Churchill Downs last weekend saw the 2010 renewal of racing's Breeders Cup festival, spread over fourteen races and two days. It's not to everyone's tastes, but it certainly floats my boat, as I get my one chance a year to test my skills at reading US form and assimilating that with European lines. Not easy, but great fun nevertheless!
I've learned so much about US racing in the past week from my deep research, and I think I've picked up at least a couple of new tricks that can be applied to UK racing to produce some very nice 'against the crowds' profits. More of that another day, but today I want to share with you my thoughts on the Breeders Cup races, and on Churchill Downs.
Let's start with the track as, for the second time in a row, the Breeders Cup will be held at the same track twice in succession. As it was with Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009, so Louisville's Churchill Downs will again host the Breeders Cup 2011 next November.
So the following track notes may come in handy in a year's time!
Obviously, there are two courses, the turf and the dirt. I expanded on the theoretical vagaries of these in an earlier post here - Churchill Downs Track Bias - and today I want to add some experience to the academics.
The dirt course, a mile round and outside the turf course, is a traditional US dirt track. This differs from our all weather courses, and from many US so-called poly and synthetic tracks.
Horses with dirt form fared best, and horses with synthetic form - especially Euro horses coming off the all-weather - did poorly. Next year, it will likely pay to follow only horses with proven dirt form despite the allure of others with seemingly better credentials achieved on different surfaces.
The draw was discussed at length in a preview I attended, and it was felt that the inside draw (post position 1) was not a good place to be in the sprints. As it turned out, in the six furlong Breeders Cup Sprint, trap 1 beat traps 4 and 5. So that did for the inside box hoodoo theory!
In truth, the track was pretty fair to all runners over both days, with one notable exception: front runners struggled. Personally, I don't actually believe this was to do with the track, but rather it was because it is very, very difficult to withstand late rallies from some of the best horses on the planet when you've been out in front for so long.
The turf course showed arguably a touch of inside draw bias, with trap one capturing the five furlong sprint, from trap two. The other important things to take from the turf course are the tight turns (think Chester on steroids) and the firmness of the track. It is my opinion that the lawn was good to firm, good in places on Friday - due largely to a drop or three of rain. But on Saturday, with no further precipitation and drying weather (cool and pretty breezy), allied to a notoriously quick draining course, it was rock hard.
Sir Michael Stoute whinged a little bit too much for my tastes (he should have known all about the track there, and almost certainly did), but he was probably right to ultimately pull Workforce (and Dux Scholar) from the races. It is my opinion that he'll think twice before believe he has some sort of divine power to instruct the ground staff in Louisville to dance to his turf tune.
US turf horses habitually run on rock hard ground and they're hardly likely to make a race that is already a Euro benefit any easier for the away team.
With the exception of previously unheralded (and, by me, previously lampooned) Dangerous Midge, and of course Goldikova in the Mile, Euro horses underperformed left, right and sidewise. This I think is for a variety of reasons, as follows:
- Over-racing. For many trainers, the Breeders Cup is an afterthought. They race their horses from Spring to Autumn, and then bring them here. Aidan O'Brien is a classic example of this, and I think his star - on both sides of the Atlantic - is on the wane a little. Certainly his nags go off much shorter generally than they deserve to.
It is instructive to note that Freddie Head has targeted the BC Mile for Goldikova all year: no afterthought there. Moreover, Brian Meehan was sending out his second winner in the Turf, as Dangerous Midge followed in the hoofprints of Red Rocks (also at Churchill Downs in 2006). Clearly then, this was the plan for DM too. (How easy this game is with hindsight!)
- The ground. Saturday's turf course would have been described as 'firm' in Britain, and even then only because racecourses refuse to use the 'hard' description any more. When was the last time you saw a track described as 'hard' in UK? So the raiders weren't used to that, and probably didn't cope too well (except DM).
- The pace. Again excepting the pedestrian clip in the Turf, where the first three at the finish were the same as they were a furlong after the start albeit in a slightly different order, the turf races are run quickly. Obviously, we have fast run races here too, but factoring in the need for early 'tactical' speed in order to get a position, and the extreme tightness of the curves (with very little camber too), and this was a pretty alien concept for many Euro runners.
I really hope we send turf sprinters for the five furlong race next year, as a true speed horse with fast ground form, early pace and a good draw, could bag that prize. For the other races, I'll be avoiding O'Brien horses, swerving the BC Turf, and wary in the rest.
OK, so what of the individual races? Well, I'll not go through every single one of the fourteen, but I will report on the Euro's and make a few observations elsewhere.
The opening race, the Marathon, was won in both its first two years by a European horse. That was on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride surface and neither Bright Horizon nor Precision Break could get things together when push came to shove here. Precision ran OK in seventh, having been up there early but couldn't respond on the surface.
O'Brien's Bright Horizon was never in it.
