The Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic
1 1/4 Miles, Dirt, 3-year-olds and up | Churchill Downs, Race 11 | Saturday, Nov. 3, 5:44 PM (EDT)
Most Likely Winner: West Coast (#7)
This Breeders’ Cup Classic is as wide open as any in recent memory. Accelerate has been installed as the clear morning-line favorite, but I’m not certain that the betting will be quite that lopsided, especially after the post position draw. The John Sadler trainee has been the dominant force in the handicap division all year, but he faces a slew of new challengers, including some noteworthy 3-year-olds and a trio of runners based overseas. This race offers a little bit of everything for handicappers that appreciate a puzzle.
The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, which is not surprising given the size of this field. It’s pretty clear that McKinzie (#6), West Coast (#7), and Mendelssohn (#9) are the primary speeds, but it remains to be seen how they sort themselves out on the front end. West Coast is forecasted to be leading early, but it’s been a while since he’s employed those tactics. McKinzie is always in the fight, but he’s hardly a true front-runner, and Ryan Moore has been known to get particularly aggressive with Mendelssohn in the early stages of his races. Race favorite Accelerate (#14) should not be too far behind this vanguard, while many of the longshots figure to be rallying from farther back in the pack.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, THUNDER SNOW (12-1): His 2018 campaign has been split into halves. Following a series of prep races, two of which ended in disappointment, he produced his best form when it counted most, taking down the Dubai World Cup while defeating three of Saturday’s rivals in doing so. The profile of the Meydan main track that day clearly played to his strengths, as Christophe Soumillon wisely made use of his early speed, allowing him to ride the gold rail to victory. Following another break, his two starts since the summer have been stepping-stones to this goal. He took a massive leap forward in the Jockey Club Gold Cup last time, looking like a winner with mere strides to go before getting cut down by the hard-knocking Discreet Lover. If he moves forward again off that effort, he will put himself squarely in the mix of contenders, of which there are many. However, the concern is that he has a ceiling on dirt. His Dubai World Cup was adequate, but given the circumstances that led to that victory, it’s just not on the same level as Accelerate’s Pacific Classic or McKinzie’s Pennsylvania Derby. I do believe he has every right to give a good account of himself once again, but I’m just not sure that he’s a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner. Using underneath.
#2, ROARING LION (20-1): His connections have little to lose by running in this race, coming down on the same side of the cost-benefit evaluation, weighing this race versus the Turf, as Coolmore did with Galileo and Giant’s Causeway many years ago. If he wins the Classic, or merely outperforms expectations, it greatly enhances his stud value. Yet, if he fails to show up, which is the far more likely scenario, this race will be regarded as an inconsequential experiment. Given those circumstances, I don’t see any reason to support him. Surely his connections realize that he’s running in the wrong race for the right reasons. The likelihood of him handling dirt seems slim. While his dam is by Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense, she and all of her relevant siblings were more turf-inclined. Pass.
#3, CATHOLIC BOY (8-1): One of the difficulties in handicapping this race is determining which horses are peaking at the right time and separating them out from those that may be just past their expiration date. I’m concerned that this colt may fall into the latter category. It’s not as if he endured such an arduous 2018 campaign as to justify him skipping a final prep after the Travers. To complicate matters, he had a minor setback about a month ago, and I just haven’t gotten the same feeling of enthusiasm from this horse as I did prior to that Saratoga triumph. Furthermore, his Travers win will not be good enough to win this race, so he must improve while coming off a layoff. Mendelssohn gave us some indication that he’s now performing at a level well above his Travers form with that stellar Gold Cup effort, but we’re left to wonder about Catholic Boy’s development. I’m not convinced that he’s up to the task. Pass.
#4, GUNNEVERA (20-1): This overachiever was hardly disgraced in this race last year, finishing a solid fifth, just six lengths behind Gun Runner while earning a 128 TimeformUS Speed Figure. This Classic field is significantly weaker than that one, but is Gunnevera still the same horse as back then? I’m not sure that we got the answer we were looking for in the Woodward, where he had difficulty separating himself from a mass of mostly Grade 3-level runners and was no match for winner Yoshida. Perhaps the margin between the two would have been slimmer had Gunnevera saved any ground, but I get the feeling that you don’t want either of these horses. The Pace Projector is predicting a fast pace, but it’s not as if this Classic is loaded with front-runners that will force the kind of collapse that Gunnevera would likely require. His best hope is for a minor award. Using underneath.
#5, LONE SAILOR (30-1): He’s far too slow to compete against Grade 1 company. Pass.
