That is it.
That is the average field size for the six Grade 1 races – all Breeders’ Cup qualifiers – being run at Belmont Park and Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday. So best of luck to bettors looking to make a score this last big weekend before the 14 championship races arrive in southern California in five weeks.
But rather than play the blame game about this being some reflection of the sport cannibalizing itself or foal crops being on the wane or track executives lacking feck (type that carefully), let’s just try and find some value at the Great Race Place, Big Sandy or even Churchill Downs, chronologically.
Friday 5:38 p.m. EDT, Santa Anita
$300,000 Grade 1 Chandelier
8½ furlongs – 2-year-old fillies
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies qualifier
Two of the six fillies here are carrying noticeably more weight. The morning-line favorite Bast (3-5) and Leucothea (5-1) get four more pounds than they had in the Del Mar Debutante, which Bast won by 8¾ lengths. That was over seven furlongs. The longer distance should be especially kind to Bast, an Uncle Mo filly trained by Bob Baffert and ridden this time by the ubiquitous John Velázquez, who could set the career record for graded-stakes wins (see notes below). The 2-for-2 Been Studying Her (9-2), trained in name by assistant Dan Ward for the exiled Jerry Hollendorfer, is taking a big step up after making her debut this summer in Sacramento. Maybe too big. Leucothea’s last-place finish in the Del Mar Debutante will turn off some bettors, but she had only 16 days off from her 14-length maiden breaker. That is where the value comes in. So I will go with Leucothea over Bast with Doug O’Neill’s pair Comical (8-1) and Buyers’ Remorse (12-1) thrown in.
Friday 7:30 p.m. EDT, Santa Anita
$300,000 Grade 1 American Pharoah
8½ furlongs – 2-year-olds
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile qualifier
With nine entered, this is the only Grade 1 these next two days that actually resembles a full field. It starts with Eight Rings (9-5), the Empire Maker colt that bolted inward and threw rider Drayden Van Dyke when he got tangled up with Storm The Court just after the start of the Del Mar Futurity. Now Baffert gives him blinkers – and Velázquez. With big speed figures, Express Train (4-1) may try to set the pace if Fore Left (15-1) relaxes without blinkers. My lean, though, is to the outside again with 2-for-2 Best Pal winner Collusion Illusion (5-1). With all the front-end speed in this race, this Twirling Candy colt will get first run on the leaders, and I will put him on top with Express Train, Eight Rings and Defense Wins (15-1) underneath.
Saturday 2:35 p.m. EDT, Belmont Park
$300,000 Grade 1 Vosburgh
6 furlongs – 3-year-olds & up
Breeders’ Cup Sprint qualifier
That cloud of dust is not dirt. It is chalk. Imperial Hint (3-5) won this race last year and is coming off a win in the Grade 1 Vanderbilt at Saratoga. Trainer Jason Servis may have finally settled on Firenze Fire (5-2) being a sprinter after an impressive, second-place finish to Mitole last month in the Grade 1 Forego. Promises Fulfilled (7-2) sandwiched a win over the track in a July Grade 2 with troubled finishes of fourth in the Met Mile and sixth in the Forego. Unless Promises Fulfilled were to benefit from a speed-favoring track, that should be the order of finish – Imperial Hint, Firenze Fire and Promises Fulfilled – with the closer American Power (15-1) sprinkled into the bottom of the deeper exotics if she is not sent to Laurel.
Saturday 4:43 p.m. EDT, Belmont Park
$300,000 Grade 2 Beldame Invitational
1⅛ miles – fillies & mares 3 & up
We interrupt this list of Breeders’ Cup qualifiers to throw in a one-turn race featuring the 4-year-old that is certain to be the champion older female of 2019. In a 6-for-6 year Midnight Bisou (2-5) already has Grade 1 wins in the Apple Blossom, the Ogden Phipps and by a nose against rival Elate in last month’s Personal Ensign, the best race in the country this year. With Mike Smith busy in California, fellow Hall of Famer Velázquez got the call from trainer Steve Asmussen to fly home and ride Midnight Bisou for the first time since he was on her for her last loss – the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Distaff won by Monomoy Girl. Second in the Distaff, Wow Cat (5-2) has yet to win after Chad Brown gave her an eight-month break. But in a field otherwise lacking quality and pace, she looks second-best here against a champion-in-waiting at the top of her game. The thought here is that Spring In The Wind (30-1) might bring what early speed there is to the race, and a loose lead for her could keep her in the mix late. Former turf specialist Vexatious (5-1) might find a spot at the bottom of exotics, but her seven-loss losing streak is coming in loud and clear.
