Breeders' Cup: The hidden optics at Del Mar

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

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The Breeders’ Cup returns next week to Del Mar, where the championships also were held in 2017. (Ron Flatter photo)

Louisville, Ky.

Now that we have a good idea of the fields for next week’s 38th Breeders’ Cup “World Championships,” let the serious handicapping begin. Maybe those cynical quotation marks should come off of “World Championships,” especially since a record 58 internationals were among the 196 horses pre-entered into the 14 races that will be run next Friday at Saturday at Del Mar.

Why so many from overseas? The $28 million total purse is a big carrot, but that is hardly new. More likely it is another factor that is missing now. Lasix. For the first time since the Breeders’ Cup was launched in 1984, the drug formally known as furosemide and internationally regarded as cheating is forbidden from all the championships.

“I think that’s always obviously been an advantage,” said Aidan O’Brien, the Irish training star who has four horses pre-entered to try and add to his 13 Breeders’ Cup trophies. “Obviously we don’t medicate our horses (in Europe) at all, and very rarely the only medication they get is antibiotics. So we’re always very happy to go without Lasix, and we think that’s definitely a good thing.”

Lasix has already been removed from most graded stakes this year in North America. One handicapper believes that already has had a very noticeable impact that will carry over to next week.

“The no-Lasix is a situation where we’ve seen a lot more Europeans come to New York this year,” XBTV’s Jeremy Plonk said on this week’s Ron Flatter Racing Pod. “Aidan O’Brien and (separately) Godolphin really unloaded this year in New York in the stakes races. I think they believe the level playing field without Lasix is an encouragement to them, and they’re not playing against a stacked deck against the Americans. I think that brings a more international feel and a larger international representation here.”

That also means more wild cards in the past performances, where the language barrier between America and England can be so pronounced. We do not understand the rhetoric in their form guides. They say we are too obsessed with numbers – and they also spent eight years mispronouncing Barack Obama. Whatever. When 30 percent of the horses are unfamiliar faces who raced on unfamiliar tracks, it makes handicapping that much more of a challenge.

So, too, does Del Mar itself. When the Breeders’ Cup was held there four years ago, favorites went only 2-for-13. Seven of the surprise winners carried double-digit odds to win, most notably Bar Of Gold at 66-1 in the Filly & Mare Sprint.

What’s more, as Art Wilson of the Southern California News Group pointed out on a media teleconference this week, only three of the 2017 winners could call Del Mar or Santa Anita their home track. So much for course horses, right?

“I don’t think there’s really a whole lot of edge when you are lucky enough to be working alongside the top horses,” said SoCal trainer Doug O’Neill, who has Pennsylvania Derby winner Hot Rod Charlie in the $6 million Classic and two-time stakes winner Mackinnon in the Juvenile Turf. “You look at Hot Rod Charlie, and his best races to date really have been out of the state of California. It sure is a lot easier for the human, but for horses like Hot Rod Charlie and most of the horses that have got a run on Breeders’ Cup day, I don’t think it matters a whole lot.”

What might matter is horses extending themselves to go distances they have never raced before. While that is routine in the 2-year-old divisions, it is especially noteworthy this year in the Classic. That is where Pegasus World Cup and Whitney winner Knicks Go is the 5-2 futures favorite, even though he has never been asked in the afternoon to go 1¼ miles.

“There’s a little bit of a question mark if he can get a mile-and-a-quarter,” Knicks Go’s trainer Brad Cox said last month. “I feel like he can at Del Mar.”

Gun Runner had never won at 10 furlongs before he won the 2017 Classic at Del Mar. As Carolyn Greer of Horse Racing Nation pointed out, there have been only three winners of the race who never before had gone 1¼ miles. Ghostzapper did it in 2004 at Lone Star Park. Raven’s Pass and Zenyatta pulled it off at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009, the only two years the Breeders’ Cup was run on a synthetic track.

The dirt is very real at Del Mar, and handicappers were reminded of its peccadillos four years ago when racing on the inside of the main track was like running on a treadmill. Could the dead rail come back to rear its ugly head.

“If the rail is dead, then we can have a hell of a day with some prices,” Plonk said. “A lot of these star horses want to be up toward the front. When you’re on the front you usually get down pretty close to the fence. If you don’t go there by choice, the horses pressing you in the ‘2’ path will generally make you go down there. It’s not slot-car racing. There are other horses on the track and other jockeys who know where the bad spots are, and they might want to try to put you in there.”

Paying attention, then, to the races Wednesday and Thursday on the first two days of the Del Mar fall meet will be prudent. So, too, might looking closely at the calendar or even an old almanac. At its westernmost point, the racing surface is less than a quarter-mile from the Pacific Ocean. Workout analyst Bruno De Julio, the best clocker in the business (I used to produce his podcast), has long proselytized about the impact of tides at Del Mar.

For this year’s Breeders’ Cup high tide at Del Mar will reach a little more than eight feet at 9:28 a.m. PDT next Friday and at 10:07 a.m. next Saturday. In 2017 it reached about seven feet at 9 a.m. Friday and 9:30 a.m. Saturday. Does that mean there will be more lingering moisture in the track this year? I will leave that to Bruno and the oceanographers, provided they are not playing a gig the night before in Solana Beach.

Oh, one more thing. At the risk of paralysis by analysis, the post-position draw starts Monday at 5:30 p.m. EDT. If that does not create a few more sleep-deprived nights of handicapping, then it is just not a Breeders’ Cup.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is available every Friday at VSiN.com. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features a preview of next week’s Breeders’ Cup with trainers Mark Casse and Wayne Catalano and XBTV handicapper Jeremy Plonk. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available via free subscription from iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher as well as from VSiN.com/podcasts. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.

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