Breeders’ Cup 2016: Bankers or Blowouts?
The 2016 production of Breeders’ Cup poses as many questions as any of the 32 renewals that preceded it, with two days of high class closure promised against that film set backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains this weekend.
Three of the most poignant riddles can be found where the shortest of the thirteen Breeders’ Cup race favourites are reposed: in the Dirt Mile, the Distaff, and the Classic itself.
Dortmund (Dirt Mile), Songbird (Distaff) and California Chrome (Classic) have shown themselves to be champion material, but are they more likely to get the job done or come unstitched by the elevated company, and the specific demands, of this weekend’s assignments? In short, is this trio comprised of bankers, or blowouts?
My thoughts below are primarily based on an interpretation of market value, as opposed to who the most likely winner may be. That ought to become apparent as you skip through.
Dortmund is favoured, at around even money in the early wagering skirmishes, to prevail in the Dirt Mile on Friday. Maligned by some as the easy option for Chrome-dodging Classic contenders, it shaped to be a more intriguing – if less high class – encounter than the showpiece until the defection of Frosted to that latter finale.
Of those who are engaged, Dortmund’s form in not winning towers above his ‘Dirty Mile’ rivals. A sequence of second-third-second relates that he was closest to California Chrome twice, and only bested by that one and super-smart mare, Beholder, when settling for bronze in between.
He’s two from two at a mile, albeit in lesser company, and ‘turns back’ to that distance here, a tactic consistently adopted by Dirt Mile winners (perhaps offering credence to those who say this is the slot for failed Classic aspirants).
The big danger, possibly the only danger, was Frosted, Godolphin’s gorgeous grey. But he turns his back on the turn back, even after recording a monster 123 Beyer speed figure in the Metropolitan Handicap over a mile three starts ago.
In Frosted’s absence, the market has Runhappy and Gun Runner as the most credible alternatives. This pair of runners don’t look cut from the same cloth as the horse named after a German city, and which runs in the colours of the stars and stripes.
Regular readers will know of my hitherto unwavering affection for Runhappy, a horse who shunned raceday medication when thrusting a small town girl trainer into the limelight as he seared home in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Sprint.
But it’s been more Unhappy than Runhappy since then. An acrimonious split between horse and trainer has seen the four-year-old son of Super Saver race just twice more. The first of that pair was in the Malibu Stakes last December, when he was good enough to beat Grade 1 opposition over seven furlongs.
The second was more than nine months later, five weeks ago, in the Ack Ack Handicap, a Grade 3 over a mile. On that first attempt at the mile, he weakened out of it in the final eighth. Of course, there’s every chance he’ll improve for the much-needed run; but still, that wasn’t the sort of performance that strikes fear into a horse of the class of Dortmund.
Gun Runner is a three-year-old who was good enough, and precocious enough, to be third in the Kentucky Derby in early May. He’s been on the go ever since, racking up seven starts and three wins in 2016. But his Grade 1 scorecard is blank with a pair of bronzes rounded out by a fifteen-length trouncing at the hands of the enigma that is Arrogate – more of him anon.
It is possible that Dortmund could be compromised by a battle for the early lead with Runhappy, but more likely is that he’ll track that one’s superior sprint toe and pick him off somewhere in the final 330 yards.
To my eye, and through my wallet, Dortmund looks banker material, and I’ve played him as such in a dutched double with Lord Nelson and A P Indian in the Sprint.
Eleven runs, eleven wins, by an aggregate of 60 ½ lengths. What is not to love about the beautiful Songbird? Honestly? Nothing. And yet…
If we poke a little deeper into that spotless record, there are a couple of niggles. Three in fact.
The first is the clock, or at least the Beyer interpretation of ol’ tickety-tock. Songbird has troubled the triple digit trackers only once in that eleven-race sequence when she recorded a 101. In her defence – not that she needs my support there – that career high speed figure was produced in her only try at the nine-furlong Distaff distance. Moreover, it is not her fault that she’s been unextended to bash the daylights out of every filly reckless enough to line up alongside. And yet…
In four juvenile starts she raced exclusively against her own age group. There’s nothing wrong with that of course – it’s absolutely the norm. But in seven races this term, she has still yet to face an older rival. Here she is then, stepping out of Under-21 class and into Open company for the first time. Is she good enough? Probably. Possibly. It depends on the quality of the open company she will face.
And therein lies the third niggle. She is facing not one but two extremely talented older horses in Beholder and Stellar Wind.