Saturday 5:49 p.m. EDT, Belmont Park
$750,000 Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup
1¼ miles – 3-year-olds & up
Breeders’ Cup Classic qualifier
If there was a benchmark race that was picked clean of its best contenders by last week’s Pennsylvania Derby, it was this one. The frustratingly small, five-horse field is led by Code Of Honor (8-5), Shug McGaughey’s 3-year-old that was the subject of critical deconstruction before he won the Travers. Now he is poised for a run at the 3-year-old championship. A third, er, second in the Kentucky Derby proved he is made for this distance. His problem comes if there is a lack of pace to chase. That may depend on Woodward winner Preservationist (9-5), a late bloomer of a 6-year-old that could lead from gate to wire if he is allowed to do so. Hard-luck 3-year-old Tacitus (5-2) has suffered from second-itis in his last three races, including the three-length Travers loss to Code Of Honor. Santa Anita Gold Cup winner Vino Rosso (7-2) comes back from a two-month break after finishing third to McKinzie in the Whitney and also could figure in the pace picture. Unfortunately, boxing these four – and tossing the space filler Olympic Village (30-1) – will pay almost nothing in the limited exotics. Using Code Of Honor and Preservationist in horizontal wagers may be the only way to go.
Saturday 7:30 p.m. EDT, Santa Anita
$300,000 Grade 1 Rodeo Drive
1¼ miles (turf) – fillies & mares 3 & up
Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf qualifier
How bad is it when the favorite looks like a morning-line overlay in a race that is Grade 1 in name only? Brad Cox’s two-time Grade 2 winner Beau Recall (9-5) was most impressive in her huge close to finish second to Rushing Fall in the Grade 1 Just A Game on the Belmont Stakes undercard. She is not the only one that will try to make up lots of ground on likely pacesetter and rail starter Mirth (6-1), loser of six in a row. Elysea’s World (6-1) last won four races ago in a Grade 3 at Santa Anita, and Siberian Irish (6-1) was second last fall in her only graded stakes. I am tossing Excellent Sunset (7-2), a mare that appears to have peaked a year ago. If the will-pays look cheap, I will be content singling Beau Recall horizontally.
Saturday 8 p.m. EDT, Santa Anita
$300,000 Grade 1 Awesome Again
1⅛ miles – 3-year-olds & up
Breeders’ Cup Classic qualifier
If McKinzie (4-5) wins here for Baffert and Smith, he is certain to be the favorite Nov. 2 for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But consider this. The 4-year-old’s only Grade 1 win this year did not come until his most recent race – last month’s Whitney at Saratoga. Support for Higher Power (2-1) will be buoyed by his win at 9-1 in the Pacific Classic and the belief that trainer John Sadler found the 4-year-old’s sweet spot with a return to dirt. Seeking The Soul (4-1) was a badly beaten favorite in the Pacific Classic, but trainer Dallas Stewart said his 6-year-old closer had the thumps – an equine version of the hiccups. When he won the Stephen Foster in June at Churchill Downs, Seeking The Soul broke a streak of five losses by an average of 5½ lengths. Trained by Peter Eurton and ridden by Joe Talamo, Pacific Classic runner-up Draft Pick (8-1) seems most poised for an upset with value, presuming he emerges from a cluster of pace chasers that will also include the ever-busy Mongolian Groom (15-1). McKinzie is the likely winner, but my value-dreaming plays will include Seeking The Soul and Draft Pick.
