Classic Analysis: Tonalist Still the Bet...But

Now that entries have been drawn, let’s get the final Breeders’ Cup Classic analysis in the books and then go over the rest of the Breeders’ Cup card later in the week and look for longshot specials to keep an eye on.

If you’re looking for reasons to bet American Pharoah and Beholder, and even Honor Code, this isn’t the place to come, although they certainly will be mentioned in the exotics plays. This is all about value.

We all know that the Classic is mostly about the showdown between American Pharoah and Beholder, but based on their projected odds, neither is going to be a bargain at the windows. Simply put, they are both going to be too short, whether you like them to win or not. At least they will be for anyone with a limited bankroll who is willing to take a chance and try to make some big bucks with another proven, top-class horse. And the purpose here is to find bargains, all rooting aside. From a wagering standpoint, there are a number of potential overlays in this field who should provide better value.

I’ve been saying all along that Tonalist (8-1 at Wynn Sports Book at 6-1 morning line) is the smart bet in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and looks like a potential overlay, even though I’m not crazy about him drawing post 1, especially as big a horse as he is. I have also said all along that I would feel more confident if the colt were getting blinkers back on, listing all the reasons I felt that way. But as of now it looks like he’ll be running without them, so scratch that angle.

All that is left now is to have faith in Chris Clement and John Velazquez, who both feel he does not need them. His performances on racetracks other than the mile and a half Belmont oval might say otherwise. It is very common for a 17.1 hands giant like Tonalist to excel on that big sweeping turn at Big Sandy, over which he is 5-for-7 and 1-for-7 at other racetracks. My feeling is, the blinkers can only help; they can’t hurt, judging from his races with blinkers and races in which he had a blinkers change, whether on or off.

But we are not deterred. Concerned a little, but not deterred. Despite the decision to go sans blinkers, I am going to let Tonalist’s class, consistency, stamina, and spectacular Thoro-Graph and Equibase speed figures dictate my betting strategy, not to mention that I simply like this horse a great deal, having seen him so often training at Belmont and especially Saratoga and marveled at his temperament and professionalism. When he gallops, he’s always into the bit and all business and makes a grand impression. In short, he has all the tools to win this, but they must be implemented.

With him likely going in blinkerless, he is going to have to depend on Velazquez, despite his sluggish starts on the colt in the Suburban and Whitney, to get him right into the bit out of the gate and hustle him into a favorable position in midpack. That became even more important when he dew the rail. With a huge, long-striding horse like Tonalist, you simply cannot waltz out of the gate without blinkers and expect him to put himself in the race. And you really don’t want him stuck in traffic, but he pretty agile for a big horse.

Once I see Tonalist some five to seven lengths off the lead and not slogging at the back of the pack 15 to 20 lengths behind the leaders and then having to try to out-close Honor Code, I will feel confident that he’ll be a major factor in the final furlong and be right there at the finish. But you can’t ignore his record away from Belmont. He needs to show some tactical speed.

One of the main reasons I like the colt, in addition to his many attributes, are his outrageously consistent and fast Thoro-Graph numbers. So as not to divulge any of Thoro-Graphs’ secrets, let’s just say that Beholder’s Pacific Classic was so far superior to any of her other figures she’s run during her career, before and after the Pacific Classic, one would come to the conclusion it had to be an aberration. And that figure was only a hair faster than American Pharoah’s career high. In both cases, their career high (on three combined occasions) was followed by a fairly significant decline.

In his five starts this year, Tonalist not only has run the exact same figure in every race, which is rare in itself, but that figure was higher than anything American Pharoah and Beholder has ever run. To run that fast every race and never “bounce” or even decline a smidgen indicates an immensely fast, talented, and consistent horse. All he needs is the right trip. Without blinkers to help him get that trip, he will have to rely solely on his rider to put him where he needs to be.

