It is not unlike Selection Sunday in college basketball. Inevitably, there is twitching – and whatever rhymes with that – about who did not get in.
But sometimes those borderline teams win. And win again. And in a burst of good news for bettors, that certainly could happen in the Breeders’ Cup.
Roaring Lion has won his last 10 races, including four Group 1s, including the Eclipse and the International and the Irish Champion and last weekend’s Queen Elizabeth Stakes at British Champions Day, and he will probably be named the European horse of the year at the Cartier Awards.
But as Slim Pickens once asked, what in the wide, wide world of sports is he doing in next Saturday’s 35th running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic? The closest that this über-talented 3-year-old colt has come to racing on a dirt track was nearly 14 months ago on the all-weather circuit at Kempton, England, winning a novice stakes with a princely purse of $8,600.
So Roaring Lion somehow gets into the richest autumn dirt race in the world on the basis of a turf career, the decision of the Breeders’ Cup’s mysterious panel of experts and, by cynical extension, the coattails of influential owner Sheikh Fahad Al-Thani and Qatar Racing.
Be that as it may, as inappropriate as it would be to throw Manchester City into the NFL Playoffs, Roaring Lion will duck Enable in the Breeders’ Cup Turf and make his dirt debut at Churchill Downs in a $6 million Grade 1 championship.
Oh, by the way, at odds of maybe 9-1, Roaring Lion could steal the Classic.
“He’s never run on the surface, but Sheikh Fahad is very keen,” Qatar Racing manager David Redvers told At The Races in England. “It’s bizarre how well he seems to take his races. He was so fresh that (trainer) John Gosden had to give him a canter this morning.”
That was Monday, only two days after that victory in the Queen Elizabeth, which was run on soft ground. The one thing that would stop Roaring Lion in his tracks would be a lot of rain.
“We don’t want a sloppy track,” Gosden told Racing UK. “A sloppy track is a real acquired taste, and usually the jockeys with the cleanest silks win, which tells you something.”
With a showery Breeders’ Cup week forecast for Louisville, Gosden’s hope will be that the main track is no worse than good next Saturday.
Presuming there is not a repeat of the swampy conditions of the Kentucky Derby, Roaring Lion could fit a certain pace scenario, one that requires a lot of up-front speed. Voilà. Classic favorite Accelerate (7-2 in current European betting, according to Oddschecker), McKinzie (5-1), Catholic Boy (7-1), West Coast (7-1) and Mendelssohn (10-1) all may seek a piece of the early lead. If his turf pattern holds, Roaring Lion (9-1) will be just behind that early pace. But that is dependent on Roaring Lion’s reaction to getting dirt kicked in his face.
“We are all perfectly aware that racing on the dirt is one thing,” Gosden said. “But as I’ve found down the years the problem is the kickback, not the surface.”
Sired by Kitten’s Joy, Roaring Lion would seem to have a stronger turf pedigree on his top side. But with Street Sense being his damsire, dirt is at least figuratively in his blood.
If Justify, Good Magic and Diversify had not been excluded from the Breeders’ Cup by their connections, there would have been even less reason to allow a turf interloper into a dirt field. But they are out, Roaring Lion is in, and that combination should lead to some credible value plays in the Classic.
Much will be made of the fact that Accelerate is 0-for-1 shipping outside California, that McKinzie did not face much serious competition in his Pennsylvania Derby comeback, that Catholic Boy needs a soft pace, that West Coast has already lost to Accelerate and that Mendelssohn was a flash in the UAE pan. Bettors who buy into that criticism of the top choices in the Classic field may well turn to the gatecrasher from England, even if dirt is not his forte.
“A mile-and-a-quarter is his trip,” Gosden said. “We are going where we are going. It’s unknown waters, but I think it is very brave and very bold.”
He may not deserve his place in the gate, and if he is drawn too close to the rail he may not be a factor at all next weekend. But as long as he is there, Roaring Lion is worth a place somewhere on the Breeders’ Cup Classic betting slip – if the price is right.
Racing notes and opinions
According to Oddschecker.com – and with the grain of salt that these do not include much American money – these are the favorites in Europe for the Breeders’ Cup races:
Friday, Nov. 2
* Juvenile Turf Sprint – Soldier’s Call (7-2)
* Juvenile Fillies Turf – Newspaperofrecord (11-4)
* Juvenile Fillies – Bellafina (5-2)
* Juvenile Turf – Anthony Van Dyck (11-4)
* Juvenile – Game Winner (3-2)
Saturday, Nov. 3
* Filly & Mare Sprint – Marley’s Freedom (5-2)
* Turf Sprint – Disco Partner (7-2)
* Dirt Mile – Catalina Cruiser (3-2)
* Filly & Mare Turf – Wild Illusion (3-1), Sistercharlie (7-2)
* Sprint – Imperial Hint (2-1), Roy H (3-1)
* Mile – Polydream (10-3)
* Distaff – Monomoy Girl (7-4), Abel Tasman (7-2), Midnight Bisou (5-1)
* Turf – Enable (2-3)
* Classic – Accelerate (7-2), McKinzie (6-1), Catholic Boy (7-1), West Coast (7-1)
Ranked the best thoroughbred in the world, Winx (1-5) bids for an unprecedented four-peat Saturday (or late night Friday) in the $3.55 million Group 1 Cox Plate at Moonee Valley in suburban Melbourne. Winner of 28 consecutive races including 21 at Group 1 level, all in Australia, the 7-year-old mare has not lost since the month before American Pharoah won the 2015 Kentucky Derby. Bettors have made European-based Godolphin horse Benbatl (7-1) the second favorite on the strength of his win over the same 1¼-mile distance two weeks ago in the nearby Group 1 Caulfield Stakes (not to be confused with last week’s Caulfield Cup). Benbatl will be close to the lead throughout and looking to fend off the usual deep close from Winx. Three-time Australian Group 1 winner Humidor (15-1) looks to stretch out from recent sprints. Former André Fabre trainee Avilius (25-1) is 4-for-4 since he was transferred this year to Australia, including a Group 3 win at 1 9/16 miles. Coming in from Europe for Coolmore, Rostropovich (40-1) will likely set the pace. It would be silly to pick against Winx, and I am not buying into the Benbatl hype. If I play the race, I will put her cold over Avilius and Rostropovich. But there is no money to be made here, so I may just sit back and enjoy watching one of the best racing mares ever. The Cox Plate starts Saturday at 2 a.m. EDT – Friday at 11 p.m. PDT.
Horse racing last weekend lost a man who was an accomplished trainer but probably a bigger contributor to the sport off the track. Rick Violette died at age 65 last Sunday in Florida, three years after he was told he had cancer. In 35 years of training mostly in New York, Violette saddled 870 winners and totaled $44 million in purse earnings, including Diversify’s victory this summer in the Whitney Stakes. But consider what Violette accomplished away from the track. He spent 10 years as president of the New York Thoroughbred Horsemen’s Association. He looked after the fund that helps jockeys injured on New York racetracks. He made sure millions of dollars went to looking after retired horses and to educational opportunities for the families of stable workers. It is only appropriate that Violette’s family asked that donations be made in his memory to the Take-Two program for retired horses and to the Backstretch Employee Service Team - one organization he created, the other he championed. They will be Rick Violette’s legacy.
Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It will also be posted daily from the Breeders’ Cup in Louisville, Ky., on Thursday, Friday and Saturday, Nov. 1-3. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. This week’s guests are Lord Teddy Grimthorpe, racing manager for Juddmonte Farms and Breeders’ Cup Turf favorite Enable, and Zoe Cadman, racing analyst for XBTV. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher.