The Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic
1 1/4 miles, dirt, 3-year-olds and up
Santa Anita, Race 12 | Saturday, Nov. 2, 5:44 p.m. PT
Unlike in most prior years, this Breeders’ Cup Classic is unlikely to decide Horse of the Year honors, as none of the competitors have distinguished themselves as front-runners for that award. Yet, division titles are still up for grabs among the 3-year-olds and the older horses. McKinzie will be the favorite to win this Classic, but he’s hardly scaring anyone away in what amounts to a wide-open edition of this race.
The Pace Projector is predicting that War of Will (#4) should lead this field early, in part due to the addition of blinkers for this race. But the picture is anything but clear, as none of those depicted toward the front of the pack are accustomed to racing as front-running types. McKinzie (#8) possesses tactical speed, but trainer Bob Baffert surely doesn’t want to see him on the lead. Higher Power (#7), Mongolian Groom (#9), and Vino Rosso (#10) could also be forwardly placed, but only if the pace is skewing toward the slow end of the spectrum. This does not appear to be the kind of scenario that will benefit closers, so horses like Math Wizard (#1), Yoshida (#5), and Code of Honor (#11) could all be at slight disadvantages.
Let’s go through the field:
#1, MATH WIZARD (30-1): This former $16,000 maiden claimer – no, not that one – caused a massive upset in the Pennsylvania Derby. It was an odd race in which the pace never really developed, allowing Math Wizard, typically a deep closer, to advance into a contending position at the quarter pole. From there, it became a test of stamina and he was able to wear down his main rivals – three of which, I should add, are turning back to contest the Dirt Mile earlier on this card. His top TimeformUS Speed Figure of 121 is solid enough, but that’s not going to get it done against this field and this race does not project to favor horses with his running style. Pass.
#2, SEEKING THE SOUL (20-1): You have to question this 6-year-old’s current form after two disappointing efforts since shipping out to California this summer. He never posed a serious threat as the favorite in a weak edition of the Pacific Classic and he finished behind three of today’s key rivals in the Awesome Again last time. He was effective at the highest levels earlier in the year, but his top efforts have come over shorter distances than this. Furthermore, he’s unlikely to get the kind of pace setup that he would require. Pass.
#3, OWENDALE (15-1): One of a few improving 3-year-olds in this field, Owendale announced his presence as a force in this division in April’s Lexington, and he’s essentially maintained that form in his four subsequent starts. While he crossed the wire 5 lengths behind Code of Honor in the Travers, the winner got a much better trip that day, avoiding the dead rail that plagued so many runners on that Saratoga card. Owendale, though not exactly in the inside path, was closer to it than any other horse in that Travers, compromising his chances. He rebounded nicely at Remington last time, overcoming significant ground loss to win, though that field was not of the highest quality. There’s still some concern about his ability to get 1 1/4 miles, but I think those fears are unfairly rooted in his deceptive Travers performance. I’m just not sure if he’s quite good enough to win, regardless of distance. That said, I don’t think there should be as large of a gap between he and Code of Honor as you’re likely to see on the tote board. Owendale is not without a chance to hit the board, and would offer decent value at his morning-line odds. Exotics player.
#4, WAR OF WILL (20-1): This year’s Preakness winner hasn’t tasted victory in three subsequent outings, and each one has been its own kind of disappointment. He’s not the sort of horse that’s going to be at his best going 1 1/2 miles, but a wide trip against a rail bias did him no favors in the Belmont Stakes. He was similarly hindered by a track bias in the Jim Dandy, when a paceless situation forced Tyler Gaffalione to adopt front-running tactics, and he unwisely guided War of Will down toward the deeper paths inside. He seemed like a perfect candidate to rebound under more favorable circumstances in the Pennsylvania Derby, but we just got more of the same. Without an apparent excuse, he hung on for third, but was no better than fourth best, considering Improbable’s trouble. This colt just hasn’t stepped forward since the first half of the season, and minor changes in equipment or tactics are unlikely to incite the improvement necessary to compete against this crew. Pass.