Clement had mentioned after his last work he was contemplating giving Tonalist a blowout one or two days before the race, which sounded like a good idea, especially now that he’s drawn the rail. Whether he will remains to be seen. I just want to see the colt as sharp as he can be. He’ll have to be if he’s going to put himself in position to catch American Pharoah, Beholder, and Smooth Roller, and get the jump on Honor Code, Keen Ice, and possibly Frosted and Gleneagles, both of whom should also be in midpack, not too far off the lead.

In summation, despite the minor concerns and questions I have regarding the scenario of the race and whether Johnny V will be able to put Tonalist in a position to win, I have to go with him as the value selection based on his having fewer question marks than the others and being the most consistently fast horse in the field. He looks like the safest bet, especially as an exotics play, and if he goes off at 6-1 or higher, that will be very enticing.

Beware of Jerkens

Now for the ‘But.’ If you’re a hopeless romantic and believe in the racing gods, how can you not put at least a saver on Effinex. Just imagine Jimmy Jerkens winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic the same year his Hall of Fame father passed away. Will the legendary Allen Jerkens pass on his legacy as “The Giant Killer” to his son? The elder Jerkens never won a Breeders’ Cup race, and what better time for Jimmy to win it for his dad. This is my longshot special.

The truth is, not a soul has even mentioned Effinex’s name when talking about the Classic. It’s as if he wasn’t even in the field or just an afterthought; an act of sheer folly, as reflected in his 30-1 morning line odds.

But before you laugh at the thought of this son of Mineshaft having any impact on the Classic, it must be noted that the two best races of his career, victories in the Suburban Handicap and Excelsior Stakes, were at a mile and a quarter, and he’s the only horse in the field to win mile and a quarter stakes at two different tracks – Belmont and the sharper-turned Aqueduct. In the Suburban he out-gamed Tonalist in the final sixteenth to win by a head. In the Excelsior he defeated the top-class Red Rifle and his grade I-winning stablemate Wicked Strong. In the 1 1/8-mile Woodward Stakes, Liam’s Map took the field on a merry chase and he raced evenly to finish fourth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths for second, coming off a two-month layoff. And in the Jockey Club Gold Cup he was closer to the pace than usual and finished a well-beaten third to Tonalist in the slop.

He does have his quirks and hang-ups, as demonstrated by his gate antics before the Woodward, blowing both turns and finally bolting in the Brooklyn Handicap and being eased, which totally puzzled Jerkens, and drifting out on the turn and in the stretch in the Gold Cup. But when he’s on his game and runs to his ability, he’s proven he can compete with the best of them and has demonstrated his courage under fire, especially going 1 1/4 miles. Jerkens is still bewildered by his occasional antics and might put a little more of a cup on the outside of his blinker, hoping it will help him pay more attention.

He has twice earned a 122 Equibase speed figure, one of them in the Suburban, which is 10 points higher than anything American Pharoah has ever run and eight points higher than Beholder earned in the Pacific Classic. He also earned a 118 figure in the Excelsior, and even in his defeats, his figs are equal to American Pharoah’s. He ran three straight negative Thoro-Graph figures before his last two starts, and showed his readiness by turning in a brilliant five-furlong work in 1:00 4/5 last week over a dull Belmont training track.

From a pedigree standpoint, his two grandsires are A.P. Indy, who won the BC Classic, and E Dubai, who sired BC Classic winner Fort Larned.

Finally, in his previous races, he’s been ridden by Rosario Montanez, Angel Arroyo, and Junior Alvarado. He gets Mike Smith in the Classic.

To add to the story, he was bred in New York by veterinarian Dr. Russell Cohen. It was Cohen who immediately after 9/11 purchased two dozen work gloves from True Value and several cases of soda, and brought them to the fire house on 48th Street and Seventh Avenue, which had lost 14 firefighters – one third of its entire crew. He also brought other goods to a police precinct in the Bronx. From 48th Street, he walked down to Canal Street, offering his services in case the police needed any assistance with their horses.

