Thankfully, horse racing is not like baseball. Finishing second in the last race before the Breeders’ Cup is not as bad as finishing second in a Wild Card Game. It is not lose or go home.
If only bettors could remember that.
A few hours of research on behalf of VSiN and Horse Racing Nation revealed some clear patterns after looking at all the Breeders’ Cup races that have been run and won since the inaugural year 1984.
* Of the 360 winners, 189 finished first in their last preps before the championships. That is 52.2 percent. Measuring that just since 2000, it was 129 of 247, or 52.5 percent, so the trend has been constant for generations.
* In dirt races, including the two years on a synthetic main track at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009, 56.1 percent of the Breeders’ Cup winners (124 of 221) came in off a victory.
* In turf races, it was more likely the championship winners did not finish first in their most recent races. Only 46.8 percent (65 of 139) scored in their final preps.
* Two-year-olds that earned Breeders’ Cup trophies won 65.2 percent (73 of 112) of their last races beforehand.
This is how often winners in the 14 current divisions finished first in their final starts before the Breeders’ Cup:
100.0% Juvenile Turf Sprint (3 of 3)
76.9% Juvenile Fillies Turf (10 of 13)
64.9% Juvenile (24 of 37)
64.9% Juvenile Fillies (24 of 37)
56.7% Classic (21 of 37)
54.1% Sprint (20 of 37)
51.4% Distaff (19 of 37)
50.0% Filly & Mare Sprint (7 of 14)
50.0% Juvenile Turf (7 of 14)
48.6% Turf (18 of 37)
43.2% Mile (16 of 37)
36.4% Filly & Mare Turf (8 of 22)
28.6% Dirt Mile (4 of 14)
23.1% Turf Sprint (3 of 13)
So what are bettors to make of all this? The easy answer is not to put so much weight on horses that show up next month coming off a victory this weekend in 11 of the last 12 Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races, nine of which are at Keeneland between Friday and Sunday.
In 2017, the only previous time the Breeders’ Cup was held at Del Mar, eight of the 13 winners finished up the track in their last races beforehand. For instance, Stormy Liberal ran eighth in the Jaipur at Belmont Park before he scored at 30-1 in the Turf Sprint, a race in which he would be a repeat winner for trainer Peter Miller the following year at Churchill Downs. Bar Of Gold finished sixth in the Keeneland slop as the Spinster favorite before cutting back to win at 66-1 at Del Mar in the Filly & Mare Sprint.
The biggest turnaround for a Breeders’ Cup winner was in 2014, when Karakontie finished a troubled 11th in the Prix de la Forêt in Paris the month before he broke through at Santa Anita with a 30-1 upset in the Mile.
As hard as it is to believe these days, bettors have not always swayed by the sour taste of a bad, last impression. Midnight Lute arrived at the 2008 championships off a 10th-place finish as an odds-on favorite two months earlier in the Pat O’Brien Handicap at Del Mar. The ride he got that day from the late Garrett Gómez left something to be desired, and bettors forgave them. Looking for a repeat in the Sprint, Midnight Lute went off as a 5-2 second choice and earned trainer Bob Baffert one of his 17 Breeders’ Cup trophies.
One horse expected over from Europe next month is a case in point that winning isn’t everything in the final weeks before the championships. Audarya finished third last year in the Prix de l’Opéra at soggy ParisLongchamp before she was flown to the dry ground here at Keeneland to win the Filly & Mare Turf. It was wet again in Paris on Sunday, when Audarya finished fourth in the Opéra. If she were to go to Del Mar and put up a successful defense, it would mark the 15th time in 23 runnings of the race that the winner did not finish first in her final prep beforehand.
Tarnawa also could double down on making that case this fall. Last year she swam to victory in the Opéra before she thrived on the firm going at Keeneland and won the Turf. Last weekend she was a game second to 71-1 long shot Torquator Tasso in the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Now she is a 5-2 futures favorite to repeat in the U.S.
The fact that last-out losers more often win the grass races in the Breeders’ Cup might pay more than lip service to an oft-stated truism. It has been said that European horsemen believe that do not have to send their best horses to win in the Breeders’ Cup. The list proving the point is not short. Talismanic, Highland Reel, Expert Eye, Iridessa, Queen’s Trust, Perfect Shirl, Midday and, yes, Karakontie were never champions, but their owners took home big checks written in U.S. dollars.
