By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman")
There’s no putting it off now—it’s decision time!
Tomorrow afternoon, four of the thirteen races that comprise the 31st Breeders’ Cup will be run at Santa Anita Park. After more than a week of analyzing the pre-entries and final entries and post positions, it’s time to turn all of that handicapping data and all of our opinions into actual, clear-cut selections for the races. That’s easier said than done, but after plenty of consideration, here are my top two choices in each of the Friday Breeders’ Cup races, along with a live longshot to spruce up the exotics!
Top Selection: European-based runners have dominated this race, winning five of the seven renewals and three in a row since 2011, so although the American colts look strong this year, I’m going to side with Aktabantay for the top spot. The capable colt demonstrated excellent turn-of-foot when winning a six-furlong allowance race at Newcastle, and proved himself capable of traversing a fairly tight turn when rallying for a nose triumph in the group III Solario Stakes at Sandown. Most recently, he finished a close sixth in the group I Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere (Fr-I), beaten just 2 ½ lengths despite lacking room to rally in the homestretch and having to shift outside for racing room.
Second Choice: Any horse that Aidan O’Brien sends for this race must be respected, and War Envoy figures to have a strong chance. He’s clearly a well-regarded colt, having competed in five consecutive group stakes races in England and Ireland, and he finished ahead of Aktabantay when fifth in the Prix Jean-Luc Lagardere. My main concern is that he has almost no experience on racetracks with turns, and at a morning line price of 9-2, he will likely offer much less value than 12-1 shot Aktabantay.
Live Longshot: The American colt Startup Nation was very impressive winning the With Anticipation Stakes (gr. II) at Saratoga this summer, and while he could only manage a fourth-place finish in the Pilgrim Stakes (gr. III) at Belmont, he was matching strides with eventual winner Imperia before losing momentum in traffic. His short racing record suggests that he may be better racing outside of horses, so starting from post ten, I think we’ll see him return to his With Anticipation form and come running for a top-three finish.
Update: With Aktabantay having been scratched with an injury, my new selection for the Juvenile Turf is War Envoy. I also like the chances of Faithful Creek, who drew in off the also-eligible list. Two of his best efforts have on left-handed courses in Europe, and his trainer, Brian Meehan, has had good success in the Breeders' Cup. My main concern is that Faithful Creek will have to start from post fourteen, but even still, I think he has a legitimate chance to be in the mix at around 20-1.
Top Selection: Last year’s Dirt Mile winner Goldencents has drawn the rail, which should be a major advantage as long as the front-running colt breaks alertly. In terms of Beyer speed figures, he’s a standout in this field, and although his odds will be unappealing, I think he’s the most likely winner of the entire Breeders’ Cup and will be singling him in my pick four ticket.
Second Choice: Tapiture has maintained good form throughout the year and enters the Dirt Mile off a solid runner-up effort in the Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II), in which he closed well over a speed-favoring track. The cutback in distance to a two-turn mile should aid his chances, and in the event that Goldencents runs into trouble, I think Tapiture is more than capable of pulling an upset at around 5-1. I’ll likely single him on a second, smaller pick four ticket just in case he fires off a career-best effort.
Live Longshot: Vicar’s in Trouble is another colt that has been running well in longer races and should enjoy the cutback in distance. He’ll break from post three, and should be able to work out a nice trip stalking Goldencents in the early stages of the race. If the pace is moderate, expect to see him in the mix when they turn for home.
JUVENILE FILLIES TURF
Top Selection: With the best of the European fillies either unproven on courses with turns (Osaila) or stuck in poor post positions (Qualify, Prize Exhibit), I’m confident that an American filly will emerge victorious in this race. My slight preference is for Partisan Politics, who had no chance when trying to rally behind an extremely slow pace in the Miss Grillo Stakes (gr. III). The final 2 ½ furlongs of that race were run in the amazing time of :27.64 seconds, making it virtually impossible for a closer to get involved for the top spot. Throw in the fact that Partisan Politics was trying to rally through traffic and it’s really amazing that she managed to finish fourth. She’ll break from the rail on Friday, and I hope to see her save ground behind a quicker pace, find a seam turning for home, and out-kick her rivals in the homestretch.
Second Choice: Lady Eli won the Miss Grillo by three lengths with an impressive turn-of-foot, but did so after tracking the slow pace that compromised Partisan Politics. I definitely wouldn’t leave her off any multi-race wagers, but I think she’s beatable at a fairly short price.
Live Longshot: Time will tell if she stays a longshot, but Rainha Da Bateria (12-1) made a nice impression winning the Jessamine Stakes (gr. III) at Keeneland with a six-wide run. True, she was no match for Partisan Politics in the P. G. Johnson Stakes at Saratoga, but that was after being forced extremely wide on the first turn and nearly as wide on the second. I like her chances, especially with Joel Rosario in the saddle.
Top Selection: This is a race that has befuddled me since Beholder dropped out with an illness, and it remains confusing even as I write this blog post. In the end, I finally settled on Belle Gallantey. Although her two biggest victories have come in gate-to-wire fashion, I’m confident that she can be just as successful stalking the pace, and drawing right outside fellow speedsters Tiz Midnight and Iotapa should enable her to go to the lead if the pace is slow or sit back if the pace is hot. I think she’s got a very live chance.
Second Choice: Untapable ran well to overcome a speed-favoring track last time out in the Cotillion Stakes (gr. I), and has been training at Santa Anita for weeks in advance in this race. Drawing post ten is a concern, as she could find herself hung wide on the turns, but assuming the track plays fairly, she should come running to at least hit the board.
Live Longshot: Iotapa was spectacular in winning the Vanity Handicap (gr. I) this summer, but bled when third in the Zenyatta Stakes (gr. I) last time out. She has trained well since then and seems poised to rebound, and has enough tactical speed to set the pace or stalk if necessary. She’s 6-1 on the morning line, but I wouldn’t be surprised to see her go off at higher than that.
I should also take a moment to mention Close Hatches. I have a lot of respect for this filly, and would be happy to see her run well, but she will be facing a stiff challenge this Friday. After all, she has been in peak form since early last year, and her fourth-place finish in the Spinster (gr. I) last time out may be signaling a decline. Furthermore, drawing the far outside post position is going to make it difficult for her to work out a good trip. She can certainly win this race, but I’m going to take a stand against her under the circumstances.
Best of luck to everyone playing or watching the races! May we all pick a bunch of winners!