of Liam’s Map would have a major impact on the Classic, as he would pose quite a problem for tactical speed horses like American Pharoah and Beholder, who would have their work cut out for them trying to track him and then overtake him and still have enough to fend off the closers.

We all are aware of the strengths of the Classic horses. But we have plenty of time to analyze that. To start off, perhaps it is best to discuss what each horse has to overcome and the question marks that surround them.

Those question marks do not indicate whether I like a particular horse’s chances. It is merely a devil’s advocate approach to demonstrate the obstacles each horse faces and the reasons why one should be a bit apprehensive in their handicapping approach and not take anything for granted.  

The following is not a ranking, just listed in their possible order of odds.

AMERICAN PHAROAH – Despite his extraordinary talent, flawless mechanics, and mental fortitude, he actually may have more to overcome than any of the top contenders, based on the path he has taken to get here. Because he ran in both the Haskell Invitational and Travers, flying back to California in between, there is no choice but to run him in the Classic off a two-month layoff. The only horse to win the Classic off a layoff of two months or longer is Invasor, and he was a hardened older veteran who had already won three grade I stakes in the U.S. that year and had swept the Uruguayan Triple Crown the year before. In addition, when American Pharoah arrives at Keeneland he will have made 14 plane trips this year, 11 of them cross-country, totaling some 28,000 miles. It’s a lot to ask of a 3-year-old to be in peak form in late October against the best horses in the country having had the most eventful and tumultuous, and in some ways mentally draining, year of any horse in memory.

His defeat in the Travers was the gutsiest race he’s ever run, considering it came following yet another cross-country flight, having just worked seven furlongs in 1:23 1/5 six days before the Travers, and then (in one person’s opinion) sealing his fate by galloping 1 1/4 miles the day before the race, going six seconds (2:24) faster than a two-minute lick (2:30). It is very possible, and maybe even likely, that gallop put him over the top. Then the horse (Frosted) he ran into the ground after being dogged the whole way came back three weeks later to win the grade II Pennsylvania Derby in impressive fashion. Did Victor Espinoza become too overconfident, not even bothering to have a mount on Travers day and getting a feel for a track he was unfamiliar with? Did he slow the pace down too much early, allowing Frosted to put all that pressure on him, which resulted in third and fourth quarters in a blistering :23 flat and :23 3/5? It was the pressure and those rapid quarters that finally did him in. Perhaps this jolt of reality will help Espinoza in the Classic. If Liam’s Map runs in the Classic, and with Beholder in the best form of her life, he will face a ton of pace pressure from those two, as well as the impressive Awesome Again winner Smooth Roller. Yes, he has shown he can rate just off the pace, but how relaxed will he be coming into the race off a two-month freshening? In short, he’s going to have his work cut out for him on all fronts from a logistics standpoint. If he wins this, clear an entire chapter for him in the history books.

BEHOLDER – Like American Pharoah, can she withstand the kind of pace pressure she’s going to face? To her credit, she was able to sit some four or five lengths off a scorching :45 2/5 half, and two lengths off a 1:09 4/5 three-quarters in the Pacific Classic, and from a visual standpoint she blew by the dueling Bayern and Midnight Storm like they were standing still. In actuality, they both had already begun their rapid retreat that would see them finish last and next-to-last, with Bayern beaten 22 1/2 lengths and Midnight Storm 36 3/4 lengths. But it was her :24 3/5 final quarter that was most impressive. But as we all know, beating Catch a Flight, Red Vine, Hoppertunity, and Imperative, and the weak group she defeated in the Zenyatta, is a far cry from what she’ll have to face in the Classic, and, remember, the only two times she’s left California, she was beaten, even though she did run very well in the Kentucky Oaks and Ogden Phipps.

We also have to remember that she made only three starts last year, and was not nearly as dominant in the 2014 Zenyatta or this year’s Adoration Stakes, so where did that Pacific Classic performance come from? Was it just one of those freaky performances that can never be duplicated? As a 5-year-old, can she maintain her current form against the best colts in the country? Before her Herculean effort in the Pacific Classic, you’d have been hard-pressed to find anyone who thought a Henny Hughes could win a grade I going 1 1/4 miles, never mind in the manner in which she won, which makes her performance all the more freaky. As we said about American Pharoah, if she can beat these big boys, it’s time to start mentioning her with the greatest fillies ever.

