LAS VEGAS--In its own way it has become as trendy as “Game of Thrones,” hipster beards and throwing on first down. With the exception of kids around the house, nothing vanishes after Labor Day faster than Breeders’ Cup contenders.
Maybe this whole 60 or 70 days’ rest thing started to become popular with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah two years ago. After losing the Travers, Pharoah was kept out of races for nine weeks by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert.Then he resurfaced at Keeneland and, voilà, he ran away with the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Now it is hard to find an American trainer who is not doing that. Take Steve Asmussen. He is holding out Gun Runner – the 3-2 favorite at Wynn Las Vegas – until this year’s Classic at Del Mar on Nov. 5.
“I think everything culminates with the Breeders’ Cup Classic,” Asmussen said last Saturday after Gun Runner’s emphatic, 10¼-length victory in the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga. “That is why he is in training this year, and that has been the goal and continues to be the goal. We will do our best to get him there in as good a shape as possible.”
Baffert is doing the same thing with Arrogate (11-5), the defending Classic winner that took an inferior turn this summer at Del Mar, where the Breeders’ Cup will be held Nov. 3 and 4.
“I did the same thing with him last year,” Baffert told VSiN. “He shipped (to Saratoga) and ran so fast. He’s a tall-framed horse, and that took a lot out of him. We had never really let him run that hard before. This year we got him back here to Santa Anita, and we’re getting that frame filled back out again. He got really thin on me down at Del Mar.”
Baffert said a firm decision on whether to run Arrogate in the Breeders’ Cup will come late this month. “I’m probably going to breeze him in a couple weeks,” he said, “and we’ll know more where we’re at.”
The toll from a long year of racing outweighs the fear of rust. But this is a new trend. Horsemen of the past would not dare to send a fit contender into the Breeders’ Cup without a race four or five weeks out. Now it seems like a final prep is not worth the risk – either of injury, a reversal of momentum or just plain embarrassment.
“It all depends on the trainer,” said Patrick McQuiggan, the race-book handicapper at South Point. “If you have a Todd Pletcher or a Bob Baffert it makes no difference. They could work their horses in the morning with better horses than they’re going to see in the afternoon.”
A respected workout analyst took that idea one step further, referencing Pletcher’s Kentucky Derby winner Always Dreaming and a stable mate.
“The reason you work Always Dreaming with Outplay is because he wants Always Dreaming working (five furlongs) in 1:01, not 1:02 or 1:03,” said Bruno De Julio, who has his own database Bruno With the Works. “If you work with a maiden, the maiden will go 1:02 or 1:03, and (Pletcher) doesn’t get the work he wants for Always Dreaming.”
As carefully planned as his workouts often are, Baffert said that other trainers may benefit simply from the quality of horses out in the morning at places like Santa Anita.
“This track is so busy,” Baffert said. “There’s so many horses out there breezing, you can always catch something. If you go out there at 6:30 or 7:45, somebody’s going to meet up with you that you’ll see somewhere down the road.”
But what is good just in the morning for Gun Runner and Arrogate is not necessarily good for every horse taking aim on the Breeders’ Cup. Baffert said he is considering a prep race late this month at Santa Anita for Collected, the Pacific Classic winner that held off Arrogate and zoomed from 75-1 to 3-1 in Breeders’ Cup betting at Wynn.
“I don’t know yet,” Baffert said. “I’m looking at the Awesome Again (Stakes on Sept. 30). I don’t know if he needs another race. He looks good. He’s a strong, heavy horse.”
Since the Pacific Classic was a win-and-you’re-in race, Collected does not need any more successful race results to start in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. And that brings up another point. The Breeders’ Cup format does not enhance incentives for going into a late prep. Once a horse wins a qualifying race or makes himself too good to be refused a place in the gate, there is no more work needed in the early fall.
The Kentucky Derby is just the opposite. Because there are so many points available in April preps like the Santa Anita and Florida derbies, sitting them out opens the possibility of being surpassed by rivals that race in them. Not that that necessarily influences Baffert.
“I don’t try to force the issue for the Breeders’ Cup or the Derby,” he said. “Either you make it or you don’t. If you have a horse and he has a huge effort beforehand, it’s good to give him that little extra time.
“If I would’ve just pointed Arrogate to the Pacific Classic I would’ve been fine. When I shortened him up (for the San Diego Handicap in July) I messed with his psyche a little bit. And it’s a different kind of track down there at Del Mar. It looks like he’s coming full circle now.”
But with fewer races on horses’ past performances, there is less for bettors to examine. Even those underlines in past performances that show longer breaks do not necessarily separate the wheat from the chaff. Gun Runner, for example, is 3-for-3 in his first races back from spells of more than a month. Collected is 3-for-4; the one loss was on turf. Arrogate is 4-for-5.
“In that situation the most important thing I look at in the form is the trainer – period,” McQuiggan said.
Yet even Hall of Fame trainers like Baffert and Pletcher can have dry patches that further confuse handicappers. Collected was Baffert’s only graded-stakes winner this summer at Del Mar. Despite winning his 13th Saratoga training title, Pletcher had only two victories in graded stakes there. But that short-term trend did not discourage McQuiggan from relying on long-term track records.
“You have to rely on the trainer,” McQuiggan said. “I’m not the trainer. I’m not with the horse. I don’t know what this horse needs to get into condition. The trainer knows. That’s the most important thing a trainer does is get him ready to race at that high level.”
Training a horse for weeks up to a big race without a prep in between may have come into focus with American Pharoah. But Baffert points out that he has been doing it that way for a long time.
“The best quarter horse I ever had – Gold Coast Express – I gave him a nine-week break, then he won the Champion of Champions (in 1986),” Baffert said. “It hadn’t been done like that before, but then he became world champion. It’s sort of like I’m used to doing this. But you have to have a superior animal to do it.”