Warning signs foretold defections from the Breeders' Cup

By Ron Flatter  (VSiN.com) 

Good Magic, shown with jockey José Ortiz winning the Blue Grass Stakes, was one of four high-profile defections this week from the Breeders’ Cup. (Coady Photography courtesy of Keeneland)

Las Vegas

Beware the Ides of September. The soothsayer doth declare that horses rising in the autumn of our year shall vanish before thou doth say’st Breeders’ Cup.

So where was Shakespeare’s prophetic character when bettors were putting money down on future wagers? Not that he was really needed. If we were paying attention, those two days of high-profile dropouts from the rest of the racing year might not have been so stunning.

Gone this week is Good Magic, once the betting favorite this summer to win the Classic. Now he will be aimed at a watered-down but still one-percenters’ Pegasus World Cup (see below). Instagrand and Roadster, the only two colts being booked at the Wynn Las Vegas for the 2019 Kentucky Derby, have been shut down until they turn 3, so they will not be seen in the Juvenile. Poet’s Word, the horse that stole a Royal Ascot victory in June, won’t be in the Turf.

“That’s the right thing to do sometimes,” said Johnny Avello, the Wynn Las Vegas boss who understands the risk-reward proposition of futures betting better than most. “If you’ve got a horse that’s done well but may show signs of trouble, the Breeders’ Cup is probably a good time to put that horse on the shelf.”

But anyone buying a Breeders’ Cup ticket showing the name of one of those horses holds a frustratingly, painful reminder of the risk in betting on a race more than 24 hours before post time, especially when the bet itself is action, not whether the horse in question leaves the gate.

So what were the signs of trouble leading to the tumult on Monday and Tuesday?

After winning the Haskell, Good Magic did not look the same when he was a beaten favorite last month in the Travers. His odds to win the Classic shot up to 30-1 at the Wynn. That was after he drifted to 13-1 in the Breeders’ Cup’s opening future pari-mutuel, which closed the day after his ninth-place disappointment at Saratoga.

“He came out of the race actually sick,” his trainer Chad Brown said on that morning after. “We’ve been treating him with antibiotics. He’s going to get a check-up.”

That was the hint – all the more loud and clear coming from someone as laconic as Brown. Fast-forward to Monday this week and his decision to give Good Magic some time off for what he said were some minor issues.

The runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, Good Magic was the latest example of upheaval with the top five from this year’s Run for the Roses. Triple Crown winner Justify was retired, third-place Audible is only just returning to the work tab, fourth-place Instilled Regard has a new trainer as he heads into Saturday’s Pennsylvania Derby (see below), and a bone chip ended the year for fifth-place My Boy Jack.

As for this year’s 2-year-olds, consider the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Future Wager that took place during some but not all of Labor Day weekend. Instagrand closed as a 7-2 favorite with Roadster the 6-1 second choice. Before the holiday was over, owner Larry Best – and not trainer Jerry Hollendorfer – decided against racing Instagrand in the Del Mar Futurity, in which Roadster finished third. Because the future wager was inexplicably closed Sunday night rather than after the Del Mar race, those Roadster tickets were looking dog-eared not long after they were confirmed.

Then came this past Tuesday, when Best decided to shut down Instagrand for the rest of the year and focus him on a Kentucky Derby campaign. Hollendorfer insisted there was nothing physically wrong with the colt, sending the not-so-subtle message that he – a man with nearly 40 years of training experience – and Best – who started buying racehorses only two years ago – are not on the same page.

“I like to run racehorses when they’re ready to run,” Hollendorfer told VSiN early this month when he was asked not in the specific of Instagrand but in the abstract of whether to hold his horses. “I don’t think you should wait. If you train them too much they inevitably have some kind of problems. I like to race a horse when they’re ready.”

The same morning as Instagrand was mothballed, trainer Bob Baffert said that Roadster would get two months off after experiencing a displaced palate coming out of the Del Mar Futurity. If there was a hint of trouble before that, it came when Baffert entered Game Winner into the same race. Before post time that Sunday, the buzz around the track was that Game Winner was better suited for the distance. Sure enough, he won, leaving Roadster two lengths in his dust.

While there is a cloak-and-dagger nature to Instagrand’s hiatus, time off for a Baffert colt is nothing new. He had no problem keeping Justify away from afternoon runs last fall, and it is hard to forget that American Pharoah was hurt and scratched from the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile just four days before the race – and 7½ months before he completed the Triple Crown.

“Pharoah did it and came back,” Avello said. “But Roadster didn’t look like a Derby horse that last race.”

