Breeders’ Cup Distaff Preview: Facing her greatest challenge, is undefeated Songbird ready to ascend?

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>Santa Anita | November 4th | Race 9 |Post Time 4:35 PDT | Go To The TimeformUS PPs

We as horse racing fans have been privileged to witness some outstanding fillies and mares over the past decade, including Zenyatta, Rachel Alexandra, and Havre de Grace. Yet, even though we’ve been treated to some fantastic performances, never during that period of time have we witnessed so many accomplished fillies and mares coming together to compete in a Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The numbers for this year’s Distaff field speak for themselves:

  • 7 horses are Grade or Group 1 winners
  • 6 horses are millionaires
  • 4 horses have won multiple Grade 1 events this year
  • 3 horses are Eclipse Award winners from past seasons
  • 1 horse has won 3 different Eclipse Awards in separate seasons

Songbird has drawn the rail and will assuredly be sent to the lead by Mike Smith, but our Pace Projector predicts that Gary Stevens and #8 Beholder will be breathing down that rival’s neck before they get to the halfway point of the backstretch. Meanwhile, #5 Stellar Wind and the East Coast invaders figure to be sitting just off that pair waiting to pounce.

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Our chief figure maker, Craig Milkowski, has highlighted this race as one of the Breeders’ Cup races most likely to feature pace dynamics that is disadvantageous to frontrunners, but that will largely hinge on the tactics adopted by the two aforementioned jockeys. This shapes up to be a calculated chess match between two of the greatest riders in our game.

Let’s go through the field:

#1, SONGBIRD (6/5): When any horse competing at the highest level wins the first 11 races of its career, it’s natural for fans to start comparing him/her to the all-time greats in our sport. So how do we evaluate the achievements of a horse like Songbird in the context of the great three-year-old fillies of the modern era? With the exception of a missed start in the Kentucky Oaks, she’s won every major Grade 1 race that she could have contested during both her two-year-old and three-year-old seasons. No filly has ever gotten within 3 3/4 lengths of her at the finish of a race, and on more than one occasion, she’s strutted through the stretch under nothing more than a light hand ride from Mike Smith. However, as serious handicappers, we don’t evaluate merit solely on the basis of our visual impressions, or by looking at a simple list of a horse’s victories and win margins. We instead consider a set of more comprehensive tools, with none carrying greater weight than arguably the most powerful tool of all: speed figures.

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If speed figures are our yardstick, Songbird should not be the favorite in this race. Perhaps that’s a shock to realize, but based on recent speed figures, she’s actually only the third-fastest horse in this race. Yes, she may be faster than your average three-year-old filly champion, but this is no average Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The reality of Songbird is that she has taken full advantage of an unusually poor crop of three-year-old fillies. There’s a reason that hopeless long shot Land Over Sea is the only other three-year-old in this race. There simply is not another sophomore filly in the county that has run fast enough to merit even superfecta consideration in this race.

We as horseplayers are faced with the mathematical reality of a favorite that is going to be a massive underlay, and we’re doing ourselves (and our wallets) a disservice if we fail to acknowledge that. Of course there is the possibility—however unlikely—that Songbird will be able to run significantly faster once challenged, but we should be reserving that leeway for long shots. We’re not supposed to be betting heavy favorites assuming that they can do something they’ve never done before.

#2, LAND OVER SEA (30/1): Her primary claim to fame is a mere Grade 2 victory against a weak group in March, and she’s been soundly defeated by Songbird on six occasions.

#3, CURALINA (12/1): In other years, Curalina might be one of the shorter prices in this race. After all, she was one of the best three-year-olds in her division last year, and she capped off her season with a decent third-place finish in this very race. Her four-year-old season has been a mixed bag. She got things off to a sparkling start when winning the La Troienne by over 7 lengths with a strong 122 speed figure. She was subsequently favored in each of her two New York Grade 1 attempts, the Ogden Phipps and Personal Ensign, but came up short on both occasions despite working out relatively good trips. She skipped a scheduled start in the Spinster in favor of training up to this race, and she has run well off freshenings in the past. Nevertheless, she’s hardly the most talented older runner in this race, and she finds herself in the potentially difficult position of having to make the first run at Songbird and Beholder. I prefer others.