By the way, if you thought this race was meaningless, this is what Calvin Borel thought about the interference he suffered from Javier Castellano. Brilliant! You've got to love that boy, Borel...
Next year, it may pay to ignore our runners unless they've proven they handle a dirt surface (note, not all weather tracks but actual US dirt tracks).
The Juvenile Fillies' Turf has never been the Euro benefit some expected it to be and this year didn't break the away team's duck. Together, runner up in the Fillies' Mile, ran best in fifth but never threatened the winner, More Than Real.
This was a memorable race for me, as it was the first time I've successfully predicted the superfecta!
In case you don't know, the superfecta is a wager where you try to predict the first F-O-U-R in the CORRECT order! It might sound like a mug's bet (and it might
even be one!), but I picked up a couple of brilliant tips on how to play this bet while I was there and, using that information, I copped $661.06 for a $22 bet. 🙂
I had four of these little $5.50 tickets, and essentially needed to get horse number seven (Winter Memories, the favourite) to be first or second; and any one of 2, 3, 10, 11, or 13 to fill out the first two with the favourite.
Then I needed horse number four, Kathmanblu, to be either third or fourth. And that was it!
As it turned out, Kathmanblu was third and the favourite second behind More Than Real. What really made the ticket though was that the fourth horse was an unconsidered beast sent off at 73/1 on course.
It was a great moment, and actually a pretty easy bet to win with. I could - and should - have had two more of these before the weekend was out. Due to being a learner and making a couple of rookie mistakes, I didn't collect. But I'm currently working out how to apply my method to UK racing. When I've figured it, I'll let you know!
Some gloss was taken off the victory, when I learned I had to make a visit to the IRS window. If you don't know, that means I had to 'lend' a third of my winnings to the US tax department, with possibility that I might get it back under challenge later on. Nice. Not!
The winner paid 14/1 here in UK, and was 12.6/1 in US. In my Friday preview, I had Winter Memories (2nd) as the most likely winner, with More Than Real one of two on my contenders list. Hopefully, some of you also managed to get something back on this race.
Moving on, and there was nothing to crow about in the Filly and Mare Sprint, but the Juvenile Fillies was a different story. Here, the unbeaten Calder filly, Awesome Feather, made it six on the bounce with a tenacious and convincing win over a decent looking field, at odds of 5/1 (4.2/1 US odds).
The thing about this little filly is just that: she's little. In fact, she's absolutely tiny. There can only be room inside her for a big heart and an even bigger engine, as she showed some very decent juvey's a clean pair of hooves.
I copped the exacta here when R Heat Lightning ran second, but could have (should have!) had the trifecta with Delightful Mary running on late. She was my best outsider shout here, with Awesome Feather put up as likeliest winner and R Heat Lightning one of three contenders.
Next up was the Filly and Mare Turf, where Midday was going for a repeat win. The race was a muddling contest, and my money on Plumania never looked like collecting. In the end, Midday did brilliantly to challenge off a slow pace, but was ultimately mugged by a rag who got first run. Shared Account was one of those 'who??' horses that nobody seemed to have, and she paid 33/1 here and 45/1 there.
The Ladies' Classic, or Distaff as it used to be known, was bagged by Unbridled Belle, who I tipped but didn't bet. Of course I had her in the superfecta, but I put Blind Luck in to be third or fourth. Which was annoying, as I had both Havre de Grace and It's Tea Time in the second spot. They finished third and fourth. That superfecta paid $1,668 and was one that got away. Such a fun bet though!
Then it was off to the pub. Quite literally. Friday drinking was in a pub in Louisville called The Pub.
Saturday morning started bright and bleary, as the hangover persisted while the wager structuring commenced. Possibly it was that which clouded my judgment so badly, as I made my usual erroneous lumpy bet on the wrong one...
The day had many highlights, with the two most obvious being Goldikova's amazing hat-trick success and Zenyatta's amazing narrow defeat in the Classic.
But there was much to play on prior to either of those affairs.
Sometimes, I'm a slow learner. But I have finally learned this lesson after AGAIN backing an O'Brien horse at a short price here. Master Of Hounds ran OK without ever looking like winning, and left me in negative equity at the start of the day. His sixth place was the pick of the three Euro's and ended a run of two UK wins on the trot.
Luckily, the next race was kinder, with Big Drama - an excellent profile fit for the race - doing the biz in fine style from the front. I thought the superfecta was too tricky here, so instead had an exacta with Big Drama to beat the field. Luckily for me, not only did Big Drama win, but an outsider - Hamazing Destiny - finished second.
My $22 bet picked up $254.80, which was nice. Again, the superfecta was within reach, and that paid a monster $13,939 for a dollar!
Hopefully a reader or two backed Big Drama, as there wasn't too much else to shout about 'on top' in my picks for the rest of Saturday.