It is the opposite with 2-year-olds, and it seems easier to explain why so many of those Breeders’ Cup winners were building at least modest winning streaks. Owners and trainers are less likely to forgive a loss for a fledgling 1-for-2 horse than they are for an older one that is 6-for-8. Juveniles have less room for error if they are to make the grade in the eyes of horsemen trying to separate contenders from pretenders at that age.
There are two divisions that really stand out when it comes to recency bias meaning almost nothing. In the Turf Sprint, only 3 of 13 winners finished first in their last preps. California Flag (2009), Regally Ready (2011) and Stormy Liberal (2018) were the only ones who used the Breeders’ Cup to run their winning streaks to at least two. With 11 of the 13 winners coming from North American stables, it could be a sign Europeans are not interested in the mere $1 million purse. There is also the fact that seven Turf Sprint winners successfully cut back after losses at longer distances.
Then there is the oft-maligned Dirt Mile, impertinently seen as a refuge for horses that could not cut it in the Classic. Maybe that explains why 10 of its 14 winners came in off losses. It was 10 of 12 before Spun To Run parlayed a minor-stakes score at Parx Racing into a victory in 2019 at Santa Anita. Then there was Knicks Go, an allowance winner right before his triumph last year at Keeneland, where trainer Brad Cox could do no wrong during a four-win weekend.
Knicks Go might prove to be a glaring exception, since he is the futures favorite to finish first in next month’s $6 million Classic. Otherwise, the idea that a hot hand is necessary for winning a Breeders’ Cup race does not hold up against the test of history. If anything, it is little more than the flip of a coin.
Somewhere out there, the New York Yankees and St. Louis Cardinals are wishing their sport was as forgiving this time of year as horse racing.
Racing notes and opinions
It feels like a rivalry was born at Saratoga, where Gufo outkicked Japan to win the Grade 1 Sword Dancer. They meet again for another 1½-mile date, this time at Belmont Park on Saturday at 3:47 p.m. EDT for the $500,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. Late in his 4-year-old season, morning-line favorite Gufo (8-5) looks like a completely different horse since trainer Christophe Clément added blinkers. Before he held off Japan, he won the Grand Couturier over the same course and distance as he faces Saturday. Japan (5-2), a 5-year-old based at Aidan O’Brien’s Coolmore stable in Ireland, has looked right at home since he found his way to firmer ground two races ago. He won a Group 3 at Leopardstown before he missed by a neck in the Sword Dancer. Gufo benefited from a perfect trip under Joel Rosario in the Sword Dancer; Japan had trouble making the final turn under Ryan Moore. With big races back in Europe, Moore will stay home while Wayne Lordan gets the ride in New York. Chalky, yes, but the Gufo-Japan box is the obvious play. Japan is the lean to avenge his summertime loss. Even though this is not part of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, it seems a safe bet that the rivalry will have a third chapter in the 1½-mile Turf at Del Mar.
Quick thoughts on other races these next two days, when it supposed to be clear and dry at both Keeneland and Belmont Park.
* It says the $400,000 Grade 1 First Lady (Saturday, 4:44 p.m. EDT) at Keeneland is a qualifier for the Filly & Mare Turf. But with 11 graded/group winners in field of 13, it could be even better than the Breeders’ Cup race that is the ultimate prize. If tactical speed late in the one-mile race carries any weight, this should come down to four horses – Godolphin’s two-time Grade 1 winner and morning-line favorite Althiqa (7-2), Chad Brown trainee Regal Glory (5-1) ), 6-for-7 Princess Grace (6-1) and the slumping Harvey’s Lil Goil (6-1). I will toss Harvey’s Lil Goil, include the other three and add two more to the box. Viadera (8-1) is another Brown mare that is 4-for-5 since last summer, and Dalika (12-1) was a rank, stumbling fourth in this race last year. The well-heeled among horizontal players may understandably hit “all.”
* Classic Causeway (5-1) looks to have the best breeding to go the 8½ furlongs of the $500,000 Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity (Saturday, 5:15 p.m. EDT), a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile qualifier at Keeneland. However, his wide draw in the field of 13 is not attractive. I will box him with fellow front-runners Don’t Wait Up (9-2) and Great Escape (8-1) as well as Todd Pletcher’s three-time winner and morning-line favorite Double Thunder (4-1) – and to use them all spreading in multi-race bets.
