Mid-Year Look at the BC Classic

No one is expecting all the big names in racing to make the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but one can always hope, especially when you have a year like this with such a wide variety of talent gearing up for a run at America’s richest horse race.

Here then is the Classic dream field that potentially could be assembled at Santa Anita on Nov. 5. With almost every major contender having the same or similar running style, which is speed or stalking, it could make for some interesting riding strategies.

1—CALIFORNIA CHROME – Although he has not accomplished much in America this year, having spent a good portion of the winter in Dubai, and is pointing for the grade II San Diego Handicap at Del Mar July 23, his stunning victory in the Dubai World Cup left little doubt that he has matured into a brilliant, professional racehorse at age 5. And his reputation certainly was boosted when World Cup fifth-place finisher Frosted returned in the Met Mile and scored one of the most stunning victories seen in years. California Chrome, who still has a huge devoted following, will be the headliner in the Classic, just as American Pharoah was last year, and this is a far better horse now at age 5 than when he won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Santa Anita Derby. And he returns to the friendly confines of Santa Anita, where he almost pulled off the 2014 Classic, losing in a three-horse blanket finish, despite coming into the race off only one subpar effort in the Pennsylvania Derby in five months following his foot injury in the Belmont Stakes. With his stalking ability and high cruising speed, he keeps himself out of trouble and then uses his turn of foot to put his opponents away. The San Diego will be no walk in the park, especially for a prep for the Pacific Classic, but is just a small step toward far bigger things. Chrome is an excellent example of how many top horses, despite accomplishing great things at 3, don’t reach the apex of their career until 4 and 5.

2—FROSTED – The question everyone is asking after the Met Mile is where did that performance come from? Although he’s always been a classy horse, he has never given even the slightest indication he was capable of such a Herculean effort. This wasn’t one of the better fields assembled for the Met Mile, but his 14 1/4-length devastation in a spectacular 1:32 2/5 and final quarter in :23 1/5 was other worldly and still defies explanation. He did beat up on a decent field in the grade II Maktoum Challenge (Round Two) as a prep for the World Cup, but could do no better than fifth, beaten five lengths by California Chrome, in the big race. He showed in last year’s Belmont Stakes he loves Belmont Park and no doubt was happy to be home. Some have wondered if he will now switch his objective to the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, but that would be ludicrous to even consider. Despite his poor effort in last year’s BC Classic following a long hard campaign, he showed in the Belmont Stakes that 1 1/4 miles certainly is well within his scope, finishing second in one of the fastest Belmonts ever run. In fact, of those who ran a faster Belmont than American Pharoah – Secretariat, Easy Goer, A.P. Indy. Point Given, and Risen Star – only Risen Star came home his final quarter faster than Frosted, in finishing second. He also closed fastest of all to finish fourth, beaten 3 1/4 lengths, in the Kentucky Derby. Also, let’s remember that a mile at Santa Anita is run around two turns and is not a true mile that tests a horse’s speed, toughness, and stamina, and can be decided by post position. If Frosted shows in the Whitney that the Met Mile was no aberration, then we’re talking serious contender in the Classic.

3—BEHOLDER – Many might feel that, based on last year’s sensational victory in the Pacific Classic, Beholder should be considered the main threat to California Chrome. But a year later, and now a 6-year-old, does this great mare have another performance like that in her? Considering she inhaled her field in a matter of seconds with a breathtaking move on the turn and ran the 1 1/4 miles in a blazing 1:59 3/5, no one is really expecting her to duplicate that. Let’s first see how she performs in the Clement Hirsch and whether trainer Dick Mandella decides to run her back in three weeks. The few mares that race to this age normally lose a step or two by now, but Beholder, thanks to a fairly moderate number of career starts and a superior training job by Mandella, has shown no signs of slowing down. But if she follows the same path this year and points for the Pacific Classic, she’ll be facing far better horses in California Chrome, Dortmund, and Firing Line than she did last year, and that will tell us if she has maintained her explosive brilliance at age 6. We’ll see if this time she waits for the BC Classic to try the boys again, considering she didn’t make the race last year. By winning the Vanity Mile she became the first female in history to win grade I stakes in five consecutive years – 2,3,4,5, and 6; a truly remarkable achievement. She does have a big advantage with the Breeders’ Cup being run at Santa Anita this year, so she doesn’t have to risk shipping again, something that has not worked out in the past. Missing her showdown with American Pharoah in last year’s Classic due to a fever was a bitter disappointment and altered the entire complexion of the race. The main goal right now is to keep her healthy until November 5.