TONALIST – So which Tonalist will we see in the Classic—the non-blinkered, Belmont-loving, slop-loving Tonalist who dropped way out of it, or the blinkered Tonalist who possesses excellent tactical speed? Either one is a very good horse, but which one will be better suited for the Classic? Frankly, I still don’t know who this horse really is, because of his numerous equipment changes. Is he a better horse with blinkers off, or is he just a far superior horse racing in the slop at Belmont going 1 1/4 miles? He’s won four of his six starts with two strong seconds (6-4-2-0) at Belmont, but only has one victory in seven starts with two seconds and two thirds (7-1-2-2) away from Belmont. Also, he has four wins, three seconds, and a third in eight starts (8-4-3-1) with blinkers, and he has two wins, a second, and a third in six starts (6-2-1-1) without blinkers. He also is undefeated in two starts in the slop, winning by 4 lengths and 4 3/4 lengths. So his record indicates he is a horse who is better at Belmont Park, better with blinkers, and exceptional on a sloppy track. Now, where does that leave him in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland? 

We do know the blinkers enable him to race much closer to the pace, as he did in the Belmont, Peter Pan, Westchester, and Travers, while he’s come from very far back in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Jockey Club Gold Cup, Suburban, and Whitney without blinkers. As of now, trainer Christophe Clement is leaning toward keeping the blinkers off for the Classic, but wants to see how focused the colt is leading up to the race. Of course it would be great if one knew how hot the pace is going to be in the Classic, but Clement will just have to go with his gut feeling. If the pace in the Classic isn’t that fast, you sure don’t want Tonalist to have to come from the clouds as he did in last year’s Classic, in which he finished fifth. He actually was behind Honor Code at one point in the Whitney, which is remarkable in itself, and he was unable to out-close him. He also was unable to out-close him in the Met Mile. He would be extremely dangerous racing in midpack, but, frankly, he has me baffled. I still believe a return to blinkers in the Classic would sharpen him and put him in better position during the race, as many of his best races have come with an equipment change. He’s three-for-four, with a strong second, beaten a head, in races where the blinkers have come on or off. He always runs well and is a difficult horse to keep out of the exotics, but how do you get the very best out of him away from Belmont?

LIAM’S MAP – He could hold the key to the Classic. Although, like American Pharoah, he will be going into the Breeders’ Cup off a longer than usual layoff between races, he will be sharp and fresh, and good luck trying to keep him off the lead. With American Pharoah, you really don’t want him on the lead. This vastly improved colt possesses :46 and 1:10 speed and can keep going off it, but the fact is, he is one dimensional, and wiring the Woodward off a :47 2/5 half and being tracked by Bay of Plenty and Coach Inge is not quite the same as being tracked by American Pharoah and Beholder, and even Smooth Roller. But if you do let him get away with a :47 2/5 half as opposed to the :46 flat and 1:09 3/5 he ran in the Whitney, he can easily run you off your feet, as he did in the Woodward, coming home in :23 2/5, :24 flat, and :12 2/5. That’s a final five furlongs in :59 4/5. Try closing into those fractions.

Although, as mentioned in an earlier column, he has an amazing 14 horses in his pedigree who were bred by John Nerud, he is by Unbridled’s Song, out of a Trippi mare, and his second dam is by Great Above and he’s inbred to Ta Wee, so we’re talking a lot of speed in his immediate family. Because of that, there is a question of whether he will be as effective stretching out to 1 1/4 miles and being chased by a pair of future Hall of Famers, and that is why they are also considering the Dirt Mile, which would be tailor-made for him being run around two turns. But the Classic is still the race you have to shoot for, and that’s likely where he’ll show up, even with the possibility he won’t be as effective going that far. One advantage he does have over the others is the four weeks of training he’ll have over the track, working out the kinks, like tossing his head up and looking around early in his first work and then switching to his left lead in deep stretch, coming out of the shadow and into the sunlight. But he galloped out strong and was moving very smoothly.

HONOR CODE – Don’t pay too much attention to his non-threatening third-place finish in the Kelso. While it’s possible he didn’t handle the slop as well as he does a fast surface, the race did accentuate his vulnerability due to his running style. By racing six to seven lengths off the lead compared to his normal 15-20 lengths, he simply didn’t have the same explosive closing kick. So even if he reverts back to his old style in the Classic, can he he make up that much ground on these kinds of horses at a distance at which he’s never run? Although he just got up in the final strides to win the Whitney over Liam’s Map, who had expended his energy battling on the lead through very testing fractions, his best races have been around one turn, most notably his spectacular victory in the Met Mile.

With his penchant for dropping far off the pace and having to make up tons of ground in the stretch, he is always going to be dependent on pace and desperately needs for all the leading contenders to put the heat on each other early and in the middle of the race and post some rapid fractions that will leave them a bit leg weary in the final furlong. As mentioned, he’s never been 1 1/4 miles and trainer Shug McGaughey did not want to risk dulling him in any way by running in the 10-furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup and then having to come back with another 10-furlong race in the Classic. So, he prepped him in the one-turn Kelso Mile in order to keep him relatively sharp. Now it’s just a question of whether he can stretch out in distance and show that monster stretch kick and whether the top contenders will come back to him.