#6, McKINZIE (6-1): He’s coming into this Classic with real momentum. He outperformed expectations when he returned in the Pennsylvania Derby last time, as Baffert has suggested that he did not have him 100 percent fit for that race. The 129 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he was assigned for that victory suggests that he’s continued the progression that was thought possible of him earlier in the year. Baffert has always maintained that he’s among the best 3-year-olds in his barn and continues to mention him in the same breath as Triple Crown winner Justify. McKinzie’s training since the Parx race has been superb, suggesting that he is indeed ready to take that next step as he makes his first start against older horses. It’s not as if he needs to run much faster to win this race, since this does not appear to be among the strongest Classic fields ever assembled.
The only lingering reservation that I have about him is the distance. Perhaps his quality will carry him through that extra furlong, but I’ve never been totally convinced that this is a true 1 1/4-mile horse. That hasn’t stopped others with minor stamina limitations in recent years, but I do think it’s worth considering given what little margin for error there is among the top contenders for this race. If the Pace Projector is correct, this will be the first time that he’s dealt with a truly fast early pace. Almost all of his prior starts have been run at a steady gallop, and he’s been up close to those moderate fractions. There is the possibility that a more taxing early clip could expose some stamina deficiencies. Given that I’m splitting hairs, I’ll let price be my guide. If the 6-1 morning line holds up, I’ll support this horse without reservations. Yet I tend to expect that he’ll get bet down well below that. A strong contender.
#7, WEST COAST (5-1): Baffert’s other runner has more questions to answer than his stablemate McKinzie, but he may possess superior ability. Focusing only on speed figures, he is the only horse in this field that has proven he is capable of performing on the same plane as Accelerate if the favorite brings his “A” race. The West Coast that we saw through the final months of 2017 might even be the horse to beat in this Classic had he carried that form forward. Let’s not forget that he reeled of four consecutive 130+ TimeformUS Speed Figures, starting in the Travers and ending in his game runner-up finish to Gun Runner in the Pegasus World Cup. Those figures suggested that he had developed into an exceptional 4-year-old, the heir apparent to Gun Runner’s throne.
For whatever reason, everything fell apart after the Pegasus. Was it the trip to Dubai that took its toll? Was he moving in the wrong direction prior to that race? I don’t have the answers, but the fact of the matter is that he has been a shadow of his former self in his two starts since the Pegasus. The good news is that we can make some excuses for him. While he performed well below his capabilities in Dubai, he was negatively affected by the rail bias. That result was essentially written in stone soon after the start, so I don’t want to be too hard on him for that poor performance. His return in the Awesome Again was indeed pretty ugly, but it was also just that – a return, a starting place. West Coast is a big, rangy colt who needed plenty of time to develop into the beast that we saw in this race last year. Perhaps it was never realistic to expect he’d be ready to put forth a top effort off the layoff. Baffert certainly didn’t seem too disappointed by the effort, and I do sense that West Coast has trained much more eagerly in the weeks since then. Unlike McKinzie, there is no doubt that 1 1/4 miles is the ideal distance for this colt. For Baffert, it’s all about the goal and not necessarily how you get there. The selection.
#8, PAVEL (20-1): He picked up a Grade 1 score in the Stephen Foster over this surface, but that was an odd race. High temperatures caused some horses to unravel that night, and he ended up dominating a relatively weak group once the main rivals failed to show up. Accelerate dusted him in the Pacific Classic, and he’s never run fast enough to suggest he can issue a serious challenge to the top contenders here. Pass.
#9, MENDELSSOHN (12-1): I was among this colt’s many doubters heading into the Jockey Club Gold Cup, yet I walked away absolutely stunned by the race Mendelssohn ran. Ryan Moore must have had a great deal of confidence in him, because he gave this colt quite the enterprising ride. Few would have guessed that anyone would dare go after Diversify in the early going. Forgetting that he was the division leader coming into that race, Diversify had been renowned for his deadly combination of speed and stamina. Yet, somehow Mendelssohn broke him. The pace figures for the early splits in the Gold Cup were extremely high, and I believe this is a situation where the final-time speed figures just cannot quite capture the strength of his performance. In my opinion, he was superior to both Discreet Lover and Thunder Snow that day, and I believe he’s the one you want to take out of the Gold Cup.
Some may question the aggressive schedule for this colt, as he has shipped back to his home base at Ballydoyle in between each of international excursions. However, it’s important to remember that this is exactly the way that Aidan O’Brien operates when he has a goal in mind. These connections made a plan after the disappointment that was the Kentucky Derby, and they’ve only tweaked it slightly – adding in an unplanned start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup since the horse was doing so well. O’Brien is more concerned about his horses’ development and trajectory than the actual results in many of these races. That’s why he sounded so pleased following the Dwyer and the Travers, despite many American fans voicing further dissatisfaction in those efforts. It seems that now O’Brien has this colt right where he wants him. He’s passed every test and appears to be sitting on a career-best performance. It would be quite a feat of training to develop this horse into a Breeders’ Cup Classic winner at the same track over which the Derby was contested considering what transpired on the first Saturday in May, but I have no doubt that O’Brien is capable of pulling it off. The primary alternative.
