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Breeders' Cup Classic favorites face tough tests Saturday

Ron Flatter  
VSiN.com

West_Coast_Zoe_Metz_Photography
Coming back from a six-month break, West Coast will challenge Accelerate on Saturday in the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. (Zoe Metz Photography provided by Santa Anita Park)

Las Vegas

Just when you thought the 2018 racing year had turned irreversibly south with so many big names being sidelined, along come the Grade 1 features on Saturday’s cards at Santa Anita and at Belmont Park – complete with real, honest-to-goodness, yet-to-be-retired contenders who have familiar names.

Last seen finishing second in the Dubai World Cup, West Coast comes back for Bob Baffert to take on Pacific Classic winner Accelerate in a battle of the top two Wynn Las Vegas betting choices for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Except this will be five weeks early in the $306,000 Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita.

Diversify, the third betting choice for the Classic, will be heavily favored against Belmont Stakes runner-up Gronkowski, Travers runner-up Mendelssohn and Dubai World Cup winner Thunder Snow as he defends his 2017 victory in the $750,000 Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park.

Like boxing and tennis, horse-racing heavyweights tend to duck one another until the money is big – as it will be when the Breeders’ Cup puts a $6 million purse on the table Nov. 3 at Churchill Downs. In the case of 4-year-old West Coast, trainer Bob Baffert said timing was everything, especially with the two-time Grade 1 winner being rusty from six months away from afternoon competition.

“It’s sort of a tough spot for him,” Baffert told reporters Wednesday morning at Santa Anita. “He’s probably about 80 percent, but if he’s going to run in the Breeders’ Cup, there’s no other spot. I didn’t want to ship anywhere, because that would have been double-tough on him.”

Especially when “anywhere” might have meant New York to face Diversify, a 5-year-old gelding that also has won two Grade 1s and also comes off a break – albeit only eight weeks since his Whitney win in the Saratoga slop.

“The Whitney was a last-minute decision,” trainer Rick Violette said this week in New York. “We went there because he was doing so well and everything was exceptional going into it. Skipping the Woodward (Sept. 1) gave us extra time to not really rest but feel out the horse and get us back to our best race.”

Diversify will be a strong favorite to win Saturday, and Accelerate will be a heavily backed second choice. But how will the opposition look as they try to rebuild momentum before they are sent to Kentucky?

Jockey Club Gold Cup – Saturday 5:50 p.m. EDT

With three straight wins including two at Belmont Park, Diversify (4-5 on the morning line) provides the class, and jockey Írad Ortiz Jr. probably has him providing the early speed, too. The question is whether Mendelssohn (7-2), Gronkowski (4-1) or Thunder Snow (6-1) will keep him company at any point before the stretch run of the 1¼-mile race.

Since he got bottlenecked into a last-place finish in the Kentucky Derby, Mendelssohn finished third nearly three months ago in the Dwyer before coming in second to Catholic Boy in the Travers, giving top European jockey Ryan Moore his best finishes ever on American dirt. Drawing post position 3 in the field of eight will only help at Belmont Park, where the race starts in the middle of the clubhouse turn.

In only his second race after being transferred from England to North America, Gronkowski finished eighth in last month’s Travers, 13 lengths behind Catholic Boy. “He was doing great heading in,” trainer Chad Brown said. “The only time he didn’t do well was in the Travers. The track just got him that day.”

So did the gate. Gronkowski hit it on his way out at the break, which was progress after he had dawdled at the start of the Belmont before making up 12¼ lengths and picking off every horse but Justify. As a 2-year-old under Jeremy Noseda’s care, Gronkowski would go forward early. Then Noseda turned him into a closer. Who knows if Brown and jockey José Ortiz may get Gronkowski back to his old ways in search of his first graded or group win?

Thunder Snow is the wild card – as he literally was when he made like a rodeo mustang during his embarrassing start to last year’s Kentucky Derby. But he has had 10 races since with no signs of a repeat freak-out. When the pace fell apart early in the Dubai World Cup, jockey Christophe Soumillon seized it on the way to a 5¾-length win.

A return to the turf last month was a disaster; Thunder Snow finished last after setting the early pace in the Juddmonte International in England. So Godolphin trainer Saeed bin Suroor is all-in now on U.S. soil. “We’re really excited to get him back to the dirt,” bin Suroor’s traveling lad Tommy Burns said. “He really enjoys the dirt.”

It is hard to make a case for any of the other horses in the field; the durable closer Discreet Lover (15-1) is the only other with a graded-stakes victory this year. So it makes sense to stay away from verticals and instead single Diversify in horizontal bets – and maybe even keep an eye on him for a future play in the Breeders’ Cup.

“There's a lot of marbles on the table,” Violette said. “A big race is a big race. He’s a very good racehorse. He’s fit. And the time since the Whitney should give us a fresh horse going into this.”

Awesome Again Stakes – Saturday 8:12 p.m. EDT

In a year when only a neck has kept Accelerate (3-5) from being 5-for-5, West Coast (7-5) could be the party crasher, thanks to Baffert’s $6,000 decision to supplement him into Saturday’s race and not simply train him right up to the Breeders’ Cup.

