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By Thomas Chambers
Seems like we've been down this road before. Or have we?
For the second straight year, the Breeders' Cup World Championships come to us Friday and Saturday from the Oak Tree Meet at Santa Anita in lovely Arcadia, California.
The pervasive issue once again will be the track's Pro-Ride artificial racing surface. In an America where Thoroughbred racing evolved for generations on dirt surfaces, we again have the added monkey wrench of handicapping some of the best horses in the world on a surface engineered to assuage the guilt of the human species.
Grass form and synthetic form are interchangeable, they say, which is why the Europeans, accustomed mainly to racing on turf, won five of the main track races last year and may win more this year. But blanket conclusions are risky. Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert says Santa Anita's surface plays a lot like dirt. Daily Racing Form's Steve Davidowitz cautions that we must first see how the track is playing before hammering the Euros out of hand.
"Fact is we have seen more front-running and stalk-and-go types prevail in the past two weeks than we saw all last Oak Tree meet on the same track," Davidowitz writes. "If the new trend continues, the shift from last year's stretch-running bias to a track that accents good overall speed is sure to impact the main track BC races on both Nov. 6 and 7."
My thought is that with all of the criticism the Breeders' Cup took last year, they'll try to make the track more fair. And who knows that they are not mixing in a higher ratio of sand in normal track maintenance? So Davidowitz is right: watch what the track does.
A handful of runners will not go simply because of the surface. But those who are left are among the finest runners around. Prepped and primed and coddled for just this day. We'll get the best efforts from talented horses and for me, that makes for intelligent and enjoyable wagering.
Some stage-setting before talking about the races:
* You'll hear all day the speculation about Zenyatta's chances as she takes on the males in the Breeders' Cup Classic Saturday. She's 13-0 and will pass Personal Ensign as one of the best females in history with a win in the Classic - a win that would be even more spectacular by virtue of coming over an international cast of good males.
She got the workout her connections said they had to see to push her into the Classic. She has no more to prove against females, already owning the win in the 2008 Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic and continuing her dominance over females in 2009. From a handicapping point of view, forget the battle-of-the-sexes angle. The huge mare should enjoy the stretchout to 10 furlongs, given the tremendous inertia she creates with her large frame. Mike Smith's timing in sending her at just the right moment from a second-tier stalking position - and a clear path - will be critical as these are not a bunch of "wish-they-all-could-be" California girls like Zenyatta has been facing. And there just may be enough doubters out there to keep her price at 3-1 or better. We hope.
* I would be surprised if Kentucky Derby winner Mine that Bird wins the Classic, but he's worth a look out of respect for his Derby win, a decent Preakness performance and the fact he's bred for the distance. I just wonder how he's going to get that perfect trip he always seems to need.
Daily Racing Form Editor Steve Crist weighed the pros and cons:
"He has been likened to Giacomo, another 50-1 Derby winner who never won another important race, but I think that's unfair to him: All three of his Triple Crown efforts were better than Giacomo's. Even if you dismiss the Derby itself, his second to Rachel Alexandra in the Preakness was an excellent effort, and who knows what would have happened in the Belmont if his rider hadn't moved way too soon."
Fine, but a good price must be had, minimum 12-1. I know it's trainer-speak but it also appears as if Mine That Bird is working well coming into the race. Other observers say no. Can you tell I don't want to be torched by this horse?
* As always happens, there have been horses, some prominent, who have dropped out of the Breeders' Cup. Kodiak Kowboy's airways were not clear enough for his connections' liking, so he's out. He had a good chance in the Sprint. Allicansayis Wow is out of the Filly & Mare Sprint with a more serious leg injury. John Sadler simply withdrew Dave in Dixie from the Juvenile without explanation.
Gitano Hernando will not be wheeled back after an impressive 18-1 win in the Goodwood Stakes on October 10. Team Valor does not want to pay the $250,000 nomination fee it would require to get him in and will instead point him to the super-purse $6 million Dubai World Cup next March. Bad timing took West Coast buzz horse Rail Trip out of contention in the Classic after a minor foot problem kept him from getting in a scheduled/needed workout.
