In a land where racing is done mostly on the rich soil rather than on the lush green, it makes sense that Breeders’ Cup futures for turf divisions hold less interest. It is the same reason the Breeders’ Cup Classic, 1¼ miles on dirt, carries a $6 million purse, and the Breeders’ Cup Turf, 1½ miles on grass, offers a relative pittance of $4 million.
Last weekend was the exception to the rule. With New York racing on a break after Saratoga and with California racing using Los Alamitos as a way station between Del Mar and Santa Anita, the mini-meet over hill and dale and through the meadow known as Kentucky Downs brought lopsided attention to turf racing.
Because the dirt calendar was dormant, the six days of rich races on the mid-South turf was the biggest reason the Breeders’ Cup futures market experienced some upheaval with the four grass races that will be held Nov. 6 at Del Mar.
Europeans wandering in to read this would snort that they had a few races over there during the weekend that had an influence. And they would be right, even while they continue to mispronounce the name of our 44th president and scoff at our alleged abuse of the term “football.”
Actually, failure rather than success on both sides of the Atlantic dictated most of the market moves. Take the Irish star Love. The European champion 3-year-old filly of 2020 has been a bust as a 4-year-old in the summer of 2021. Since she won at Royal Ascot, Love has gone 0-for-3, including a second-place finish Sunday in a Group 2 race at the Curragh. Her odds with a global bookmaker spiked to 10-1 to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf, even as she inexplicably shortened to 17-2 with English shops surveyed by Oddschecker.com.
At the same time, St Mark’s Basilica, from the same Coolmore horse factory as Love, won the Group 1 Irish Champion Stakes and was cut to a consensus 9-2 to win the Turf. The favorite is still Mishriff (best price 4-1), Prince Faisal’s 4-year-old colt who won last month in the Group 1 International Stakes at York. The only problem there is that trainers John and Thady Gosden have not committed to sending him to California this fall. They seem more keen to end his season at the Group 1 British Champion Stakes in October at Ascot.
But back to Kentucky Downs, which hosted two Breeders’ Cup “win and you’re in” qualifiers Saturday. The South American-bred Imperador was an 8-1 shot when he won the Grade 2 Calumet Turf Cup, his first win in six North American tries. The 5-year-old horse — really more like 4½ in Northern Hemisphere terms — then opened at 20-1 in the global market to win the Turf. Channel Cat could do no better than sixth in the Calumet, so he was pushed to 28-1. Arklow, the beaten favorite Saturday, held his ground with a best price of 33-1.
Gear Jockey, previously no better than an allowance winner with a 3-for-14 record, finally came through on his sixth attempt in a stakes race. He won Saturday’s 6-furlong Grade 3 Turf Sprint, a qualifier for — what do you know? — the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. That is where he opened at 8-1 in the global futures. Failures drifted the Breeders’ Cup odds for fourth-place Fast Boat (14-1) and fifth-place Casa Creed (16-1). The market is hinting that they pale by comparison with lukewarm favorite Golden Pal (9-2), trainer Wesley Ward’s two-time graded-stakes winner, who will be looking to improve on a seventh-place finish last month in the Group 1 Nunthorpe at York.
Overseas disappointment also struck another Coolmore filly Sunday. Looking for her fourth consecutive victory, Snowfall was a beaten 1-5 favorite in the Group 1 Prix Vermeille in Paris. The loss not only dampened the 3-year-old’s momentum heading into next month’s $5.89 million Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, it also knocked her from the favorite’s role for the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf. She went from 9-4 to 6-1. That left stablemate Santa Barbara, already a two-time U.S. winner, and Grade 1 Flower Bowl victor War Like Goddess as the top choices at 11-4.
Turf lovers better not get used to the spotlight that their favorite surface enjoyed last week, although value hunters might relish the forthcoming lack of attention. Main tracks will be back in the picture starting Thursday, when Churchill Downs opens its season. The 2-year-olds, who have yet to be subjected to the scrutiny of futures bettors, will be the main attractions Saturday when the Iroquois and Pocahontas are run. They are not only qualifiers for the Breeders’ Cup but also the first points races for the 2022 Kentucky Derby and Oaks.
Not that the grass will be entirely out of mind. Belmont Park, which opens its fall meet Thursday, hosts the Jockey Club Derby Invitational, a Saturday qualifier for the Turf. Also this weekend in Canada, Woodbine offers three “win and you’re in” races, all on its grass course.
In time, the number of weekends when turf races will be spotlighted might become significant. The Jockey Club reported 17% of all flat races in North America last year were on turf. That was up from just 5% in 1991, according to Thoroughbred Daily News.
Consider that $74,088,532 was wagered on this year’s races at Kentucky Downs. That was a track record for all-sources handle, and it was not even close. It was a 24% increase over the old record set last year only days after the pandemic forced the rescheduling of the Kentucky Derby.
Turf racing, then, is not just for the folks who run their horses clockwise rather than our way. Once we convince ourselves of that, we can go about convincing them.
In addition to this weekly report, 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 former NFL quarterback Shaun King, the VSiN host who is also a longtime horseplayer. Thoroughbred owner and handicapper Marshall Gramm talks about the edges he has gained as a computer bettor. Las Vegas oddsmaker Paul Zilm handicaps weekend races. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.