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Just as I was gathering notes for this piece, we learned that Beholder
was scratched from the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Some bleeding in her lungs was detected after an examination Thursday morning.
What could have been a spectacular race had already turned into merely a great one when Liam' Map's connections decided to run him in the easier BC Dirt Mile. Now, it's just a very good one.
The Classic appeared to be a duel between Triple Crown hero American Pharoah and Beholder in what figured to have those two use their awesome speed to set their own pace and fight it down to the wire.
The super mare worked five furlongs in a handy 1:02 on October 15th, 20 days after a height-of-style three-lengths-plus win in the Grade I Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita, her sixth consecutive win.
Arriving at Keeneland on October 19th, she missed a planned workout the next day after spiking a fever. She turned in an excellent breeze of five furlongs in :59-2/5ths on Monday.
Trainer Richard Mandella underscored the fragility of these equine athletes.
"This was obviously due to the fever she had when she arrived. You could say we just haven't had any luck shipping, but it's been something different every time. She's an aggressive mare and just got herself worked up shipping and made herself sick."
Horseplayers can never count how many times they've been kicked in the head by hindsight. This is a case of a series of events that should have affected handicapping on the Classic. Call it prequel wagering.
The dope on California-based Beholder was that she doesn't ship well, but the sample size is low, with only two of 20 races outside of California (on the other hand, is that kind of career too parochial?). After a bad start, she still finished second less than a length back to Princess of Sylmar in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs. She finished fourth only one length back at Belmont in the June 2014 Ogden Phipps. No sins there. She may have overexerted two back in the Pacific Classic, where she won by more than eight lengths and recorded her highest lifetime Beyer Speed Figure, 114.
This one hurts. Casual fans and horseplayers alike looked forward to this Classic, with 'Pharoah and Beholder duking it out and competitive, deserving horses hoping to upset the apple cart themselves. The complexity of the race would have been so much better with Beholder.
But the good news is that Mandella chose to keep Beholder out. She's not well, but we know she would have run her heart - and lungs - out. This is for the best.
So what about the Classic?
This race could easily be a carbon copy of American Pharoah's Travers Stakes loss. At Saratoga, 'Pharoah gained the lead but was harassed by Frosted most of the way. As their duel played out, Keen Ice steamrolled up the middle lane and won the race.
This is American Pharoah's race to win or lose. If he's hitting on all cylinders with energy, he should be able to get the lead and dictate a relaxed pace. Or lay just off someone else's moderate pace and then pounce, usually on the turn for him.
Will some banshee just take off and try to run away? Smooth Roller? No-chance Hard Aces? Tonalist, Honor Code, Keen Ice and Frosted will hope to close into the win, with Tonalist the deepest closer.
'Pharoah is the best horse in the field, but he'll need to be high atop his tippy hooves to win. Also with no Liam's Map and Beholder, his price will be awful. I hope he wins and a bomber places.
Greatest Weekend In American Sport
Amid all this drama, it's still the greatest weekend in American sport: the 31st Breeders' Cup World Championships from beautiful Keeneland Racecourse.
And like the difference between seeing Mick and the boys at Buddy Guy's Legends versus Soldier Field, the vagaries of the venue must be taken into account.
The Dirt Mile will actually be a mile and 70 yards. Officials figured they'd give the field a chance to get a running start to sort it out a bit going into the clubhouse turn. Otherwise, at a mile, the starting gate would have been on the turn. This happens all the time. When they remodeled Gulfstream Park, they miscalculated and built in this problem on the track.
Pundits have been talking all week about the weather and, therefore the condition of the turf course. The same weather system we had cleared through Lexington later in the day Wednesday. Five different people will give you five different takes.
European wonder jockey Frankie Dettori, who will ride British superhorse Golden Horn in the 1.5-mile Turf the race before the Classic, walked the course Tuesday and declared it on the soft side. But that was before another day of rain and then at least 36 hours of drying time.
As some have pointed out, the 1985-vintage turf course was built with sand and drainage in mind, and might dry out better than people think.
NBC desk jockey Randy Moss - you'll see chrome dome in the middle between Laffit Pincay III/Tom Hammond and Hall of Fame Jockey Jerry Bailey on the telecast - offered up more confusion when he surmised in a Daily Racing Form webinar that the European horses sent to Keeneland, who are considered to be much more amenable to the soft, wet, deep turf courses they experience overseas, will be hurt by a soft or yielding Keeneland course. Huh?
His reasoning was that the horses they choose to send to the Breeders' Cup are more likely to prefer the typically American harder turf courses.
I think it's a reach. The theory doesn't hold. It's still a traditional turf course, not the hard runways of a Santa Anita, for example.
Euro king Golden Horn will try to become the first winner of the Prix de l' Arc de Triomphe, Europe's biggest race, to sail over and win the Breeders' Cup Turf.
Five have tried and only Trempolino way back in 1987 has even finished in the money.
You're going to hear a lot about 'Horn. He's lost only once in eight tries and that was by a mere neck.
Arlington Million winner The Pizza Man, coming in off a strong second in the Shadwell Turf Mile, will try to cheese the foreign invader.
NBC: Not (All) Breeders' Cup
We beat 'em twice and bailed them out two more times. You'd think NBC, aka Not (all) Breeders' Cup, would tell the British soccer blokes, "We'll show your soccer, but not on Breeders' Cup Saturday."
But the general public will miss the Juvenile Dirt Sprint, Juvenile Fillies and the always exciting Turf Sprint.
Must be a big match on the pitch, right? Seventh-place Crystal Palace and fourth-place Manchester will run around for no apparent reason. Tune in and you won't even have to pick up the remote for the Breeders' Cup. So that's a silver lining.
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