”There’s nothing much we can do, but every little bit helps,” Cohen said at the time. “I’ve done work for the ASPCA before, and was on the Animal Planet (network) once, so a lot of the people know me. I just found out that one horse owner, a member of a syndicate, was killed at the World Trade Center. And there’s probably more that we don't know about.”

Effinex is going to be a huge longshot in the Classic, but don’t underestimate this colt and the magic of the name Jerkens.

The ‘Other’ 3-Year-Olds

Will the Frosted be on the pumpkin on Halloween? Will Lexington see its first ‘Ice’ storm of the season? With all eyes on American Pharoah, let’s not forget there are two other 3-year-olds who are capable of upsetting the Classic, based on their previous battles with the Triple Crown winner.

Frosted is a difficult horse to handicap, having finished behind American Pharoah three times this year, employing different tactics each time. He is much better than his 3-for-12 lifetime record, and most important, he just keeps coming back for more and actually appears to thrive on racing, looking at a potential peak performance in the Classic.

To demonstrate the difference between Frosted and American Pharoah exiting the Travers, the Midsummer Derby apparently knocked American Pharoah out to the extent that it took him 23 days to get back on the work tab following an emotionally draining year and making his 13th transcontinental flight of the year. Frosted, who battled head and head with American Pharoah to the three-sixteenths pole before tiring slightly, was back racing only 21 days later and ran the best race of his life, winning the Pennsylvania Derby with a career-high Beyer figure and coming home his final eighth in :12 flat. The son of Tapit no doubt is a throwback with his toughness and durability.

It is not like McLaughlin to run a horse back that quickly, but McLaughlin’s brother and assistant, Neal, told him they couldn’t hold the horse on the ground. He was striking at his handler and Neal said they better do something with him before he “tears the barn down.” And this is right after his gut-wrencher in the Travers, which McLaughlin said actually took very little out of him, hence the term throwback.

Having watched his two works at the Greentree training track at Saratoga, he looked great visually, especially his gallop-out, but it’s not easy getting a firm grasp of a workout when the horse is working right-handed instead of left-handed, something McLaughlin does at the private facility to change around their leads. He says most horses get injured in the left front and right hind, and one would conclude that this helps strengthen those legs by using them to change leads instead of the usual right lead change.

So, how does one assess Frosted’s chances? I decided the best way was to text McLaughlin’s assistant and sister-in-law Trish McLaughlin, who has been around Frosted since Florida and knows him as well as anyone. I knew, of course, she was going to say he’s doing great, so I had to use a more subtle approach. In the text, I asked her flat-out if Frosted is ready to freak in the Classic, already knowing her answer. But the key was to see how many exclamation points she would put after the word yes, if any. When I saw five exclamation points I knew just what her excitement level was and how good the horse is really doing.

Having been an admirer of Frosted since McLaughlin had a breathing procedure done on the colt back in Florida and put blinkers on him, I have to believe he is sitting on a big race. Whether he’s good enough to beat American Pharoah, Beholder, Honor Code, Tonalist, and Keen Ice I have no idea. But they will know he’s in the race, and after his Travers suicide mission, you can expect to see him in a more strategic position, hopefully like Tonalist somewhere in midpack, not too far off the lead.

As for Keen Ice, he is another who thrives on racing and is improving with every start, but we really don’t know how good he is and if he can beat American Pharoah again without having the perfect setup he had in the Travers.

As great as American Pharoah is, I’m still not sure a mile and a quarter is his best distance, having come home in :26 and change in both his starts at 10 furlongs, losing once and having to battle hard to hold off Firing Line by a length in the Kentucky Derby. Yes, he won the Belmont, but loping along on an uncontested lead going a mile and a half at Belmont against horses who basically want no part of a mile and a half is a lot easier on a horse than a tough mile and a quarter, especially in a 20-horse field on the first Saturday in May and on a demanding surface like Saratoga, and especially for a horse who has as efficient stride as Pharoah and is so light on his feet.