There may not be any formal futures in North America for the Breeders’ Cup Turf. But in Europe, bettors pushed Poet’s Word to odds of 6-1, making him a third choice. They, too, are caught with worthless paper after trainer Sir Michael Stoute said Tuesday in a written statement that “Poet’s Word has sustained an injury and will not be able to race again this year.”

That conjured visions of Stoute eight years ago, strolling the Churchill Downs turf and gruffly poking the firm ground with a shillelagh before declaring Arc winner Workforce out of the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Stoute was also coy that week about a rumored injury to Workforce, who had trouble changing leads in his one gallop over the Kentucky turf. So anyone with that worthless wager now on Poet’s Word might have been served well by a long memory of Stoute’s disdain for at least one course in the land of bluegrass.

In short, there is a reason bookmakers enjoy the public getting in a lather over the equine flavor of the month. It is because little things become big things, and bettors are often blinded by the shiny object that is a victorious horse.

“But if you’re getting a Catholic Boy at 75-1, and he runs his last race great, what are you going to do?” Avello said. “You can’t help it if a horse defects.”

Then he paused and asked, “Good Magic seemed on a downward spiral, don’t you think?”

As Shakespeare’s soothsayer said on another page of Julius Caesar, much that we fear may chance. Translation, keep your eyes, ears open and wallet closed to bad news about good horses.

Horse racing notes and opinions

Coming back from a six-month layoff, two-time graded-stakes winner McKinzie (5-2) is the morning-line favorite for Baffert in the $1 million Grade 1 Pennsylvania Derby on Saturday at 5:45 p.m. EDT at Parx Racing. With Mike Smith riding, McKinzie will be stretching to nine furlongs for the first time. Hofburg (3-1) comes back from spiking a fever before the Travers to try and fulfill the promise he showed as the Triple Crown “buzz” horse that finished third at the Belmont Stakes. With a Grade 3 win last month over the Parx dirt, Mike McCarthy trainee Axelrod (5-1) will get course-horse attention. D. Wayne Lukas, 83, brings Bravazo (6-1) into his ninth race this year, still in search of his first win since February. This race has value written all over it, and it may come from Instilled Regard (15-1), another Best-owned horse that was switched from Hollendorfer to Brown. Last seen finishing a hard-charging fourth in the Kentucky Derby, Instilled Regard will be on my tickets as will Axelrod and Mr Freeze (12-1), one of two colts that Dale Romans has in this race. But because Baffert has won this race two of the last four years, McKinzie will not be left off.

Kentucky Oaks winner Monomoy Girl (3-5) will be the heavy favorite for the $1 million Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, Saturday’s 4:55 p.m. EDT sub-feature over 8½ furlongs at Parx. With Brad Cox training and Florent Geroux riding, Monomoy Girl has won five in a row, the last four being Grade 1 races. Mother Goose winner Midnight Bisou (5-1) tries to rebound from being a beaten favorite at Saratoga in the Alabama. Winner of two Canadian classics, Wonder Gadot (6-1) comes back from finishing 10th to the boys in the Travers. Separationofpowers (10-1) looks like a glorified sprinter for Brown. Considering the accomplishments of the rest of the field, a case may be made for Monomoy Girl being a little closer to even money. But since she has defeated most of her real competition here, the best play is to single her horizontally, especially in the Cotillion-Derby double.

After throwing $4 million of his own money into the pot last year to make the Grade 1 Pegasus World Cup Invitational a $16 million race, Frank Stronach is splitting the purse into two races Jan. 26 – keeping one on the dirt and adding one on the turf at Gulfstream Park. The nine-furlong Pegasus World Cup will be downsized to $9 million with the winner’s share being $4 million. The newly created Pegasus World Cup Turf Invitational, a 9½-furlong race, will have a $7 million purse with $3 million going to the winner. Each race will have a $500,000 entry fee per horse compared with $1 million each of the first two years of the Pegasus. Although this now sends the mantle of “world’s richest race” back to the $12 million Dubai World Cup, the two in Florida will be the richest pair in North America. An extra race certainly should not hurt the handle, and it may provide the Stronach Group with better economic footing to put on what has become horse racing’s best version of a poker game.

Ron Flatter’s racing column is posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod, also posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Trainer Mike McCarthy discusses Axelrod’s build-up to the Pennsylvania Derby, a race that is previewed along with the Cotillion Stakes by former jockey turned XBTV analyst Richard Migliore. The RFRP is also available at leading providers such as Apple Podcasts, Google Play Podcasts and Stitcher. This week’s RFRP and coverage of the road to the Breeders’ Cup are sponsored by Xpressbet.

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