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Handicapping the Breeder's Cup - Part 2: Saturday's Races...By Hartley Henderson
The first race of Saturday's Breeders' Cup is the Marathon, a new race with a purse of only $500,000. The two favourites in the race are Sixties Icon and Zappa. It's hard to disagree with those horses as being the favourites. The race distance of a mile and a half is suited to both horses. Sixties Icon was facing top notch horses in Europe and actually beat Well Armed, who I am picking to win the dirt mile. According to the trainer, the horse has practiced regularly on the synthetic surface in England and has taken right to it. If he can handle the dirt well he should be tough to beat. It's interesting to note that European horses generally avoid dirt races in the Breeders' Cup, particularly in warmer climates. But the synthetic surface guarantees the track won't be dry and dangerous to the horses, plus they race on it in Europe. Consequently, all dirt races are filled with European horses. The other favourite is Zappa, who easily won the Grade 2 Cougar Handicap at this distance, and also gave a good showing of himself in the Pacific Classic and the Goodwood. I'd look to other horses, but those 2 clearly stand out and are worth keying on for any multi-race exotics.
The shorter turf races are always a guess, and this race is no exception. Get Funky is the tepid 9/2 morning line favourite, but hardly looks like a sure thing. The horse has looked pretty good at the 6 1/2 furlong distance, but was beaten soundly in his last race by Calfornia Flag who appears to be a pretender here. I doubt Get Funky will be favoured at race time, nor should he be. Diabolical is 6/1, but my English handicapping friend told me the horse would be a surprise winner. He prefers a bit softer footing and hasn't displayed his 2007 form at all. As well, it appears he would prefer the dirt to the turf. Fleeting Spirit is the more likely the strong European horse, but again my English colleague tells me the horse will like the firm footing, but probably won't last 6 1/2 furlongs. In races of 6 furlongs in Europe, the horse struggled badly at the end. With a ton of other speed here, the handicapper believes he will falter in the stretch. Mr. Nightliner is certainly the most intriguing horse in the field, having won 5 straight races in good time, but he must be on the lead, and unlike in previous races he'll have a lot of competition up front early---the distance might be a bit long for him. I have no doubt Mr. Nightliner will go off as the post time favourite, but I'll look to beat him and Get Funky. For my tickets I'll be betting on 2 horses for this race looking to find a horse with a late charge in the stretch to run down the frontrunners. The two I have chosen are Idiot Proof and Rouse the Cat, both at very long odds. Idiot proof finished 2nd in the Breeder's Cup Sprint last year and has been quite effective at the 6 to 7 furlong distances. He's only had one turf race, where he lost by a length to Get Funky in a thrilling stretch duel. That race was enough to indicate that he can handle the turf and is worth a shot to reverse the order this time. Rouse the Cat would be the ultimate Cinderella story. The horse was running in cheap claiming races at Charlestown in January and now finds himself in a Breeders' Cup race. His move up has been culminated in to a thrilling stretch run to just lose in the Nearctic Stakes at Woodbine. He obviously loves the turf, and while he hasn't raced 6 1/2 furlongs, his running style seems to indicate he'll love the distance. He is one of the few true stretch runners in this race, and with a ton of speed he seems worth a shot at the enormous morning line of 20/1.
Well Armed is the favourite for this race and rightly so. He has the best times, has beaten most of the contenders in this race, and even showed a decent run with great early foot against Curlin in Dubai. At the same time, he is beatable. Albertus Maximus is the logical choice to defeat Well Armed, given his strong stretch running ability, but it is questionable whether or not the one mile distance is long enough for him. Pyro is also intriguing, as he was expected to be one of the favourites heading into the Kentucky Derby this year, but he disappointed far too often. More concerning, however, was his dreadful performance in his only attempt on the synthetic surface at Keeneland. If he can handle the track, though, he will be making up a lot of ground in the stretch on Saturday. The horse that I believe will give Well Armed his biggest challenge is Lewis Michael, the rail horse. As I mentioned before, inside horses are at a disadvantage, but the mile is actually around 2 turns, which has produced a fair number of winners at Santa Anita so far this fall. It's in sprint races of one turn that the rail is more of an issue. Lewis Michael has been lightly raced, with only 2 races this year, but his last race at DelMar was spectacular. The horse got away mid pack, then made up ground steadily to win easily at the 7 furlong distance in tremendous time. His Beyer speed figure for that race was comparable to Well Armed, and the horse he held off, Rebellion, is certainly no slouch. In 2007 Lewis Michael led at the mile call in the Goodwood before faltering in a losing bid to Tiago. My main play for the race will be on Well Armed, but I'll be throwing Lewis Michael into the exotics.