– With him it’s fairly simple. Is he improving at the rapid rate he appears to be—visually and statistically—or was he merely the beneficiary of a perfect setup in the Travers Stakes? Has he really improved that much on American Pharoah, who beat him by 9 3/4 lengths in the Kentucky Derby, 7 1/2 lengths in the Belmont Stakes, and 2 1/4 lengths in the Haskell Invitational when American Pharoah never came out of a gallop in the final three-sixteenths and was completely geared down? By perfect setup we mean American Pharoah and Frosted killing each other off with some wicked inner fractions and Texas Red suffering an injury. All Keen Ice had to do was sit four to five lengths behind the battling leaders and come home his final quarter faster than :26 2/5. They won’t be closing that slowly in the Classic, no matter how the race shapes up.

To his credit, he also had to run fast in the middle of the race to keep up, and his final time of 2:01 2/5 was one of the fastest Travers ever run. If this is mostly the result of steady and progressive improvement, then he should be a factor going 1 1/4 miles at Keeneland, especially with a contentious pace likely. But the fact is, we really have no idea, and you have to just choose one of the two scenarios to determine whether or not you like his chances. He does have Dale Romans going for him, and it would be wise to keep a close eye and ear on Romans’ enthusiasm meter and see where it is registering the week of the race. He pulls no punches and you’ll be able to hear it in his voice and his comments how good this colt is really doing. He has raced once at Keeneland, finishing fifth, beaten 13 1/2 lengths, in the Breeders’ Futurity last year, but he obviously is a far better horse now.

FROSTED – While the Travers apparently took a lot out of American Pharoah, this colt bounced right back and ran one of his most impressive races, winning the Pennsylvania Derby three weeks later, and he did it with authority. The mile and a quarter of the Classic should be to his benefit, and we’re probably just beginning to see his best. But the fact is, he’s been unable to beat American Pharoah, and will have to step it way up if he has any hope of beating these older horses. He was not ridden to instructions in the Travers, with a substitute rider up who had never ridden him before, but you can’t blame a jockey for riding aggressively and putting it all on the line. He did everything he could to try to break American Pharoah, even crowding him down on the rail. Would he have won had he laid several lengths back? There obviously is no way to tell. Chances are, Pharoah would have won again had he been allowed to be on an uncontested lead. He did come home his final eighth in :11 4/5 in the Pennsylvania Derby, and you can never really count him out. Credit Kiaran McLaughlin for keeping him in top form after eight starts this year, all grade I and grade II stakes, and never finishing off the board. But the bottom line is, he just hasn’t been as fast as the leading contenders and has won only two of his eight starts.

SMOOTH ROLLER – This is one horse I’m going to focus more on the positive, because he’s basically an unknown with so little racing, which could work against him in the Classic. He will be a big price in the Classic, but the feeling here is this is a much better horse than people might think, and his Awesome Again victory, in only his fourth career start, was statistically and visually impressive. He came home his final two fractions in :23 1/5 and :12 flat for a brilliant :35  1/5 final three-eighths, and powered past last year’s Classic winner Bayern like he was a lower class allowance horse, Granted, Bayern has seen much better days, and this was not a strong field by any means, but you had to love what you saw visually. He’s not a big long-striding horse, taking much shorter, quicker strides, but still generates a good deal of power, and his gallop-out was very strong.

In his first three generations are three horses—Unbridled, Hard Spun, and Turkoman—who finished first or second in the BC Classic. His tail-female line is extremely potent, with Fappiano and Nureyev in his third generation, His fourth dam, Betty’s Secret, is a half-sister to a French Derby winner, and Betty’s Secret is out of Betty Lorraine, a half-sister the Derby and Preakness winner Majestic Prince. His sire Hard Spun’s granddam is a half-sister to Preakness and Belmont winner Little Current, and he traces to two top producers, Thong and Alabama winner Natashka. But, once again, the Classic is a huge step up in class, and his inexperience could very well work against him. It’s a very tough assignment for such a lightly raced horse, but don’t be shocked to see him at least be competitive.

For now, we’ll hold off on horses like Irish-trained GLENEAGLES, winner of the English 2,000 Guineas, Irish 2,000 Guines, and St. James’s Palace Stakes, who hasn’t run since June 16; WICKED STRONG, EFFINEX, COACH INGE, and HARD ACES.

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