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
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
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
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
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.
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
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.