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Whoa, Nellie! It's here!
The 34th Breeders' Cup World Championships, America's bacchanalian promenade of 14 brain-busting races over two days, kicks off Friday from, appropriately in this modern age, the thoroughly social strata'd steroidal Churchill Downs, Louisville, Kentucky.
2018's gimmick is that all the juvenile races will be run Friday, with the thicker resume'd runners going on Saturday. The playing field? Heavy rains came and went Wednesday and Thursday, so the turf course figures to matriculate from soft to maybe firm as the weekend progresses. The main track will be fast.
With some quirks, the Breeders' Cup has evolved into the season's final blast, where trainers like Mike Corleone and the soldiers settle all scores and horsey business and dry clean the tuxedos in anticipation of the all-important Eclipse Awards.
Meanwhile, the weekend itself usually provides plenty of features and sidebars of proven heroes, horses and wiseguys on the make, foreign guests (I will never call them invaders again), and knuckle-biting anticipation of whether Superhorse can make (even more) history.
This year? I got nuthin'.
With one potential foreign exception, the BC 2018 profile is little or no star power or dominance. There's no Zenyatta and certainly no American Pharoah. In an unfortunate bizarro world, 2018's TRIPLE CROWN WINNER isn't even here! More on that later.
Of course, people like me approach this much more as a gambling opportunity than as simple sports entertainment. But for pure showbiz shock and drama, like one of those soap Oprahs on the Winfrey channel, this Breeders' Cup is going to have to create its own sizzle as it goes along. We hope for blanket photo finishes, dead heats and big payouts. You know, somethin' to talk about Sunday. We'll see.
The paparazzo's only target might be the four-year-old British beauty Enable, coming in off her second straight win in Europe's biggest race, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and eight straight graded stakes wins overall. The daughter of Irish sire Nathaniel will go in the Breeders' Cup Turf, Saturday's race 10 (Grade I turf, 12 furlongs [1.5 miles], $4,000,000). After winning the Oct. 2017 Arc, Enable suffered knee problems this spring and didn't run again until the Group III September Stakes at Kempton. There were reports she even felt a little poorly right before last month's Arc. While this portends a dominant victory in the Turf, if she's feeling well, keep in mind, drat, that no Arc champion has ever won a Breeders' Cup race. Whatever, watch, cuz she's got heart!
Every year at this time I ask "Gee, Mr. Whoopee, what does it all mean?" Horseplayers naturally look for the next betting opportunity, but since connections all point to the Breeders' Cup, this weekend turns existential.
My 2018 mind was made up early summer when, after the humans cruelly dangled a rotten turnip, Justify, the bloody TRIPLE CROWN winner was retired. His soundness? Show me proof. Justify did not run as a two-year-old, the first such Crown winner. I've said all this crap before.
But Mike Watchmaker, national handicapper and columnist for The Daily Racing Form, discussed his personal moral dilemma.
Watchmaker's fear is that if Justify is penalized for his firecracker short career and not named 2018 Horse of the Year, it will diminish the importance of the Triple Crown, and that people will take the Crown for granted, especially because American Pharoah won it just three years earlier, after a 37-year gap back to Affirmed.
The complication is Accelerate, the 5-2 favorite in Saturday's Classic. The son of Lookin At Lucky has won five Grade I's this year, all in California and has a second in, interestingly, the Grade II Oaklawn Handicap. Watchmaker fears that's the kind of roll that with, be careful, a Classic win, would put him over as Horse of the Year.
Watchmaker is very serious about this. Perhaps hoping for an Accelerate loss to end the foolishness, Watchmaker says, "Oh yes, the fight for the soul of the history of Thoroughbred racing in the United States is also at stake."
His argument: "My belief goes straight to the fact that, as impactful as the Breeders' Cup is, the Triple Crown remains the Holy Grail of American racing. The Triple Crown - winning three races in three different states on three different tracks at three different distances in a narrow five-week span - is quite possibly the most difficult task to complete in all of sport, not just ours. Moreover, the same horse can run in the Breeders' Cup Classic several times, but a horse has only one chance at the Triple Crown. It is what everyone in the game wants most to win. That's why two to three times as many people attend the Kentucky Derby than will show up at Churchill Downs on Saturday."
I basically agree with Watchmaker's assessment, because there are plenty of young punks out there eager to forget, if they ever knew, racing's history for their own "modern" agendas. To them, Man o' War is a video game.
But there is, as always, one thing missing from Watchmaker's point: The Fans.
Being one, here's my $2 worth. The Eclipse Awards are nothing more than braggin' rights turned into big money in the breeding shed. Most years, the horses determine their own plated trophy placings. Track success means a lot, but pedigree and lineage is just as important.
As a fan, Justify's Triple Crown was very nice, but there's the big chance he precociously burned it up in a specific window of time. He'll never be at the top of my list of great horses. One reason, he's not even in Louisville this weekend. Outta sight, outta mind.
The Breeders' Cup Classic. This looks to be a potentially great betting race, even if it isn't a parade of champions.
With the perceived given that Churchill's dirt surface is kind to turf horses, the Kitten's Joy product Roaring Lion (20-1 morning line) is a pick of many wiseguys. Helps a lot that the Kentucky-bred sheaths the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Royal Ascot last out in his quiver.
Catholic Boy seems to be overpriced at 8-1, coming off an upward trend and moving off the grass for a big Travers Stakes win in August. I like him, and his price.
McKinzie (6-1), once the top Kentucky Derby hopeful with a fan in me, seems set up. He comes in with Mike Smith, who jumped off West Coast for this race, and a Pennsylvania Derby tuneup. In that same race, Axelrod (30-1) improved by 12 Beyer Speed Figure points to show the big paper giraffe. Do you see 104 Saturday or 92? At those odds, let's find out.
Overrated, in my opinion, Mind Your Biscuits (6-1) has been getting a lot of attention. That's because of his three triple-digit Beyers including a win in the Lukas Stakes at Churchill last out. I'm not a big fan of that race, I don't think he beat much, including Toast of New York, an also eligible in this race. And, I have big distance questions.
Accelerate is way out in the 14 and last post, although it won't make a ton of difference. I'm just not a big fan, especially because he's not surfing his usual California waves.
Mendelssohn (12-1) participates in my wagers, but can he settle down? He got caught in a stupidly insane red-hot pace duel in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but still did quite nicely to finish third. Pray for his odds to maintain.
Yoshida (10-1) helped me score in the Grade I Woodward on September 1. Never get romantic, but I liked the field he beat, including Saturday's runner Gunnevera and he's another looking to thrive again since switching from turf to dirt. Gunnevera? A name, but please don't fall for it. His only win in 15 months was a $62K optional claimer at, ugh, Gulfstream.
These are my players. I'll take more flyers based on the tote board, no doubt.
Last but not least, if it's turf, look to the Europeans. It's a legit angle.
* Consistently, television is NBC. NBCSportsChannel 2 p.m. - 6 p.m. Friday and noon - 2:30 p.m. for the early races Saturday. The main events are 2:30 p.m. - 5 p.m. on the big peacock, NBC.
* We want Mike Tirico in Lubbock, and we'll pray on that.
* Eddie Olczyk is in the Breeders' Cup Betting Challenge. Million bucks to the winner; he's earmarked it for cancer research.
Tom Chambers is our man on the rail. He welcomes your comments.