The Distaff may have drawn the smallest field of the 13 Breeders’ Cup races that will be run over this two-day period, but it’s hardly lacking in quality. This race features a robust cast of top fillies and mares and is likely to decide year-end championships in two divisions. Stellar Wind and Forever Unbridled both have an opportunity to usurp Songbird as the champion older female, while top fillies Abel Tasman, Elate, and Paradise Woods will battle for the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old filly.
The Pace Projector is predicting that Paradise Woods (#7) will assume a clear early lead in a situation that favors the front-runner. The only major contender that could conceivably give Paradise Woods an early challenge is Stellar Wind, who used such aggressive tactics in her battles with Beholder last year. Closers like Abel Tasman and Forever Unbridled may be compromised if no one goes after the early leader.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, CHAMPAGNE ROOM (15-1): Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner has spent the majority of her 3-year-old campaign on the sidelines. She was easily bested by the talented Unique Bella back in February, and then did not show up again until her return in the Remington Park Oaks at the end of September. The good news about that race is that she ran the fastest speed figure of her career, topping her previous bests by 10 Beyer Speed Figure points and 12 TimeformUS Speed Figure points. The bad news is that she would need to take another similar step forward to contend with this field. This seems like a big ask.
#2, STELLAR WIND (5-2): She is undoubtedly leading Forever Unbridled in the race to be champion older female, having notched three Grade 1 victories in as many starts this year. It’s an impressive resume, but she’s been carefully handled by her connections this year. Each of those prior runs came six to seven weeks apart, and now she enters this race off a three-month layoff. This has been the plan, and it’s in stark contrast to her preparation for this race last year, when she earned a hard-fought win over Beholder just five weeks out from the 2016 Distaff. I suppose the thinking is that the Zenyatta win might have sapped some her energy, since she broke slowly and was uncharacteristically dull on Breeders’ Cup Day last year.
There is one big question looming over Stellar Wind’s prospects in this year’s race: Is she as good as she was last year? She has not gotten anywhere close to achieving the massive speed figures that she earned in her battles with Beholder in the summer and fall of 2016, but perhaps that’s been by design. Nevertheless, she’s going to have to do better than beating Vale Dori by only a neck if she’s to finally win the Distaff in her third attempt.
Stellar Wind has rarely been the type to draw away from her competition in the stretch, instead preferring a fight. However, I still did not love the way she finished off the Beholder Mile or the Clement Hirsch. She beat Faithfully by less than two lengths in that last race, and Faithfully came back to get trounced by Paradise Woods at Santa Anita next time. The best version of Stellar Wind will win this Distaff, but I’m not willing to risk that we’ll see it given her status as the morning-line favorite.
#3, MOPOTISM (30-1): These connections aren’t afraid to take a shot with an improbable longshot, and that’s exactly what this filly is. She would require a massive form reversal to even crack the top four.
#4, ABEL TASMAN (4-1): One of the most interesting aspects of this race will be watching how Mike Smith rides this filly. Once a deep closer who did her best running in the stretch, she has since turned into a headstrong sort that is prone to making premature moves.
Those aggressive midrace tactics worked for her two back, when she quickly made up ground into a moderate-to-slow pace down the backstretch in the Coaching Club American Oaks. However, the same plan backfired when Smith allowed her to freely rocket from almost last all the way up to take the lead at a similar juncture of the Cotillion. That’s because the interior fractions of the CCA Oaks were much slower than those of the Cotillion. She was not adversely affected when making a run into a slow 25-second interior quarter-mile at Saratoga, but she was hindered when making that same move into a second quarter-mile that went a full second faster at Parx Racing.
Abel Tasman is just not going to be able to successfully execute those same tactics with the speedy Paradise Woods in the race. Rather, I imagine Smith will be looking to get back to the kind of trip that she worked out in the Acorn, when she was always handy, but didn’t actually challenge for the lead until the top of the stretch.
She’s certainly talented enough to win this race as she’s proven on a number of occasions this year, but she’s going to need plenty of racing luck and some expert judgment on the part of her rider. I prefer others on top.
#5, ELATE (3-1): Elate had shown a high level of talent right from the start, winning her career debut last fall at Aqueduct by more than 12 lengths. However, things didn’t quite work out as planned immediately after that as she struggled to win another race until June of this year.
Since then, she’s been unstoppable. She might have won the Coaching Club American Oaks had Abel Tasman not intimidated her in the stretch. Yet that disappointment was short-lived as she returned to take down the Alabama and Beldame by open lengths. The latter of those two victories was particularly impressive. She was held up in traffic around the turn and into the stretch, but she absolutely burst clear from the field as soon as she found a seam through which to run. She won by just more than eight lengths, but it probably could have been more.
While she wasn’t beating top-class rivals in that race, it is worth noting that the third- and fourth-place finishers, Eskenformoney and Verve’s Tale, went on to photo for the win in Belmont’s Grade 3 Turnback the Alarm last weekend, improving their speed figures by several points.
A two-turn 1 1/8 miles seems perfect for this sturdy filly, and her stalking running style should allow her to get first run on closers like Abel Tasman and Forever Unbridled.
In my opinion, she’s the most likely winner.
#6, FOREVER UNBRIDLED (4-1): The daughter of Unbridled’s Song got a late start to her season after getting a bone chip removed over the winter. Given the lost time, trainer Dallas Stewart has orchestrated a stripped-down campaign, the sole purpose of which has been to get her to this race in top form.
Realistically, all she needs to do is repeat the performance she put forth in this race last year, and she’ll have a great chance to take down the top prize. The two that finished ahead of her that day have since been retired, and she finished 2 1/2 lengths clear of Stellar Wind – albeit with a much better trip.
In 2017, Forever Unbridled has looked nearly invincible in her limited appearances. She was never asked for run when easily inhaling a group of overmatched rivals to kick off her campaign in the Fleur de Lis. Then, in her only major test before this year-end goal, she conquered Songbird in the Personal Ensign, overcoming an apparent pace disadvantage with a relentless rally.
Others have run a bit faster than her this year, but few have looked quite as intimidating on the racetrack. John Velazquez replaces Joel Rosario in the irons, and his challenge will be to keep her relatively close while still reserving enough so that she can produce the stretch kick we saw at Saratoga. If he’s able to do that, I think she’s got a great chance to win at what should be a square price. She’s the pick.
#7, PARADISE WOODS (9-2): This lightly-raced filly is obviously full of talent, but she can be hard to predict. Her win in the Zenyatta last time was not quite as visually impressive as her earlier score in the Santa Anita Oaks, but she nevertheless ran just as fast on both the Beyer and TimeformUS speed figure scales.
A repeat of either of those efforts makes her the horse to beat, given her apparent pace advantage. However, this is the sternest test she’s ever faced, and I have trouble believing that the other riders in this race – particularly Victor Espinoza on Stellar Wind – will let her just walk along on the front end. She will most likely receive a challenge, and how she will respond to that is still somewhat of a mystery.
She also must prove that she can put forth one of those massive efforts outside of Santa Anita. Her only start at Del Mar was a disaster, as she stumbled at the start and could never get to the lead. Her talent scares me, but I can’t build a sound case for betting her at odds below about 7-1.
#8, ROMANTIC VISION (15-1): It’s nice to see this mare finally get back on track after a couple of disconcerting non-efforts over the summer. While she did take down a Grade 1 in the Spinster last time, that was the weakest final-round prep for this race. She would have to improve significantly on that performance to be a factor here.