Goldikova is the favourite for the race and my English colleague loves the horse. She raced admirably against many great European horses, including Zarkava who won the Arc de Triomphe and will almost certainly be named Europe's Horse of the Year. She also beat Halfway to Heaven who was my pick for the Fillies Turf. "If she handles the footing, she'll romp", my handicapping friend told me. He believes Goldikova may prefer some moisture in the track turf, which is unlikely to happen at Santa Anita and that may be her undoing. If she does lose, Kip Deville is the logical second choice. The defending race champion seemed geared for a repeat performance until she flopped in the Woodbine Mile. In that race Kip Deville showed little and hung badly in the stretch. One could argue she didn't like the yielding turf, but she did win on soft turf at last year's Breeders' Cup at Monmouth. Whatsthescript will be flying in the stretch, and certainly loves the mile distance, but her class is a bit of a question mark. Thorn Song and Shakis can't be totally ruled out either. I'll take my colleague's word on this one and key on the favourite.
Munnings is the morning line favourite for this race. He comes off 2 second place finishes to Vineyard Haven in New York where Munnings never really contended for the win. His previous times were mediocre, he now has the rail, it's his first time in California and his first run on synthetic track. Plus he has yet to win a stakes rac---no thanks. Midshipman and Street Hero have both run well and obviously love the synthetic surface. Midshipman seems to have a bit more turn of foot than Street Hero, although Street Hero did just hold off Midshipman in their last race. For my money, though, I'm going for the two European horses Square Eddie and Bushranger. Square Eddie is a head scratcher. The horse showed nothing in 2 turf races in England, broke his maiden in average time, ran on the synthetic track at Kempton Park where he finished 2nd by a head, and then came to the U.S. where he won the Breeder's Cup Futurity at Keeneland with a turn of foot that would remind some of Arazi's win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile several years back. It's uncertain just how good this horse is, but a repeat performance of that race should beat any of the horses mentioned earlier. Bushranger is the other European invader, and unlike Square Eddie he has shown quite a bit of class with 3 group wins, as well as 2 group 1 races in a row. His times have been remarkable and he handles the firm turf well. If he takes to polytrack I believe he should win this race rather easily. My only question is why he isn't running in the Juvenile Turf instead, where he would almost certainly romp, which makes me suspect that his owner figures he'll be just as effective, if not more effective, on the synthetic surface, and it's worth racing him here for the extra million dollar purse.
This race is arguably the toughest one to call; no horse stands out. Bittel Road is the morning line favourite due to 3 consecutive wins, but none of the wins were memorable and the times were nothing spectacular. In fact, in the race where he beat Skipadate, it can be argued that Skipadate seemed to be the better horse if he just had some better racing luck. The Woodbine invader Grand Adventure looks good, and Sam-Son Farms has had success in Breeders' cup races in the past with Dance Smartly, Chief Bearhart, Sky Classic and others. And the horse did beat Skipadate, albeit narrowly. Coronet of a Baron also looks good, but his training times on turf have been nothing spectacular and this will be his first race on that footing. This being a turf race I turned to my European handicapper colleague to see if anything intrigued him from across the pon,d and he told me he loves Westphalia. The horse came second to Bushranger, who I mentioned would likely have won this race hands down and my colleague says he has been hampered by horrible weather in Ireland. Apparently Westphalia loves harder turf, but it hasn't stopped raining in Ireland, which has prevented him from racing on his preferred footing. The handicapper stated that he wouldn't be surprised to see this horse win by 10 lengths if he is "on". He really had no opinion on Donativum, but suggested Aidan O'Brien's Westphalia is the better value. Consequently my money will be on both Westphalia and Grand Adventure.