* The 5-year-old Special Reserve (9-5) returns to race in the $250,000 Grade 2 Phoenix Stakes (Friday, 5:10 p.m. EDT) at Keeneland, a six-furlong qualifier for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. Since he turned 3, this gelding from Mike Maker’s barn is 3-for-3 in his first race off a break. Box him with Just Might (9-2), a 5-year-old gelding that has won four minor stakes in a row, two each on dirt and turf.
* Which Cox horse should get the nod – and the money – in the $400,000 Grade 1 Alcibiades (Friday, 5:45 p.m. EDT), Keeneland’s “win and you’re in” for the Juvenile Fillies? Starting from the rail, Juju’s Map (5-2) is the morning-line favorite after a 5¾-length sprint victory, but Matareya (4-1) is not to be ignored after a winning debut at Ellis Park. I will look for a value play from the more tested Penny Saver (4-1).
* Add Alcibiades. The race is named for the Depression era filly that won the 1930 Kentucky Oaks and went on to become a successful broodmare. She, in turn, was named for ancient Greek military leader. It is pronounced “AL-sub-BY-add-deez,” kind of like “I’ll see five of these.” (You will never forget again, right?)
* The $250,000 Grade 2 Vosburgh (Saturday, 2:45 p.m. EDT), a six-furlong feeder to the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, came up short at Belmont Park. There are only five entries – two 3-year-olds and three that are 6. Firenze Fire (8-5) is 6. More important, he is 7-for-11 at Belmont, including a win in this race last year. He is the obvious single here.
* Bell’s The One (7-5) looks primed to show her turn of foot, come home a winner in the $250,000 Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America (Saturday, 4:12 p.m. EDT) at Keeneland and get back to the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint, where she and everyone else will lose to Gamine. My choice here is Estilo Talentoso (5-2). She has shown the talent, but he just has not put it all together yet for trainer Juan Arriagada. The hope is that he does it here.
* Two 2020 winners are prominent in the Keeneland Turf Mile (Saturday, 5:46 p.m. EDT). The winner gets an invitation to the Breeders’ Cup Mile, which Order Of Australia (7-2) took last year at odds of 73-1. He is back, and so is Ivar (5-1), who was 14-1 when he finished first in this race last October. They were flukes. Pixelate (9-2) does not appear to be. He has won two of his last three for trainer Mike Stidham. I will box him with Somelikeithotbrown (9-2), who finishes second a lot lately, and Monarchs Glen (20-1), a springtime claim that has become competitive for trainer Mike Maker.
It was the first full day of summer, June 21, when the legislature in New Jersey unanimously approved a bill authorizing fixed-odds wagering for horse races. It took another 45 days, literally until the middle of summer, for Gov. Phil Murphy to sign it. Now it is another 64 days later. Summer is over. The Haskell Stakes came and went. So did the Hambletonian. All the traffic and all the dollars that horse racing gets those two days vanished back into the wallets of would-be bettors. It has been 109 days, all summer and every day so far this fall, since fixed-odds horse betting was approved by the New Jersey legislature. Unanimously. It was a combined 111-0. Yet there is no walk to go with the talk. Actually, there has not even been much talk. Bettors could have grown weary of the “it’ll happen” and “we want to get it right” and “these things take time” proclamations from everyone involved, except they have not even heard those phrases. The Breeders’ Cup comes in 28 days. Imagine the possibilities if futures and fixed odds were actually available alongside pari-mutuel wagering in New Jersey. Imagine, indeed. That is all horseplayers have been able to do. Maybe out of the darkness, a light will flicker on this month in Trenton, where the state government has been wringing its hands over a $4 billion deficit. Perhaps someone will realize that the vig on Breeders’ Cup bets could actually slice into the oozing red ink. Or maybe this is just another casualty of the divided body politic of this one nation, indivisible. Oh, wait. Back on June 21, there was no division. To repeat, the votes were unanimous. It seems the people of New Jersey want fixed-odds wagering. They also want to quit waiting for the connecting train at Secaucus.
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. From opening weekend at Keeneland, track executive and horseplayer Jim Goodman discusses Breeders’ Cup qualifiers. Hall of Fame trainer Todd Pletcher talks about Malathaat, Life Is Good and his top 2-year-olds. DraftKings Sportsbook’s Johnny Avello 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.