By Ed McNamara
Unlike the Kentucky Derby, a mainstream festival of Americana, the Breeders’ Cup is all about gambling. It’s a two-day test of wits and nerve for serious handicappers, not amateurs who bet on names and colors. You don’t hear much about Breeders’ Cup parties where everybody puts in $2 and picks a horse out of the hat.
The racing at Santa Anita on this first Saturday in November has nothing to do with what might happen at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Friday’s Juvenile may provide clues, but probably not many. The year’s pari-mutuel grand finale is about making short-term predictions based on the recent past. Get enough of them right and you can redeem a lot of bad beats and poor picks in the previous 10 months.
I’ll be updating my comments with 1-2-3 selections after factoring in the post-position draw (Monday, 6:30 p.m. ET).
FILLY & MARE SPRINT (7 furlongs)
With so much quality speed in here, I looked for a stalker/closer, but couldn’t find one I liked a lot. New York shipper Come Dancing is 2-for-4 at the distance and has won from just off the pace, and she’ll be a huge price against Grade 1 winners Serengeti Empress, Covfefe and Bellafina, who’s off form but 4-for-4 at Santa Anita. Other horses for the course are Spiced Perfection and Secret Spice, who can sit off the lead and have multiple wins at 7 furlongs.
TURF SPRINT (5 furlongs)
If you thought the Filly & Mare Sprint was confusing, check out the PPs for this scramble. Two-time defending champion Stormy Liberal is 7 and has slipped, losing six in a row since last year’s Sprint. His trainer, Peter Miller, may have his successor in Belvoir Bay, who’s 6-for-9 on Santa Anita’s turf, with three wins at five furlongs. You can make a case for more than half the field, which has need-to-lead types (Girls Know Best, Pure Sensation), stalkers and closers. Maybe the draw will help weed out some of the many contenders.
Likely favorite Omaha Beach is 4-for-5 on dirt and 2-for-3 at Santa Anita, but will he regress after a hard-fought win in his return from a six-month layoff? Catalina Cruiser could beat him, but he’s also entered in the Sprint, his first preference. Other contenders are Todd Pletcher’s speedy Coal Front and Bob Baffert’s overrated money burner, Improbable, who often self-destructs with antics in the starting gate. (Fun factoid: Improbable was the post-time Kentucky Derby favorite three days after morning-line choice Omaha Beach was withdrawn because of a throat problem.)
FILLY & MARE TURF (1¼ miles)
Chad Brown’s defending champ, Sistercharlie, has won six straight, all Grade 1’s. Can she beat Ireland’s Magical, who almost upset superstar filly Enable last year in the Turf? No one else in here comes close to these two Amazons. Choosing between these short-priced heroines would be very tough, and it might be almost as much fun to watch without betting. I know, that sounds like heresy.
SPRINT (6 furlongs)
Imperial Hint, third in this race last year, rates highly, as do Met Mile winner Mitole and local standout Catalina Cruiser. They’ll have to deal with supersonic front-runner Shancelot, who was nosed out by Omaha Beach last time. Expect a first quarter-mile in just over 21 seconds.
Will Chad Brown run Horse of the Year candidate Bricks and Mortar here to try to complete a 6-for-6 season? On Tuesday, he sounded as if he’s leaning toward the 1½-mile Turf. If Bricks and Mortar goes in the Mile, his stablemate Uni, a 5-year-old mare, would be among his toughest opponents, along with another female, Got Stormy, Ireland’s Circus Maximus and locally based Bowies Hero.
DISTAFF (1 1/8 miles)
Midnight Bisou might be the day’s biggest favorite in traditionally the chalkiest Cup race. She’s won seven in a row since running a close third to superstar Monomoy Girl in last year’s Distaff. Midnight Bisou rarely wins by much, including twice by a nose, which makes her a little more vulnerable. She’ll catch a break if top rival Elate races in the Classic, and Bill Mott seems inclined to go that way for her career finale. Without Elate, Midnight Bisou’s main dangers are Blue Prize, Dunbar Road and Paradise Woods.
TURF (1½ miles)
Bricks and Mortar is only 1½ lengths from being 12-for-12 lifetime. Can he excel at a distance two furlongs farther than he’s ever gone? Aidan O’Brien’s star filly Magical (if she doesn’t go in the Mile) and Epsom Derby hero Anthony Van Dyck would be Bricks and Mortar’s biggest threats if Brown opts out of the Mile. Americans Arklow, Channel Maker, Channel Cat and Zulu Alpha take turns beating each other and don’t class up with the top three.
CLASSIC (1¼ miles)
Three-time Classic winner Bob Baffert is sending out McKinzie, who would be a clear favorite at 1 1/8 miles but is considered suspect at 10 furlongs. After McKinzie ran second at 3-10 odds to 25-1 Mongolian Groom last time in the Awesome Again, Mike Smith lost the mount to Joel Rosario, who took last year’s Classic on Accelerate. McKinzie lost by a nose to Gift Box in the 1¼-mile Santa Anita Handicap, and these opponents are far better. New York shippers Code of Honor and Vino Rosso are true mile-and-a-quarter types, and Vino Rosso is a course-and-distance winner (Santa Anita Gold Cup).
Note: Click here to see Ed’s Sneak Peek Bettor’s Guide for next Friday’s Breeders’ Cup races.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.