4—NYQUIST – Although there is always the question of how a good 3-year-old will do against top-quality older horses, at this point we still have to remember he is seven-for eight lifetime and his final time of 2:01 1/5 in the Kentucky Derby is the fastest in the last 13 years, and that’s after pressing a scorching pace of :22 2/5, :45 3/5, and 1:10 2/5. His only defeat came over a quagmire in the Preakness, in which he set the fastest opening quarter in the 140-year history of the race and still tried hard to battle back after being passed by the mud-loving Santa Anita Derby winner Exaggerator, runner-up in the Kentucky Derby. Five of the horses he defeated at Churchill Downs have come back to win stakes, and one was beaten a nose in the Belmont Stakes. He has competed at six different distances from five furlongs to 1 1/4 miles at six different racetracks all over the country, and until the Preakness had proven to be virtually impossible to pass. How he’ll do against the top older horses is anyone’s guess, but he still ranks at the top of the 3-year-old division and we’ll know a lot more after he returns, most likely in the Haskell Invitational. There has been talk about staying home and running in the San Diego, but it's hard to pass up a $1 million race like the Haskell to run in a grade II against California Chrome, Dortmund, and Firing Line. He's done a lot of traveling, so we'll see what they decide.

5—DORTMUND – With him and Firing Line it is pure speculation, and both their rankings are based on potential and how they will return off injuries. Judging by what we have seen from them, it would not come as a surprise to see them shoot up the list of Classic contenders. Although I am a huge admirer of Firing Line, based on what I saw at Churchill Downs last year, Dortmund has a bit more upside at this time, having won two stakes since the Preakness, including a 4 1/2-length score in the Native Diver Stakes at Del Mar last fall, while Firing Line has not yet returned from his Preakness debacle. These two colts have already developed a tremendous rivalry going back to their gut-wrenching finishes in the Los Alamitos Futurity and Robert B. Lewis Stakes, with Dortmund winning by a head each time. As a consolation prize, Firing Line got the better of Dortmund in their 2,3 finish behind American Pharoah in the Kentucky Derby. Both colts, like all the major contenders, want to be on or near the lead, which makes you think something has to give by the time Breeders’ Cup rolls around. Dortmund and Firing Line will have their chance to take on California Chrome right off the bat in the San Diego Handicap, and both can certainly be forgiven if they are not quite up to that task. But these are two gifted colts and should not be overlooked, regardless of who they’re up against. The bottom line is we have no idea what is going to emerge at Del Mar. If they come back firing on all cylinders, then we may have quite a battle to look forward to.

6—FIRING LINE – Much of what needs to be said about him was said above, but despite his two earlier defeats at the hands of Dortmund, he ran the race of his life in the Kentucky Derby when he pushed American Pharoah to a one-length decision, despite having to put the pace-setting Dortmund away, with American Pharoah breathing down his neck, and never changing leads in the stretch. He was tenacious down the stretch and wouldn’t let American Pharoah shake loose. He couldn’t overcome bad post, a bad stumble coming out of the gate, and a wide trip in the Preakness. He wound up suffering a foot injury when he stumbled and has not run since. And it is because of the 14-month layoff that he is ranked just behind Dortmund, as he has more to prove than his rival. But if both these exceptionally talented colts return to their early career form it wouldn’t come as a surprise to see a changing of the guard by November. However, they first have to show they can compete with California horses like California Chrome and Melatonin before they get down to serious business in the Classic.

7—MELATONIN – He has now proved on two occasions that his dominating victory in the Santa Anita Handicap was no fluke. He ran well enough against Effinex when second in the Oaklawn Handicap and showed his gameness winning the Gold Cup at Santa Anita this weekend. The only reason he’s No. 7 and not higher is he still has to show what he can do against better horses than he’s been facing. Beating 24-1 Win the Space, Hard Aces, and Hoppertunity in the Gold Cup is a far cry from beating those mentioned above him. What was most impressive was his ability to rate off a horse, as he settled nicely in second behind a relatively slow pace set by longshot Lieutenant Colonel. It must be said, however, that he did show the ability to rate in lesser races at shorter distances before his breakout performance in the Big Cap, in which he wired his field. You also had to be impressed with his final two quarters in :24 flat and :24 1/5 in completing the mile and a quarter in a lively 1:59.79. It makes you wonder how improved Win the Space is. I was also impressed with the fact that he carried nine pounds more in the Gold Cup than he did in the Big Cap and five pounds more than he did in his second-place finish to Effinex in the Oaklawn Handicap. But now it’s time to move up and show he can handle the best of the best. By sprinter Kodiak Kowboy, out of a mare by miler Yankee Victor, to say he has outrun his pedigree is an understatement, although there is stamina farther back in his pedigree. As of now, it is very possible he will skip the Pacific Classic and a chance to sweeptold older horse Triple and will wait for the Awesome Again Stakes. He's not a big horse and trainer Dave Hofmans says he'd like to give him some time off over the summer. He certainly has enough miles under him, as well as a trip to Oaklawn.

