DEL MAR, Calif.--A good horse can run over glass and win any race. How many times have we heard that? But for the Breeders’ Cup that has arrived for Friday and Saturday’s first-ever visit to Del Mar, the bigger question is whether they can run over a seaside track that has baffled horsemen and handicappers for decades.
Eventually, the horses will decide this. But for now us mere human beings are fretting over the newly installed sections of the dirt course, the tighter turns for European turfers, the late opening for morning training only last week, and how the ocean air is different in the autumn than in the summer. With $28 million on the line in 13 races and the horde of international racing media growing by the day, every little factor is getting magnified through the prism of the unfamiliar – like the track.
“That’s very unique to itself and how horses handle it,” said Steve Asmussen, who trains the Breeders’ Cup Classic favorite Gun Runner. “It is a big concern in the fact that the composition of the racetrack is different from most of the racetracks that we race on. There’s a lot more clay or loam to it than the sand-based racetracks that I’m more familiar with in New York as well as Kentucky.”
Even those who spend their summers and falls at this place have been bewildered by the ever-changing conditions at a track where the weather is almost always overcast in the morning, drier and often warmer in the afternoon and dewy overnight.
Take Arrogate. He was on course to be the certain world champion for 2017 before he went off course here this summer. Now not only is he vulnerable to being overtaken for world No. 1 by the Australian mare Winx, he is no better than a second choice (2-1 morning line, 11-5 at Wynn Las Vegas) in Saturday’s $6 million Classic behind Gun Runner (9-5, 6-5), winner of this summer’s Whitney and Woodward stakes at Saratoga.
Based on the purse money he has earned, Arrogate’s losses in the San Diego Handicap and Pacific Classic weren’t worth even two cents on the dollar compared with the $13.5 million he made winning the Pegasus and Dubai world cups early this year. So how did North America’s all-time earning leader end up looking so cheap? The easy finger of blame was aimed at the Del Mar dirt.
“It’s probably not going to ever be his favorite track,” Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith told me last week on the new racing pod at VSiN.com. “But he did show last time he ran that he could run over it. He’s just got to try a little harder.”
Smith was talking about Arrogate’s final-furlong rally in August to salvage second place in the Pacific Classic. That was the final furlong of a half-length loss to Collected. It was a jolt back to reality for a colt that went through his first 2 3/16 miles over two races on Del Mar’s main course like a soldier running with pebbles in his boots.
“I’m not going to use that as an excuse for Arrogate,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, who goes after his fourth consecutive Classic win with four horses in the field of 11. “I think he’ll handle this fine. I think he just wasn’t bringing it, and I think now he looks great.”
But his confidence has been buoyed by recent timed workouts. Not here. Instead they were at Baffert world headquarters up the road at Santa Anita – 25 miles inland from the Pacific. The Del Mar track is only 1½ miles from the nearest beach. The difference is stark, and the cyclical changes of the moisture in the air have been an eternal challenge for horsemen to gauge – let alone horseplayers.
“I just don’t know,” Baffert said. “I know for the Breeders’ Cup they’ve put a whole new surface in there at the beginning and at the end. After the Pacific Classic I noticed it started changing – like it started setting up. I think it just wasn’t set up for the early part of the (summer) meet. It was really deep, and there was not really a bottom. It just went in deep.”
The track here was also closed until early last week, because it was being used for concerts. Over the past week-and-a-half the dirt has been harrowed and groomed as is the case with any track. But the small sample size of gallops and workouts on it – and its unwritten Breeders’ Cup history – leave everyone involved with a shakier foundation of knowledge.
“It can be a tricky track,” Baffert said. “I’ve seen horses moved up running at Del Mar, and others, they don’t run well. A lot of the good horses they’ve all run well over it, so I’m not even thinking about the track surface right now.”
That means we will be back to the normal confusion about how tight the dirt will be and whether morning gallops in the fog and overcast will bear any resemblance to afternoon races in the cool sunshine. No wonder Asmussen brought in Arrogate and his other horses early last week.
“Not everybody will accept the circumstances as always,” Asmussen said. “When you gather this many talented horses together, you just want to eliminate any variable that’ll keep you from running your best. We just want (our horses) settled in and in a position to run their best race.”
So take heed before presuming that Collected (6-1, 3-1) and Arrogate will use their past Del Mar experience to duplicate their results in the Pacific Classic and finish one-two for Baffert on Saturday. Gun Runner could spoil that, and so could a stable mate. Travers Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby winner West Coast (6-1, 5-1) and even the long shot Mubtaahij (12-1, 15-1) give Baffert has a chance to pull off an unprecedented sweep in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“We don’t even think about that,” Baffert said in a conversation posted Friday morning in this week’s VSiN racing pod. “We’d love to sweep it, but you’ve got a horse like Gun Runner in there, and you never know who else is going to jump up. I don’t let myself get ahead of myself. Right now we’re thinking of just getting them there. We just need to win it.”
Ron Flatter’s racing column will be posted daily during the Breeders’ Cup at VSiN.com. The next edition will be after Friday’s races. You may also hear the new Ron Flatter Racing Pod every Friday morning at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s episode features an interview with Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. It also includes Gaughan Gaming oddsmaker Vinny Magliulo and South Point racing handicapper Patrick McQuiggan analyzing all 13 Breeders’ Cup races.