#4, CORONA DEL INCA (30/1): While this mare certainly adds an international flare to the race, nothing in her past performances suggests that she’s ready to take on the United States’ elite dirt horses.

#5, STELLAR WIND (5/2): 

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It’s rare to find a horse whose speed figures have been trending upwards for a full two years, but that’s exactly what this filly has managed to accomplish over the course of her career. Just when it seems as if she has reached the pinnacle of what she’s capable of achieving, she proves us all wrong and surpasses her own personal best in her very next start. Though she took down only a single Grade 1 race as a three-year-old, she earned her division’s Eclipse Award with a strong runner-up finish in this race last fall. As a four-year-old, she’s started only three times, but she’s been nothing short of brilliant on each and every one of those occasions. She ran a much stronger race than the speed figure suggests when she lost to Beholder in the Vanity after giving away a massive pace advantage to her rival, and she then proved that her strong return was no fluke in two subsequent wins over Beholder. In both the Clement Hirsch and Zenyatta, Victor Espinoza rode as if it were a match race, successfully wearing down Beholder in merciless duels starting around the half-mile pole.

Ordinary horses cannot bear the brunt of doing the so-called “dirty work” while still leaving enough in reserve to finish off the deed themselves, but that’s exactly what Stellar Wind has accomplished in two straight starts. When push comes to shove, the top three contenders in this race may be fairly close in terms of raw ability, but only Stellar Wind has proven that she’s willing to fight for itThe 131 speed figure in the Zenyatta gives her and Beholder a clear edge over their rivals—that’s some 6 points faster than Songbird’s best figure. This time, Beholder may be forced to take up the role of chaser as she goes after Songbird while Stellar Wind, previously a successful closer, gets a more favorable trip rating off the pace.

#6, FOREVER UNBRIDLED (12/1): 

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She’s a consistent sort that has done little or nothing wrong so far in 2016. She probably could have won the Grade 1 Ogden Phipps if she hadn’t encountered traffic at the quarter pole, and she comes into this race off a useful prep in the Beldame, in which she hardly exerted herself while facing an inferior group of runners. Her closing style should fit the projected flow of this race, especially if the other riders get aggressive and try to take it to Songbird down the backstretch. While she’s a bit too slow to be considered a win candidate, I could definitely use her on the bottom rungs of trifectas and superfectas.

#7, I’M A CHATTERBOX (12/1): Like Forever Unbridled, she’s coming off a blowout win against a much weaker field. While she has won two Grade 1 races in 2016, those victories both came at the hands of Paid Up Subscriber—a hard-trying filly but a Grade 2-quality runner at best. The only time that she’s faced a real test this season, in the Personal Ensign, she worked out a perfect trip setting a slow pace (color-coded in blue) and still could manage only fourth while losing to today’s rivals Curalina and Forever Unbridled. She’s up against it here.

#8, BEHOLDER (5/2): 

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Some have said that she’s lost a step at age six, presumably because she’s coming into this race off three straight losses. But let’s be fair—this three-time champion certainly deserves that much from us—because winning isn’t everything. Based on her last three speed figures, Beholder has never been better. She ran the fastest race of her life when losing to Stellar Wind in the Zenyatta, earning the same 131 speed figure as the winner. Quite frankly, that performance could have made her a legitimate contender in the Breeders’ Cup Classic had her connections decided to pursue that route. For once, I’m glad they chose the path of least resistance. This old mare has a score to settle with Stellar Wind as well as an upstart three-year-old that needs to be put in her place.

Beholder has silenced the critics before. At one time or another, she’s been condemned for benefitting from track biases, for being a one-dimensional frontrunner, and for beating up on weak fields. Yet time and time again she’s made her doubters look foolish, and I will not be among them today.

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