#10, YOSHIDA (10-1): He was a visually impressive winner of the Woodward, but that was a Grade 1 race in name only. While a number of horses have returned to run respectably out of that race, their subsequent performances have only confirmed what we already suspected about that quality of that field. Yoshida was a decisive winner, but that was due in part to a great ride by Joel Rosario, who was able to save much more ground than the eventual runner-up. I’m concerned about the stretch-out to 10 furlongs for this horse, given his damside pedigree and his prior effort going that distance on the turf, and I just don’t see any evidence that he’s remotely fast enough to even get a piece of this. Pass.
#11, MIND YOUR BISCUITS (6-1): I have nothing but respect for what this New York-bred has accomplished in 2018. It’s pretty rare for a horse to completely reinvent himself this late in a career, but that’s exactly what Mind Your Biscuits has done over the course of his last three starts. At the start of the year, most would have thought his connections foolish to think he could ever make it into the starting gate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. However, as the season has progressed, this horse has made a believer out of the doubters. He was probably best when just barely losing a tough nose decision in the Met Mile back in June, suggesting that perhaps added ground was not out of the question. He passed his first two-turn test with flying colors behind Diversify in the Whitney, and he arguably improved on that performance last time out in the Lukas Classic. Ten furlongs remains a significant hurdle, but it no longer seems quite so improbable that he could pass that test as well. I still have some reservations about his quality in relation to top handicap horses like Accelerate and West Coast, but I’m not going to be shocked if he’s able to hit the board. An exotics player.
#12, AXELROD (30-1): Discreet Lover is the designated “rags to riches” story in this Classic, but this 3-year-old colt has also gone on to some remarkable accomplishments considering his humble beginnings. Some may have been surprised by his massive improvement in the Pennsylvania Derby, where he gave McKinzie a pretty stiff challenge down the lane. However, he actually telegraphed that continued progress when he won the Smarty Jones. He was buried in behind horses all the way around the far turn that day and clearly could have won by much more had Joe Bravo found a seam prior to the quarter pole. His pedigree isn’t really crying out for more ground, but he certainly runs like a horse that should appreciate 10 furlongs. I get the sense that he’s commanding little respect once again, but there’s a lot to like about this quickly improving colt. I’m pretty optimistic about his chances to outrun his odds and grab a chunk of this purse. Far from impossible at a huge number.
#13, DISCREET LOVER (20-1): He clearly thrives on racing, as he has continued to perform at a high level throughout the year, despite appearing frequently in seemingly ambitious spots. While it was great to see him get that Grade 1 victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the race did fall right into his lap considering the dynamics. It’s somewhat concerning that he had to be placed on the vet’s list following that victory, and I’ll be pretty surprised if lightning strikes twice in a row. Pass.
#14, ACCELERATE (5-2): To what extent are we supposed to hold the Awesome Again against him? That was not a strong effort for him, as he struggled to put away a group of rivals that he was supposed to handle with ease. It’s true that it was a mere prep for this ultimate goal, but it’s hard to believe that he would have been lacking in fitness following a career-best effort in the Pacific Classic just six weeks prior. If he bounces back to the form we saw through the spring and summer, he is unlikely to lose this race, but that most recent effort leaves me with some doubt.
Those worries are only compounded by the fact that his trainer is notorious for his poor record in the Breeders’ Cup, and his generally mediocre numbers with horses shipping out of Southern California. Perhaps it’s no coincidence that Accelerate’s only loss this year came when he had to ship to Oaklawn. The speed figure for that race was pretty fast, but he nevertheless lost to inferior rival City of Light, whom he beat handily the next month in the Gold Cup.
It’s fair to accuse me of engaging in nitpicking considering what this horse has accomplished this year. After all, he swept California’s quartet of Grade 1 events for older dirt routers and earned a massive 136 TimeformUS Speed Figure for his dazzling romp in the Pacific Classic. Given that form, he’s one of the few horses in this year’s Classic that would not have been out of his depth against Gun Runner last year. I’m not against this favorite, but I’m also unwilling to accept a short price on anyone in such a deep, confusing race. I doubt that he goes off quite as low as the morning line suggests, but I’ll nevertheless plan on using him defensively. The horse to beat.
#15, COLLECTED (30-1): Curiously, both horses on the also-eligible list for this race have previously finished second in prior editions of the Classic. Collected has failed to recapture the form that carried him to that runner-up result behind Gun Runner in three subsequent outings. I find it curious that Baffert has even entered him, given his unusual preparation. Hard to recommend.
#16, TOAST OF NEW YORK (20-1): He was good enough to compete against a field of this quality at one point, but he’s no longer that horse. Pass.