Finally – it’s Classic time. The “race of the year” (although not necessarily for Horse of the Year, as evidenced by recent history) for an overall purse of $5 million. Obviously the story of the race is the entry of the undefeated mare Zenyatta – one of the sports biggest stars in North America and a hometown hero that the masses will turn out to support in droves for her first try against the boys.
Last year we had another equally beloved North American horse coming in as the heavy favorite. Of course I’m talking here of my beloved Curlin. Despite a bold move as the field neared the top of the stretch that at first glance appeared to be trademarked, patented Curlin - he ultimately floundered through the final furlong and wound up finishing 4th, passed by two horses that had shipped in from Europe in both Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator.
Will things be different this year? It was supposed to be the “year of the filly” – but the Fighting Phils blew the World Series to the N.Y. Yankees last night. Still, might that be a favorable omen for Zenyatta? Think about it – if her biggest threats are coming from across the pond once again, then is it a good sign that the “Yankees” won? We horseplayers are nothing if not superstitious, so it’s something to think about.
Speaking of which – I’d encourage ALL horseplayers to go to our TBA homepage right now and play along with our “BC Picks” feature. Basically it’s just a google doc spreadsheet. Contact Handride if you have any questions about how to enter your picks. I see at least one regular reader (Mark Ripple) is already there – hopefully we’ll see more of you shortly.
Since this post will also be featured until I return from the Breeders’ Cup Sunday evening, I’d also like to point out that I’ve updated the page entitled “2009 Breeders’ Cup” so that you can easily navigate to the selections/analysis for each of the BC races this weekend. Basically it’s the old “2009 Triple Crown” page that used to be in the same spot – only that information has been moved down a few notches. Just trying to keep things as easy as can be for the readers here.
Getting back to the Classic, the field sets up like this:
- Mine That Bird (12/1)
- Colonel John (12/1)
- Summer Bird (9/2)
- Zenyatta (5/2*)
- Twice Over (20/1)
- Richard’s Kid (12/1)
- Gio Ponti (12/1)
- Einstein (12/1)
- Girolamo (20/1)
- Rip Van Winkle (7/2)
- Regal Ransom (20/1)
- Quality Road (12/1)
- Awesome Gem (30/1)
“Slow Cheetah come, it’s so euphoric. Looks like it’s on today…” (“Slow Cheetah” being my pet name for Zenyatta)
MINE THAT BIRD – the 3-year-old “little gelding who could” that shocked the world with his stunning 50/1 upset in the Kentucky Derby back in May. Sadly, that was the last time he found the winner’s circle, although he did come charging well late against Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness. He just hasn’t seemed the same horse since then, and his relatively uninspiring effort over the Santa Anita Pro Ride in the Goodwood (Grade 1) last month does not leave me thinking he’s got much of a chance here. He’s shocked us before – so keep that in mind before you toss him out, but as much as I like this gelding and his trainer, Chip Woolley Jr., I’m just not seeing it.
COLONEL JOHN was my original selection for the 2008 Kentucky Derby. Since then I’ve had a bit of a tough love relationship with him. He’s a Tiznow colt, and I’m nothing if not a Tiznow fan, so he’ll always hold a special place in my heart. It just seems like whenever I expect big things from him, he struggles, and whenever I dismiss his chances, he runs huge. He’s capable of running big here, but I’m going to consider others as more solid selections for win honors. If my Colonel John conundrum continues, that might suggest he’s primed for his best performance. For now, I’ll say he’s a contender and leave it at that.
