An Early Look at the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Races

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

With just two weeks remaining until the Breeders' Cup, it's not too early to start examining the races and begin formulating our potential plays. Two of the most interesting races at this year's Breeders' Cup are the two dirt sprints--the Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) and the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint (gr. I). Both races are expected to draw large and competitive fields, and while the official order of the Breeders' Cup has not yet been announced, it's possible that both could be prominently positioned in multi-race wagers on Saturday.

Here are a few of my early thoughts on each race.... 

Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint

The Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint is one of the younger Breeders' Cup races, having been run for the first time in 2007. Yet despite its brief history, a couple of noteworthy trends have emerged that might be rather surprising. For one, no three-year-old filly has ever won the race. Secondly, eight of the ten winners prepped for the race by running on a turf or synthetic track.

Perhaps these two stats hint at which directions I'm leaning while handicapping the Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, but let's go ahead and dive a little deeper.

Obviously, the race is still two weeks away and lots can change, but at the moment it looks like Unique Bella will be the heavy favorite. Trained by Jerry Hollendorfer, the three-year-old daughter of Tapit has been brilliant since breaking her maiden by ten lengths last November at Del Mar, putting together a five-race win streak that includes easy romps over future Grade 1 winners Abel Tasman and It Tiz Well in the Santa Ysabel Stakes (gr. III) and Santa Ynez Stakes (gr. II), respectively.

Shin issues prevented Unique Bella from competing this summer, but she returned to the races in the 6 ½-furlong L. A. Woman Stakes (gr. III) on October 8th and turned in another impressive performance. Despite breaking slowly, Unique Bella rated nicely off the pace before rolling past her rivals in the homestretch and cruising to a 3 ½-length victory. She didn't beat the toughest competition, but it was a step in the right direction off the long layoff.

Unique Bella certainly has the talent to be competitive in a race like the Filly & Mare Sprint, but it will surely be her toughest test to date, and she's had a bit of trouble throughout her career with breaking alertly and can be rank when racing off the pace. Is it worth the risk to play her at a short price (probably less than 2-1) despite these issues and the fact that she's a three-year-old facing older mares?

My early thought is to try to beat her, and the filly that intrigues me most is Ami's Mesa. She's never run on dirt, but the daughter of Sky Mesa is 6-for-7 on synthetic tracks and 4-for-4 this year while earning solid speed figures. Two starts back, Ami's Mesa rallied into a modest pace to win the seven-furlong Seaway Stakes (gr. III) by 6 ¼ lengths, powering away through a final furlong in :11.98 while earning an eye-catching Beyer speed figure of 101.

Most recently, Ami's Mesa unleashed another strong finish to win the 6 ½-furlong Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes (gr. II) by a length despite rallying wide against a large and competitive field. To put it simply, Ami's Mesa has been professional, consistent, and impressive this year, winning despite pace setups that haven't always been to her benefit. Unlike some of her prospective Filly & Mare Sprint rivals, seven furlongs seems to be Ami's Mesa's perfect distance, and the fact that she won the 8.5-furlong Ontario Matron Stakes (gr. III) this year suggests that she's got the stamina to relish and fully take advantage of a fast pace in the Breeders' Cup. The switch to dirt is a question mark, but Ami's Mesa's pedigree suggests she could enjoy the switch, and the fact that the race will be held at Del Mar--with its new dirt track that was considered to be slow and tiring during the summer--means that many other contenders will be dealing with an unfamiliar surface as well.

Best of all, Ami's Mesa's lack of experience on dirt pretty much guarantees that she'll be a decent price in the wagering, making her all the more appealing as a candidate to upset Unique Bella. I would like to see her draw an outside post position to help her avoid kickback, but with two weeks left until the race, I'm leaning toward Ami's Mesa.

I also have to put in a good word for Skye Diamonds. While she hasn't run since August and will enter the Breeders' Cup off a layoff, Skye Diamonds is 4-for-4 sprinting this year and has the advantage of being based in California. During the summer, she turned in sharp efforts to win both the Great Lady M. Stakes (gr. II) and the Rancho Bernardo Handicap (gr. III) sprinting 6 ½ furlongs, defeating such notable horses as the Grade 1 winner Constellation and the reigning Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint winner Finest City. Trained by William Spawr, who sent out Amazombie to win the 2011 Breeders' Cup Sprint, Skye Diamonds isn't drawing as much attention as some of her East Coast-based rivals, but she's just as fast or faster in terms of speed figures and looms as a major contender.

Breeders' Cup Sprint

In what could be one of the most competitive and exciting races of the entire Breeders' Cup, defending Breeders' Cup Sprint champion Drefong will take on a deep field that includes the Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes (gr. I) winner Roy H, the blazingly fast graded stakes winner Imperial Hint, the up-and-coming Vosburgh Stakes (gr. I) winner Takaful, the front-running speedster El Deal, and the impressive Dubai Golden Shaheen (UAE-I) winner Mind Your Biscuits.

A handicapper could feel good about picking any of those horses, and while I'm currently leaning toward Drefong to defend his title, I would like to mention American Pastime as a longshot with a chance to hit the board or even win.

To put it simply, American Pastime is a pure six-furlong sprinter. In his brief career he's gone 3-for-4 at six furlongs and 0-for-2 at distances just half-furlong shorter or longer. He's based in California and has already won a race at Del Mar, giving him some familiarity with the track. He's only three years old, but that hasn't been an issue in recent editions of the Breeders' Cup Sprint; in fact, three of the last five winners were three-year-olds.

Furthermore, American Pastime's most recent race was an exceptional effort. After breaking slowly in the six-furlong Gallant Bob Stakes (gr. III) at Parx Racing, American Pastime made an early, wide rally that would have spelled trouble for many horses. Yet despite the extent of this move, American Pastime had a shot to win at the top of the stretch and might have done so if he hadn't raced somewhat greenly turning into the straight, drifting out slightly and then in while carrying his head a bit high down the stretch.

Even still, American Pastime finished second by less than a length against Coal Front, who saved ground throughout while setting a fairly reasonable pace for the distance. Even in defeat, American Pastime received a career-best 105 Beyer speed figure, and it's not hard to imagine him improving on that number with a little more experience and a better start. And while he'll obviously be taking a huge step up in class if he runs in the Breeders' Cup, don't forget that Trinniberg parlayed a runner-up effort in the 2012 Gallant Bob Stakes into a 13-1 upset in the Breeders' Cup Sprint. Perhaps American Pastime has a shot to do the same.

Now it's your turn! How do you see the Sprint and Filly & Mare Sprint unfolding?


The Unlocking Winners Road to the Breeders' Cup Classic Handicapping Challenge is back for a third consecutive year! Please be sure to post all entries, prime horses, and stable additions on the official contest page. 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

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