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I dreamt this week that a Clydesdale won the Breeders' Cup Classic.
Standing close to the wire in the infield, I didn't see the fluffy white feathering hair around the legs and ankles, but the horse, who had Thunder, or Lumber or something in his name, had legs like tree trunks. The faces of the willowy, sleek Thoroughbreds behind him turned to shock and horror as they just could not catch him. After the finish, the jockeys nothing more than gray silhouettes, they slowed and circled each other, breathing hard, protesting "What the hell just happened?!" Thunder Lumber had only one gear, but it was extremely powerful, and consistent, and it looked like he would have been able to run like that all day.
He paid $16,473 to win, which I know is impossible, and I said to someone "You know, that was the only horse in the race I would never have bet on. Still wouldn't. Oh well."
If you think I'm making this up, I had to kneel many times years ago in that divided, dark wooden phone booth and pretend to the pastor, who ate at our house whenever my dad got him a New Yorker Four-Door Hardtop at nearly cost, that I was a little hoodlum. I knew it was only for monthly maintenance on the guilt trip, when all I ever did, very occasionally, was punch somebody on the playground who deserved it anyway. But it worked, the guilt lingers, my knees are shot and that's the honest-to-God truth. I wouldn't, can't lie. So if you persist in your skepticism, you owe me a tip on the Juvenile Fillies Turf.
I believe the source of this vision is that as we head into the 33rd Breeders' Cup World Championships at beautiful Del Mar Thoroughbred Club on Friday and Saturday, the very nature of the Thoroughbred breed must be questioned. We demand answers from the people who manage these horses, as it sure looks like the wussification of racing.
I've read before that the breed might be out of kilter. Compare the leg thickness of Man o' War with that of this year's darling, Arrogate. In my circle of logic, it doesn't matter which came first, the spindly legs, more fragility and injuries, or the fear of trainers to run their horses.
The Daily Racing Form's Marty McGee discusses the topic with a few trainers and some of it hits you in the eye like a massive Clydesdale tail swatting a Missouri horsefly.
They call it now "a slight freshening" or "training into" the Breeders' Cup. But if you scroll down to the table, you will see the 25 runners scheduled to go this weekend who have had extensive layoffs since their last race. These are the top names in the game. Most haven't run since August, but a few of the running lines go back to June or July. June 10 was Belmont Stakes Day. I can't wait to see how the NBC TV crew addresses this, from handicapping difficulty, the horses' fitness and the near- and long-term effects of this disturbing trend. They can't possibly be negative enough for me.
Slickster trainer Bob Baffert, who has at least one horse in 11 races Friday and Saturday, and, count 'em, four horses in the Classic, gives us the old "trust me" routine.
Conceding the benefits of actual races, Baffert said, "When you know your horse really well, and if they're good work horses like Arrogate or Drefong, then sometimes you can get away with doing it this way. I can accomplish a lot of things in the morning if they're as willing as these horses are."
Baffert said he asked himself "What happened?" with Arrogate, who he and many others called the greatest horse of all time(!), wondering if the trip and huge win in Dubai took something out of him. He lost the San Diego Handicap badly and had to work hard for second in the Pacific Classic.
In a podcast I heard Thursday, TVG racing analyst Candice Hare had a supremely plausible theory.
"Arrogate has lost his early speed. When people said he had a difficult start in Dubai, he didn't, he just got out of the gate slow. And he's done that in his two races since then," Hare said.
Many have leaned on the idea Arrogate doesn't like Del Mar, but he won there his first time over the course in August 2016.
And it looks like Baffert may look like a torched chicken with Mor Spirit.
Like many trainers afraid of a bounce after a horse runs big, Baffert wussied out with 'Spirit and his 115 Beyer Speed Figure after the June 17 Metropolitan and rested the horse. Well, Mor Spirit got fat and lost his desire to train.
