LAS VEGAS--Field sizes have been skimpy at times this year in southern California. That will not be a problem for the Breeders’ Cup that starts in nine days away at Del Mar.
Six of the 13 championship races are oversubscribed, and all are likely to have at least nine starters that will be running for $28 million in purse money Nov. 3 and 4. Seven returning 2017 champions are led by Arrogate, out to win the $6 million Classic again and one of five pre-entered into the race for trainer Bob Baffert.
“They’re all doing well, otherwise they wouldn’t have been pre-entered,” Baffert said Tuesday morning. “I just feel fortunate that I have this many nice horses. It just happens. The chips fall sometimes.”
Gun Runner (6-5), a three-time Grade 1 winner this year and the top-ranked horse in the U.S., is the favorite at Wynn Las Vegas to win the Classic. He finished second in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and has never won at the 1¼-mile distance of the Classic. He also has yet to set foot on the track at Del Mar, but trainer Steve Asmussen said he had good reason to think Gun Runner may overcome those challenges.
“The way that he has run all year and the way that he has trained I feel that he is at a very high level,” Asmussen said. “As far as Del Mar and never running over the racetrack, he has accepted quite a few racetracks. He has traveled well.”
Arrogate (11-5), which led Gun Runner in a one-two finish in the Dubai World Cup in March, is the second choice at Wynn for the Classic after two defeats this summer at Del Mar, where there were immediate thoughts that he did not take to the dirt track. But Baffert said he was encouraged by a late charge to finish second there in the Pacific Classic.
“He actually ran a pretty good race,” said Baffert, who has won the last three Breeders’ Cup Classics with Bayern, American Pharoah and Arrogate. “I’m not going to use (the Del Mar track) as an excuse for Arrogate. I think now he looks great.”
In a reflection of the depth of this year’s fields, only one former champion is a favorite in futures betting that is monitored by the European website Oddschecker.com. Baffert’s 4-year-old colt Drefong (3-2) is the choice to repeat as the winner in the Sprint, only his third race after an eight-month layoff.
“I was going to take him to Dubai (in March), but we had a lot of rain here,” Baffert said from his home base at Santa Anita. “I really couldn’t train him like I wanted to. I freshened him up, but I could tell he just wasn’t really responding to training. So we just backed off on him before we brought him back. He looks like he’s trained well, and he’s happy, so that’s all you can ask for right now.”
After finishing third in Saturday’s British Champion Stakes at Ascot, Coolmore-owned Highland Reel (11-4) is the second choice to repeat as the winner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The current favorite is Ulysses (5-2), Sir Michael Stoute’s 4-year-old colt that finished third in this month’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe. Last year’s Juvenile Turf winner Oscar Performance (16-1) is a long-shot entry in the Turf.
Also trained by Stoute, Queen’s Trust (10-1) has not won since she finished first in last year’s Filly & Mare Turf. She is back to defend against Coolmore’s Prix de l’Opera winner Rhododendron (5-2) and the popular 2014 Juvenile Fillies Turf victor Lady Eli (4-1), which overcame a one-year battle with laminitis to finish second to Queen’s Trust last fall at Santa Anita.
“For the sport it’s a great story on many fronts about what horses can overcome,” said Lady Eli’s trainer Chad Brown, who has pre-entered 13 horses. “I’ve never seen one up close with this much heart and determination. I just hope that everyone has the opportunity to be close to a horse like this at sometime in their life.”
The Distaff will feature the Wynn favorite Stellar Wind (8-5), second in last year’s race, against the likes of Personal Ensign winner Forever Unbridled (9-5) and 2016 Juvenile Fillies winner Champagne Room (15-1).
Last year’s Filly & Mare Sprint victor Finest City (15-2) is a long shot against Jerry Hollendorfer’s 3-year-old filly Unique Bella (2-1), which has won her last five races starting with a maiden-breaking win last November at Del Mar.
Two-time Royal Ascot winner Lady Aurelia (11-8), trained by Kentucky-based Wesley Ward, is favored in the Turf Sprint against a field that will include 2015 winner Mongolian Saturday (33-1).
Two Aidan O’Brien-trained Coolmore horses that were favorites in the early futures markets were conspicuous by their absence from the pre-entries. Hydrangea (5-1) in the Filly & Mare Turf and Clemmie (10-3) in the Juvenile Fillies Turf were not among the Irish stable’s 14 entries.
There were 185 horses named in the 209 pre-entries announced Tuesday morning in a live webcast from the Del Mar paddock. They include a record 46 overseas entries led by Coolmore’s 14. Connections that cross-entered 24 runners into two races must narrow their intentions by Monday, one day before the post-position draw.