8—EXAGGERATOR – As good as he looked in the Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby, and Preakness, his performance in the Belmont Stakes was very disappointing. Whether it was his dislike for Belmont Park’s sandy surface and sweeping turns or simply feeling the effects of the Triple Crown campaign, the fact is he came up totally empty at the head of the stretch. Perhaps it was his uneven work before the race, in which he messed up his leads on the turn, that was a portent of things to come. To his credit, he has shown on more than one occasion that he is a tough, versatile, and talented horse whose best efforts have come when he’s allowed to sit far off the pace and use his dynamic turn of foot. That kind of running style is not conducive to the Belmont Stakes. Also, although he did run huge finishing a fast-closing second in the Kentucky Derby, he two best races this year have come in the slop, and there was a lot of standing water on the track at Churchill Downs following a quick but torrential downpour just before the Derby. So, although I’ve always been a big fan of this horse and his ability to adapt to anything thrown at him, I just want to see one more effort like we saw in the Santa Anita Derby and Preakness, but on a fast track, because he’s not likely to get a wet track in the Classic.

9—CREATOR – I believe this horse is better than most people think. What separates him from the other late closers in this year’s 3-year-old crop is his ability to get rolling earlier than the others, putting himself in a position to win. Although he has come from as far back as 15 to 20 lengths, he had a clear lead at the eighth pole when he broke his maiden, was a neck back at the eighth pole when he won the Arkansas Derby, and was 1 1/2 lengths back when he won the Belmont Stakes. That makes him an extremely dangerous closer in a race with the leading contenders all wanting to be on or near the pace. Of course, it must be noted that in his victories in the Arkansas Derby and Belmont Stakes you could not have scripted a more perfect trip, in which he saved all the ground on the turn and then found a seam to ease out and launch his bid. In the one race he was no factor – a 13th-place finish in the Kentucky Derby – he had the worst trip of anyone, getting wiped out while making his move at the head of the stretch. Things have a way of equaling out in racing, and his last three races are proof of that. I still can’t help but think back to his maiden victory when he finally became a racehorse after five failed attempts. The way he exploded past horses, going from 11th to first with a huge sweeping move, was an indicator of what was to come. Give him a fast, contentious pace and a clean trip and watch out. I don’t think we’ve seen the best of this horse.

10—DESTIN – I had him ranked No. 2 on my Derby Dozen based on his impressive victories at Tampa Bay and just the way he did it and how much he had improved mentally from his earlier races. But it was discovered that in the Tampa Bay Derby he had taken a wrong turn on Ragozin Road, and, by improving his speed figure way too much too soon it was decided to skip his final prep and go straight into the Kentucky Derby off an unprecedented eight-week layoff and never having run farther than 1 1/16 miles. Although it gave him too high a mountain to climb at Churchill, it did at least assure them they would have a horse for the Belmont Stakes and wouldn’t knock him out running him before the Derby. In short, he peaked way too early, which is not want you want to do on the Derby trail. As it turned out, Destin ran a respectable sixth in the Derby and that set him up for a huge effort in the Belmont five weeks later, in which he tracked the leader, opened a clear lead in midstretch, and was just nosed right on the wire by Creator in a heartbreaking, but courageous, defeat. Now that Destin is back on course, has shown he’s as fast or faster than any other 3-year-old, and can easily handle the mile and a quarter, there is no telling what he can accomplish. But again, he’s dealing with the fact that he has the same running style as all the contenders, so he’ll have to be able to adjust. It will be interesting to see how these 3-year-olds sort themselves out. He is another who should only keep improving in the big summer stakes.