We all know Jess Jackson is keeping Rachel Alexandra out of the Breeders' Cup out of disdain for the artificial surface. Trainer Bob Baffert is doing the same with Indian Blessing. She simply didn't "take to" the Santa Anita surface. You also won't see European sensation Sea the Stars, retired early out of breeding greed, or Dublin, Fabulous Strike, Hot Dixie Chick, Jackson Bend or Macho Again.
* Beware the jockey bet!
Here's how it's explained: "Breeders' Cup plans to offer a parimutuel bet on which jockey has the most wins in the 14 Breeders' Cup races, scheduled for Nov. 6-7 at Santa Anita Park, the organization announced on Thursday.
"Though the field for the wager has yet to be set, the bet will likely have 14 wagering interests, according to Ken Kirchner, the simulcasting consultant for Breeders' Cup. The 14th betting interest will be a field comprising all jockeys that are not named individually, and ties will be treated as a dead heat, Kirchner said. Wagering will open on Nov. 5, after riders have been named."
Unless it's Clark Kent, people don't usually run in these races. Horses do. And the fact they can take only 14 individual betting interests makes it worse. And the horses will pay more. Put those few pilasters on a longshot you like. Really. Enough said.
Here's the wagering menu and full schedule.
* Keep an eye on the turf sprint races, especially when you hear them say "the downhill course." They start on the top of a rise and go downhill. Then, they have to cross over the width of the main track before getting back to the turf in the stretch. It can be disconcerting to a horse and if your pick gets over it without breaking his rhythm, you can breathe again.
* ESPN and ABC will be all over the Breeders Cup Friday and Saturday. Their coverage is always better than NBC's, but you're still not going to see the odds listed as cleanly or as often as you would like. Dexter can skin people alive on Showtime, but it would be wrong to show, tsk-tsk, gambling. Online wagering sites give you full-time, real-time odds.
U Got The Look
A look at the racing that caught my attention (all post times Central):
Breeders' Cup Classic, Saturday, 5:45 p.m.: We've got a million stories here. As noted, Zenyatta is the buzz. If Mike Smith times his ride correctly, Zenyatta wins this race. Either she or Irish invader Rip Van Winkle will be the favorite. But, RVW apparently had a flareup midweek in one of his chronically sore feet; super trainer Aidan O'Brien assures us he's OK. Hmm. If healthy, Rip is the real deal, coming off two Group I victories in Great Britain and suffering the bad luck of running into Sea The Stars in his three previous races/losses. He's a contender, but I'm not sold on the company he beat in his last two, and I don't like his post position, 10.
Summer Bird will probably be third favorite, but this is his first time on the synthetic surface. Reports are he's tolerating, rather than relishing, the Pro-Ride. If he grabs the track, Kent Desormeaux will know what to do. Arlington Million winner Gio Ponti has been makin' like a Euro with four Grade I turf wins this year and a close fifth-place finish here in February. Christophe Clement might be reaching a bit, but Gio has been very versatile and comes in two-off of a freshening after the Million. Gio Ponti 6-1 or better? I'm all over that.
Richard's Kid will be a mild wiseguy coming off a Pacific Classic (Grade I) win two back. He thrives on the synthetic and finished well in the Goodwood. Looks like he'll try to join Mine That Bird and Summer Bird in the closers club.
My longshot wiseguys here are Girolamo and Twice Over. Gotta take a shot on Girolamo's first trip on synthetic as the son of A.P. Indy (Seattle Slew) comes off three climb-the-ladder-of-success wins. It's a big step up, but Alan Garcia's aboard and the horse likes to win. Twice Over invades from Great Britain with three straight wins as a 10-furlongs specialist. This is a typical turf-to-synthetic move rampant in this Breeders Cup.
Ladies Classic, Friday, 5:45 p.m.: Your favorites are Careless Jewel and Music Note. 'Jewel is a near freak coming in with five visually impressive wins in a row, including the Grade I Alabama. 'Note is more of a hard knocker, and comes in with two straight wins, the Beldame and the Ballerina. She has run in eight consecutive Grade I's. I like the company she has kept better than Careless Jewel's. Music Note's last four have been virtual key races. But Careless Jewel, out of Tapit, will take off from post one and try to wire the race. She's two-for-three on Polytrack but has never run on Santa Anita's ProTurf, and her finest races have been on dirt. If either of these two falter, I would love to see poetic justice in a win by Life Is Sweet, who has done nothing but campaign hard, always in the shadow of her stablemate Zenyatta. She won three straight here in the spring.
