By Ed McNamara
Ever since the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984, California-based horses have been major players on championship weekend. Home advantage in 14 Cups on the West Coast – Santa Anita (10), Hollywood Park (3) and Del Mar – helped, but SoCal runners have held their own elsewhere. Five years ago, they won four races at Keeneland, which will host the 37th Cup Nov. 6 and 7.
Santa Anita was scheduled to reopen last weekend, but a raging wildfire near the mountains overlooking the track postponed it to Friday. Smoke from the blaze canceled training hours for a week in the middle of the month, but air quality has improved because the fire has moved far enough away. Unfortunately, there’s been no letup with the pandemic. Because of ongoing COVID-19 concerns, no spectators will be allowed during a five-week meeting that ends Oct. 25.
Saturday’s outstanding card at the Great Race Place will produce contenders for the extravaganza in the Bluegrass country. It features seven stakes, five of them graded — two Grade 1’s, two Grade 2’s, a Grade 3 – along with two ungraded turf sprints for 2-year-olds.
Let’s see if we can cash some tickets.
$200,000 Chandelier Stakes (G2), 1 1/16 miles, 2-year-old fillies (race 3)
Bob Baffert has a strong prospect for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (G1) in Princess Noor (1), who’s 2-for-2 by a total of nine lengths. She won the Grade 1 Del Mar Debutante last out by 6½ despite being bumped twice after the break. As the class of this field, stretching out 7 furlongs to 1 1/16 miles should be no problem. She could lead from the rail or, more likely, stalk and surge, because she has the best late-pace numbers in the lightly raced field. She’s likely to be odds-on, though, so decide on how low a price you’ll be willing to take.
$300,000 Rodeo Drive Stakes (Grade 1), 1¼ miles (turf), fillies and mares (race 7)
This race starts a pick 3 in which we’ll use four horses in each leg, making it a $32 investment on a 50-cent base bet. Here are the numbers: 2,3,4,6 with 1,4,5,8 with 1,2,3,8.)
It’s a marathon without much early speed, so it could be a crawl for a mile capped by a sprint finish. Such pace scenarios often lead to long shot winners, so that’s why I’m spreading and hoping.
Lady Prancealot (6), the likely lukewarm favorite, has finished behind four in here (Bodhicitta, Maxim Rate, Tonahatu, Mucho Unusual), so she’s no single. Also on the ticket are Maxim Rate (2), coming off a good-figure win in a 1 3/8-mile stakes; Bodhicitta (3), an improving 4-year-old who’s 3-for-5 on Santa Anita’s turf and has the all-European bloodlines to get 10 furlongs; and Mucho Unusual (4), who’s 6-for-6 in the money on the grass in Arcadia, where she was a close second to Lady Prancealot last December in the Grade 1, 1¼-mile American Oaks.
$300,000 American Pharoah Stakes (G1), 1 1/16 miles, 2-year-olds (race 8)
Baffert’s Spielberg (5), a $1-million yearling purchase, also cost the bettors a lot of money when he ran second in his first two starts. The son of Belmont Stakes winner Union Rags should move up in his first try around two turns, but he could be a vulnerable, short-priced favorite. He backed up twice in slow final eighths at 6 and 7 furlongs, so he’s far from a cinch.
I’m also using Touchdown Brown (1), who just missed closing at 6 furlongs vs. California-breds and has the pedigree (by Cairo Prince) to handle added ground. The others are Arlington shipper Notable Exception (4), a longshot trained by the sharp Jack Sisterson, and Waspirant (8), the only one in the field with a two-turn win on dirt.
$200,000 John Henry Turf Championship Stakes, 1¼ miles, (race 9)
If you single United (3), I can’t argue with you. The gifted gelding has been first or second in eight of his last 10 races and nearly knocked off last year’s Horse of the Year, Bricks and Mortar, in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Turf. But in that stretch his biggest victory was by 1¼ lengths, so he gives you little margin for error. He’s definitely the most likely winner, but if you can beat him, you’ll get paid off.
That’s why I’m tossing in three long shots with flaws but also some resources. Proud Pedro (1) finished only a length behind United last out in the Del Mar Handicap and has won (though against claimers) at 1¼ and 1 3/8 miles. Originaire (2) was just a half-length behind United in the Del Mar, and Oscar Dominguez (8) was only three-quarters of a length behind Originaire.
Other recommended plays: a four-horse exacta box (1,2,3,8) and exacta boxes keying United with the other three.
$300,000 Awesome Again Stakes (G1), 1 1/8 miles (race 10)
It will be dueling Bafferts – multiple Grade 1 winners Maximum Security (5) and Improbable (2) — in the day’s marquee event. Too bad it doesn’t end a pick 4, but you could make it the finale of a pick 3 if you like. With two stars in a five-horse field, it’s more of a race to watch than to bet.
If not for an unprecedented disqualification from first in the Kentucky Derby and a bad start, “Max,” as Baffert calls him, would be 12-for-12. The former maiden claimer has never given anything but an outstanding performance and is 2-for-2 at 9 furlongs. If not for his stablemate’s presence, Improbable would be odds-on coming off decisive Grade 1 victories in the Santa Anita Gold Cup and the Whitney. Enjoy the show and expect a Baffert-Baffert exacta that returns $5 or so.
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.