"Physically, he was fine, but the energy wasn't there. If I'd tried to squeeze a race into him, he wouldn't have run well. I didn't want to take that chance. One bad race can really mess up their head," Baffert said, perhaps mistaking the horse with owners and their eyes filled with breeding dollar signs. I've heard of running these types in higher level allowance races, races they would probably win, just for the workout and self-esteem. On a real roll in the Metropolitan, how do we think he's going to run when I see he hasn't beaten anyone good off a layoff and squares off in the Dirt Mile, one of the toughest races of the weekend?
Female stalwarts Forever Unbridled and the very special Stellar Wind come in off long layoffs to take on recently raced and tested Abel Tasman, Paradise Woods and Romantic Vision in Friday's feature, the Distaff.
Sure, these horses on their best days are the creme de la creme, but how do we know they haven't forgotten how to race on this level? And female horses really can lose their desire to race. I really hope nothing bad happens.
In many ways, this is like NFL season predictions when all you know is what you saw last year, when the Pack or the Pats or the Monsters were a different team.
That it's extremely difficult to handicap these races, let alone watch them run, is an insult to the horseplayer. I resent it.
So what about the big weekend?
I want to see Lady Eli go out in a blaze of glory in the Filly and Mare Turf.
I want to see if Beach Patrol, the Arlington Million winner, can beat all of the Euros in the Turf. A lot of people like him.
Can Carina Mia, who has run into this race, beat the likes of Skye Diamonds, who hasn't, and 12 other tough runners in the Filly and Mare Sprint?
As for the Classic, Gun Runner is your 9-5 morning line favorite with Arrogate right behind at 2-1. As of now, most people expect it to stay in that order - unless NBC sways the civilians - with the odds worsening. Bet the car they will both take a lot of money. Keep an eye on the Show pool.
More than a few stubborn cusses are talking about Mubtaahij, why I don't know. He's still living off the UAE Derby of 2015. He won the Awesome Again last out at Santa Anita against nobody, but even in his best other races of the past 16 months, he hasn't won.
Look out for Pavel, third less than two lengths less than a month ago against Diversify and Keen Ice, notably not here today. His price could soar over the 20-1 ML.
Collected, out in the 11 post, comes in on a four-race win streak, including holding on against Arrogate in said Pacific Classic. Another Baffert horse, he popped with a 115 Beyer Speed Figure, but that was way back in August.
Gun Runner? Getting better and better, at least visually, and that might be the problem. Since being a bridesmaid in the Dubai World Cup to Arrogate, he's been winning by open lengths, big. But who'd he beat besides Keen Ice, a knockabout who just makes money? What's this I see? He wasn't much at 10 furlongs in a quick pace in Arrogate's Travers masterpiece. Look ma, looks like he's better at 9 furlongs, not today's 10, with a slower pace! I'm tired of getting burned by Candy Ride colts, especially at the classic distance, so he's fourth at best. Gimme a price or else.
Gunnevera will get by on name recognition alone but don't fall for it, except for maybe $2 to Place at 40-1.
I really want to toss Arrogate. He's probably the best runner on the planet, but all of these things we've talked about . . . He did draw the one post, which means Mike Smith should have an easier time scooting him up among the leaders without spending too much energy. If Arrogate is in good position on the far turn, has some lithium left and breaks out that huge stride of his, he won't be beat. But at what price?
Euros War Decree and Churchill run into this race, as does Pulpit colt Win the Space, local boy Joe Talamo up, and another Baffert, West Coast.
I love West Coast. He beat a rising Irap (who just tragically died of laminitis) in the Pennsylvania Derby in late September. He also won the prestigious Travers Stakes.
I also like Win the Space, but he's had a heap of trouble at Del Mar. We'll see.
I will have to go with these hunches, with prices, the mood I'm in, but perhaps an exacta and/or trifecta box with no more than one of these false favorites included will be required.
NBC SportsNet and NBC will have coverage. Keep in mind with the time zones, the Distaff and Classic will most definitely be evening affairs here.
I believe there's a huge undercurrent to these races this year and the results will be the only way to find out.
But if a Clydesdale ever does win the Classic, it will be my dream come true.
Tom Chambers welcomes your comments.