By Ed McNamara
Back in 1984, when the Breeders’ Cup debuted, turf racing was not a big deal in the United States.
A typical card would have one or two races on the grass, tops. Few American horseplayers or journalists paid attention to European racing. The only windows to the sport across the pond were a weekly column by Englishman George Ennor in the Daily Racing Form and brief recaps of Group 1 stakes.
How the game has changed. Grass racing in the U.S. has gone from an add-on to a major thing. Now it’s common for Saratoga to card five or six turf races on a program, and the full fields and tight finishes are wildly popular. The first Breeders’ Cup in 1984 had two grass races, the Mile and the Turf.
This weekend the 38th Cup will stage half of its 14 stakes on the lawn. Forty 2-year-olds are entered in Friday’s Juvenile Turf Sprint, Juvenile Fillies Turf and Juvenile Turf, and 52 horses are ready to run Saturday in the Turf Sprint, Filly & Mare Turf, Mile and Turf.
I’ve been a big fan of grass racing for more than 40 years. I’ve made some memorable scores on Breeders’ Cup turf races, including one that bailed me out big time last year. I had $10 across the board on Euro shipper Audarya, and when she surged late and edged past favorite Rushing Fall, I screamed with delight. The payoffs of $37.60, $16 and $10.20 and the $219.60 exacta erased the pain of some bad bets and bad beats.
I mentioned I liked Audarya in last year’s column for usracing.com, and I hope that led to some of you cashing on her, too. Let’s see if I can provide a few profitable insights for Friday’s and Saturday’s turf extravaganza at Del Mar.
It’s only the fourth edition of this novelty race, and the first three winners led from the start. I zeroed in on the main speeds, Wesley Ward’s filly Averly Jane, the 5-2 favorite, and One Timer, second choice at 4-1. Both are undefeated. Ward won this race the past two years, burnishing his credentials as Mr. Turf Sprint, but I think trainer Larry Rivelli’s gelding One Timer could pull a mild upset. One Timer set blazing fractions of 21.1 and 43.3 seconds on firm ground at Santa Anita in his only turf race. He won his first two starts on synthetic at Arlington and Woodbine by a total of 15 3/4 lengths. My one concern is he’s had a bit of trouble at the start in all three, but he was able to overcome it easily. The break will be the key.
If you’re playing multiple-race wagers, use both, and box them in the exacta.
In a wide-open race loaded with speed, I’ll take a shot with 2-for-2 Cairo Memories, a stalker who won her debut at the distance at Del Mar. She’s 10-1 on the morning line, which looks like an overlay. She should be able to work out a ground-saving trip from post 2, and her closing fractions of 24 1/5 and 24 seconds are solid. Her margins of 4 1/2 and 2 1/4 lengths inspire confidence that she can handle a step up in class. Another live one is Chad Brown’s Consumer Spending (8-1, post 7), a strong closer who’s 2-for-3 around two turns. Brown has won this race five times, and this could be number six. I’ll be playing both to win and boxing them in exactas.
The 4-1 favorite, England’s Dubawi Legend, drew post 14, which will be hard to overcome. I’m interested in Godolphin trainer Charlie Appleby’s England-based pair of Modern Games (post 1, 5-1) and Albahr (post 2, 6-1). Albahr hasn’t run since Sept. 9 when he dominated Woodbine’s Grade 1 Summer Stakes. Modern Games showed speed in cruising by 2 1/2 lengths last time in his stakes debut. Modern Games also is favored by the British bookmakers, who know what they’re doing. The top local colt is Doug O’Neill’s Mackinnon, who’s 3-for-4 on grass, 3-for-3 at a mile and 2-for-2 in stakes at Del Mar. He’s 8-1 (post 6) and sounds like the ultimate horse for course.
Like chaos? Welcome to your happy place. A dozen wired thoroughbreds blasting from the gate and battling for position in a run to a turn where all kinds of traffic problems can develop. And we’re supposed to predict who will finish where? Handicapping is such an insane and maddening pursuit.