Another dilemma is Cocoa Beach. Her form has not been great lately, but they say she looks fantastic in her works. I'm just not sure she's ever shown enough speed to win this. My wisegirl: British invader Proviso
Breeders' Cup Turf, Saturday, 4:57 p.m.: Last year's winner, Conduit, comes back for more and is the 7-5 favorite. He's won once in four starts this year and just got up for fourth in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe last out, edging out Dar Re Mi, one of the favorites in this race. Combine them with Spanish Moon, and these three, with their gaudy speed figures, look much the best on paper. The fun in this race will be Presious Passion, winner of the Clement L. Hirsch here October 11. He'll try to open up a two-time zone lead and just hang on, as he did in the Arlington Million before the soft turf got to him. Exciting, but he won't sustain for 12 furlongs. My wiseguy: None. Although on a side note, we'll get to see Red Rocks, who won this race in 2006 but bombed here last year. But he beat Curlin. It was in the July 2008 Man o' War in an ill-advised decision to put Curlin on the turf.
Filly and Mare Turf, Friday, 4:23 p.m.: Ah, the old familiar faces. Forever Together is favored in this 10-furlong turfer, which she won last year. I don't like her chances on this speedy California turf course, she seems to do better this year on softer courses. British horse Midday brings in the Euro class credentials, having just run in four straight Group I's. Magical Fantasy is the horse for the course, having won four straight, including the Yellow Ribbon here on October 10. My wisegirls: What would you say if I picked Pure Clan and Dynaforce? Yes, both of them stellar performers in Arlington's own Beverly D, won by Dynaforce. Pure Clan just won the Grade I Flower Bowl and Dynaforce is due. Also, Maram, winner of the Juvenile Fillies Turf here last year is morning line listed as 15-1. If she goes off at 10-1 or higher and you don't at least take a flyer, don't blame me.
Breeders' Cup Sprint, Saturday, 2:10 p.m.: Zensational will be such a favorite here that many people will single him in their multi-race exotics. He's been rompin' and stompin' with five impressive wins in his last six. But against who, and how many (i.e. short fields)? Figuring to be hot on the lead are Zensational and Fatal Bullet. If they burn each other up, who picks up the pieces? Fleeting Spirit, who comes in off of four straight impressive Group I's in Europe, finished fourth in the Turf Sprint last year. Capt. Candyman Can has the speed figures, but will need to get out of his second-itis. Look for Gayego to be closing, very possibly enough to win. My wiseguy: Dancing in Silks, a local boy who's taking a big step up and just fired the best race of his career here a month ago. That's a classic sprint angle.
Breeders' Cup Mile, Saturday, 3:28 p.m.: Goldikova. He freed himself from heavy traffic in this race last year and turned in one of the most impressive wins of the day. The Irish wonder has had another fine campaign this year and looks to repeat, although his post position is problematic. Who might beat him? Justenuffhumor will take money, based on the six straight wins he turned in just before throwing a clunker in his last race on soft turf. Zacinto and Delegator come in after finishing 2-3 to Rip Van Winkle in the Queen Elizabeth II in September. My wiseguys: Gladiatorus on the Euro angle and Cowboy Cal if he doesn't bounce.
This is the Super Bowl for horseplayers. And speaking of business models, big bro, the Kimberly Komet, zips in for Breeders' Cup Friday, Windy City Fight Night 7, "Day of Reckoning" boxing action presented by Dominic Pesoli's 8 Count Productions at UIC Pavilion Friday night, and Breeders' Cup Saturday at beautiful Hawthorne Race Course. If you see us smokin' cigars, you know we've gone over the top, man.
Thomas Chambers is the Beachwood's man on the rail. He brings you Track Notes every Friday. He welcomes your comments.