Odd entries, smaller fields make for unusual Breeders’ Cup

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Shown winning the Fleur de Lis Handicap at Churchill Downs in June with jockey José Ortiz, Elate will be the first female in eight years to face the boys in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. (Eclipse Sportswire photo)

Las Vegas


Fact: A mare will race against the boys in the Classic.


Fact: European bettors are favoring a North American in the Turf. And North American bettors are favoring a European.


Fact: A Grade 1 sprint winner is the shortest priced horse in the Dirt Mile.


Fact: Field sizes figure to be their smallest in at least six years.


Remember that bizarro episode of “Seinfeld” just – yikes – 23 years ago? It is being reprised in next week’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.


Elate, Bricks And Mortar, Magical and Omaha Beach are taking on unfamiliar roles next Friday and Saturday. And with a 22 percent drop in dirt pre-entries juxtaposed with recent safety concerns, 10-time Breeders’ Cup host Santa Anita has been branded with a strangely dystopian tattoo.


All this gives bettors already doing homework on the 14 championships a lot to ponder over the next week.


Elate crashes the Classic boys club


A three-time winner at 1¼ miles in a year when the older division is widely regarded as inferior, Elate will be the first female in eight years to race in the $6 million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Classic.


“I think there’s a lot of up side for her,” Elate’s trainer Bill Mott said Wednesday in a media teleconference. “She’s 3-for-3 at the distance. She’s run well against the girls. She’s put in a few efforts that I think are equivalent to any of the boys in this race.”


Fourth in last year’s Distaff, Elate (best priced at 13-2) is the fourth choice of off-shore and overseas bettors, according to Bovada, US Racing and Oddschecker. Whitney winner McKinzie (4-1), Travers-winning 3-year-old Code Of Honor (9-2) and disqualified Jockey Club Gold Cup first-place finisher Vino Rosso (5-1) have the shortest odds of the 11 pre-entered for the Classic.


Despite narrow losses in her last two races, Elate emboldened Mott with her nose loss to Midnight Bisou over 1⅛ miles in this summer’s Personal Ensign at Saratoga. That came after she had scored a 4½-length win in the 1¼-mile Delaware Handicap. Both efforts produced triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures.


“From a handicapper’s point of view, if you’re a numbers person or a ‘Sheets’ person, if she repeats any of her two best races I think it puts her right there,” Mott said.


This will mark the seventh time that a female has started in 36 runnings of the Classic. Only one – Zenyatta – was able to win. That was memorably 10 years ago next month on what was then the Pro-Ride artificial dirt at Santa Anita.


These are all the fillies and mares that have raced in the Classic:

1986: Triptych – 6th

1992: Jolypha – 3rd

2004: Azeri – 5th

2009: Zenyatta – 1st

2010: Zenyatta – 2nd

2011: Havre De Grace – 4th


“We’re willing to take on the challenge of running against the boys, particularly at (1¼ miles),” Mott said. “We just want to give it a try.”


In a race in which a top-eight finish pays no less than $60,000 and hitting the board pays at least $540,000, why not?


No consensus for Bricks And Mortar, Magical


Betting on international fields in turf races can be parochial to a fault. But this year’s $4 million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Turf has some odd odds.


The winner in both the Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational and the Arlington Million, New York-based Bricks And Mortar (9-4) is the European favorite to win. This month’s British Champion Stakes winner Magical (4-1) is actually shorter priced at 2-1 at off-shore books catering to U.S. bettors.


But Magical is cross-entered in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf, where her 12-time Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Aidan O’Brien seems to be leaning.


“Magical will be entered in the Turf along with (Epsom Derby winner) Anthony Van Dyck,” O’Brien told the U.K.-based Racing Post. “But she is more likely to run in the Filly & Mare Turf.”


Nothing, though, is ever final with O’Brien until the 11th hour – in this case Monday’s 1 p.m. EDT entry deadline. So if Bricks And Mortar and Magical were to actually meet in the Turf, the two closers have big pluses and minuses.


Bricks And Mortar is 6-for-6 since December, perhaps the frontrunner to be America’s horse of the year. But he has never raced farther than 1¼ miles. Next Saturday’s race is 1½ miles.


For a while this summer, trainer Chad Brown was leaning toward putting his 5-year-old star in the $2 million Mile.


“I have gone back and forth,” Brown said. “Initially I was thinking about the Mile. I first committed him to have a little freshening between the Arlington Million (in August) and the Breeders’ Cup thinking that bringing him back for the shorter of the two races would be better. But the more I’ve watched him train I’ve been very pleased with how fit he’s stayed and the way he’s relaxed in his works and finished. So I’ve decided to go to the mile-and-a-half race. My hope is the layoff won’t bother him.”


Where Bricks And Mortar has had 2½ months off, 4-year-old Coolmore filly Magical has not even had two weeks to recover from her big win on a rain-softened course at Ascot.


Magical has started nine times since April, going 4-for-7 in Group 1 races. This is the second year in a row that she will run in four big races in as many countries over this seven-week span.


A busy autumn did not seem to hurt Magical when she pushed Enable in a runner-up finish at Churchill Downs in the 2018 Turf, something that might yet convince O’Brien to avoid taking on Brown’s defending winner and current betting favorite Sistercharlie (2-1) in the 1¼-mile Filly & Mare Turf (Magical is 9-4).


From Sprint to Dirt Mile for Omaha Beach


Trainer Richard Mandella had three choices for his talented but star-crossed 3-year-old colt Omaha Beach.


