They are almost always big races with plenty of prestige on their own merit. But count me as one who has never embraced the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series.
Four more of those races, all Grade 1s, are coming this weekend. The best story is bound to be written at Saratoga, where reigning female champion Midnight Bisou (2-5) tries to repeat as the winner of the $500,000 Personal Ensign, and streaking 7-year-old Tom’s d’Etat (6-5) is favored in the $750,000 Whitney.
Technically, the Personal Ensign is a win-and-you’re-in for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The Whitney is the same for the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. But the Challenge Series is not the only path into the championships that are scheduled for Nov. 6 and 7 at Keeneland.
What makes this especially evident this weekend is the stated consideration by connections for Midnight Bisou that they may cross the gender line and put her into the Classic.
“Her next two races will likely determine which race we could point toward,” trainer Steve Asmussen told the Churchill Downs media team last month after his champion 5-year-old cruised to an 8¼-length victory against overmatched fillies and mares in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis at Churchill Downs. “We know how well she performed against some of the world’s best racehorses in Saudi.”
Asmussen was talking about her impressive, second-place finish to Maximum Security on Feb. 29 in the inaugural $20 million Saudi Cup. Lead owner Jeff Bloom may yet get the $10 million first-place check, and Midnight Bisou could be awarded the win. That would be if Saudi authorities ever act on the FBI horse-doping sting in March that led to the indictment of Maximum Security’s former trainer Jason Servis, who has pleaded not guilty.
But back to the point of this whole story. Midnight Bisou will not be left out of the Breeders’ Cup. Whenever Bloom and Asmussen decide which race she will start, she will be there. If the race does not fill, then she walks right in. If not, then either a points system or a “a panel of experts” – racing secretaries and the like – will rubber stamp her entry. That is exactly what happened two years ago when Enable won the Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, not a Challenge Series race that year. With only two 2018 races to her name beforehand, she got into the Breeders’ Cup Turf. And she won it.
That was an obvious call. It was not, though, to allow Roaring Lion into the 2018 Classic. Yes, he had a 10-race winning streak – on turf. This was like giving Katie Ledecky a spot on the U.S. water polo team. By letting Roaring Lion make his dirt debut in America’s richest race, it looked owner Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani – he of Breeders’ Cup ally Qatar Racing – bought his way out of facing Enable in the Turf.
Cynicism aside, Midnight Bisou’s interdivisional leap would hardly be a first for a female horse. Zenyatta, after all, did just that and won the 2009 Classic, and her loss to Blame in the 2010 Classic at Churchill Downs remains the most memorable Breeders’ Cup race of this generation. By the way, those were the only two times that she ever raced against the boys, so Zenyatta never won a qualifying race for the Classic.
Conversely, there were 86 win-and-you’re-in races in the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Challenge. Not only were they run across the country but also around the world. Of those, only 49 winners were entered into last year’s championships at Santa Anita. Only 6 of 34 winners of the Challenge races outside the U.S. and Canada showed up, even with a big chunk of the expenses paid.
The Breeders’ Cup should be commended for trying to create interest in horse racing all year long. But the Challenge series lacks the urgency that is seen most years on the roads to the Kentucky Derby and Oaks. Although that system is not perfect (How are maidens allowed in at the expense of some prep winners?), at least there is a clear, transparent path to get to Churchill Downs.
If the Breeders’ Cup really wants to make these win-and-you’re-ins more interesting, then make them win-or-else races. If there are 14 slots in the gate for the Classic, then declare 14 races to be the qualifiers. If there are duplicate winners, then turn to the secondary points system that is already in place. And only as a last resort should “a panel of experts” be used.
Think of it this way. If the Breeders’ Cup did make its Challenge Series more of a do-or-die proposition, there might be a lot more than five horses starting the Whitney and six in the Personal Ensign.
