LAS VEGAS — All this turmoil to figure out the best racehorse in the world and the best 3-year-old colt in America continues to be churned into chaos by us racing journalists. But for bettors, this is nirvana.
When I mentioned to Bob Baffert last month at Del Mar that Arrogate had gone from 3-2 to 11-5 in Las Vegas to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic in November, he raised his eyebrows. I may have been wrong, but that looked like a hint of delight. And it seemed appropriate.
But first the chaos. Still ranked for now the best racehorse in the world, Arrogate is not even the best racehorse in the U.S. anymore. Gun Runner has moved past him in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association media poll.
(Repeating what I wrote in April, this weekly survey in which I years ago turned down an invitation to be a voter is not nearly as important as the opinions expressed at betting windows.)
This weekend, Gun Runner is poised to do what Arrogate could not – galvanize his hold not only on the top spot in the country but also on his 3-2 odds at Wynn Las Vegas as the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. On Saturday at 6:46 p.m. EDT, Gun Runner is the 2-5 morning-line favorite to defeat four overmatched rivals in the $750,000 Grade 1 Woodward Stakes at Saratoga.
But like Arrogate now and 3-year-olds all year, 4-year-old Gun Runner is flawed. He has risen above a certain level of Grade 1 competition, but he wilted against the likes of Connect, Tamarkuz and, yes, Arrogate in his biggest races over the last year. It means there is value all around now, and Wynn oddsmaker Johnny Avello said that is the least that bettors should be seeking between now and the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar.
“Forget about being nine weeks out,” Avello said. “Even on the day of the race you’re not supposed to be looking at chalk. It’s the Breeders’ Cup. It’s all the best horses. You’re supposed to be looking for prices. Anybody can win that day, and that’s what makes that a tough day to handicap.”
With high-profile losses the past two weeks by Arrogate in the Pacific Classic, Songbird in the Personal Ensign and Tapwrit in the Travers, the perception might be that favorites have had a bad year in big races. But they have actually won 23 of the 60 Grade 1 races so far in the U.S. That is 38 percent, or 3 percent higher than the traditional rate.
The problem is finding any horse that has sustained success all year. There is a case to be made for Gun Runner. He has finished first or second in his last seven races, including a 5¼-length victory at Saratoga last month in the Grade 1 Whitney.
“We’ve talked about him quite a bit, how he spoils us with his consistency,” his trainer Steve Asmussen said. “I think that he’s consistently or incrementally gotten better every race, and I think that’s ideal, because it hasn’t been a huge jump forward. It’s just been a little bit at a time.”
Nevertheless, Gun Runner is hardly a consensus favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Look no further than the hue and cry on social media after Arrogate was demoted from the NTRA’s No. 1 after his Pacific Classic loss. Avello figured the betting market is also turning away from Arrogate.
“I don’t know how he can be anything less than 2-1, especially against a horse like Gun Runner who is improving every race,” Avello said. “Then you take maybe one of these 3-year-olds or one of Baffert’s other horses – maybe Collected – and that’s going to make it difficult on him, even though he’s still probably a very good horse.”
Arrogate certainly appears to have regressed since his Dubai World Cup victory in March, but he is not alone in having imperfections. Consider some of the other horses in the Breeders’ Cup Classic mix at Wynn.
* Collected (3-1): Yes, he is now 7-for-7 on fast dirt after he held off his stable mate Arrogate last month in the Pacific Classic. That was his second time in Grade 1 company and his first time racing 1¼ miles. The question as it was last year for Arrogate is whether he can do it again.
* Keen Ice (10-1). The enigmatic, 5-year-old son of Curlin finished a distant second in last month’s Whitney after a dream trip got him a victory two months ago in the Grade 2 Suburban at Belmont Park. That was his first visit to the winner’s circle since he upset American Pharoah in the 2015 Travers. As his former trainer Dale Romans said two years ago, “he hasn’t put everything together mentally. He gets himself a little out of touch with things or he doesn’t switch leads just in time or he doesn’t get bellied down until late.” Even two years later Keen Ice remains a riddle wrapped in a mystery.
