BC Classic: To Prep or Not to Prep

We have witnessed numerous changes in recent years in how horses are prepared for major races. Three-year-olds race so infrequently now, we hardly know anything about them when they get to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby, many coming off four-, five-, and six-week layoffs or more and having made only two starts at 3. Some go into the race off only three or four career starts.

With little interest nowadays in building a solid racing foundation prior to the Derby, is it merely a coincidence that seven of the last 10 Derby winners never won a race after the Triple Crown, and five of those seven never won a race after the Derby.

The question that has to be asked now is, are trainers beginning to take the same approach to the Breeders' Cup Classic, especially with the recent success of horses skipping the traditional Classic prep races and training up to the race?

Are we seeing a trend developing, with the Classic victories of American Pharoah in 2015, Arrogate in 2016, and Gun Runner in 2017? American Pharoah and Arrogate, both trained by Bob Baffert, scored impressive victories in the Classic having last raced in the Travers Stakes, while Gun Runner won the Classic not having run since the Woodward Stakes, the first horse to do so since the Woodward was moved to Saratoga and run closing weekend.

Prior to the victories of these three champions, the only horse to win the Classic without having raced after Labor Day was Hall of Famer Invasor, who went into the Classic off the Whitney at Saratoga in early August, and that was not an intended move by trainer Kiaran McLaughlin, who had to withdraw Invasor from the Jockey Club Gold Cup after the colt became ill several days before the race.

When the Woodward was run at Belmont in mid-September, it served as a steppingstone to the Classic for victors Saint Liam and Ghostzapper.

Although Classic winners have used many different final preps for the big race, they all made their final start from mid-September to early October, with the two main final preps being the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park and the Awesome Again Stakes (formerly the Goodwood) at Santa Anita.

Those using the Jockey Club Gold Cup were A.P. Indy, Cigar, Skip Away, Curlin, Fort Larned, Blame and Drosselmeyer. The most recent three - Fort Larned, Blame, and Drosselmeyer, didn't even win the Gold Cup.

Those using the Awesome Again/Goodwood were Ferdinand, Alphabet Soup, Tiznow twice, Pleasantly Perfect, and Mucho Macho Man. Two of them were beaten - Tiznow finishing third one year and Alphabet Soup finishing first, but disqualified to third.

But history has shown us that Breeders' Cup Classic winners can come from anywhere - the Pennsylvania Derby, Super Derby. Meadowlands Cup, Kentucky Cup Classic, Hawthorne Gold Cup, Washington Park Handicap, Lady's Secret Stakes, Col. F.W. Koester, Discovery Handicap, an allowance race, and finally the Prix Dollar and Queen Elizabeth II Stakes in France and England, respectively. But all those races were run from mid-September to early-to-mid October.

To show how prepping for the Breeders' Cup Classic has changed since its early days, Proud Truth's final prep was only seven days before the Classic; Wild Again's was 12 days; and Ferdinand and Alysheba were 21 days.

Getting Invasor to upset Jockey Club Gold Cup winner and heavy favorite Bernardini in the 2006 Classic coming off a three-month layoff took an extraordinary training job by McLaughlin. And give credit to Baffert and Steve Asmussen, both Hall of Famers, for having American Pharoah, Arrogate, and Gun Runner primed for big efforts without running in one of the traditional final preps.

One of the reasons that Arrogate and Gun Runner went into the Classic not having a final prep after Labor Day could be that, unlike past years when horses were given time off following the Classic, Arrogate and Gun Runner were being targeted for the new Pegasus World Cup in January and their trainers didn't want to subject them to an extra race prior to the Classic, thus assuring having a fresh horse for the outrageously rich Pegasus.

This year, the two favorites for the Classic look to be Whitney winner Diversify and Pacific Classic winner Accelerate. With the Whitney run early at Saratoga, Diversify, who skipped the Woodward, likely will try for a repeat score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, while Accelerate will prep in the Awesome Again Stakes, according to co-owner Kosta Hronis. So, for the two early favorites, it's back to the traditional preps.

Not so, however, with Travers winner Catholic Boy, who will attempt to emulate the feats of American Pharoah and Arrogate by training up to the Classic following a Travers victory. Trainer Jonathan Thomas said the son of More Than Ready came out of the Midsummer Derby in great shape and has maintained his weight.

"I'll look at American Pharoah and Arrogate and see how they worked coming out of the Travers," Thomas said. "Not that I'll follow everything they did. I do want to bring him to Churchill Downs and give him a work over the track. If you look at his body of work before the Travers, he's a very fit horse, and battling with Diversify in the Gold Cup with his style of running would be like chasing a monster."

Not only will we have Catholic Boy trying to extend the new current trend, there is a good chance that Woodward winner Yoshida will also train up to the Classic.

Two other horses who need to be mentioned are the one-two finishers of the Dubai World Cup, Thunder Snow and West Coast. The former was up the track in the Juddmonte International on grass on August 22 in his only start since the World Cup, but is a good possibiity for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and West Coast still has not run since Dubai and obviously would need a prep. He has begun to pick up the tempo of his works, drilling five furlongs in :59 4/5 last Sunday.

Another Classic contender, Mind Your Biscuits, will have his final prep in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs on September 29.

So, if Diversify or Accelerate, or one of the others having a prep race, win the Classic then it's back to the traditional way of preparing for the race. But if Catholic Boy or Yoshida wins, then we really have to start taking this new trend seriously.


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