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It's time to run.
Post positions have been drawn and morning line odds are posted. And like feuding children, the four top runners in the Breeders' Cup Classic have been separated up and down the Churchill Downs starting gate.
Quality Road (post 1), Blame (post 5), Zenyatta (post 8), and Lookin At Lucky (post 12) will attack the Classic from different angles. This is a fine field, but not truly great. Its best description would be competitive, as any one of these four could win 2010 Horse of the Year. That's what will make this a great race.
I believe every horse in this race, including Zenyatta, has negatives for handicappers to deal with, but the big four should be able to get decent trips. Weather forecasts are good and the main track should be fast.
Quality Road, morning-lined at 5-1, drew the most intriguing post. If this were the Kentucky Derby, he'd be pretty much doomed. And Lookin At Lucky will tell you so after he drew the same post in the Run for the Roses last May.
In the Derby, the 20-horse gate requires the one and two horses to veer inward to avoid the rail coming into the stretch the first time. With only the use of the main 14-horse gate Saturday, they can move it over and not have a problem.
QR comes in off an easy win in the Woodward September 4. Horseplayers will look to the race before that, a head loss to Blame in the Whitney on August 7th. He really had no excuse in the Whitney and I wonder if he can get this distance. I'm not completely thrilled with some of the horses he's beaten, except for a game Musket Man twice and Tizway. If this delicate specimen gets into any kind of duel on the lead, he'll have to contend with others down the stretch. He's run triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures in all but one of his races and pretty much fires off a layoff. If the track is unduly wet, I'll toss him.
Blame's rep Saturday is that he's a "horse for the course." He's won three of four at Churchill (five of his last six at five different tracks including Keeneland's Poly Track), including the June 4 Stephen Foster and last November's Clark Handicap. As he did in the Whitney, he can hang back in the second tier of horses and make a late move, perhaps the kind of move that can hold off Zenyatta. He also comes in off a trying 10 furlongs in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont October 2. It might be just the foundation he needs to go all the way here. He's a versatile horse. I'll wonder if he can maintain his 9-2 morning line.
The big mare Zenyatta casts a huge shadow over this race. Already the only female to win the Classic, she will try it again. She's also won the Ladies Classic. And to top that all off, she will try to extend her perfect record to 20-0, coming in with a perfect 19-19-0-0 career mark. The historical significance of this race nearly rivals that of a Triple Crown-winning Belmont Stakes. She'll never be my best of all time, but I wouldn't miss this for the world.
She comes in famously building her record with 17 wins on the synthetic surfaces of Southern California. All of the pundits will tell you she is better on dirt (and maybe even turf) anyway, which she confronts Saturday. But is she? And then there's the Churchill dirt. I believe this track will be much faster than the two Oaklawn Park tracks she scored on in two Apple Blossoms.
I believe she will have to win this race big to have any chance of shaking off the skepticism surrounding her cloistered, synthetic career. Thanks John Shirreffs and Jerry Moss. She's nineteen-and-oh, for chrissakes, and you don't really trust her, when it gets right down to it.
Her M.O. has been to lay back last, close on the turn and then pour on the coal to get up at the wire. If you look at Beyer patterns, they've been consistently nine points or more lower than when she nipped the best horse she's ever beaten, Gio Ponti, who opted out of this Classic and will run in the one-mile Turf against Goldikova. Also, in the up-down Beyer cycle some bettors believe in, this race portends a down cycle. The comeback to that one is that she does just what she has to to win any race.
It's no secret I've generally not been bowled over by her competition and there are few, if any, key races to be seen on her sheet. And it feels like Mike Smith will need to be precise as ever in telling her when to run; she visually runs nearly the same race every time.
Zenyatta has been amazing at closing into so many different pace scenarios. If it's too slow, she'll have other closers to contend with, primarily Blame. She won't be any kind of price. And if for any reason she doesn't get hold of the Churchill dirt, well . . .
All that said, she has looked magnificent in her works and in getting out of her limo at Churchill. Sounds banal, but if she likes the track and can run her race, she's the horse to beat.
Lookin At Lucky has the 12th and outside post. I really like this Bob Baffert trainee. He has overcome a lot of race adversity in last year's Breeders Cup Juvenile, April's Santa Anita Derby and the Kentucky Derby to carve out three very nice wins in the Preakness(!), the Haskell Invitational and the very sloppy Indiana Derby October 2. He seems to have bonded with Martin Garcia, who took over the mount from Garrett Gomez after the Kentucky Derby.
