Most Likely Winner: Arrogate (#1)
The Classic is always the main event at the Breeders’ Cup, but it’s especially true this year. We’ve seen stars of the game like American Pharoah, Zenyatta, and Curlin dominate this race in past runnings, but rarely does the Classic attract a list of headliners that is as talented and fast as the group that’s been assembled here.
Earlier in the season, this race was shaping up to be the ultimate showdown between Arrogate and Gun Runner. However, they have taken very different paths to get to this point – making the outcome of this long-awaited Dubai World Cup rematch all the more uncertain. Adding intrigue to that duel is the presence of Baffert’s other top colts, Collected and West Coast, who both have registered impressive wins at this distance and would each be deserving winners of this prestigious race.
The Pace Projector is predicting that Gun Runner (#5) will lead in the early stages. The reality is that while Gunner Runner is capable of setting the pace, he’s hardly the type that needs to be in front early, so Florent Geroux will have plenty of options. Two or three of Baffert’s runners could potentially show speed, so Geroux will have to observe how the race is unfolding through the opening quarter-mile. This Classic should be a race where most of the action plays at the front of the pack, as jockeys on the various contenders play chess with each other through the opening furlongs.
And what kind of run will we see from Arrogate? He closed from last to win the Dubai World Cup, but all indications from Baffert suggest that he is going to be ridden much more aggressively this time.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, ARROGATE (2-1): Let’s get one thing straight: This race is all about Arrogate. There are plenty of other storylines heading into this Classic, but none are as compelling as that of Arrogate’s 2017 campaign, and the questions surrounding his possible return to form.
You can give him all the accolades you like for rebounding from his non-effort in the San Diego to run second in the Pacific Classic. The resulting speed figure even suggested he ran well enough to win most Grade 1 races. But that still wasn’t the same Arrogate. That was not the horse that had dazzled us in the 2016 Travers, where he flew through stretch going faster than Thoroughbreds are supposed to be able to run. That was not the horse that made Gun Runner look merely ordinary back March, after snatching victory from what appeared to be assured defeat following a disastrous start to the Dubai World Cup.
Gun Runner, Collected, and West Coast are all very nice horses – perhaps even better than your average Classic favorites – but none of them have yet proven themselves to be among the game’s great Thoroughbreds. Arrogate has done that. I shouldn’t need to detail the spectacular nature of his accomplishments, because they should be obvious to anyone who has witnessed his races. The good Arrogate is in a different class than those other horses, and I have little doubt that he will beat them if he shows up on Saturday.
So the question becomes: Which version of Arrogate do we get?
Bob Baffert has blamed himself for Arrogate’s performances this summer, and he remains adamant that he has him right where he needs to be for this final start of his career. Few in this game are better at pointing to a single race than Baffert, especially when that race is the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I’m willing to trust that he’s gotten Arrogate back to his old self for this one final lap. I’m on board.
#2, WAR DECREE (30-1): Aidan O’Brien takes two shots at this year’s Classic, a race that he has been chasing ever since Giant’s Causeway’s valiant effort behind Tiznow in 2000. He came closest a few years back with Declaration of War, who finished third by just a head. The main difference between those two horses and his two in this year’s race is that they were actually bred to handle the dirt. We’ll get to Churchill next, but War Decree does not appear to be a dirt horse. It’s nice to see that he handled the synthetic track at Dundalk, but that is not a true indicator of dirt ability. Some of the War Fronts can handle dirt, but those usually have a reasonable amount of dirt pedigree on the dam’s side. War Decree does not have that. His only sibling was strictly a turf horse, and his dam is out of millionaire turfer Ticker Tape. I’m tossing him.
#3, WIN THE SPACE (30-1): He was pulled up in last year’s Classic and was no match for Mubtaahij in an underwhelming Awesome Again in his best 2017 performance. I’m not sure why he’s in this race.
#4, WAR STORY (30-1): He lost to Gun Runner by a combined 27 lengths in two starts at Saratoga and needed to stretch out to 1 1/2 miles to lodge his only graded stakes victory of 2017. Another hopeless longshot.
#5, GUN RUNNER (9-5): Few horses are as honest as Gun Runner. As a 3-year-old, he was the one you could trust in a group that was otherwise unreliable. Sometimes his best was good enough, while other times he found one or two better than him, but he was always around at the finish and ready for a fight.
This year, it’s been a different story for Gun Runner. With the lone exception of the Dubai World Cup, he’s been good enough every time. And in his last couple of starts at Saratoga, he’s been better than merely good. Some will knock him for not beating the highest-quality fields in those races, but time matters, and Gun Runner has been posting speed figures that would make even Arrogate envious. The 141 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned in the Woodward is the fastest dirt figure recorded by any horse this season. Gun Runner just seems to keep getting better, and if he takes yet another step up the ladder in this race, perhaps he will become the second truly great Thoroughbred to exit the 2017 Classic.