SUMMER BIRD might be the forgotten colt of the entire field. This is likely due to his lack of previous racing experience over the synthetic surfaces. The son of Birdstone did train over the Santa Anita Pro Ride before joining the barn of Trainer Tim Ice – a man who was beyond awesome to my entire family on Haskell day at Monmouth Park. Since we got to meet Summer Bird that day, and since he was my wife’s Belmont pick, you best believe he’ll be on all my tickets. Am I worried about the synthetics? Nope, not at all – and my gut tells me this guy is one of the better North American horses in racing. Case in point – immediately following the Haskell, our conversations with Ice revealed that he didn’t want to run into Rachel Alexandra ever again, but he’s confident enough again in his colt following his victories in the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup that he now publicly states he wants another shot at her. Not many folks would say such a thing – and Tim is a consummate gentlemen, so don’t mistake that for false bravado. He’s sincere in everything he says, which tells me this colt is poised. Big factor – and expect to see those odd s of 9/2 improve dramatically once the betting windows open up.
ZENYATTA - what’s left to say about my beloved “Slow Cheetah?” The 50-foot woman…the undefeated super star who has been the poster girl for California racing for 2 seasons now. This is her biggest moment, and while she’s facing boys for the first time and taking on a new distance as well, she’s simply one of the classiest animals I’ve had the pleasure of seeing. If this is indeed her swan song (which recent discussions suggest it will not be), then it shall be with a watery eye that I bid her farewell. My love affair with Zenyatta began the evening she broke her maiden in her debut in late 2007. I had just decided to start posting picks online and experimenting with these peculiarities called “blogs.” The rest, quite literally, is history. I’m expecting her finest hour – and that’s exactly what it will likely take to prevail. If this plays out the way she usually does things, expect a heart-stopping photo finish type of cliffhanger ending at the wire. You KNOW she’ll be flying late.
TWICE OVER is the sneakiest of the European invaders by virtue of being 20/1 on the morning line. I’ll say this, given the fact that European shippers ran 1, 2 in the 2008 Breeders’ Cup Classic, wouldn’t it make sense to at least take a flyer on a RIP VAN WINKLE/TWICE OVER exacta here? We are, after all, talking about a horse that has won 3 straight overseas, including besting the filly Sariska in the Champion Stakes (Group 1). He didn’t appear to run his best race when he tangled with RIP VAN WINKLE in the Eclipse Stakes back in July, but his running line denotes that he was “bumped’ in that race. Further, he simply might be a better horse now than he was back then. Very interesting and quite usable colt given the 20/1 value on the morning line.
RICHARD’S KID was the upset special for trainer Bob Baffert in the Grade 1 Pacific Classic in early September. The son of Lemon Drop Kid shocked us all by beating EINSTEIN at 24/1, and then returned to run 3rd beaten only a length to COLONEL JOHN and Gitano Hernando. In other words, he doesn’t appear to be a fluke, so you might want to keep him around on your tickets.
GIO PONTI is probably the best North American turf horse at the moment. So what’s he doing here rather than racing in the BC Turf? I’m not entirely certain, although it would appear he does seem to favor the 10 furlong distance. The son of Tale of the Cat did win here in the Sir Beaufort over the Pro Ride when that race came off the turf last December. If you’re a believer that turf form translates well to the Pro Ride, then you shouldn’t have any doubts about his chances. He has to be considered a player in here with a chance.
EINSTEIN is the hard trying son of Spend a Buck that has earned fans from all over the nation the past 3 years. I’ll always remember the first time I saw him live on Preakness Day in 2007, when a spill caused him to toss jockey Robby Albarado just 2 races before Curlin’s date with destiny in the Preakness. Ultimately we lost the colt Mending Fences that day, but since then Einstein has gone on to become one of the most versatile horses in all of racing. His motto, if he could speak, would surely be something along the lines of “any surface, any track, any time.” A rare Grade 1 winner on dirt, turf, and synthetics. He’s run into some hard luck and close finishes this year, so it would be nice to see him fight his way back into the winner’s circle. Ultimately I like him better as an underneath play here.
GIROLAMO is the most lightly raced of the contenders, and a 3-year-old son of A. P. Indy. He’s never been two turns before, but his pedigree suggests he’ll handle it. For me the tougher question is figuring out where he might fit into the equation pace wise. I’m guessing he’ll be right up there trying to go with Regal Ransom. He’s definitely a nice colt that is on the improve and eligible to continue to move forwad, but he’ll be on a new surface, going two turns for the first time, and facing a level of competition he’s never seen before. That might be asking just a tad too much here.
