Making Sense of the Breeders’ Cup Mile

As one of the original seven Breeders’ Cup events, and with a $2 million purse, the Mile is guaranteed to draw an international field of the world’s top turf milers. Through its 34-year history, the Mile has been somewhat of an enigma for horseplayers who seem overanxious to designate it as being overwhelmingly dominated by European invaders — this despite evidence to the contrary, which suggests Americans do equally well.

World Approval (photo via www.taylormadestallions.com)

World Approval (photo via www.taylormadestallions.com)

In 34 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile to date, not counting horses that began their careers in Europe and then came to the U.S., foreign invaders have won 13 times and accounted for only 38% of the winners of this race. Based on these stats, you can hardly cross out the Americans when doping out the Mile, especially when the Americans now have won three Miles in a row and 6 of the last 7 with the victory of World Approval last year.

With the exception of Goldikova, the only foreign invader to win the Mile since Six Perfections way back in 2003 was Karakontie in 2014.

Another difficulty in smoking out the Mile winner is the fact that the race has never been dominated by any one age group — or by either sex. Through the history of the Mile, the race has been won nine times by females. Eight of those nine years it was a filly, and in particular, 3-year-old fillies have done extraordinarily well in this race over the years, winning four times. Including those fillies, a total of nine 3-year-olds have won the Mile. Older horses also do well in the Mile. With 5-year-old World Approval winning in 2017, a total of 12 horses aged 5-up have now won the race, including the 2016 winner Tourist. The 13 other winners were 4-year-olds.

And, so, if a handicapper cannot weed out contenders in the Mile by age, sex or national origin, how can one narrow down what figures to be a full and wide-open international field of evenly-matched challengers?  Let’s start by looking at angles based on odds and, especially, pace.

Pace

Pace handicapping seems to be the only reliable handicapping angle year after year in the Mile. The front runner, or any horse involved in the early pace, almost never wins the Breeders’ Cup Mile. With the exception of Hall-of-Famer Lure in 1992-93, no other pacesetter has ever won the Mile. Tepin in 2015 was as close to the pace as any horse since Lure when she pressed the pace just a length behind the early leader. She joined Kip Deville in 2007 and Goldikova in 2008 as Mile winners who’ve employed a pace-pressing running style.

In 2017, the Mile pacesetter, Midnight Storm, and his two closest pursuers — Heart to Heart and Home of the Brave — finished 12th,10th and 14th, respectively. The exacta of World Approval and 13-1 English invader Lancaster Bomber was made up of stalkers who sat fourth and fifth in the early stages of the race. The trifecta horse, 19-1 local SoCal horse Blackjackcat rallied from far back for third, just a head out of second.

When you look at the 34-year results of the Mile, you will notice that the overwhelming majority of the winners have used a late-closing or a stalking running style en route to victory. Not only is it tough for a speed horse to win this race, but it’s also very difficult for even pace pressers to win. This is the number one strongest handicapping angle in the Mile. Bet the stalkers and closers and bet against speed horses and need-the-lead types to win the race. An unrealistic pace always seems to cook the front runners.

Odds

We have seen horses win this race as big favorites or as giant bombs. The North American horses cannot be counted out against the foreign invaders and horses of all ages and sexes, including 3-year-olds and 3-year-old fillies, must be respected.

Wise Dan

Wise Dan (photo via YouTube).

You cannot simply just toss out horses in this race because they’re 30-1 when you are faced with a race such as this where you might do better tossing out 3-1 Europeans instead. With the exception of the great ones like Goldikova and Miesque, foreigners mostly have burned a lot of money in the Mile through the years. This fairly-consistent failure of foreign invaders  — all but the truly great ones — makes the odds a valid handicapping angle in the Mile.

The best advice is, unless there is an international superstar in this race the likes of Lure, Goldikova, Wise Dan or Miesque, the favorites are worth betting against — especially if the favorite is a foreign horse. Even in a year like 2017 when the favorite won the Mile (World Approval paid $7.40), you still could have rounded out your exactas and trifectas with horses at double-digit odds on the tote board.

The best advice in terms of the odds seems to be to bet overlays in this race and to round out the exotics with an under-the-radar North American-based runner or, perhaps, one of the better-priced foreign imports — especially if this horse has a North American race under its belt, like the Woodbine Mile or Shadwell Turf Mile.

