Let the Breeders’ Cup Handicapping Begin!

By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman

We're getting close now! The 33rd Breeders' Cup is barely more than a week away, and pre-entries were released yesterday, giving handicappers a chance to begin serious analysis of the thirteen races. There's still a lot of data to consider and dozens of replays to watch, but at this stage, here are a few thoughts I've had about the Breeders' Cup...

Which Horse Makes the Best Single?

In many case, the key to hitting a multi-race wager is to find a horse that you're confident in and single them, allowing you to spread deeper in the races where you have less confidence. But the Breeders' Cup fields are always competitive, and finding a single is easier said than done.

Last year, I had tremendous confidence in Runhappy in the Breeders' Cup Sprint and singled him successfully, but no horses this year give me quite the same level of confidence. The closest might be Lady Eli, the sensational filly that has won seven of her eight races, including the Flower Bowl Stakes (gr. I) last time out. She's 2-for-2 going ten furlongs and proved she can handle the trip to California by winning the 2014 Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. I) is brilliant fashion. Her form lines suggest that she's a step above the rest of the U.S.-based contenders, and while she'll face a deep field of international shippers (including Nuovo Record, who has kept great company in Japan and Hong Kong), the spectacular acceleration that Lady Eli has shown on firm turf courses should be very difficult to beat.

Will We See Any Big Longshot Winners?

The 2015 Breeders' Cup at Keeneland was astonishingly predictable, with plenty of winning favorites and no major longshot winners. But I believe this year could be different, as several of the races appear to be absolutely wide-open with plenty of potential for winners in the 20-1 or 30-1 range.

One race that seems particularly competitive is the Juvenile Fillies, where the top contenders have been earning slower speed figures than usual while taking turns beating each other. With the favorites having questions to answer, I wouldn't be surprised if we saw a very unexpected result, such as Champagne Room rebounding from a slightly troubled trip in the Chandelier Stakes (gr. I) to turn the tables on Noted and Quoted, or the little-known Valadorna running a huge race in her stakes debut to upset the field at a big price.

Another race where we could see a longshot winner is the Filly & Mare Sprint, where a combination of tried-and-true sprinters and horses cutting back in distance will meet at an "in-between" distance of seven furlongs. Historically, three-year-old fillies and horses cutting back in distance have not done well in this race, which could make a filly like Irish Jasper very appealing. She was a very good sprinter last year, winning the Miss Preakness Stakes (gr. III) and Victory Ride Stakes (gr. III), and after missing the first half of 2016, she's come back stronger than ever, most recently winning the six-furlong Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (gr. II) with an eye-catching late rally. I can see her going off at 10-1 or even 15-1, a terrific price on a filly that is 8-for-13 on dirt and a three-time graded stakes winner sprinting on dirt.

Is This Distaff the Greatest Distaff Ever?

Nine fillies and mares have been pre-entered in the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and you can make a case that there has never been a better renewal of the race. The 2016 Distaff has drawn three reigning Eclipse champions--Songbird (2yo filly), Stellar Wind (3yo filly), and Beholder (older mare)--as well as the winners of the Beldame Invitational (gr. I), Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I), Spinster Stakes (gr. I), Delaware Handicap (gr. I), La Troinne Stakes (gr. I), and Acorn Stakes (gr. I).

All told, the pre-entrants have won 64 races, three Breeders' Cup races, five Eclipse awards, and $16,728,292; furthermore, seven of the pre-entrants are millionaires and eight of the nine have won a grade I race this year, and the only filly that hasn't is Land Over Sea, who finished second in the Kentucky Oaks!

Sentimentally, I'll be cheering for Beholder to end her amazing career on a winning note, but from a handicapping perspective, I suspect that youth will prevail and am leaning toward Songbird, who has been unchallenged and unbeaten in eleven races so far.

Can Runhappy Rebound in the Dirt Mile?

