By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
We’re in the homestretch, folks! With just five weeks remaining until the Breeders’ Cup, the racing action will really heat up this weekend with twelve graded stakes races scheduled to be run, including eight grade Is at Santa Anita and Belmont Park. Among the major names entered to race are Beholder, Bayern, Big Blue Kitten, Red Rifle, Rock Fall, Hoppertunity, Nyquist, Songbird, Curalina, Wedding Toast, and many others. Here are my thoughts on three of the biggest races…
Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. I)
Big Blue Kitten is favored in this twelve-furlong turf race after winning the United Nations (gr. I) and rallying to finish second by a neck in the Arlington Million (gr. I), but I have long believed that his stretch kick is sharper going nine, ten, or eleven furlongs, and I suspect that the distance of the Joe Hirsch could be a bit far for him. In contrast, Red Rifle was spectacular when finishing second in the twelve-furlong Sword Dancer Invitational (gr. I) last time out, gamely chasing the talented world traveler Flintshire through the homestretch to be beaten only 2 ½ lengths while running the final half-mile in about :46 1/5. In turn, Red Rifle finished 3 ¼ lengths clear of third-place finisher Twilight Eclipse, an impressive margin for a turf race, and Red Rifle was just as impressive when winning the Bowling Green Handicap (gr. II) two starts back by 2 ½ lengths. In my opinion, his combination of decent tactical speed coupled with the ability to rate and produce a strong burst of acceleration will enable him to secure perfect position early and out-kick Big Blue Kitten in the homestretch.
For a longshot, I once again like the chances of the front-running Shining Copper, who should have little trouble securing a clear early lead. He’s played the role of pacemaker in his last two starts, setting fast fractions in the United Nations and Arlington Million to try and assist his stablemate Big Blue Kitten, but Shining Copper held on admirably in both races and should be able to ration his speed a little better going twelve furlongs. As odd as it may sound, I wouldn’t be surprised if Shining Copper relishes the distance of the Joe Hirsch and hangs on better than ever to secure a spot in the exotics.
Slumber should also be respected after a traffic incident in the Arlington Million cost him all chance at a good finish. His previous races were excellent, including a runner-up effort in the United Nations in which he got shuffled back on the final turn but still rallied strongly to finish second. There’s a chance that he could get overlooked in the wagering off his poor showing in the Million, but I think he’s another that could turn the tables on Big Blue Kitten, although it’s worth noting that he’s 0-for-5 at twelve furlongs, with his best finish being a third in the 2014 Pan American Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream.
Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I)
At first glance, Rock Fall looks very difficult to beat. He’s unbeaten in three starts at Belmont, has won six straight races overall, and has an impressive string of Beyer speed figures that stand out on paper. If he brings his best race, he should be poised to add another romping victory to his record.
But I think Wildcat Red could have a legitimate chance to pull off the upset. I had been thinking strongly of picking him to win before I learned that Rock Fall would be entered, but even with Rock Fall in the race, I think Wildcat Red has a big chance. After finishing a good third off a layoff in the Smile Sprint Stakes (gr. II) at Gulfstream, he overcame a speed bias in the Teddy Drone Stakes at Monmouth to rally and win by a head over the consistent Stallwalkin’ Dude. Most recently, Wildcat Red finished fourth in the Forego Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, beaten just three-quarters of a length for second while running perhaps a furlong beyond his best distance. Notably, the horse that finished second in the Forego was The Big Beast, who was beaten just a nose by Rock Fall in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap (gr. I). Using The Big Beast as a rough guide, it would appear that Wildcat Red might be at or near the same level as Rock Fall, and given the huge difference in their morning line odds—2-5 for Rock Fall versus 15-1 for Wildcat Red—I think Wildcat Red is worth a close look as a live longshot.
Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I)
Call me dedicated or call me stubborn, but I think today is the day that Bayern rebounds to his best form. He’s winless in four starts this year and has been badly beaten in three of his defeats, but he looks poised to finally get an ideal setup this Saturday—that is, he looks like the lone speed in a race full of stretch-runners. Additionally, Bob Baffert has said that Bayern never really took to the track at Del Mar and has been training much better at Santa Anita, and Bayern's recent workouts—a mile in 1:36 4/5 and five furlongs in :59 1/5—suggest that he’s ready for a big effort in the Awesome Again.
But that said, Bayern is unlikely to offer good odds, and given his inconsistent nature, it's very hard to pick him to win at a short price. So if you want to play a horse offering better odds, Hoppertunity looks like a great choice. He’s been remarkably consistent this year, has run some of his best races at Santa Anita, and ran well in the Pacific Classic (gr. I) after racing wide every step of the way. He can also stay within striking range of the lead when the pace is modest, which could be very valuable given that a slow pace looks likely.
For a big longshot, I would give a close look to Smooth Roller. After opening his career with a pair of victories in maiden and allowance company, he endured a very bad trip in the one-mile Harry F. Brubaker Stakes at Del Mar, stumbling at the start and racing very wide on both turn before finishing fourth, beaten just 1 ¼ lengths. He was also compromised by the slow pace of the race and the fast finishing fractions—the final quarter-mile was timed in :24.21 seconds. Two starts back, he was never more than a half-length off the pace while winning an 8.5-furlong allowance race by a nose, and if he returns to his pace-pressing style on Saturday, he could potentially make things tricky for Bayern while getting the jump on his late-closing rivals.
Of course, there are many other spectacular stakes races scheduled to be run this weekend, and I’ll be handicapping all of them in the comments section of this blog post. I hope you’ll join me!
To help keep track of all the Breeders' Cup prep races, here is the link to Bloodhorse.com's Breeders' Cup news page. Also, here is the link to the currrent standings, entries, rules, and schedule for our "Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic" Handicapping Challenge. Enjoy the racing, everyone!
J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, blogger, videographer, handicapper, and all-around horse racing enthusiast. A great fan of racing history, he considers Dr. Fager to be the greatest racehorse ever produced in America, but counts Zenyatta as his all-time favorite. He is the founder of the horse racing website www.theturfboard.com.