Beholder was considered the main – many felt, the only – danger to American Pharoah in the 2015 Classic until spiking a temperature after a troubled ride to Keeneland and scratching from the main event, where she was bidding for a record third Breeders’ Cup win in three different events. There are no such travel headaches here, on her home sand, where she has a record of 13 wins from 15 starts.
She was second in the other two, once in 2013 and then last time out, a neck behind Stellar Wind. Beholder is six now and, though she carries her class brilliantly – she’s notched Beyer figures of 101-101-106-110 in her last four starts – there is an aura of aging susceptibility about a finishing position sequence of 1222 in that quartet of rapid shemozzles.
It can readily be argued that she was unlucky to record a 110 and get beaten – not many horses do that each year – and it was against Stellar Wind to whom she gave best, by no more than a neck, in a thrilling stretch battle. Her conqueror, a four-year-old daughter of Curlin, has been lightly raced this season, competing just three times.
Beaten into second by Beholder on the first of those, she has turned the tables in both subsequent matchups, and her form cycle has a likably upward trajectory to it. She looks set to enjoy a good trip just off the heels of the leaders – expected to be Beholder, I’m A Chatterbox, and possibly Songbird – and if she can match or better her last run she is the biggest danger to Songbird’s unbeaten sequence.
It looks a fantastic race, and one which is very hard to call. My heart says Songbird, my value head says Stellar Wind.
Songbird: Blowout (but I hope I’m wrong)
And so to the main event, and the coronation of a homecoming king, California Chrome. That’s how things look betting-wise, but is it as cut and dried as that? An almost full field tells you that plenty are prepared to buy a ticket in this $6 million lottery. Sadly for some wannabe’s in that midst, not all tickets are issued equally in this draw.
The Classic credentials of Chrome are as immediately appealing as those of Songbird in the Distaff: an unblemished six-for-six record in 2016 that has taken in the $10 million Dubai World Cup amongst two other Grade 1 scores.
Chromey’s consistency on the clock is confirmed with ratings of 111-113-112 in his last three outings, numbers that would usually be good enough to claim a Classic. And that might well be how it comes to pass: there may be a coronation but there is unlikely to be a procession in the manner of American Pharoah’s Beholder-less romp last year.
Here, even if you discount the prospects of Frosted, as I do – form of 42375 at 1m2f and beyond, his blitzkrieging 123 speed figure recorded over a mile, the Dirt Mile the obvious slot for him – there remains a monumental fly in the ointment.
His name is Arrogate and, if you’ve never heard of him, that’s all right. Very few people outside of the Southern California scene had prior to his last run. There, he vanned from coast to coast to rock up as an ‘also ran’ 12/1 poke in the Grade 1 Travers Stakes, having compiled a four-game unbeaten streak in maiden special weights and optional allowance claimers: not the stuff of Grade 1 winners as a rule.
There were no rules when Arrogate smashed his field to smithereens in the manner of a UFC champion gone doolally at an amateur boxing club. At the first call he had a lead of half a length. Half a mile into that ten-furlong top class event, he’d extended his advantage to a length. After six furlongs, he was two up, and at the mile the lead had stretched out to seven and a half lengths over a field of genuine Grade 1 horses.
In the last quarter, he ran them ragged, adding another six lengths to the second horse’s distance beaten tally, under little more than hand urging.
It was a mesmerizing, sensational, jaw-dropping, clock-stopping performance. A new track record over an oft-run distance at a Grade 1 track, Saratoga. Despite what was close to a perfect trip, there was no fluke about this effort.
Arrogate has trained up to the Classic since then, a tactic at which his trainer, Bob Baffert, is a past master. His works have been ridiculous, causing clockers to get uncomfortably moist in that corner of Santa Anita racetrack to the right of the stabling. Can he back that Travers effort up? That, dear reader, is the six-million-dollar question. If he can, he almost certainly wins.
It will be extremely interesting to watch how the Classic unfolds: both California Chrome and Arrogate are blood and thunder front runners generally, and what a sight it would be if they set to it from the gate, had the rest beaten off by the home turn, and slugged it out up the straight. These things almost never go according to such a populist script, but maybe, just maybe, this Classic will be that classic tussle.
As a footnote, there is a third possibility that the two prime contenders burn each other out, setting things up for an unconsidered closer. It happened in 2011 when Drosselmeyer outstayed them at Churchill Downs, and front running is not normally the way Classics are won.
With a terrific race in prospect, Cal Chrome is too short at around even money, in spite of his obvious win chance. I think Arrogate is the most exciting horse in the world right now and, though I’ve missed the price while deliberating the repeatability of that Travers phenom, I will be in his corner come Saturday evening.
California Chrome: Blowout (just)
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