The Turf Sprint was next and I demoted Chamberlain Bridge - who was my preferred selection - after he drew stall one. Instead I went with Silver Timber who also had excellent credentials. Timber plugged on for fifth, just three lengths back, but the speed won here. And the speed of the speed was Chamberlain Bridge. Bugger. All my mates backed it. I didn't.
The first five home were drawn 1-2-4-7-5, with only the outsiders in 3 and 6 failing to fire. This might be useful info for next year, as the five furlong strip reminds me very much of the Chester five, where low draws are massively favoured on fast ground. I won't overlook a strong profile horse from the one box next year!
The Juvenile was next, and I'd decided I was going to get Uncle Mo beaten. I was wrong. Mo was always close up, and spurted clear before the home straight to win by over four lengths from another hyped horse, Boys At Tosconova. Boys himself was fully six clear of the third horse, with my pick, Biondetti, running a reasonable race in fourth at 16/1.
Ladbrokes go 6/1 about Uncle Mo becoming the first horse to win the Breeders Cup Juvenile and the Kentucky Durrby. He was impressive here, but a lot can (and will) happen between now and next May.
Then came the Mile, and that beauty, Goldikova. I wanted her to win from a sporting perspective, and included her in my bets without going too deep. As it turned out, she had a lot to do turning in, but did it she did. And she did it impressively to prevail by almost two lengths from clear next best, Gio Ponti.
Paco Boy, the subject of much drunken heated debate the night before (I said he couldn't win, my friends insisted he could and backed him accordingly), clung on for fourth despite conditions being hugely against him.
Alas for me, my superfecta 'under' horse, Court Vision, was three-quarters of a length back in fifth. Bugger. I could have lumped on Goldi, but instead just missed out on a smallish super.
Goldikova got a fantastic ovation - quite rightly - as the first horse to win three Breeders Cup races. To win the same race, and one so well contested each year as the Mile, makes this an incredible feat.
I guess she goes to the paddocks now and, having won a ridiculous TWELVE Group or Grade 1 races, including five this year, only the best stallions need apply here! Step forward Mr Sea The Stars, there's a lady who's interested in meeting you. How these top sorts get to mix business with pleasure! 😉
The Dirt Mile was the spectacle I'd forecast, with five of them in a line a furlong out. Alas, by the jam stick, that was all I forecasted correctly on this race, as 25/1 (37/1 on track) rag Dakota Phone bagged the spoils.
Onwards and downwards.
The Breeders Cup Turf was next and, with the late defection of Workforce due to the prevailing tarmac-like sod, I decided this was a 'gimme' for Behkabad. I punted him accordingly. I lost on the meeting as a result. Bugger.
Behk ran OK, but I expected him to have much more run at the top of the home straight and to kick on past moderate US horse, Pegasus Champ, and improving-but-not-in-the-same-league, Dangerous Midge, who were the only two in front of him.
As it transpired, they remained the only two in front of him, and the horse who couldn't win, won. Sometimes, this game makes a monkey out of you. This was one such occasion. Not only did I do it in, but a Euro horse won the race. Midge may go on to prove that race no fluke, but this was as square a strike to my fleshy parts as I've experienced in recent months, and it was tough to bear.
My wagering on the final race, the Classic, was muted as a result. But let that not detract from a fantastic race, that involved a fantastic mare and an extremely good - and underrated - colt.
The pre-race chatter was all about one beast: the unbeaten in nineteen races supermare, Zenyatta. A lot of people were against her last year, including me, and a lot of judges were against her this year (and me). Last year, she made us all 'eat crow' as they say Stateside. And this year, she very nearly did likewise.
Sent off at odds on (incredibly in my opinion), Zenyatta ran a remarkable race. In the early fractions, Zenyatta was at least twelve lengths off the forecious gallop.
At the top of the home straight, she was still last.
By the line, she'd been vanquished by a diminishing head. To blame the jockey is unfair. This is her style of running, and this was an 'accident' waiting to happen. In fact, she met no trouble in running whatsoever, when the path the jock took deserved to, so there are no excuses.
Some race readers, including the Racing Post's write up guy, squarely blame the jockey. I think that's weak and demonstrates only a fleeting understanding of her racing style. They went off waaay too quick here, and the four front runners finished as the last quartet. All of the first trio by contrast were waited with. Sure Zenyatta was waited with the most, but that's her way. Always was.
She was simply beaten by a better horse on the day. Despite that, I suspect she ran her best race ever.
There was much blubbing from aghast gals post-race, and Blame will never be accorded the kudos he merits for this win. Such is racing, especially when the sport so badly needs 'story' horses like Zenyatta.
That was the cherry on top of what was a magnificent ten days away for me, which started in New Orleans with gators and airboats and the Saints vs. the Steelers, and ended in Louisville with Goldikova and Zenyatta, two of the loveliest ladies I know!
Here's some video of them doing their stuff last Saturday. Enjoy.