A final flurry of qualifiers for next month’s Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar will enliven the weekend, as will the return of racing to the heart of horse country as Keeneland Race Course opens its 17-day fall meet in Lexington, Kentucky.
We know a lot more about the 14 individual Breeders’ Cup races – each a divisional championship in its own right — than we did two weeks ago, when I compared the emerging picture to an abstract painting. Now it’s more like a photo with a soft focus.
But after 11 “Win and You’re In” prep races over the next three days, it will be about as clear as it’s going to get.
Meantime, here are early looks at a few races to chew on for now:
— The Brad Cox-trained stablemates Knicks Go and 3-year-old Essential Quality figure to vie for favoritism in the $6 million Classic, but some other talented horses are not dodging the top two, including Art Collector, Hot Rod Charlie, Maxfield, Max Player and Medina Spirit (provided the Breeders’ Cup allows embattled trainer Bob Baffert to enter the colt). The race also picked up a likely long shot entrant this week in Stiletto Boy, a well beaten second behind Medina Spirit in last weekend’s Awesome Again Stakes.
— Streaking Letruska, winner of four straight graded stakes, figures to be a solid favorite in the $2 million Distaff. Bonny South, Malathaat, Private Mission and Shedaresthedevil are among those eyeing an upset.
— Sensational 3-year-old Jackie’s Warrior looms a heavy favorite in the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Sprint, particularly after the news that awesome sophomore Flightline will not run. Familiar faces Dr. Schivel, Firenze Fire, Flagstaff, Lexitonian and Mind Control are among those expected to try to end the chalk’s three-race win streak.
— Life is Good, four for five in his career, figures to be favored in the $1 million Dirt Mile. Ginobili, who adores the Del Mar track, and Silver State may be his most threatening rivals.
— Jack Christopher, winner of the Champagne Stakes last weekend at Belmont Park, looms the likely favorite in the $2 million Juvenile. His Beyer Speed Figure was raised by nine points to a 102 after retiming the race because of timing errors by the track. Corniche and Major General also figure to get attention from bettors.
Keeneland fall meet opens
Keeneland Race Course will have a big role in shaping the Breeders’ Cup races as it opens its fall meet by hosting nine of the 11 “Win and you’re in” contests this weekend.
The $400,000 Alcibiades Stakes for juvenile fillies highlights Friday’s opening day card, with the $250,000 Phoenix Stakes expected to help fill in the BC Sprint picture.
Saturday’s card features the $500,000 Breeders Futurity, the $400,000 First Lady, the $750,000 Keeneland Turf Mile and the $250,000 Thoroughbred Club of American Stakes. Sunday’s card offers the $200,000 Bourbon Stakes, the $200,00 Indian Summer Stakes and the $500,000 Spinster Stakes.
Belmont Park also has a pair of Breeders’ Cup Challenge races set: The $250,000 Vosburgh Stakes on Saturday and the $150,000 Futurity on Sunday. Saturday’s Grade 1 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic also will have implications for the $4 million Breeders’ Cup Turf.
Baffert faces NYRA hearing
Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert suffered a legal setback this week when a federal judge in New York rejected a contempt of court motion filed by his attorney seeking to prevent the New York Racing Association from proceeding with a disciplinary hearing.
U.S. District Court Judge Carol Bagley Amon ruled Tuesday that NYRA was not in violation of her order last month that found the racetrack operator had violated his due process rights by suspending him without providing an opportunity to defend himself after his Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit failed a post-race drug test.
“The due process (Baffert) is entitled to is why the suspension was lifted,” Amon said in denying the contempt motion. “To create a hearing process does not violate the spirit of that ruling.”
A hearing date is expected to be set at a scheduling conference on Monday.
Ellis Starr’s Vosburgh Stakes analysis
Good Effort (IRE) has won eight of 29 career races, all on turf or all-weather. However, he has run big races on dirt, specifically when missing by a neck in a 13 horse field in March in the Group 3 Mahab Al Shimaal Stakes in Dubai on a left handed course like the one at Belmont. Overmatched in the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen Stakes after that, Good Effort (IRE) rebounded to miss by three-quarters of a length in a Group 3 stakes in the U.K. after making the lead and holding on until very late in the race. Overmatched once more in the Group 1 Darley July Cup Stakes and the Group 2 King George Qatar Stakes, the latter run at five furlongs on grass, Good Effort (IRE) rebounded to lead from start to finish in a very fast 6 1/2-furlong race in France on all-weather last month. From January through November 2020, Good Effort (IRE) won four straight races, in three of the four making the lead shortly after the start and easily holding the front to the end. Adding blinkers to ensure he does the same as in Europe and Dubai, considering he earned very consistent Equibase Speed Figures of 108 to 110 in his top efforts, Good Effort (IRE) has a shot to surprise the local contingent and win this year’s Vosburgh Stakes in front running fashion.
Following Sea cuts back from 7 furlongs to 6 furlongs which may be the key to a top effort. He finished third and well behind the top two finishers in the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes in August, but those two horses (Jackie’s Warrior and Life is Good) both won their next starts in top stakes company. Before the Jerkens, Following Sea finished third when trying two-turns for the first time in the Grade 1 Haskell Stakes, an irrelevant experiment in my opinion. Prior to the Haskell, Following Sea won easily by 6 1/2 lengths at Belmont and prior to that he won by 5 3/4 lengths at this 6-furlong trip, earning a career best 110 figure good enough to win this race. Cutting back to his best distance gives Following Sea a good shot to do just that and he’s another likely to be a bit ignored in the wagering compared to others in this year’s Vosburgh.
Firenze Fire is likely to be favored on the strength of his big effort at the end of August in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes. In the Forego, Firenze Fire went head-and-head with eventual winner Yaupon for the final quarter mile, even trying to bite his foe multiple times in the stretch run. That effort earned a strong 112 figure, similar to the 113 figure earned two races before that when second in the Grade 2 John A. Nerud Stakes at Belmont. Winner of the 2020 Vosburgh with a 116 figure, Firenze Fire shows up with his “A” game nearly every time he runs and must be respected as a contender.
Baby Yoda is one of two 3-year-olds in the field, the other being Following Sea. He is the most lightly raced horse in the group, having run four times, but he has improved markedly in each race, starting with an 84 figure effort, then 91, then 97 and finally 111 in his most recent race. That most recent effort on Sept. 4 was visually impressive as Baby Yoda easily drew off to a 4 1/4-length victory. Trainer Bill Mott knows this young horse still has improving to do and that is why he puts him in a stakes race for the first time, as that 111 figure matches up well with the 112 figure Firenze Fire earned in the similar Grade 1 Forego Stakes one week before Baby Yoda’s last win.
Jalen Journey has won eight of 16 career races, including three of nine at this 6-furlong trip. All four of his stakes tries in the U.S. were excellent efforts, starting with a runner-up effort in the Grade 3 Smile Sprint Stakes in June 2019, in which he led late and missed by less than a length to a top sprinter in Diamond Oops. Since returning from Dubai in May of this year, Jalen Journey has finished first or second in all four races, most recently when crossing the line second in the Grade 3 Frank J. De Francis Memorial Dash Stakes before being moved to the top spot when the winner was disqualified for interference. That effort earned a 108 figure and just prior to that Jalen Journey earned a career-best 111 figure, another effort on par with the best of this group.
Top win contenders: Good Effort, Following Sea.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.