Regular readers of this blog know that I am a huge fan of Runhappy, and I believe he's one of the most talented and gifted horses we've seen in years. His season has been interrupted this year due to bone bruising, and while he could only finish fourth in his comeback--the one-mile Ack Ack Handicap (gr. III), in which he set the pace before tiring--I think Runhappy has a legitimate chance to rebound in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

Runhappy's greatest weapon is his extraordinary speed. There are few horses that possess as much raw speed and the ability to sustain it as this colt, who famously ran a furlong in :09 4/5 while winning the Phoenix Stakes (gr. III) last year. In the Ack Ack, coming off a nine-month layoff, he wound up dueling for the lead while racing wide, but wasn't fully utilizing his speed-he wound up running the half-mile in just :45.95, and we know he's faster than that. He wound up tiring slightly in the homestretch to finish fourth, beaten just 2 ¼ lengths in a race where the final time was sharp and the last quarter-mile was run in a very respectable :24.64 seconds.

With that effort behind him, Runhappy should be fitter for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, and his two one-mile workouts at Keeneland were solid and should help him stay the distance. The plan is to have jockey Gary Stevens send Runhappy to the lead in an attempt to out-sprint his rivals in much the same way as Goldencents, who won two editions of this race by carving out fast fractions and hanging on in the homestretch. They say you should never underestimate a champion, and I won't be underestimating Runhappy--I think he's got a chance to rebound with a huge run in the Dirt Mile.

Is the Best 2yo Skipping the Juvenile?

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile has attracted a very deep field filled with some of the most promising two-year-olds in the country, but is it possible that the best of all was not entered in the race? Last Saturday, a son of Candy Ride named Mastery made his debut in a six-furlong maiden special weight at Santa Anita. The Bob Baffert-trained colt was favored at 3-10 after turning in an impressive series of workouts, including one in which he outworked his grade I-winning stablemate Klimt, and Mastery delivered on those high expectations with a dominant victory. After setting fractions of :22.03 and :45.15, he pulled away powerfully in the homestretch to win by 4 ¼ lengths in the time of 1:09.56, which was the second-fastest six-furlong time of the meet behind Lord Nelson's 1:08.80 in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (gr. I).

Visually, Mastery looked fantastic, and he has the pedigree to stretch out in distance--in fact, there's a good chance that six furlongs is well short of his best distance. Only time will tell, but I think we might see Mastery in the winner's circle of the Los Alamitos Futurity (gr. I) this December, and it's possible that I've found my Kentucky Derby horse.

...and a Quick Look at the Bold Ruler Handicap

While most of our attention this week will be on the Breeders' Cup, there's a decent set of races scheduled for October 29th, including the $200,000 Bold Ruler Handicap (gr. III) at Belmont Park. The seven-furlong race has drawn a deep and competitive field of thirteen horses, but I believe that Economic Model might be a standout.

On paper, this race has quite a bit of early speed, which would certainly benefit Economic Model, who had almost no chance of winning the King's Bishop Stakes (gr. I) when the talented Breeders' Cup Sprint contender Drefong got away with an opening quarter-mile in :23.11. Despite being at a major tactical disadvantage, Economic Model rallied well to finish second, a half-length in front of next-out Gallant Bob Stakes (gr. III) winner and Breeders' Cup Sprinter contender Noholdingbackbear.

Earlier this year, Economic Model ran three big races around one turn at Belmont Park, winning an allowance race and the Easy Goer Stakes impressively before finishing a good second in the Dwyer Stakes (gr. III) while trying to rally up a slow rail. If he can work out a clean trip saving ground from post four, I think Economic Model is going to deliver a very big run and win the Bold Ruler Handicap in impressive fashion.

Now it's your turn! What are your thoughts on the Breeders' Cup pre-entries and the racing action this weekend?


To help simplify the process of choosing and keeping track of everyone's prime horse selections in our 2016 Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge, I would like to ask everyone to please submit their prime choice each week by leaving a special comment on the official blog page for the contest. This will greatly reduce the chances of any prime horse selections getting overlooked, and will also make it simpler to double-check the standings. Thanks, and enjoy the racing!


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.

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