“I’m excited,” said jockey Mike Smith, who rode West Coast’s last victory in the 2017 Pennsylvania Derby. “It’s his first race out in a while, but as you well know Bob will have him ready.

Yes, the 4-year-old West Coast lost his last three races. But two of them were to Gun Runner, the now-retired 2017 Horse of the Year. And his second-place finish as the favorite in the Dubai World Cup was pre-ordained when the pace fell apart up front, allowing Thunder Snow to win at odds of 8-1.

Accelerate has truly come into his own this year, racking up half his eight career victories as a 5-year-old that may yet be John Sadler’s first Breeders’ Cup winner. Think about it. If he had been retired at 4, Accelerate would be a middling stallion after earning only $787,480 in a racing career that brought just four wins from 15 starts. Now a six-figure stud fee seems certain when he goes off to Lane’s End in Kentucky.

Cutting back to nine furlongs from a pair of 1¼-mile victories, Accelerate may be sent to the front by jockey Joel Rosario. But since they are breaking from outside in the six-horse field, Prime Attraction (10-1) or the long shot Shades Of Victory (50-1) from the rail may get there first.

The wild card in this race – and the value play – figures to be with the closer The Lieutenant (10-1). Trained by Mike McCarthy and ridden by Flavien Prat, the 5-year-old by Street Sense closed strong to finish second to Diversify in the Grade 2 Suburban nearly three months ago at Belmont Park before coming in a distant sixth in last month’s Pacific Classic. Bettors taking him would have to consider that last race the exception to his form this year rather than the start of a downward trend. Still, The Lieutenant could pay a nice price either filling out a trifecta or splitting the two favorites.

Whatever the case, the Awesome Again and Jockey Club Gold Cup will provide something that we have not seen much with all the dropouts this summer by fast-rising horses. That would be context leading into the next big race.

Just cross your fingers that there are no more sudden retirements.

Previews of the Awesome Again, the Jockey Club Gold Cup and other Grade 1 races Saturday at Santa Anita and Belmont Park may be heard with XBTV’s Jeff Siegel co-hosting the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, available by using the link shown in red.

Horse racing notes and opinions

We must be getting close to Europe’s richest race. There is already open worry about the turf ahead of the $5.9 million Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe a week from Sunday in Paris. John Gosden, who trains defending champion Enable (5-4 in early European betting) as well as Cracksman (7-1), told Racing UK this week that the ParisLongchamp course “probably didn’t get the care and attention is should have.” He was referring to the $150 million rebuilding of the grandstand that left the track idle for more than two years. “The ground is terrible,” jockey Christophe Soumillon after one race this spring. “The track is full of divots. To run a nice horse on ground which is full of holes is not great.” One sign of optimism, though, comes from the rail being 35 feet out for races there all month, leaving what should be less-worn ground for the Arc.

Betting on the Arc card has been hit or miss in the U.S. It is generally but not always available through ADWs. And it has not been available for betting here partly because of its 7:05 a.m. Sunday PDT post time, which is often before race books are open (not to mention Nevada’s hypocritical ban on interstate ADWs, but I did mention it, so there). The New York Racing Association has opened the door this year by creating a Transatlantic Pick 4 that will include the Arc and the $470,000 Group 1 Prix de l’Opéra, a win-and-you’re-in qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. The Belmont races in that Pick 4 will be the Grade 1 Flower Bowl and the Grade 1 Frizette.

Add Good Magic to that growing list of horses gone to the shelf before their time. Less than a year removed from his juvenile championship, he was retired to begin a stud career next spring at Hill ’n’ Dale Farm in Kentucky. Trainer Chad Brown said something was wrong with Good Magic after a ninth-place finish in the Travers. He never said what it was, but it was obvious something was amiss. A two-time Grade 1 winner, the colt sired by Curlin may be best remembered for eyeballing Justify in an early speed duel before wilting in the fog of the Preakness.

Achievement is one thing. Bloodlines are another. Even though American Pharoah’s iconic Triple Crown triumph in 2015 ended a 37-year drought, this year’s Triple Crown winner Justify will command the higher stud fee next year – $150,000 compared with Pharoah’s $110,000. The price tags announced by Coolmore America reflect Justify being the physically imposing product of his late sire Scat Daddy and his dam by 2004 Horse of the Year Ghostzapper. Pharoah was impressively sired by Pioneerof The Nile, but it takes a three-generation trip back on the dam side to find Storm Cat. Does that mean there is value in a Pharoah foal? We shall find out in due time.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. XBTV handicapper Jeff Siegel previews Saturday’s Awesome Again Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup as well as the day’s other Grade 1 races. Tom Ludt of the Phoenix Thoroughbreds ownership group discusses the progress of his colt Gronkowski ahead of the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher. This week’s RFRP and coverage of the road to the Breeders’ Cup are sponsored by Xpressbet.

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