By J. Keeler Johnson ("Keelerman") Twitter: @J_Keelerman
With the 2019
Breeders' Cup heading to Santa Anita Park, one of the key factors for
handicappers to consider is how the slow and tiring main track will affect the
outcome of the championship races.
The track has received a lot of attention and maintenance
in recent months, stemming from a spate of equine fatalities during the winter
meet. The result has been a deeper track prone to producing slow times,
particularly in two-turn routes, where the tiring nature of the deeper surface
has a greater impact.
It's easy to assume that such a surface will be favorable to
late runners. Won't a tiring track exhaust the pacesetters and allow deep
closers to swoop past in the homestretch?
It sounds good in theory, but in reality, the opposite is
true. Genuinely tiring racetracks often give an advantage to pacesetters, since
they find themselves forwardly placed and right in the thick of things turning
for home. The late runners wind up just as exhausted from racing through the
deep footing, but face the added disadvantage of giving their rivals a head
start. It's hard to gain a half-dozen lengths on the leaders when you're out of
steam at the top of the stretch.
This fact is reflected in the results at Santa Anita
since racing returned to the Great Race Place on September 27. Across the
board, speed horses—particularly pacesetters—have been dominating.
RacingFlow.com, which mathematically measures the impact of track biases, has
assigned Santa Anita at least a marginally speed-favoring rating for every day
they've analyzed through October 13. And on October 14, we witnessed the early
pacesetters go 5-for-5 over the main track at Santa Anita.
When coupled with favorable pace fractions, the tiring track at Santa Anita has been sufficient to trigger some surprising
results. Case in point? The upset victory by Mongolian Groom in the Awesome Again Stakes (gr. I). Perhaps heavy
favorite McKinzie didn't fire his
best shot in his final prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, but he was also
compromised by a speed-favoring track and a modest early pace. RacingFlow.com
assigned the Awesome Again a Closer Favorability Ratio (CFR) of 9 on their
1-to-100 scale, enough to suggest McKinzie didn't have a fair chance at running
down the longshot pacesetter.
With all of this in mind, I'll be favoring runners with
tactical speed more than usual during the 2019 Breeders' Cup. I'll be hesitant
to play deep closers unless they're cutting back in distance (suggesting they
have the stamina to handle a tiring track) and figure to receive an ideal pace
While it's still too early to be formulating final opinions
on the championship races (pre-entries haven't even been released yet), here
are a few early thoughts on horses I'll be considering in the main track races
two weeks from now:
There isn't a ton of speed in the prospective Classic
field, so Mongolian Groom could be a
threat to lead all the way again. Higher
Power, a decisive pace-tracking winner of the Pacific Classic (gr. I),
could be an overlooked longshot contender after losing all chance with a stumble
at the start of the Awesome Again Stakes. Even Vino Rosso could be a player since he's thrived running 1 ¼ miles
and showcased a new front-running style when crossing the wire first in the
Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).
Expected favorite Midnight
Bisou might be 7-for-7 this season, but she's also a late runner and will
have to buck the track profile in the Distaff. The inconsistent but
occasionally brilliant Paradise Woods
could be a threat if she breaks cleanly (sometimes an issue for her) and receives
a cozy trip setting or stalking the pace.
The field is in flux and post positions could be a
determining factor, but Mitole will
be a danger if this front-running sprinter tackles the Dirt Mile. He's already
stretched his speed over a mile in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I), though the
two-turn configuration of the Dirt Mile at Santa Anita will be a new obstacle. Omaha Beach also has the tactical speed
to be involved, having tracked a fast pace before rallying to victory in the
six-furlong Santa Anita Sprint Championship (gr. I).
be the purest speedster targeting the Sprint, and a couple of recent defeats
could boost his odds. But Imperial Hint,
twice placed in the Sprint, won't be far behind. The status of Mitole (will he run here or in the Dirt
Mile?) could change the complexion of the Sprint field.
& Mare Sprint
Three-year-olds don't have the best record in the Filly
& Mare Sprint, but Covfefe has
tremendous speed coupled with the versatility to settle just off the lead if
necessary. She'll play "catch me if you can" in the Filly & Mare Sprint,
and a speed-favoring track could give her an edge over Come Dancing, a stretch-running five-year-old who might rate the
stronger chance over a fair track.
Bob Baffert's Eight
Rings was an impressive gate-to-wire winner of the American Pharoah Stakes
(gr. I) at Santa Anita on a day when the main track played closer to fair than
not. If he catches a speed-favoring track for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, this talented
son of Empire Maker will be tough to catch.
The Frizette Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont has produced five
of the last twelve Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies winners, and Wicked Whisper can add to that streak
of success after leading from start to finish in the Frizette. She's posted
solid speed figures and appeared to win with something left at Belmont.
How do you think the deep track at Santa Anita will
influence the Breeders' 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 www.theturfboard.com.