Road to the 2017 Breeders’ Cup: Three Heating Up, Three Cooling Down
By Mike Curry, courtesy America's Best Racing
The path to the 2017 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 3-4 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 13 championship races.
This blog provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders’ Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were a week ago.
1. Practical Joke
Wow! He looked so good cutting back to seven-eighths of a mile for the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes (formerly the King’s Bishop) on Aug. 26 at Saratoga. It shouldn’t have been a surprise, really, since he was also dominant at Belmont Park in the Dwyer Stakes, a one-turn mile race. Since the spring, we’ve learned that natural ability carried Practical Joke a long way. He’s effective going as far as 1 ¼ miles (fifth in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands) because he’s an extraordinary talent, but he doesn’t have quite the same finishing punch when the distances get longer. His acceleration is superb in shorter, one-turn races – he’s unbeaten in four tries around one turn – but unfortunately this year’s Las Vegas Dirt Mile at Del Mar will be a two-turn race. I still think he’s better served targeting that race than challenging the likes of champion Drefong in the three-quarter-mile TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint or stretching back out for the 1 ¼-mile Classic, but it does present a bit of a quandary for trainer Chad Brown. “Looking at the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, it’s a tricky race because it’s around two turns. He’s undefeated on one turn, but the mile distance seems perfect for him, so if I had to guess right now, that’s where we’ll end up,” Brown said. That feels like the right fit for Practical Joke and, regardless of the number of turns, I’d be surprised if he doesn’t end up as either the favorite or the second choice for the Dirt Mile.
2. Forever Unbridled
This was a tough call between Forever Unbridled and West Coast for the No. 2 slot, but while I think the latter has made a bigger jump, Forever Unbridled is the more likely winner at the Breeders’ Cup. Consistency is the key with this 5-year-old mare, who always seems to run her race. On Aug. 26, Forever Unbridled showed just how good her “A” game is when she reeled in champion Songbird to hand that rival only her second career defeat in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign Stakes. After easily winning her season debut in June at Churchill Downs in the Grade 2 Fleur de Lis Handicap, which secured her a berth in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff, Forever Unbridled cranked up the degree of difficulty in the Personal Ensign and got back to within two points of her career-best (114) Equibase Speed Figure with a 112. She can build off that in the Grade 1 Beldame Stakes on Sept. 30 and should be a formidable force for the Distaff on Nov. 3. With six wins, a second, and two thirds in her last nine races, Forever Unbridled clearly ranks among the elite older females. It’s a tough division, but Forever Unbridled can run with any of the Distaff contenders and she’s at her best at 1 1/8 miles.
3. West Coast
The bay Flatter colt extended his winning streak to four for Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert with a front-running victory in the Grade 1, $1.25 million Travers Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets on Aug. 26. He’s gone from allowance winner in May to stakes winner in June, graded stakes winner in July and now Grade 1 winner in August, which begs the question: why isn’t he higher here given the rapid ascent? The answer is two-fold. First, I think we have reason to believe that this group of 3-year-olds might not be especially strong given the ninth-place finish by Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner Always Dreaming in the Travers and the second-straight unplaced finish by Preakness victor Cloud Computing. Second, it takes a special 3-year-old to beat older horses in the fall and a terrific talent along the lines of 2016 Travers record-setter Arrogate to do so in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. I’m not sure West Coast is at that level just yet. Don’t get me wrong, I was very impressed with the performance overall. He’s now won three stakes in a row by an average margin of 3 ¼ lengths with Equibase Speed Figures of 117-112-115. West Coast, whose dam (mother) is 2000 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies winner Caressing, has never finished worse than second in seven career starts since his debut in February and never run less than a triple-digit speed figure. It’s clear he’s a promising talent, but let’s remember this is a very deep group of Breeders’ Cup Classic hopefuls with elite talent at the top in Gun Runner, Arrogate, and Collected.
Honorable Mentions: Giant Expectations won the Grade 2 Pat O’Brien Stakes to earn a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series “Win and You’re In” berth to the Las Vegas Dirt Mile. It’s been a meteoric rise for the 4-year-old Frost Giant colt who won a maiden race restricted to New York-breds in May after losing six straight to start his career. He’s rapidly improving but I’m not ready to climb on board the bandwagon after one stakes victory in which the heavy favorite was scratched. … It was impressive to see Drefong blast through seven furlongs in 1:21.12 in the Grade 1 Forego Stakes on Aug 26 in what was essentially his first start since winning last year’s Breeders Cup Sprint. He unseated his rider in his July debut but looked none the worse for wear in the Forego and every bit the champion he was a year ago. He’ll be tough to beat at the Breeders’ Cup. … Three straight wins now for Lady Eli after a dominant victory in the Grade 2 Woodford Reserve Ballston Spa Stakes. She’s as tough as a racehorse comes. With 10 wins in 13 starts, expect her to be the favorite (sentimental and betting) for the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf. … Great to see Sadler’s Joy secure a Grade 1 win in the Sword Dancer Stakes and a place in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf. He always comes running in the stretch, and his closing burst is powerful. … By the Moon earned her first Grade 1 win since 2014 when she led from start to finish in the Grade 1 Ketel One Ballerina Stakes on Aug. 26. She’s a true fighter headed for her third try in the Breeders’ Cup.
