2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome is back in the spotlight today, after having lost it to American Pharoah in 2015, and he will have nine opponents over the 10 furlongs of the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
From a betting standpoint, we frame the race as follows:
1: California Chrome is a superb horse who is at the top of his game. He seems very likely to fire another huge shot. Taking him down will require some kind of effort.
2: Arrogate has already displayed more than enough talent to do it. But talent alone does not make a horse great. Today, Arrogate will be facing a horse of a different color. And the jury is out on whether he will prove up to it.
3: Frosted displayed something close to the level of talent required. Then he took a couple of steps backwards. At a minimum, he will have to find his best today, and he very well might need to do a little bit more than that.
4: Of the Big 3, we see California Chrome as far and away the least likely to run a dull race. This opinion will heavily influence our exotic tickets.
According to the TimeformUS Pace Projector, the pace of the Breeders’ Cup Classic will be neither fast nor slow. The early leaders are projected to be #4 California Chrome and #10 Arrogate, who are shown side by side 1/2 mile into the race. Then there’s a gap back to Frosted and Melatonin. Effinex is shown in fifth place. The top Late Pace rating in the field, a 124, belongs to the closers Keen Ice and Hoppertunity.
Here is the field in post position order, with morning line odds in parentheses:
#1 Effinex (15-1): A winner of three Grade 2s and a Grade 1, he is proven many times over at this distance, and he finished a distant 2nd to American Pharoah in this race, at Keeneland, a year ago. That effort produced his lifetime best speed figure: a 128. As a five-year-old, he has proved unable, in six tries, to get back to that level. However, he enters off numbers just off his best: 124 124 125. His lone try at Santa Anita was a disappointment. Most recently, in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, he pressed a soft pace set by Protonico, continued on two-wide, put away Protonico late, and then could not quite hold off Hoppertunity. Two back, after a wide trip, he was unable to make a dent in Frosted’s lead and ended up tiring to 4th. He’ll be losing Mike Smith to Arrogate today, but new rider Flavien Prat is a match for any rider in California. We respect Effinex as a highly accomplished hard-hitter and a threat to be involved in exotics, but at this stage of his career, it seems highly unlikely that he’ll be able to find the many lengths of improvement he would need to challenge the best horses in here.
#2 Frosted (5-1):
This three-time Grade 1 winner has shipped effectively on occasion but will be making his first trip to California. We have no distance concerns about him, since he has run his number going long. He finished 4th to American Pharoah in the 2015 Kentucky Derby and 2nd to American Pharoah in the Belmont. His three-year-old top was a 126 (earned at today’s distance). In June of this year, he uncorked a memorable effort in the Met Mile, laying waste to the field, winning by more than 14 lengths, and earning a world class TimeformUS Speed Figure of 133. An effort of that magnitude can be a springboard to superstar status (see California Chrome’s PPs to see a horse handle a 133 in stride). It can also be a harbinger of short-term (or even long-term) decline. Or it can be something in between. In Frosted’s case, we see reason to be a little pessimistic. He followed it up with a four-point regression in the Whitney, though he won the race after commanding the early pace. Then he returned in the Woodward, broke poorly (this, too, can signal impending decline), raced somewhat erratically, was ridden quite gingerly, and was outrun late, finishing 3rd and recording a speed figure of 124. Does this speed figure pattern–133 129 124—indicate that he is about to regress further? Not necessarily. The slower numbers could prove to be the pause that refreshed. It has, after all, been five months since the Met and two months since the Woodward. But overall, we see in this pattern more reason to be negative than to be positive. And what is more, a return to the 133 does not even come close to guaranteeing a victory over California Chrome and Arrogate, both of whom have run faster than that. We respect Frosted’s talent, but given morning line odds of 5-1 after two disquieting performances, we do not want him on top in here.
#3 Keen Ice (20-1): Four-year-old is 2 for 17 lifetime. His best effort came in the 2015 Travers, when he upset American Pharoah and earned a speed figure of 127. He has failed to get anywhere near that race since. We were not impressed with his most recent race, an unthreatening third in a Belmont allowance, his first off a layoff after never challenging in the Dubai World Cup last spring. And, most damning of all, even if we stipulate, with no evidence, that he will get back to his lifetime best in the Classic, he still would be nowhere near the three favorites at the finish. We are passing on him.
#4 California Chrome (1-1):
As far as second acts in American horse racing are concerned, a win in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic would make this one hard to top. After winning the 2014 Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he finished 4th in the Belmont after a difficult trip. Then he went sour in the Pennsylvania Derby before losing to Bayern by a neck in the 2014 Classic. His abbreviated and somewhat controversial 2015 campaign saw him run second to Shared Belief in a Grade 2 and then run second to Prince Bishop in the Dubai World Cup. But all has gone according to plan in 2016. He made things right in the 2016 World Cup and did so in style. Then he ran off a Grade 2 and two Grade 1s in Southern California, earning speed figures of 133 131 and 136. Those three numbers are the best of his career. He has expressed his dominance over Dortmund and Beholder. He enters this race at the height of his powers. His trainer, Art Sherman, has him training steadily and well. He has proven that he can handle fast numbers. The distance is child’s play for him. He can take the lead or stalk. He can handle fast paces. He has won five times at this racetrack. He has home field advantage, sleeping in his own bed at quaint Los Alamitos. In Victor Espinoza he has one of the best, and coolest, distance riders in the country. We would be surprised if California Chrome does not win the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
#5 Win the Space (30-1): The best effort of his career saw him comprehensively dominated by California Chrome and even Dortmund. Pass.
