Has it really been seven months since Rudy Gobert became the poster child for the end of sports in 2020 as we know them?
Come Sunday it will be, complete with unrequited hopes for things like the NCAA tournament and an on-time Triple Crown. Lame as it may be to compare anything with those lost experiences, horse racing does offer something like March Madness this weekend.
Scoff if you must, but the last of the sport’s equivalent to conference tournaments happens at New York’s Belmont Park, where this year’s final five Breeders’ Cup win-and-you’re-in races will be contested.
Taking this basketball analogy one step further, Tacitus is the top seed in Bill Mott’s conference. The Hall of Fame trainer sends the well-bred 4-year-old colt in search of a first Grade 1 victory Saturday in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Second-place finishes to Sir Winston in last year’s Belmont Stakes, to Code of Honor in last year’s Travers and to Global Campaign in this year’s Woodward were as close as he has come to top-level success. Now it is like he has graduated to being the second-year leader hoping to be on his way to the pros.
If not the NBA, there is next month’s $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, for which the winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup earns an automatic invitation and a bunch of fees and expenses paid, presumably excluding champagne bubble baths for hangers-on claiming to be part of the Juddmonte ownership team.
This is not like those other Breeders’ Cup “win-and-you’re-ins” scattered across the calendar and around the world. Those are the Maui Invitationals in horse racing. This weekend? That is the ACC tournament.
Like so many No. 1 seeds in power conferences, Tacitus probably does not need to win this race to get into the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Others in the field may be trying to poach a berth like a bunch of bracket-busting, sub-.500 No. 10 seeds that had to win play-in games against teams coached by Herb Sendek.
Take a horse like Happy Saver, the lightly raced 3-year-old trained by Todd Pletcher and owned by the family that was responsible for Chanel, the perfume, and Goldikova, the three-time Breeders’ Cup Mile winner. Think Princeton, an expensive school with an overachieving basketball team. That may be this colt that was supposed to be in the Preakness last week. Until he was not, for whatever reason.
Or how about Plus Que Parfait? Remember him? He broke his maiden on his third try as a 2-year-old in 2018. Then after he failed miserably in wintertime prep races at the Fair Grounds in New Orleans, he was shipped by trainer Brendan Walsh to Dubai. That is where he won the 2019 UAE Derby to work his way into the Kentucky Derby. He has not won since. But he finished in the money in his last two races, including this summer’s Grade 2 Charles Town Classic at a bullring in West Virginia. He is like the eighth seed that has played its way into the conference tournament final.
Stories like these pepper all the Breeders’ Cup Challenge races on the Belmont Park card this weekend. For that reason bettors must take heed. There is a balancing act to be negotiated with any horse that scores an upset.
If Sistercharlie, for instance, should be defeated in the Grade 1 Flower Bowl Invitational, she probably will not be denied her place in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. That is unless Chad Brown, the trainer who is grass’ answer to Mike Krzyzewski, decides to split her from his 5-year-old mare Rushing Fall, a two-time Grade 1 winner this year who is currently 7-2 in the global market to win next month at Keeneland.
What horseplayers have to decide is whether a recent loss is indicative of a trend that would be a good reason to fade a horse. Or whether it was just a fluke. Since trainers are building to Nov. 6-7 in Kentucky, a loss now could derail even the best of horses.
That could certainly apply in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, where trainer Bob Baffert could fill the field just from his barn.
One must pause before putting money on Improbable, the Grade 1 Awesome Again Stakes winner who assumed the favorite’s role on the strength of his upset last month of stablemate Maximum Security.
The winner of the richest race in the world in Saudi Arabia and the Grade 1 Pacific Classic, Maximum Security has had a trying year. The biggest intangible was his being moved to Baffert in March from the barn of Jason Servis, he of the federal indictment for drugging horses (Servis pleaded not guilty). Which Max will show up at Keeneland?
And what about Kentucky Derby winner Authentic? Does he go to the Classic too? Or is it too much to expect that he could come back off a rugged summer campaign and two tough Triple Crown tests to face his highly regarded, older barn mates?
Like the NCAA tournament, bettors will be in search of a Cinderella that yields a big dividend. Vino Rosso was not exactly a roughie, as my overseas friends would call a big long shot. But he paid $11.20 to win. Six years ago a Baffert horse, Bayern, paid $14.20.
These examples are not far-fetched. Right now Art Collector is 16-1 after finishing a distant fourth in the Preakness. But how much of that was about his poor start and a run into traffic? Do wise guys who were keen to back him at Baltimore bail on him at Lexington?
Perhaps now is the time to look at Art Collector the way many did Virginia in the spring of 2019. Remind me again how the Cavaliers did after they lost to Florida State in the ACC semis.