1. Always Dreaming
There was no shortage of contenders for the three cooling downs spots on this list, but I’ll lead off with the 2017 Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands winner. I gave him a pass for finishing third in the Grade 2 Jim Dandy Stakes Presented by NYRA Bets because I thought he fought to the finish and needed a race, but Always Dreaming really packed it in late in the stretch of the Travers Stakes on Aug. 26 when fading from second to ninth, beaten by 18 lengths. It’s pretty clear that this is not the same racehorse we saw dominate in the Xpressbet Florida Derby and Kentucky Derby. The Triple Crown grind can take a lot out of even the hardiest of 3-year-olds. After the Travers, Always Dreaming was sent to Central Kentucky for a complete physical exam at Rood and Riddle Equine Hospital to be followed by a respite. Here’s hoping Always Dreaming’s connections find the key to getting him back to his best.
2. Paradise Woods
Maybe this one is on me, but when I saw Paradise Woods run away from the field to win the Grade 1 Santa Anita Oaks, leaving the gifted runner-up Abel Tasman 11 ¼ lengths behind in the rearview mirror, I thought it marked the unveiling of a potential superstar. Because the Kentucky Oaks came on a sloppy track – Paradise Woods first try on an off-track – I was willing to forgive the 11th-place finish and expected a major bounce-back race in the Grade 3 Torrey Pines Stakes against a solid but unspectacular field on Aug. 27 at Del Mar. She stumbled a bit at the start as the 3-10 favorite but recovered and was in a solid, stalking position on the backstretch and through the final turn. When she entered the stretch, though, Paradise Woods did not accelerate and faded to finish sixth, beaten by seven lengths. I expected Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella to get Paradise Woods back on track, but maybe the Torrey Pines was just the first step back after an extended break following the Kentucky Oaks. Perhaps we’ll see a big improvement in her next start, but it’s tough to predict that with any confidence after the Torrey Pines.
I dropped Paulassilverlining down to three here because her poor effort in the Grade 1 Ketel One Ballerina Stakes on Aug. 26 was just so surprising. She had won four straight graded stakes and was 3-for-3 this season; and she’d run in the top three in 13 of her last 14 starts with the lone off-the-board finish a Grade 1 in which she was beaten by 2 ½ lengths. Because of her stellar track record, I was stunned to see her finish fifth of seven as the favorite in the Ballerina. In her previous start, she handed Finley’sluckycharm her first defeat of the year in the Grade 2 Honorable Miss Handicap and also defeated By the Moon, who got the better of her in the Ballerina. One start before that, Paulassilverlining beat 2016 Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint winner Finest City in the Grade 1 Humana Distaff on the Kentucky Derby undercard. Let’s just call the 2017 Ballerina performance uncharacteristic for Paulassilverlining. The 84 Equibase Speed Figure was her lowest since November 2014 when she was a 2-year-old. I’m inclined to just draw a line through the race and give her another shot. I still think she’s a legitimate contender for the Filly and Mare Sprint, but she’ll need to get back to top form quickly.
Notable: Mind Your Biscuits’ sixth-place finish was another major disappointment last weekend. He had won the Group 1 Dubai Golden Shaheen and Grade 2 Belmont Sprint Championship Stakes in his previous two starts but really came up empty when sixth, beaten by eight lengths, in the Forego. I’m not shocked he lost to Drefong, who beat Mind Your Biscuits in last year’s TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint, but I was stunned he ran so poorly. … Coal Front had won three straight and been virtually unchallenged entering the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Stakes, but against a much-better group of 3-year-olds he ran fifth in his first Grade 1 attempt. He faced a deep, talented field in the race and I’m inclined to expect improvement in his next start now that this talented Stay Thirsty colt has tasted defeat and knows not every race will be a cakewalk. … After winning the $1 million betfair.com Haskell Invitational Stakes, Girvin appeared to be among the most likely winners of the Travers Stakes on Aug. 26. He never really factored in the race, however, and finished 11th, beaten by 20 lengths. For a horse who has been so consistent, the Travers dud was a huge surprise. … Songbird’s defeat in the Grade 1 Personal Ensign definitely shows that she’s not quite the same horse she was a year ago when she just dominated the opposition all the way up until a runner-up finish in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff. But at the same time, let’s not get too carried away in the other direction. She lost by a neck to a Grade 1 winner after shipping across the country. Songbird has 13 wins and two seconds in 15 career starts – that’s still a Hall of Fame résumé.