Trainer Dale Romans said he still has never seen Keen Ice tired and obviously has never gotten to the bottom of him. And there is no doubt he is one horse who is on the improve and looks to be a superior 4-year-old in the making. But again, he did have the perfect setup in the Travers and will have to come home faster than he did at Saratoga.

The biggest recommendation is the colt’s last five-furlong workout, not so much the final time, but his monster of a gallop-out that suggests he is coming into the Classic on the muscle, exactly the way Romans wants him. I would have to say that was as impressive a gallop-out as I’ve seen in a long time, as he continued strongly past the finish line and would not slow down, whizzing by gallopers down the backstretch. Long after horses normally pull up after a work, Keen Ice was still rumbling along with no intention of slowing down. When exercise rider Tammy Fox saw he still wasn’t slowing down nearing the half-mile pole, a full mile and an eighth from the start of the work, she stepped firmly on the brakes, raising herself up and pulling back hard, with the reins tight and fully extended. It finally took the outrider coming over and grabbing hold of him to get him to come to a stop. By now he was already on the far turn. He certainly looked like a horse who willingly would have gone around again. He walked back with his head up, bright and alert, and tail occasionally swishing, like a horse who had just been out for an easy gallop.

Again, we don’t know how he stacks up against the older horses of if he can beat American Pharoah and Frosted under different circumstances. But we do know this horse, like Frosted, could not be doing any better.

More Question Marks

As if we needed more questions to ponder, do we really know how good Smooth Roller is, and why he hasn’t done more in the mornings since arriving at Keeneland? He had one excellent work at Santa Anita Oct. 17 before shipping to Keeneland, but has rarely been seen doing anything of note since. And his trainer Victor Garcia said he will not have another work before the Classic.

Smooth Roller has had his share of physical problems, such as a shoulder injury, bucked shins, and a tibia problem, which delayed his career debut until late June of his 4-year-old year.

One note about this colt. After watching him totally dominate Hoppertunity and Bayern in the Awesome Again and make last year’s Classic winner look slow, running him into the ground after tracking him the whole way, I couldn’t help but notice how strongly he galloped out after the race. I decided to put a stopwatch on him galloping out and clocked him five times, getting the same gallop-out time on each occasion. According to my watch, Smooth Roller galloped out a mile and a quarter in 2:01 flat, and even though it was on a different track, I don’t expect the Classic to be run much faster than that. That leads me to believe that just maybe we have a budding star on our hands who is improving at an alarming rate, his Beyer numbers jumping from a 93 and 94 to a 111.

What has always impressed Garcia is the way that Smooth Roller looks to be just galloping along, but is going much faster than it appears. In one of his early works prior to his debut, he went a half in :47 4/5, five-eighths in :58 3/5, galloping out in 1:11 4/5. That’s when Garcia told the owner he had something good. Many times Garcia would look at his stopwatch and be shocked how fast the horse had gone. And the longer he went the more impressive he was. For a 17.1 hands horse, he’s very athletic, and you could see that from the way he hugged the rail on both turns in his last work.

But he’s only run four times in his life and it is asking a lot of a horse with so little experience to handle these kinds of horses going a mile and a quarter. He maiden win was spectacular in the way he exploded in the final furlong to win going away. In his second start, he lost the lead by a full length in the stretch, but battled back to eke out a gutsy victory. Then in the Henry Brubaker he lost it before the race, washing out and unseating his rider before stumbling coming out of the gate and going five and six-wide on both turns. He still managed to finished fourth, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. Good luck trying to figure out what to with him in your betting strategy.

Although Garcia said he would love to see American Pharoah and Beholder go head to head, he added that if they both take back it would be fine with him if Smooth Roller went for the lead and then tried to slow the pace down. One thing is for sure, no one is going to be paying much attention to him, with all eyes on the two favorites and their eyes on each other. That’s when you have a recipe for an upset, when you have a longshot on the lead who is fast, talented, and has more than enough stamina to get the distance.