11—EFFINEX – His resume certainly qualifies him to be placed higher, especially his second in last year’s Classic, two victories at 1 1/4 miles in the Suburban and Excelsior Handicaps, and victories in the Clark and Oaklawn Handicaps. But then he went and ran an uninspired sixth in the Stephen Foster, as if he would have rather been sleeping in his stall at 10:30 at night. We’ve seen him run dull races in the Woodward and Jockey Club Gold Cup and we’ve seen him bolt on the turn and ease himself out of the race in the Brooklyn Handicap. So, in short, you really don’t know what you’re going to get from him. He did string four impressive races together leading up to the Foster, in which he was made the overwhelming 3-5 favorite. He’s not a horse with a big turn of foot; he is more of a grinder who likes to sit a couple of lengths off the pace and wear down his opponents. He’s capable of running with anyone on his best day, he runs consistent triple-digit Beyers, and his best numbers are far faster than any of the 3-year-olds, but you just don’t know when that best day is going to come.

12—GUN RUNNER – A stablemate of Creator, you can bet trainer Steve Asmussen is going to keep them separated and will run Gun Runner in the Haskell and Creator in the Jim Dandy. Gun Runner has proven on several occasions he is extremely talented and consistent and keeps mowing down his opponents in spite of his erratic lead changing. You never know when he’s going to fail to change leads or jump back to his left lead in the stretch. It certainly hasn’t affected his performance, but after his victory in the Matt Winn Stakes against a weak field, it’s time to return to the upper echelon, where he has already proven himself by easily winning the Louisiana Derby and then finishing a game third in the Kentucky Derby. I don’t know how he stacks up with the best 3-year-olds, but he showed in the Kentucky Derby he can certainly put a scare in anyone, as he hit the front turning for home and then hung tough in the stretch. He has had nothing but dream trips this year, so it’ll be interesting to see what he does if he encounters adversity. He is another with excellent tactical speed and can carry it a distance.

13—FAR FROM OVER – This is a bit of a stretch considering he’s had only three starts in his career, winning them all, but in all three he’s shown something different, and his exciting victory in last year’s Withers Stakes after a horrible start showed he has the ability to overcome adversity, and do so off only one start; a narrow maiden victory. Sidelined for a year and a half after the Withers, he returned in a 1 1/16-mile allowance optional claimer and was bet down to 4-5. Despite the long layoff, he tracked a sizzling pace, sitting two lengths off a :44 4/5 half and running his second quarter in :22 flat. He then cut to the inside and powered home by 1 1/2 lengths in a sharp 1:41 2/5. So although he has steep hill to climb to get back into the big time, this was a huge step in the right direction, and we really have no idea how good this horse is. He has a pedigree breeders would drool over, so we’ll just have to wait and see where he shows up next and how he fares against far better horses. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, has an arsenal of talented older horses and 3-year-olds in addition to him and Destin that includes Anchor Down, Stanford, Blofeld (the last two distanced in the Met Mile), Stradivari, Outwork, and Pegasus Stakes winner Donegal Moon, so he has a lot of sorting out to do. Stradivari has  a bright future, as does Outwork, but the latter has to recover first from tough efforts in the Tampa Bay Derby and Wood Memorial off only two career starts and then being thrown into the Kentucky Derby. He had just done too much too soon. He could show up in the Dwyer Stakes.

For the 14th and final spot, you can take your pick among Mohaymen, Shaman Ghost, Hoppertunity, Eagle, Hard Aces, Majestic Harbor, Stradivari, Suddenbreakingnews, Cherry Wine, Brody’s Cause, Mo Tom, Governor Malibu, Mor Spirit, My Man Sam, and Economic Model. Of these, I’m expecting a big second half of the year from Mohaymen, the emergence of Shaman Ghost as a leading mile and a quarter horse, and also the emergence of Arrogate as a new threat in the 3-year-old division. Shaman Ghost would move into the top 14 with a big effort in the Suburban. I’ll also include Sir Barton winner American Freedom if he can handle a fast track as well as he does the slop. The last two are trained by Bob Baffert. Two other potential star 3-year-olds are Gift Box and Connect, who are nominated to the Dwyer. But the 3-year-olds in general have not run fast speed figures and have a great deal of catching up to do if they are going to be competitive with the older horses.

Watch out for some of these to be pointed for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, and that includes Stephen Foster winner Bradester, a front runner who does not appear to be up to taking on all these fast classy horses when he has the two-turn Dirt Mile right in his wheelhouse. Another major stakes winner, Pimlico Special winner Noble Bird, also looks more suited for the Dirt Mile after getting trounced by Frosted in the Met Mile. He will appreciate the two turns much more. But first he'll get another chance to stretch out in the 1 1/4-mile Suburban Handicap. 

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