#6 Melatonin (12-1): Five-year-old got good for underrated trainer David Hofmans over the winter and spring and then hit the sidelines. He thrives at 10F. He loves Santa Anita, where he is 4 for 4 on dirt. He is more than happy employing the sit-and-wait style that this Classic seems to require from him. Joe Talamo rides him very well. He gave Effinex all he wanted on the ship to Arkansas for the Oaklawn. He has two Grade 1 wins under his belt. He has been training steadily off the gap. Hofmans gets a better TimeformUS Trainer Rating off layoffs (63, on our 100 pt scale) than he does overall (59). All this sounds very nice. Certainly Melatonin belongs in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. So when is the other foot going to fall? Well, we have an extremely hard time seeing him winning this race, and we consider him an underlay at his morning line odds of 12-1. Simply put, we do not think he can run with California Chrome, nor do we think he can run with Arrogate or Frosted if they bring their best. The best race of his career (a 121) would leave him dusted by the worst number California Chrome has run in months. His 121 is 20 points slower than Arrogate’s top. Frosted consistently runs better numbers than he. So does Effinex. Hoppertunity is better on his best. There is no guarantee that Melatonin will fire off the layoff. Much as we respect his grit, unless his odds start flirting with something like 30-1, we will be playing against him not only on the win end but also down below.
#7 War Story (30-1): His 23-length loss to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic looks to us like a good preview of what he will experience today.
#8 Shaman Ghost (20-1): Capitalized on a savvy ride to take down the Woodward at 9-1, defeating a troubled, tepidly ridden Frosted in the process. That was the best effort of his career, and yet it is way, way too slow against the best of his opponents today. The bottom of the superfecta looks to us to be his limit today, and even that would require cooperation from several of his opponents in the form of subpar efforts.
#9 Hoppertunity (15-1):
Multiple Grade 1 and Grade 2 winner has not finished worse than 4th since his career debut, when he was dead on the board, got left at the gate, and then finished 5th in a race won by Bayern. He is proven over this surface. He is proven at this distance. He enters off a one-point lifetime top speed figure of 126. He earned that number while winning the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont, a race in which he rode the rail, inched up into the pocket, eased out two-wide on the turn and three-wide entering, and then ran down Protonico and Effinex, who had been setting and pushing a relatively soft pace. Hoppertunity lacks the flash that so many of Baffert’s horses seem to possess. Indeed, looking over his lifetime PPs, one is tempted to call him an “anti-Baffert” horse. He has made 22 starts. He is basically a grinder. Eye-catching moves are not his thing. He has minimal early speed. He has even managed to put up 10 straight workouts without recording a single bullet. Yes, Hoppertunity lacks sex appeal. He lacks fast speed figures in this context, too, a thoroughly nasty context in which the favorites enter off obscene numbers such as 136 and 141. We see Hoppertunity as a thoroughly admirable animal who has squeezed every drop out of his ability and who is a couple cuts below California Chrome, Arrogate, and Frosted on talent. Where does that leave him today? Well, to us it leaves him in a position where he needs to do his thing, and then hope that the top horses don’t fire. And what are the chances of that? We would be very surprised if California Chrome failed to fire. But Frosted and Arrogate are bigger question marks to us. And Hoppertunity has a running style that essentially ensures that he will not be thrown off his game by mixing it up too soon with horses who are too talented. We see him as very live for the bottom of exotics.
#10 Arrogate (5-2):
Beautifully bred Baffert three-year-old lost in his debut, though he had a mountain of trouble and was very much the best horse. Then he stretched out and ran off three big wins in a row, earning speed figures of 112 121 119. So far, so good, and none too surprising for a horse Baffert had always been high on. Then he shipped to Saratoga and put up a performance for the ages—winning the Travers by over 13 lengths and earning an astounding speed figure of 141. In horse racing terms…nay, we need a geological term here: This was a seismic event. For all intents and purposes, it was a performance the repetition of which would render him unbeatable no matter whom he faced next. So what is one to make of a three-year-old who, in his fifth start, makes a 20 point jump to a 141? For starters, he is going backwards today. We take that as a given. He just flew too close to the sun. But a horse can go backwards quite a bit from a 141 and still win, right, even when facing California Chrome and Frosted? Yes. However, there is another factor at work: Horses who are practically guaranteed to go backwards are as likely to go back a lot as a little. They tend to run in a very wide range—and the presence of California Chrome in this field does much to limit the amount of regression Arrogate can get away with. And to this we can add that controlling the pace in the 2016 Travers and controlling the pace in the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic are two distinctly different things. If California Chrome decides he wants the early lead, then Arrogate will either have to give it to him, or try and take it from him, and we see nothing good coming out of any attempt to employ the latter strategy. Bottom line? While refusing to take anything away from Arrogate, our feeling is that for him to beat California Chrome today, he will need to bring something very much like his Travers effort, and we don’t think he will do it.