#5, YOSHIDA (8-1): This son of Japanese stallion Heart’s Cry had trouble building momentum toward the beginning of the year as his connections targeting a series of ambitious spots. After exhausting the turf options with this horse in the Pegasus Turf, his connections shipped him to Dubai, where he put forth an even effort. It appeared as if those two taxing efforts and the travel had taken something out of the tank upon returning to the U.S., as he failed to lift a hoof in the Foster. However, he apparently just needed some time to recover, as he abruptly righted the ship at Saratoga, reeling off two of the finest efforts of his career. The 129 TimeformUS Speed Figure that he earned in the Whitney is tied with McKinzie’s Met Mile for the highest number posted by a member of this field in 2019. Not only did he come within 2 lengths of McKinzie when that one was in top form, but he did so while closing into a slow pace. His Woodward performance wasn’t quite as electric, but he nevertheless put in a solid stretch run as his rider waited longer to unleash that burst of speed. Now that he’s in top form, the question becomes one of stamina. He finished fourth in this event last year going the 10 furlongs, but his run noticeably flattened out in the last eighth despite the fact that the race was falling apart late. I’m just not quite convinced that he can produce that turn of foot, a skill developed during his turf career, going this demanding distance on dirt. He’s also unlikely to receive much more pace to close into than he got in either the Whitney or Woodward, and at the end of the day those were still losing results. That said, he’s among the most talented members of this field, so it would be unwise to leave him out completely. Using underneath.
#6, ELATE (6-1): Some of my favorite handicapping moments are when I find myself arriving at conclusions that run counter to my expectations. That’s what happened when I actually took the time to assess Elate’s chances in this Breeders’ Cup Classic. As a female competing against males – and one who’s had a somewhat disappointing season, at least by the lofty standards she set for herself – I expected to dismiss her as a potential underlay in this race.
Yet I can’t help myself from arriving at the conclusion that Elate is a legitimate contender in this field. Her recent TimeformUS Speed Figures, ranging from 122 to 124, are not the kind of numbers that would typically meet the threshold for a win candidate in a Breeders’ Cup Classic, but such lofty numbers may not be required this time around. McKinzie and Yoshida both earned figures of 129 earlier this year, but neither has broken the 130-mark. Only Elate has done that, earning a 131 in last year’s thrilling battle with Abel Tasman in the Personal Ensign.
Furthermore, there’s the issue of the 1 1/4 miles. Elate has only tried this distance three times and she’s won all of those starts by large margins, albeit against softer competition and not always in particularly fast time. However, that 122 TimeformUS Speed Figure that she recorded in this year’s Delaware Handicap, her most recent attempt at this distance, certainly would have been higher had Jose Ortiz ridden her out to the wire. She was drawing off to an apparent 7- or 8-length score before Ortiz reined her in for the last sixteenth, so she could have run a number in the high 120s that day. Her final prep in the Spinster was a disappointment, but it was just that – a prep for this ambitious goal. She appears to be training as well as ever coming into this race, and she possesses the tactical speed to work out a favorable trip over this distance. Ultimately, my support for her will depend on the price, but I think anything around 5-1 odds is actually pretty fair. One of the main contenders.
#7, HIGHER POWER (6-1): I don’t want to be too hard on this colt for losing to Mongolian Groom and McKinzie in the Awesome Again, since he basically lost all chance when he dropped to his knees at the start. He was projected to be one of the main speeds of that race, and he instead had to rally from last over a somewhat speed-favoring surface while attempting to make up ground into a slow pace. He’s obviously better than that, and the expected race flow of this Classic should suit his style, as long as he breaks cleanly. My only issue with Higher Power is that his status as a major contender in this race hinges primarily on his Pacific Classic performance, and I remain fairly skeptical of the quality of that field. He earned only a 119 TimeformUS Speed Figure in victory, slower than many of the 3-year-olds are running, and he benefited from a moderate early tempo in a race where his main rivals from the East Coast failed to show up with their best efforts. It’s certainly possible that he’s continued improving out of that race and I suppose his Awesome Again performance supports that notion, to an extent. However, I couldn’t entertain the idea of supporting him on the win end at single-digit odds. Exotics player.
#8, MCKINZIE (3-1): This was supposed to be McKinzie’s year. The Horse of the Year title was seemingly there for the taking. Given a subpar group of older horses following some key retirements and a confusing 3-year-old landscape, the assumption was that McKinzie would be the one to step up and dominate the handicap ranks in 2019. And, while he has been brilliant on occasion, he’s disappointed more often than he’s dazzled.