Always a toss up, this year's race is no different. Cost of freedom was racing in maiden claiming races just 2 years ago, took a year and a half off and somehow has come to life in 2008. He was claimed for $50,000 in July by Harris Farms in what may be one of the greatest purchases in history, and romped in 2 consecutive races, including a grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita where he won in the incredible time of 1:07 2/5. One has to wonder what trainer John Sadler put in this horse's feed. Having said that, the horse will have a lot of challengers up front, has the dreaded rail to contend with, and one really has to wonder if a horse can be claimed for $50,000 just a few months ago and win a $2 million race 3 races later. If he does win, he is the 21st century Seabiscuit story. Street Boss just lost to Cost of Freedom in his last race, but clearly has the class. He reeled off 5 straight victories on polytrack, including one in 1:07 2/5 after clipping heels with another horse. Unlike Cost of Fortune, the horse comes from behind, and with a short field the inside post may not hurt too much. Fabulous Strike and Fatal Bullet are low morning line prices also, but the former has never run on a synthetic tack and the latter is cheap. In fact, in the only 2 graded races Fatal Bullet ran on he was trounced---neither horse is a real contender. That leaves last year's winner, Midnight Lute. The horse has only raced twice since his Breeders' Cup win last year: a race at a mile in November of 2007 and one in August of this year, where he was trounced by Lewis Michael. Given the August race result, it's hard to get excited about him, but he clearly needed a race, and more importantly his training since that race has been off the charts. He has had bullet works almost every time out, and some may argue that some of those works would actually win this race. His one real downfall is polytrack. He does show a good win on the surface at Keeneland, but he also shows 2 bad defeats. For my money I'll give him a shot and add Street Boss, as well.
Red Rocks returns for his 3rd straight Breeders' Cup Turf race and Better Talk Now returns for his 800th (just kidding). Red Rocks wasn't in the greatest form for most of the year, but his victory in the Man O'War over Curlin leading up to this point clearly makes him a contender. There are numerous European invaders, the most notable being Soldier of Fortune. The horse was 3rd in the Arc de Triomphe and won the Coronation Stakes, defeating Red Rocks by 7 lengths. One of the concerns with Soldier of Fortune is the lack of interest in him in Europe. Many sportsbooks have the horse as high as 4/1 for the race overseas, which could indicate that English handicappers don't fancy him. My handicapping friend doesn't like him either. "I really don't think he'll take to the Santa Anita Turf," my friend said, "and there are better European horses in the race." The two horses that both my handicapping colleague, and apparently other European sportsbooks like, are Conduit and Eagle Mountain. In fact, in many places Conduit is the favourite. The horse is coming off consecutive wins in group races and handles the firm turf well. The 3 year old is said to be coming right to the top of his form now. Eagle Mountain only had one race this year, which was a victory in England less than 2 weeks ago, although as a 3 year old he was quite impressive with a 2nd place finish in the Epsom Derby and a good 3rd place finish against Soldier of Fortune. I'll look to beat all 4 horses, however, with another European horse who had one race already in the U.S., Winchester. The horse was beaten soundly by Conduit in Europe, then finished just average in the Irish Derby, but came to life when running in the Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park, winning by 7 stakes. Watching a replay of the race on Youtube, it is obvious the horse took to the very firm turf at Arlington Park. While many horses struggle when coming from overseas for the first time, other horses thrive on it. Indeed, I've seen numerous horses who couldn't win a listed race in Europe, but came to North America and became multiple Grade 1 winners, only to lose badly again when going back to Europe. There is quite a difference between the turf surfaces in Europe and North America, and just as some horses do well on dirt, but not polytrack, other horses do well on North American turf, but not European turf. The horse is listed as a 15/1 morning line, but I'd be surprised to see him go off at more than 8/1 at post time. I'll toss in Soldier of Fortune as well, as a backup.
The final race on the card is the Classic. Three questions seem to arise for this race: Will Curlin like the polytrack in his first race on a synthetic surface? How will the 3 European invaders handle the synthetic surface? And just how good is Casino Drive? It seems clear that if Curlin handles the surface and doesn't suffer any bad racing luck, he should win. Curlin has beaten the best, is the defending race champion and clearly loves the distance. He is undefeated on dirt this year and will be tough to beat. Casino Drive is a head scratcher. As many will recall, he was given a great chance to defeat Big Brown in the Belmont, but was scratched prior to the race. Consequently, Big Brown ran a clunker. Casino Drive subsequently returned with a victory in an allowance race at Santa Anita, but that wasn't a race that would get anyone excited. Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator took turns beating each other in Europe, although the latter has had a bit more success and seems better suited to the mile and quarter distance. As well, Henrythenavigator is trained by Aidan O'Brien, who is always a threat in Breeders' Cup races. O'Brien has a 4 year old in the race as well, Duke of Marmalade. That horse finished 7th in the Arc de Triomphe in his last race, but it appears he didn't handle the going well. By all accounts, Duke of Marmalade prefers a harder surface, which could bode well for a run on the synthetic track. Of the other horses, Go Between and Colonel John seem to be the most likely upsetters, although it appears neither would have much for Curlin. I'll take Curlin to double up with an easy victory here, and will take Duke of Marmalade second for the exacta.
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