Saturday 9:05 p.m. EDT, Churchill Downs
$150,000 Grade 3 Ack Ack
One mile – 3-year-olds & up
The nine horses here all have flawed résumés. They are so evenly matched that there are morning-line co-favorites. Asmussen’s 5-year-old Timeline (3-1) won his first four races in 2017 but only one since – an allowance last year at Belmont Park. The 5-year-old gelding Thirstforlife (3-1) is 7-for-24, mostly at the allowance level. Phil D’Amato shipped Grade 2 sprint winner Air Strike (7-2) from a fourth-place finish at Del Mar in the Grade 1 Bing Crosby to last month’s fourth-place finish behind Mitole in the Grade 1 Forego at Saratoga. Based in Minnesota, frontrunner Mr. Jagermeister (6-1) has won three in a row, but his past performances are full of tracks like Canterbury Park, Turf Paradise and Colonial Downs. Presuming a decent amount of speed, the choice here is Mr. Darcy (10-1), 5-year-old Harlan’s Holiday gelding that could beat the other pace chasers to the late punch. In a $150,000 allowance sprint last month at Churchill, he beat Mr. Freeze (8-1), the horse with the best average speed ratings coming into this race. Swinging for the fences, I will have the Mister-Mister exacta box in the pocket.
Saturday 10:11 p.m. EDT, Churchill Downs
$250,000 Grade 3 Lukas Classic
1⅛ miles – 3-year-olds & up
Oaklawn Handicap winner Quip (5-2) cuts back from a 1¼-mile bust, finishing a sixteenth of a mile adrift in ninth in the Pacific Classic. Last seen winning a $100,000 stakes two months ago at Indiana Downs, likely pacesetter Pioneer Spirit (5-1) has fired three bullet works this month at the Downs. The 5-year-old Mocito Rojo (5-1) has won four in a row but none at this level. Before finishing a distant fourth in the Pacific Classic, the enigmatic Tenfold (6-1) was twice a beaten favorite before winning this spring’s Pimlico Special. The 5-year-old stalker Silver Dust (6-1) and deep-closing 4-year-old Kukulkan (6-1) finished one-two in a Grade 3 on the undercard of last month’s West Virginia Derby. Whether the pace is hot or not, Silver Dust has the right style – and the right speed ratings in the second half of his races. I will key my tickets to him and include Kukulkan, Quip and Mocito Rojo.
For anyone who has made it this far with or without skim reading, it is safe to say that on a weekend that leaves something to be desired when it comes to quality, horseplayers may be paying more attention than usual to track biases early in the day and will-pays late.
Adjust accordingly. I know I will.
Racing notes and opinions
Racing usually does not do a good job of putting out the word on records on the verge of being broken, but such is not the case this week. Velázquez, 47, and retired jockey Jerry Bailey, 62, are tied with 660 graded-stakes victories apiece, the most in North American racing history. Velázquez has plenty of chances to move past Bailey, especially with his rides on odds-on favorites Bast and Midnight Bisou.
The homestretch is already long at the Fair Grounds. 448 yards. Now the New Orleans prep races for the Kentucky Derby will mirror that trait with longer runs to the clubhouse turn. The Lecomte in January adds 40 yards to go from one mile, 70 yards, to 8½ furlongs. The Risen Star in February goes from 8½ to nine furlongs. The Louisiana Derby was nine furlongs; now it is 9½. The only other prep that long is the UAE Derby, which has never produced an in-the-money Kentucky Derby horse. But that has little to do with the distance and more to do with the track surface, the dirt savvy of the field and how far away it is.
The showdown between Churchill Downs Inc. and the Illinois Racing Board reached another nasty crescendo this week when the board caved and approved 68 racing dates for April-Sept. 2020 for Arlington Park. After CDI decided not to apply for a sports-gambling license for Arlington, the board had threatened to refuse the renewal. Members were angry that CDI pushed hard for additional gambling revenue to keep racing alive in Illinois only to take a pass on its own track in order to open a sports book at its nearby Rivers Casino. CDI said that the state is charging too much in added fees to establish sports gambling at racetracks like Arlington.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big races, including next week from the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in Paris. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Super Saturday at Belmont Park and opening weekend at Santa Anita highlight a day full of Breeders’ Cup qualifiers that are the focus of the RFRP. Trainer Dallas Stewart talks about Seeking The Soul’s bid to upset McKinzie in Saturday’s Awesome Again Stakes. Horse Racing Nation’s Matt Shifman previews the New York card that includes the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google and Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.