Four Picks Five Weeks Before the Breeders’ Cup

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

In case you haven't heard, 20 graded stakes are slated to take place across North American from Friday through Sunday as high-profile horses wrap up their preparations for the 2021 Breeders' Cup at Del Mar.

Most of the action is taking place at three tracks: Belmont Park, Churchill Downs, and Santa Anita. In anticipation of this action-packed slate, I've highlighted four talented horses in four different races that I expect to see in the spotlight this week:

Ack Ack S. (G3) at Churchill Downs

Everyone knows about Jackie's Warrior, the Steve Asmussen-trained three-year-old shaping up as the favorite for the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1). But have you heard of Asmussen's other speedy sophomore #10 Beau Liam, who figures to start as the favorite in Saturday's Ack Ack at Churchill Downs?

A son of Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) winner Liam's Map, Beau Liam is undefeated in three starts. After crushing a six-furlong maiden special weight at Churchill Downs during the spring—employing pace-tracking tactics to win by 7 1/2 lengths—Beau Liam led all the way to win a pair of Saratoga allowance events sprinting seven furlongs and 6 1/2 furlongs.

Along the way, Beau Liam has beaten quality competition and thrown down fast speed figures, including a trio of triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings. He looms as the primary pace player in the Ack Ack, but is versatile enough to settle off the lead if necessary. Any way you slice it, Beau Liam looks tough to beat, and I think we'll be calling him a Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile threat after Saturday.

American Pharoah S. (G1) at Santa Anita

Let's see—Quality Road won a quartet of Grade 1 races between one mile and 1 1/8 miles. Wasted Tears nabbed half a dozen graded wins over the same distance range. Cross their bloodlines, and you're bound to wind up with a high-class route runner... perhaps even an American Pharoah winner.

#1 Corniche is a son of Quality Road out of Wasted Tears, and he's clearly inherited some of their talent. The $1.5 million auction acquisition turned in a powerful performance to win his debut sprinting 5 1/2 furlongs at Del Mar last month, leading by a minimum of two lengths at every call to crush his pursuers by 4 1/4 lengths.

The most impressive aspect of Corniche's performance is the way he ran fast from start to finish. An opening quarter mile in :21.72 would have tired many horses, but Corniche was still full of run down the homestretch, sprinting the fifth furlong in :12.01 and the final sixteenth in :05.87. Corniche evidently has a powerful engine under the hood, and I'm excited to see how he performs while stretching out over 1 1/16 miles in the American Pharoah. The longer distance should only help his chances, with the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) looming as a logical year-end target if Corniche performs as expected on Friday.

City of Hope Mile (G2) at Santa Anita

Six-time graded stakes winner #2 Mo Forza has won seven of his last eight starts, including the 2020 edition of the City of Hope Mile. A versatile five-year-old capable of winning from tracking or closing positions, Mo Forza's secret weapon is his terrific turn-of-foot, which was on full display in the Del Mar Mile (G2) six weeks ago.

Mo Forza could have been forgiven for faltering in his first start back from a 10 1/2-month layoff. After all, he encountered a small field at Del Mar and found himself racing off the pace in fourth place behind slow splits of :23.69, :48.52, and 1:12.17. But Mo Forza was full of run when called upon, blazing the final quarter mile in something like :22.30 to get up and beat Grade 1 winner #5 Smooth Like Strait by a head. Another Grade 1 hero, #3 Hit the Road, finished a length further back in third place.

Another slow pace figures to unfold in the City of Hope Mile, but if Mo Forza runs as well or better in his second start of the season, I think he'll be tough to deny. The son of Uncle Mo might even be good enough to win the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1), especially considering he's a three-time graded stakes winner over the Del Mar lawn.

Woodward S. (G1) at Belmont Park

#3 Art Collector has long shown signs of serious talent. The 2020 Blue Grass S. (G2) winner is versatile in terms of running style, capable of winning from pacesetting, tracking, and closing positions. He's thrown down a bevy of triple-digit Brisnet Speed ratings throughout his career, and he enters the 1 1/4-mile Woodward in hot form.

Indeed, Art Collector's last two starts have been excellent. After wiring the 1 1/8-mile Alydar S. at Saratoga, the stoutly bred son of Bernardini tackled the 1 1/8-mile Charles Town Classic (G2), where he tracked the early tempo before finishing strongly to score by 1 1/2 lengths with a career-best 107 Brisnet Speed rating.

There isn't a ton of speed in the Woodward field, so Art Collector figures to enjoy a favorable trip setting or stalking a modest tempo. Five-time graded stakes winner #2 Maxfield is a logical opponent, but I get the feeling Maxfield might be at his best racing 1 1/8 miles or less, so the longer journey of the Woodward—when coupled with the expected pace scenario—figures to tip the scales in Art Collector's favor.

Now it's your turn! Who do you like in the many, many, many graded stakes this week?


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J. Keeler Johnson (also known as "Keelerman") is a writer, videographer, voice actor, 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.

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