RIP VAN WINKLE is the main threat to ZENYATTA’s quest for glory here in the Classic. The son of Galileo has been very sharp lately, taking both the Sussex Stakes and the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Group 1 races both) in his last two efforts. Prior to that he was only 1 length behind Sea the Stars in the Eclipse Stakes (and, notably, 4 1/2 lengths in front of Conduit – whom I just made top selection in the BC Turf….hmmmmm). In fact, he lost 3 straight to Sea the Stars, but never finished worse than 4th and was never further than 2 1/2 lengths from the colt considered by many to be among the best they have ever seen in Europe. Trainer Aidan O’Brien and jockey Johnny Murtagh will team up once again here and look to steal the victory from the hometown hero. The obvious question will be how he handles the synthetics, and as always one must take a bit of a leap of faith in backing a runner like this, but he does look tough to deal with here. In fact, he looks tougher than anything ZENYATTA has ever seen. As much as it pains me to do it, he’s going to be the top pick. Don’t “sleep” on this guy (lame, I know, but I couldn’t resist).
REGAL RANSOM is a horse I was admittedly quite enamored with during the Triple Crown season earlier this year. Things didn’t quite work out for him, as he finished 8th over the Churchill slop on Derby day, but he did return to wire the field in the Super Derby last out (Grade 2). He seems to be a legit pace factor here, and that could have him in a favorable position if he were to get loose on the lead. Of course, as mentioned earlier, GIRALOMO appears to want to have something to say about that, and so might QUALITY ROAD, so it’s not enough to make me think upset here. Word is that he has been working extremely well here, so definitely think about using him underneath on the exotics.
QUALITY ROAD was once my top Derby selection for 2009. This means that my top Derby picks for the last 2 years are now here in this race. The speedy son of Elusive Quality has been unable to catch SUMMER BIRD in his last two starts over wet surfaces in New York. I’d expect him to be on the muscle early on and looking to press REGAL RANSOM should that one try to waltz away with things untested early on. It’s hard for me to think he’ll win this, but he can still be a factor. One angle to keep in mind is that this is a colt who had some issues with his feet earlier in the year, and quite a few horses with similar problems have really taken to the softer synthetic surfaces.
AWESOME GEM was the third place finisher in the 2007 Classic behind Curlin and Hard Spun. Last year he finished 6th in the BC Mile. I’d give him a shot if we were on a true dirt surface and rain was in the forecast, but his 1 for 12 record on synthetics leaves me thinking he’s an outsider here.
How do I see this race playing out? I think REGAL RANSOM, QUALITY ROAD, and GIROLAMO will contest things early on . As the field nears the turn, ZENYATTA will start to uncoil and swing wide (like she always does) and start mowing down horses in front of her. RIP VAN WINKLE will be a bit more forwardly placed along with SUMMER BIRD, EINSTEIN, and TWICE OVER. This group will actually get frist run at the leading trio, with ZENYATTA, COLONEL JOHN, RICHARD’s KID, MINE THAT BIRD, and GIO PONTI further back.
I like RIP VAN WINKLE and ZENYATTA to rise to the top, due to their respective class, and leave us with a finish for th ages. I’m calling a photo finish that could go either way depending on the head bob. Two gutsy, world class competitors leaving it all on the line. No quarter shall be asked, and none shall be given. God bless ‘em, this ought to be a good one.
- #10 Rip Van Winkle (7/2)
- #4 Zenyatta (5/2*)
- #3 Summer Bird (9/2)
Best of luck to all! May this be a Breeders’ Cup to remember. Don’t forget that we’ve got all 13 of the previous Breeders’ Cup races for the weekend covered as well. For quick access, you can locate those posts here.