If he wins this Classic, Eclipse voters will likely be asking, “What could have been?” It might come as a shock to some to learn that he’s managed only a single Grade 1 victory in 2019. The win, coming in Saratoga’s Whitney, showcased McKinzie at his finest. He toyed with the best older horses in the country, finishing with excellent power en route an impressive – at least by this season’s standards – 128 TimeformUS Speed Figure. However, that shining moment was preceded and followed by frustration, as he encountered traffic issues when losing to Mitole as the favorite in the Met Mile and just threw in a clunker as the 3-10 choice in the Awesome Again.
Despite all of the ups and downs, McKinzie still comes into this Classic as the horse to beat. He’s faster than his rivals and he has the right running style to achieve success in this race. He also gets a new rider. While Mike Smith did little wrong, Joel Rosario might be the perfect choice for a horse who needs to ration out his speed over 10 furlongs. Yet, there are still doubts, both about his current form and his ability to handle this distance. He’s not going to be quite as short a price as he would have been were he exiting a victory, but he’s still going to be a clear public choice in an otherwise wide-open race. I’ll be using him prominently, but I think you’re supposed to take a shot against him. A potentially vulnerable favorite.
#9, MONGOLIAN GROOM (12-1): He got the better of McKinzie in the Awesome Again, but it feels like that was the day you were supposed to have him. He was dismissed at 25-1, and everything went perfectly for this horse. Expected front-runner Higher Power stumbled out of the gate, and Mike Smith seemed reluctant to take up that position with McKinzie, leaving Mongolian Groom to set a slow pace. He’s been in solid form for a while now, and stamina has never been an issue for him. However, he might be a short price in this race than he was in the Awesome Again, and I just want to see it again. A fringe player.
#10, VINO ROSSO (4-1): Is it possible that everything is finally coming together for this enigmatic chestnut colt? In a race where there are lingering questions about the form, class, and stamina of so many runners, Vino Rosso checks off all of those boxes. He’s exiting the best effort of his career in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, that 128 TimeformUS Speed Figure is tied for the highest last-out number in the field, and he’s proven to be most effective going this 10-furlong distance. Furthermore, he even owns a win over this racetrack, as Todd Pletcher shipped him out here to win the Santa Anita Gold Cup earlier in the year.
It all appears to make too much sense, especially in the case of a horse who is unlikely to even be favored. After all, this is Vino Rosso we’re talking about – a horse who refused to focus last year and seemed like an unlikely candidate to even make it to this race as of a few months ago. However, to second guess what is now right in front of our eyes is to overcomplicate the situation, something we all have a tendency to do from time to time.
Vino Rosso always had the potential to be this kind of horse. It’s just taken him longer to reach this point than many expected, leading some to doubt that this recent form reversal isn’t some sort of optical illusion. Perhaps those blinkers just needed to come off all along. Without them, he was far more aggressive in the early stages of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and he showed more grit and determination than we’d ever seen out of him in the stretch of that race. If possible, it appears that his workouts since that performance have been even more impressive than those leading up to it, so he’s likely sitting on another big effort. The post position seems perfect and Irad Ortiz appeared to figure out what works last time with regard to his running style. Rather than fight it, I’m just going to go with the “now” horse, and that’s Vino Rosso. The selection.
#11, CODE OF HONOR (4-1): He’s been among the most fortunate equines in 2019. From his perfect ground-saving trip in the Kentucky Derby to the masterful ride he received from John Velazquez in the Travers, Code of Honor hasn’t encountered significant adversity since early in the springtime. Furthermore, he was the beneficiary of two controversial stewards’ decisions, elevated to second in the Derby and to first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Can his run of good luck continue into this Breeders’ Cup Classic?
In fairness to the horse, it’s not just good fortune that’s carried Code of Honor to the head of this 3-year-old class. He’s a very talented colt who has shown himself capable of making his own good trips while racing effectively over a variety of distances. Many doubted his stamina earlier this season, and he answered those critiques by running the three best races of his career going this 1 ¼-mile distance. However, he now has to ship out to California, something that this trainer rarely does, especially for dirt events. If he maintains his form, he’s a major player. However, I get the sense that his Gold Cup rival Vino Rosso may be better suited to the likely race flow and the demanding nature of the Santa Anita surface. I want to lean in a slightly different direction for my top picks, while acknowledging that I need to be careful, for I’ve unwisely underestimated this horse before. Another solid contender.