2018 Mile Contenders 

The list of Mile contenders for 2018 seems heavily-weighted toward European-based horses, many of whom are pointing primarily for the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot on Oct. 20. That would give them just two weeks to ship to Kentucky and gear-up for another big assignment in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Even though some of these European-based runners are highly-talented, winning the BC Mile coming out of that race two weeks earlier might turn out to be too tough of a challenge. Plus, if you want the winner or top finishers out of the QEII at Ascot, you’ll likely get low odds at Churchill Downs.

This group of horses includes Prix du Moulin at Lonchamp winner Recoletos, Prix du Moulin third-place finisher Expert Eye and Moulin fifth-place finisher Lightning Spear. Another Euro to watch out of the QEII could be Laurens, a filly who has won four Group 1 races this year, including the Sun Chariot Stakes at Newmarket last time out. She’ll mean business in the Breeders’ Cup, either in this spot or in the Filly & Mare Turf.

Two other interesting European contenders that could be exiting the QEII are Polydream, who would be stretching out from a brutal-trip loss at 7 furlongs last time out in the Prix da la Foret at Longchamp, and Lord Glitters, who would have the advantage of already having a North American start under his belt — even though it was a losing effort in the Woodbine Mile where the pace scenario totally went against him.

Oscar Performace wins the Grade I Belmont Derby in wire-to-wire fashion (photo via Annette Jasko/NYRA).

Oscar Performace (photo via Annette Jasko/NYRA).

On this side of the pond there has been no clear standout horse in the middle-distance turf races this season. The closest thing to it has been Oscar Performance, who won both the Poker at Belmont and the Woodbine Mile this year. Toss out his 1 ¼-mile fiasco in the Arlington Million when he couldn’t handle the yielding ground, and you have a very legitimate Breeders’ Cup Mile contender, and maybe even horse to beat, as long as the turf at Churchill Downs on Breeders’ Cup Saturday is rock-solid firm. Any degree of give in the ground compromises Oscar Performance’s chances. The past performances say the Arlington Million turf was “firm”, but that’s hogwash. Trust me, it was “yielding”.

After the Euros and Oscar Performance, there are only about four other horses considered possible or probable for the BC Mile — and I am convinced at least one horse from that group can make some noise in the Mile, at least in the exotics, depending on the pace.

This group includes the first- and second-place horses out of Santa Anita’s City of Hope Mile, Sharp Samurai and Fly to Mars, who top what appears to be a sub-par California bunch and will need to leave SoCal for the Breeders’ Cup this year.

A Raving Beauty won the one-mile First Lady at Keeneland and is a filly, but has racked up graded stakes wins all year for Chad Brown and can’t be ignored. The other contender is Next Shares, who won the Shadwell Turf Mile the same day at Keeneland, in a faster time, as a 23-1 upsetter. It seems to me that Next Shares is a rapidly-improving horse who is getting good at the right time (he also won his start before at Kentucky Downs). He has the right stalking running style, and should not be overlooked.

Picks for the Breeders’ Cup Mile

As long as the turf course is firm on Breeders’ Cup Day (and I mean firm, not fake firm), then OSCAR PERFORMANCE becomes the legitimate horse to beat in the Mile. Aside from him, I would use NEXT SHARES in my exotics (and also A RAVING BEATUTY if she enters).

Depending on the results of the QEII at Ascot, I will also throw-in one of those invaders who has a pace stalking running style that best fits the race. If the course takes rain and is less-than-firm, I will toss out Oscar Performance and instead give the nod to the Euros coming out of the QEII, with preference to a horse who best projects a stalking trip who is not the favorite in the Mile.

Noel Michaels
Noel Michaels has been involved in many aspects of thoroughbred racing for more than two decades, as a Breeders’ Cup-winning owner and as a writer, author, handicapper, editor, manager and promoter of the sport for a wide range of companies including Daily Racing Form and Nassau County Off-Track Betting.

He also is regarded as the leading source of news and information for handicapping tournaments and the author of the “Handicapping Contest Handbook: A Horseplayer’s Guide to Handicapping Tournaments”, which made his name virtually synonymous with the increasingly-popular tournament scene.

In addition to contributing to US Racing, he is also an analyst on the Arlington Park broadcast team.

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