Racing notes and opinions
It is the same thing that Aidan O’Brien and Coolmore have done for years in Europe. Enter horses in multiple races, and then scratch them closer to post time as intentions become clearer. That is exactly what Bob Baffert did to impact two important races this weekend. After leaning toward sending McKinzie to the Whitney, Baffert entered him into the Grade 1 Bing Crosby, a win-and-you’re-in for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Then after the race was drawn and McKinzie was made the 2-1 morning-line favorite, Baffert did not like post 4 and said he would be scratched. Now the aim is to send McKinzie into the seven-furlong Grade 2 Pat O’Brien on Aug. 29 at Del Mar or the 1¼-mile Grade 1 Woodward on Sept. 5 at Saratoga. As he had already signaled early in the week, Baffert said that Uncle Chuck would be removed from Saturday’s Shared Belief in favor of the 1¼-mile Grade 1 Travers next Saturday at Saratoga. Uncle Chuck had drawn the rail post and was 9-5 on the morning line compared with 8-5 for extant favorite Honor A. P.
Here are my picks for this weekend:
* Personal Ensign (Saturday 3:28 p.m. EDT, Saratoga): Midnight Bisou (2-5) to win – or more likely no bet at all.
* Shared Belief (Saturday 5:30 p.m., Del Mar): Honor A. P. (8-5) over Thousand Words (8-1) in a cold exacta.
* Whitney (Saturday 5:42 p.m. Saturday, Saratoga): Code Of Honor (5-2) win-place and in an exacta box with By My Standards and Tom’s d’Etat.
* Bing Crosby (Saturday 9:30 p.m., Del Mar): Collusion Illusion (9-2) across the board.
* Clement L. Hirsch (Sunday 9:30 p.m., Del Mar): Fighting Mad, Ce Ce and Dogtag exacta and trifecta boxes.
There have been no recent talks between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Nevada Pari-Mutuel Association that would allow the state’s racebooks to take bets in five weeks on the Kentucky Oaks and Kentucky Derby. Sources in Kentucky and Nevada told VSiN there is no hurry, with one saying that coronavirus uncertainty is playing a role. As it was put Thursday, “If they have to close the casinos or limit the number of people coming in, they may tell (Churchill Downs) that it is not worth the cost.” CDI is said to want its share of the gross handle on Churchill Downs races increased to 7½ percent of the Nevada handle, and that it wants as much as 8 percent from the Derby itself. The NPMA is apparently holding out to stay at the 6¾ percent that CDI was getting before the current impasse began last October. Churchill controls not only the signal for the Louisville track but also negotiating rights for some others. They include Arlington Park, Canterbury Park, Indiana Grand and Lone Star Park, all of which remain unavailable via Nevada racebooks.
Old-school horseplayers who despise computer players were provided with new fuel last weekend when an obvious batch bet cashed the Pick-6 at Del Mar for a single-ticket payout of $173,912. The winner actually bet $29,652 and had multiple wagers that were counted as one. That was thanks to a loophole in California rules designed to protect horizontal bettors from losing to a late scratch. It was roughly a 9-2 victory, since the anonymous winner(s) made 8,613 bets at an average of $3.44 per wager, even though it was a minimum $2 Pick-6. Because there was nothing illegal about this, the ensuing controversy was more about the look than it was about the letter of the law. The windfall regurgitated arguments about whether computer players should get big rebates and the idea that racetracks should cut off betting, say, the moment the loading process begins behind the gate. Of course, if this wagering strategy had failed last weekend, not a word would have been spoken.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. On the current episode Daily Racing Form’s Jay Privman discusses last week’s controversial Del Mar Pick-6 and previews this weekend’s Shared Belief and Bing Crosby stakes. Trainer Al Stall Jr. looks forward to Tom’s d’Etat’s run in Saturday’s Whitney Stakes at New York. Rampart Sportsbook’s Duane Colucci handicaps the weekend’s big races at Del Mar and Saratoga. The RFRP is available via Apple, Google, iHeart, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts and is sponsored by 1/ST BET.