An impressive victory off a six-month break in the Santa Anita Sprint Championship three weeks ago qualified Omaha Beach for the $2 million Sprint. He would have been the favorite for the Kentucky Derby if not for a race-week throat problem, so the 1¼-mile Classic was always in the cards.


In the end Mandella and owners Rick Porter and B. Wayne Hughes chose the $1 million Grade 1 Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, in which Omaha Beach (11-8) is a clear favorite.


“Amongst us we just thought that that was the best deal to do,” Mandella told VSiN last week. “I would have loved to run in him in the mile-and-a-quarter, but I didn’t think I had enough conditioning in him to give it his best. I didn’t think it was a fair thing to ask him. The mile is the perfect set-up.”


A 59.6-second, five-furlong breeze Wednesday at Santa Anita will certainly not dissuade Omaha Beach’s backers from keeping the faith in him at the betting windows. But it will not be hard to find overlays elsewhere in the likes of late-blooming Mr. Money (11-2), last year’s beaten favorite Catalina Cruiser (6-1) and Bob Baffert’s beaten Derby and Preakness favorite Improbable (8-1).


Where have all the dirt runners gone?


If the pre-entries are any indication, bettors will notice smaller field sizes next week, especially on the dirt. That raised the question of whether safety concerns at Santa Anita had anything to do with it.


The 83 horses named for the seven main-track championships were down 22 percent from 2018 and were the fewest for those same races in seven years. In contrast, the 131 turf-course pre-entries were down 6 percent from last year. (Cross-entered horses were counted as two each.)


Asked for comment on this by VSiN, the Breeders’ Cup responded with a written statement that said, “There is no discernible drop in interest regarding participation in this year’s Breeders’ Cup races. Pre-entered fields for both turf and dirt races are consistent with field sizes generated for the 2017 event at Del Mar and in 2016 at Santa Anita.”


That is true when it comes to sheer numbers; in particular there were 91 dirt pre-entries in 2017 and 85 in 2016. But where six of the 14 dirt races were fully subscribed those two years, only one filled this year. That was the Dirt Mile, which tops out at 12 starters. The other six have maximums of 14 each.


“Oftentimes conditions between racing jurisdictions vary due to the available championship-caliber runners,” the Breeders’ Cup statement went on to say. “Additionally, large numbers of pre-entries can also result in many horses ending up on the also-eligible lists for each race.”


But that does not address the big elephant in the room, namely the fact that of the 34 racehorses that have died as a result of injuries at Santa Anita since Christmas, 23 suffered their fate on the main track.


“I really feel that hasn’t crossed any of my clients’ mind,” Baffert said. “We need some good things happening here in California. We want to show everybody not only a beautiful state but a beautiful racetrack that we have here. Everything’s going to be good (for the Breeders’ Cup). We’re going to get some good, positive vibes out of this whole thing.”


But Baffert and other trainers expressing similar hopes and expectations already committed themselves to racing next week at Santa Anita. Perhaps the questions about safety worries would be better posed to trainers who are not showing up.


Big weekend races beckon in Australia, Japan


The southern hemisphere’s best weight-for-age race and the second edition this year of one of Japan’s most anticipated events will happen in the wee hours of Saturday and Sunday in the east – late night Friday and Saturday in the west.


With Winx now retired, the $3,419,725 Group 1 Cox Plate in suburban Melbourne will get a new face in the winner’s circle for the first time in five years. Japanese Grade 1 winner Lys Gracieux (14-5), a 6-year-old mare, is the clear favorite to win the 1¼-mile turf race. Among the others in the 14-horse field that are carrying short prices are the once-dominant but now slumping 4-year-old mare Mystic Journey (6-1), this month’s Spring Champion runner-up Castelvecchio (15-2), 6-year-old Group 1 winner Avilius (11-1) and the 5-year-old Coolmore mare and Arlington Million runner-up Magic Wand (14-1). Heavy rain and a strong tail wind in the short home stretch are expected this weekend at Moonee Valley, and that will help Mystic Journey. The problem is there are doubts about whether she can get the 10 furlongs. The 3-year-old colt Castelvecchio is my pick mostly because he will carry 15 fewer pounds than he did two weeks ago at Randwick in Sydney. The Cox Plate “jumps,” as they say down under, at 1:55 a.m. EDT Saturday (10:55 p.m. PDT Friday).


Sunday’s feature at Tokyo Racecourse seems more cut and dry – especially dry. Last year’s Japanese horse of the year Almond Eye (4-5) is the heavy favorite to win the $2,992,925 Grade 1 Tenno Shō, a twice-a-year, 1¼-mile turf race that this time includes ten Grade 1 winners in the field of 17. This will be Almond Eye’s first duel with this year’s Japanese guineas winner Saturnalia (2-1). Christophe Lemaire has first call to ride each horse, and he tellingly chose Almond Eye. On class alone this looks like a two-horse race, so it will be hard to find value betting vertically. I will not. Instead, I will enjoy watching a talented, all-time great at 2:40 a.m. EDT Sunday (11:40 p.m. PDT Saturday).


Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big racing events, including next week’s Breeders’ Cup. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. From Santa Anita, the Breeders’ Cup is the focus of the current episode of the RFRP. Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella talks about why he put Omaha Beach in the Dirt Mile and discusses United’s bid to upset the field in the Turf. TV racing host Peter Lurie talks about the championships and a career that has taken him from voicing cartoon characters to working trackside at Santa Anita. There is also a report on the Breeders’ Cup pre-entries and previews of the Cox Plate and autumn Tenno Shō. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher and at VSiN.com/podcasts.

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