European Shippers vs. Diversify in the Jockey Club Gold Cup

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

When eight horses head to the Belmont Park starting gate for Saturday's $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), plenty of attention will be focused on the talented European shippers Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow.

The attention, of course, is understandable—it's not all that common for accomplished runners from Europe to ship to North America and contest a major prep race for the Breeders' Cup Classic (gr. I), and it's even less common for them to show up with fine dirt form on their records, which is exactly what Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow can boast. After all, Mendelssohn won the 2018 UAE Derby (UAE-II) on dirt at Meydan by a stunning 18 ½ lengths, and Thunder Snow was victorious by 5 ¾ lengths over a top-class field of U.S. runners in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) on the same night.

But will their success at Meydan translate to success at Belmont Park in the 1 ¼-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup? That remains to be seen, but for a variety of reasons, I'll be leaning against both of them on Saturday.

For starters, I question whether their big performances at Meydan are true measures of their abilities. On the night of the UAE Derby and Dubai World Cup, the Meydan main track featured a strong rail bias, which both Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow rode to victory while some of their key rivals struggled with racing over the outer part of the track.

If you draw lines through those efforts, then the dirt form of Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow comes back to earth a bit. There's no doubt that they're very talented horses—they're both top-level winners on turf—but Mendelssohn's second-best dirt performance was a runner-up effort in the Travers Stakes (gr. I), in which he set a modest pace before weakening late, and Thunder Snow—while very accomplished over the dirt track at Meydan—lacks experience over other dirt tracks, and none of his other dirt races to date can really compare with his tour-de-force Dubai World Cup triumph.

But the bigger issue might be that both Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow have done their best running on the lead, which could be problematic since the expected Jockey Club Gold Cup favorite Diversify is a beast of a front-runner with early speed that few route runners can match. The New York-bred son of Bellamy Road used that speed quite effectively to win the 2017 Jockey Club Gold Cup in gate-to-wire fashion, and he's been just as good or better this year, rattling off back-to-back wins in the Suburban Stakes (gr. II) and the Whitney Stakes (gr. I) while simply running his rivals off their feet.

With triple-digit Beyer and BRIS speed figures all over his record, Diversify is a legitimately fast from start to finish, and he's been particularly dominant at Belmont Park, where he's gone 6-for-8 while never finishing out of the exacta. He's also 2-for-2 going 1 ¼ miles, with both of those victories coming at Belmont Park.

In preparation for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, Diversify has been training up a storm at Belmont, posting back-to-back five-furlong bullet workouts of :58.88 and :58.97 seconds. With his speed seemingly sharpened by these quick moves, it's going to be tough for Mendelssohn or Thunder Snow to keep up with this front-running sensation. Actually, I would be a bit surprised if anyone is able to keep up with Diversify, either at the start or at the finish, and I expect him to prevail in the Jockey Club Gold Cup for the second straight year.

Since I believe Diversify might just run Mendelssohn and Thunder Snow out of their comfort zones, I'm tempted to look for a deep closer to come running late and round out the exacta. The obvious choice would be Gronkowski, runner-up behind Triple Crown winner Justify in the 1 ½-mile Belmont Stakes (gr. I), but I get the feeling that Gronkowski benefited from passing tiring rivals in that lengthy, testing race, and when faced with a less favorable scenario in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) last month, he never fired at all and finished eighth of ten.

Now, Gronkowski missed his prep race for the Travers after suffering a minor setback in training, so it's possible that he could improve now that he's gotten a race under his belt and is returning to Belmont Park. But he won't offer much value in the wagering, so I'm going to take a shot with Discreet Lover instead. An experienced veteran of 43 starts, Discreet Lover used to have quite a bit of tactical speed, but the son of Repent has shown significant improvement since switching to late-running tactics, which earned him a victory in the Excelsior Handicap (gr. III) at Aqueduct earlier this year.

But more notably, Discreet Lover ran very well to finish third behind Diversify in both the Suburban Stakes and the Whitney Stakes, so it seems that when Diversify is in the field to ensure a fast pace, Discreet Lover benefits and is able to produce more effective late runs. And while Discreet Lover was never able to challenge while finishing twelfth in the Woodward Stakes (gr. I) last time out, that was a bit of an oddly-run race and Discreet Lover had a very wide trip, so I'm tempted to draw a line through that effort and judge Discreet Lover off his previous form.

If you do want to include at least one of the Europeans in the exotics, I would lean toward Thunder Snow, who has thus far shown a consistently higher level of dirt form than Mendelssohn. Don't be too discouraged by Thunder Snow's last-place finish in the Juddmonte International (Eng-I) last time out—he was facing a very deep field in what was clearly a prep for his fall campaign, and he also lost two shoes during the running.


1st: Diversify
2nd: Discreet Lover
3rd: Thunder Snow

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the Jockey Club Gold Cup?


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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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