Picks for a Classic and a Gold Cup

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

A pair of prestigious "Win and You're In" qualifiers for the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1) are taking place at opposite ends of the country this Saturday.

Let's dive in and handicap both races:

Pacific Classic (G1) at Del Mar

Any analysis of the Pacific Classic must begin with the admission that the undefeated #5 Flightline is a freak of nature with a world of talent and potential. Three of his four victories (including a demolition of the Grade 1 Malibu) have been achieved by double-digit margins, and his lone start so far in 2022 saw Flightline overcome trouble to trounce Grade 1 winner Happy Saver by six lengths in the Metropolitan H. (G1).

But Flightline will face new challenges in the Pacific Classic. He's never run farther than one mile and has yet to tackle a two-turn race, so stretching out over 1 1/4 miles is uncharted territory. Flightline's raw talent and brilliance may compensate for his lack of experience running long, but his 1-5 morning line odds are a little hard to swallow.

We'll try to beat Flightline with #2 Country Grammer, who has already won twice racing 1 1/4 miles. The five-year-old son of Belmont S. (G1) winner Tonalist scored his first victory over this trip in the 2021 Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) at Santa Anita, battling tenaciously to win by a head over #3 Royal Ship and #4 Express Train. Even better, Country Grammer unleashed a strong finish to win the $12 million Dubai World Cup (G1) earlier this year in Dubai, counting Grade 1 winners Hot Rod Charlie and Life Is Good among his beaten rivals.

It's important to note Country Grammer isn't a winning machine who assembles long strings of consecutive victories. The Hollywood Gold Cup and Dubai World Cup each marked the second start of a form cycle for Country Grammer, and in both cases he finished second in his prep run.

We're highlighting this trend because Country Grammer recently ended a post-Dubai layoff with a runner-up finish behind Royal Ship in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego H. (G2) at Del Mar. It wasn't the most inspiring effort at first glance, but Country Grammer figures to move forward off that effort. He's turned in a trio of encouraging workouts since the San Diego (including a bullet six furlongs in 1:12 1/5), and stretching back out over 1 1/4 miles may give Country Grammer the edge he needs to upset Flightline.


1st: Country Grammer
2nd: Flightline
3rd: Royal Ship

Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Saratoga

From top to bottom, the quality of horses entered in the 1 1/4-mile Jockey Club Gold Cup is impressive. True, there's only one Grade 1 winner in the mix, but seven of the eight entrants have won at the graded stakes level, and it wouldn't be shocking to see the Jockey Club Gold Cup produce the Breeders' Cup Classic winner.

The tricky part is deciding what to do with #2 Olympiad. The talented four-year-old was a force to reckon with during the first half of the year, rattling off five consecutive victories. With impressive consistency, he won the Mineshaft S. (G3), New Orleans Classic (G2), Alysheba S. (G2), and Stephen Foster S. (G2) by margins ranging from two lengths to 2 1/2 lengths, along the way defeating Grade 1 winners Happy Saver and #5 Americanrevolution.

But Olympiad ran way below expectations in the Whitney S. (G1) at Saratoga last month, his Grade 1 debut. He tracked the pace as usual, but came up empty around the far turn and down the homestretch, weakening to finish fourth by 9 1/4 lengths behind Life Is Good, Happy Saver, and Hot Rod Charlie.

Considering Olympiad defeated Happy Saver with ease in the Alysheba, it's safe to say Olympiad ran below his best form in the Whitney. The question is, why? No obvious excuse has popped up, aside from the fact the Saratoga main track was slow and tiring early in the meet. It's since sped up a bit, which may help Olympiad rebound, especially if he secures an easy trip stalking #1 Tax and #3 Untreated through a modest pace.

But rather than count on Olympiad to bounce back as the 2-1 morning line favorite in his first start over 1 1/4 miles... we'll shoot for a small upset with the beautifully bred #6 First Captain.

As a son of Curlin out of the long-winded A.P. Indy mare America, First Captain is bred to thrive racing classic distances. Certainly he showed this ability in the 1 3/16-mile Pimlico Special (G3) during the spring, sprinting the final three-sixteenths of a mile in approximately :17 2/5 (5.8 seconds per sixteenth!) to win by a head.

First Captain displayed a similar turn-of-foot in the Suburban S. (G2) at Belmont Park two months ago, charging the final quarter-mile in about :23.77 to finish second by a nose against #8 Dynamic One. Both the Pimlico Special and the Suburban featured slow early fractions, but the closing splits First Captain posted are uncommon on dirt regardless of early pace.

I should pause for a moment and concede that Dynamic One ran a better race than First Captain in the Suburban, closing from farther behind the slow pace to snatch victory. But First Captain has made fewer starts, and I don't think we've seen the limit of his potential yet. The Shug McGaughey trainee blazed five furlongs in a bullet :59 4/5 at Saratoga last month and may be sitting on his best effort yet in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.


1st: First Captain
2nd: Olympiad
3rd: Dynamic One

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


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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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