He's a hard-knocking, hard-trying horse who can overcome a stumble or a bad break to give you everything he's got. After a tough and hectic spring, Baffert has eased up on him and he showed at Hoosier last month that he's ready. At a morning line 6-1, I'll take him all day.
You might call him Mr. Key Race since last fall as Haynesfield has rounded into a very good three-year-old who comes in with a head-turning four-length victory over Blame and Fly Down in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. If you toss his Whitney two back when he busted through the front of the gate, he's won five straight. In the JCGC, he established a slower pace, took a nice lead and pulled away. He likes to be at or near the lead.
After a couple of trying November wins, Haynesfield didn't race again until June, and the race lines have included "Under wraps early" and "When ready 3w (wide), clear." Sounds like he's got the hang of it and he's done well under Ramon Dominguez, as money a rider as you'd want. If he can save some ground and shoot away into the straight, Zenyatta may not catch him.
A foreign element is the Japanese five-year-old Espoir City. He's 6-for-7 since March and seems to like to wrestle the lead at about the eighth pole and finish out. While his Racing Post Ratings are very commendable, he just ran in Japan on October 11. That's a tough ship.
Dale Romans colt First Dude will also get some buzz, but while he finished only a length back in third in the Belmont, he's the kind of horse that rubs elbows with the big boys by usually finishing in the money, gets a free sandwich out of it, and somehow gets invited to the next party. He's only a maiden winner at Gulfstream in January. One asset is that he should be fresh after last racing September 25. Get a price.
Fly Down seems to pal around with First Dude and they usually perform about the same.
Musket Man, a horse I've enjoyed since he won the Illinois Derby in April 2009, might provide some intrigue. I probably question him at 10 furlongs, but he always seems to be in the mix of it down the stretch. He's got a 109 and 108 Beyers in two of his last three in losing to: Quality Road and Blame. I'll try to find a way to show him some respect.
And at 30-1 or better, here's a few bucks on Etched. He's lightly raced and won seven of nine lifetime, including his last two, and appears to enjoy being part of the pace. It appears Kiaran McLaughlin has pointed this one to the Breeders Cup for Godolphin Racing and I've always liked Alan Garcia in the saddle.
I wonder why Paddy O'Prado is in this race ($$$, duh) as he has forged a fine summer on the turf, including an impressive win our own Secretariat Stakes at Arlington Park. Pleasant Prince takes a huge step up in class off of a 10-point Beyer jump in winning the Oklahoma Derby. The three-year-old is 1-1 at Churchill.
So, who's it gonna be?
I'll have two tickets, one of them including Zenyatta, the other, not. If she's what she appears to be, she really shouldn't lose.
But I like Lookin At Lucky to win the race. He's just delivered so well this year. Blame certainly has a legitimate shot, but I do wonder if he'll have too much to do and I question his ability to handle it all. If the race turns somewhat bizarre, Haynesfield also has a shot. Espoir City will also have a spot on my ticket.
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Of local interest will be Illinois' own Giant Oak who is, lo and behold, the co-favorite in the Breeders Cup Marathon, a 14-furlong test that kicks off the festival Friday.
While it's kind of a process-of-elimination pick by many of the commentators I've heard, the Chris Block trainee, out of Giant's Causeway and a Crafty Prospector mare, is bred to go the distance. After 21 races, they're still trying to find a niche for the big four-year-old. He's co-favored at 4-1 with Prince Will I Am, a definite contender.
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Historical? Oh, I suppose.
Friday's Breeders' Cup lineup, beginning with The Marathon as race 5 on the card, starts late (3 p.m., ESPN2), which means the Breeders' Cup Ladies Classic will be run under the lights at 6:30 our time. Just so you know.
Saturday's coverage begins at 12:50 p.m. on ABC and then switches over to ESPN at 2:55. If you happen upon Hank Goldberg, don't listen to him. Your instincts are better, believe me.
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I'm going to throw in four words here: the Churchill Downs turf. If they become important, I'll explain next week.
Thomas Chambers is our man on the rail. He brings you TrackNotes every Friday and welcomes your comments.