However, there is one significant hurdle that stands between him and that ultimate goal – and it’s a furlong. A 10th furlong, to be exact. Gun Runner has been nearly unbeatable going as far as 1 1/8 miles, but he’s failed in three attempts at this 1 1/4-mile distance. It’s encouraging that his best attempt yet came in his most recent – that second-place finish to Arrogate back in March. Yet even then, he ran slightly below par, at least compared to his subsequent form back in the United States. This wouldn’t be such an issue if it were not for the presence of Arrogate – and to a lesser extent, West Coast. Both of those Bob Baffert trainees are tailor-made for this 1 1/4-mile distance and should be ready to take advantage if Gun Runner falters in the late stages. I have the utmost respect for this horse, but I think he’s vulnerable to the aforementioned pair on this occasion.
#6, MUBTAAHIJ (12-1): The son of Dubawi is the most experienced at this 10-furlong distance, having gone this trip in half of his 18 starts. He’s traveled the world and has admirably kept improving each year. That said, he’s never been quite good enough to compete with the best dirt horses in this country, and that’s especially apparent in a field this deep and talented. He is by far the weakest link in Baffert’s quartet.
#7, CHURCHILL (15-1): I can’t blame his connections for taking a shot in a race that would exponentially enhance his value were he to win it. However, there is absolutely no evidence whatsoever that this horse will handle the dirt. Galileos have poor records on the dirt, and this colt’s dam, by Storm Cat, hails from a strong turf family. Churchill did get back to one of his better performances in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes last time, but it’s not as if he’s trying to pick off a few vulnerable Americans here. This is one of the strongest Breeders’ Cup Classic in years, and I’ll be shocked if he makes any serious impact.
#8, WEST COAST (6-1): As recently as mid-summer, it would have been quite a stretch to imagine that any 3-year-old would be considered a legitimate threat to the likes of Arrogate or Gun Runner in this year’s Classic. Yet West Coast has turned a corner over the course of his last two starts and is improving rapidly, suggesting that he may indeed be ready for this major test against his elders.
The thing that’s really made the difference for this horse is the aggressive tactics that Mike Smith has employed in his last two starts, and new rider Javier Castellano would be wise to place him similarly close to the early pace this time. His greatest asset is his stamina – the ability to steadily rattle off those 12-second furlongs, much as he did in his Travers victory. While he did have many things go his way that day, his subsequent win in the Pennsylvania Derby indicates that he is still progressing. I ultimately think he’s going to be best as a 4-year-old next year, but I would not be shocked if he runs well enough to be a part of the exacta in this race.
#9, GUNNEVERA (30-1): He’s probably not going to win the race, but Gunnevera should not be completely dismissed. His 30-1 morning-line odds are not true representation of his ability in relation to the other horses pegged at that same price, all of which are indeed hopeless longshots.
Gunnevera deserves a ton of credit for the race he ran in the Travers. West Coast was the clear winner that day, but you could build a solid argument that Gunnevera was actually best. He got slammed from both sides in an ugly incident at the start and dropped to his customary position near the back of the pack. Sensing the slow pace (indicated in blue color-coding in TimeformUS PPs), Edgard Zayas started Gunnevera’s move at the half-mile pole. He looped the entire field, getting all the way up to challenge West Coast for the lead by the time they entered the stretch. That early bid into stiff interior fractions, coupled with lost ground around the far turn, took its toll in the late stages, but he nevertheless hung on gamely to be second. A mile and a quarter is probably a bit of stretch, but he figures to be coming on late. Make sure to throw this horse in underneath in trifectas and superfectas.
#10, PAVEL (20-1): The hurdles are obvious, but you have to admire what this colt has accomplished in just four starts. His connections recognized his ability at the outset of his career and were not afraid to throw him to the wolves immediately. It was a risky strategy, but they have been rewarded. Any 3-year-old deserves accolades for finishing third in a race like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, let alone in just the fourth start of his career. That said, this year’s edition of that race was not a strong one, and he would need to improve by at least 10 speed figure points to be a factor in this Classic. I’m against him this time.
#11, COLLECTED (6-1): He deserves a ton of credit for defeating Arrogate in the Pacific Classic, even if that stablemate may not have performed at this best. In doing so, he earned a 115 Beyer and a 133 TimeformUS Speed Figure – numbers that put him right in the mix in Saturday’s event. He comes into this race off the same layoff as Arrogate, and we’ve already stressed how adept Baffert is at pointing to major races like the Breeders’ Cup.
I respect his overall ability, but I think he’s going to be up against it from a tactical perspective this time. Whereas he only had one major pace rival – Accelerate – in the Pacific Classic, this time he is going to have be used to make the lead from this outside post position, if that is indeed the intent. Whether he makes it to the front or not, he will have to withstand challenges from Gun Runner and West Coast, put them away, and then hold off the relentless stretch run of Arrogate. Accomplishing all of that would be no small feat, and I’m just not convinced he’s up to the task. He figures to be in the hunt at the quarter pole, but a second- or third-place finish seems like his best hope.