* Shaman Ghost (14-1). The Santa Anita Handicap winner would have been in the Woodward were it not for a throat problem that required surgery. “That doesn’t always help, but we certainly have to try it,” trainer Jimmy Jerkens said two weeks ago. “He was making a little bit of a noise that we didn’t like.” His immediate future is uncertain.
* Always Dreaming (8-1 before being taken off the board): This is not the same horse that won the Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. He has since finished eighth in the Preakness, third in the Jim Dandy and ninth in the Travers last Saturday. Trainer Todd Pletcher ordered a full exam for him this week, so his immediate future is also in limbo.
* West Coast (40-1). Like his stable mate Arrogate last year, his Travers victory last Saturday may have stamped him the best 3-year-old in the country. Like Collected the question is whether he can he parlay that this fall. Until there is a confident answer, there is a lot of value on him.
If Gun Runner does as he is expected to do at Saratoga on Saturday, he will probably remain the favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic right up until the betting windows open in November at Del Mar. But the way things have gone this year, that may be a rash albeit odds-on assumption.
“Gun Runner is a pretty tactical horse,” said Todd Pletcher, who has a stalker and a speed horse in the Woodward. “Both Rally Cry (5-2) and Neolithic (6-1) at a mile-and-an-eighth have tactical speed. We’ll see how it works out.”
Distaff favorite Songbird has been retired
Because she has not recovered completely from leg injuries last winter, Breeders’ Cup Distaff favorite Songbird has been retired and is expected to be sold as a broodmare this fall.
“Ultrasounds proved both hind suspensories were enlarged,” owner Rick Porter of Fox Hill Farm said in a statement Wednesday. “We have a situation where it’d be dangerous for Songbird to continue training. So for this reason we are retiring our lovely Songbird.”
A 4-year-old filly sired by Medaglia d’Oro, Songbird won 13 of her 15 races for nearly $4.7 million in earnings. After she lost as a 2-5 favorite to Forever Unbridled in last Saturday’s Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga, trainer Jerry Hollendorfer figured something was wrong. He sent her for an examination in Kentucky that revealed the trouble.
A two-time Eclipse Award winner, Songbird was the 7-5 favorite at Wynn for the Distaff. With her exit, Stellar Wind (8-5) and Forever Unbridled (9-5) are the new top choices.
Notes: Oklahoma is new part of Derby road
* The $300,000 Springboard Mile has been added to the points races that determine the field for the Kentucky Derby. The Dec. 17 feature at Remington Park in Oklahoma City becomes the 36th “Road to the Kentucky Derby” race between September and April. Churchill Downs also declared seven European races as an parallel path to one place in the Derby starting gate. That is similar to the one established last year with three races in Japan. Otherwise there were no changes to the 35 prep races already in the lineup.
* With 18 wins in a row and a legitimate claim to be the top thoroughbred in the world, the Australian mare Winx returns to the track for what is expected to be a glorified workout. She is the 2-25 favorite in early betting for Saturday’s Group 2 Chelmsford Stakes over a mile of turf at Sydney’s Randwick Racecourse. The 6-year-old’s last win was just two weeks ago over seven furlongs. This is the second time this year that Winx has come back from such a short break. The Chelmsford starts Saturday at 1:50 a.m. EDT.
* After being nosed out at the wire last Friday in the Group 1 Nunthorpe Stakes in England, Lady Aurelia is back in Kentucky at Keeneland. Trainer Wesley Ward is preparing the two-time Royal Ascot winner for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint. The 3-year-old filly is second behind Arrogate in Timeform’s world rankings.
* Once he is done racing, Always Dreaming will go to stud in Kentucky at Kenny Troutt’s WinStar Farm, where his sire Bodemeister already stands. Whether he becomes a stallion next year or 2019 will depend on the outcome of his veterinary exam that came this week in Lexington, Kentucky.