Moving on to Gleneagles, my previous column goes into detail on him, and if there is an unknown quantity in this field it is the English and Irish 2,000 Guineas winner. Your best reason for trying to spring the big upset with him is his class, his mile speed over three of the more testing courses in Europe, and his relentless closing power. Whether he can duplicate it on dirt at a mile and a quarter just two weeks after having finished sixth in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes off a long layoff is anyone’s guess. But it is Aidan O’Brien, and as mentioned in my column, one of these years the racing gods are going to smile down on him in the Classic.

There isn’t much I can say about Honor Code that isn’t common knowledge. He is an explosion waiting to happen and he has the ability to blow any race to smithereens, like he did in the Met Mile, although his best races, with the exception of the Whitney, have been around one turn. Can he come from 15 to 20 lengths out of it and beat these horses? It all depends on the pace setup and how much the others come back to him in the stretch. He is untested at a mile and a quarter and the question with him is whether he can ignite that same explosive run at that distance. Unless American Pharoah is so fresh and sharp after a nine-week layoff he has to be let loose by Espinoza and goes on to set a fast pace, there doesn’t seem like a lot of early speed in here with Liam’s Map’s defection to the Dirt Mile.

If you want a reason to bet him as the likely third choice, it is this quote from the normally conservative McGaughey, who usually keeps his enthusiasm in check.

"You never know, but (his third in the Kelso) could have helped him—maybe pushed him forward,” McGaughey told “I think his last three weeks have been the best three weeks I have seen him have.

"One day, we had to bring him in (from grazing) because he was playing and raising hell. One day, he reared up in the shed. Things like that I have never seen him do before.”

Never seen him do before – encouraging words you always want to hear, especially from someone like McGaughey. Imagine a son of the pensioned A.P. Indy winning the Classic an amazing 23 years after his sire won it.

The Bet

So, now you can dive into the past performances with a decent idea who the value plays might be, whether you want to try to beat American Pharoah and Beholder or find a horse or two to play with them in the exotics.

The win bet here is Tonalist, despite several concerns, and you can save by putting him under the two favorites, who are both training lights out. I also will bet Effinex to win just in case. Hey, you never know, and, yes, I’m a hopeless romantic. Frosted and Keen Ice are not that far off American Pharoah and appear to be crawling out of their skin, and if you feel the Triple Crown winner is making one trip too many (28,000 miles) and are concerned about the nine-week layoff and whether he may have peaked already, you can be really bold and box them and Effinex with Tonalist in the exactas and trifectas.

You can also go that same route if you feel Beholder’s Pacific Classic was too freakish a performance and can’t be duplicated, and you are not crazy about her coming down with a shipping fever, which shouldn’t really affect her performance. And you can go that route if you feel Honor Code will not be as effective at 1 1/4 miles and will find it difficult to come from so far back. And if you’re concerned about Smooth Roller’s lack of serious training at Keeneland and all the questions surrounding Gleneagles. And you doubt Hard Aces is good enough.

If you're not into the exotics and are looking to make money betting straight win, Keen Ice and Frosted can also make interesting win bets. I will leave Gleneagles and Smooth Roller to your imagination, although as a fan of Aidan O'Brien and an admirer of his and Coolmore's sportsmanship regarding the Classic, I have to put a win bet on Gleneagles, but am not suggesting anyone else does. They've come so close and you just never know. Gleneagles is a very talented horse, as unknown on dirt as he may be. And he gets Lasix for the first time. As for Smooth Roller, he is going to be a major force in the older horse division. We just don't know when he's going to reach his peak performance.

But in summarizing, Tonalist, Frosted, Keen Ice, and Effinex make a pretty wild exacta and trifecta box if you want to take a real stab for the fun of it to try to make a killing. Remember, we’re strictly looking for value and a good sized payoff. Most of you will be rooting for American Pharoah and/or Beholder, and if either wins you’ll be so happy and excited your wager will not matter that much in the grand scheme of things.

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