Wesley Ward trains 7-2 favorite Golden Pal (post 3), a need-to-lead colt he’s called “the best horse I’ve ever trained.” That’s intimidating because Ward has had an endless run of big-time grass sprinters. Golden Pal dominated the Juvenile Turf Sprint last year, and a win here would surprise no one. He’ll be on my pick 3 ticket, but for my win bet I’m on horse-for-course Lieutenant Dan (post 4, 6-1).
The 5-year-old California-bred gelding is named for Gary Sinise’s character in “Forrest Gump,” and he loves firm ground, 5 furlongs and Del Mar. He’s 3-for-3 at the distance, 2-for-2 over the course. Lieutenant Dan has tactical speed and can press a fast pace, and he’s zipped the final furlong in 11 1/5 and 11 2/5 seconds, so he should be surging when it matters. His Brisnet speed and pace figures match up well with Golden Pal’s, so maybe he’s the value.
My English pal Angus, a big-time player who knows his stuff, thinks Britain’s Emaraaty Ana (post 2, 5-1) will be suited by 5 furlongs on firm ground.
I’ve been riding deep closer War Like Goddess (post 7, 7-2 favorite) all year, and she’s never let me down. I’m a bit concerned about Del Mar’s short stretch, but I believe that her effortless late burst will get the job done. She has the instant acceleration of a European star, and she’ll have to beat a few along with a globetrotting mare from Asia. War Like Goddess is 4-for-4 this year, two at 1 3/8 miles, two at 1 1/2, so the farther the better for her.
Defending champion Audarya (5-1) and Aidan O’Brien’s Love (4-1) aren’t as good as they used to be, but they’ll be overbet anyway. There’s serious buzz about Japan’s Loves Only You (post 8, 4-1), a close third to superstar Mishriff this past March in the 1 1/2-mile Dubai Sheema Classic. International handicapper Michael Adolphson’s take on Loves Only You: “She’s the class of the race. She’s beaten better horses than she’s going to face here, and she’s by far Japan’s best chance for its first Breeders’ Cup win.” Sounds like a backup win bet.
Space Blues (post 3, 3-1) is the morning-line favorite and the market leader in England, and the Appleby-trained Godolphin colt has a tremendous turn of foot. Negatives: He’s never raced around a turn or on ground this firm or beyond 7 furlongs, which is a lot of new tricks to learn on the fly. He’s very talented but feels like an underlay. His dazzling finish last time came on swampy ground at Longchamp that most of his rivals couldn’t handle. If he’s versatile enough to replicate that form on a hard surface I’ll salute him. I’ll have Space Blues in exotics but I’m picking horse-for-course and mile specialist Mo Forza (post 6, 5-1).
Trainer Peter Miller has five Breeders’ Cup trophies, so he knows how to win the big ones. Mo Forza, a son of brilliant sire Uncle Mo, is 8-for-8 at 1 1/8 miles or shorter in the past two years. He’s 6-for-8 at a mile and 3-for-6 with two seconds at Del Mar. He has the right profile for a Mile winner, able to sit in mid-pack and close in a hurry (final quarter-miles of 23 1/5, 22 3/5 and 23 seconds in his last three mile runs).
Is defending champion Tarnawa as good as she was last year?
Tarnawa lost a photo finish Oct. 3 in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe on extremely soft turf. She ran her heart out, and did the testing ground take too much out of her? Irish trainer Dermot Weld said she was tired for a week but has bounced back well. His main concern is the surface at Del Mar, which will be firmer than anything she’s been on. Post 13 could be a problem, and the favorite’s 9-5 morning line will put off many players, but she’s the best horse in the field, and it will take a career top to beat her.
“Last year at Keeneland the ground was on the quick side of good,” Weld said. “”Whereas I am well aware that what we face is going to be a lot quicker. But she’s a very brave filly, very tough, very genuine, and she fights like a lioness. She’s all set to go.”
Respect Godolphin’s Yibir (post 10, 12-1), last-to-first hero of the $1 million, 1 1/2-mile Jockey Club Derby at Belmont. He should be coming late again.
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.