Updated October 1, 2014 - NBC analyst Randy Moss provides his weekly rankings in the Classic division all summer and fall leading to the $5,000,000 Breeders' Cup Classic on November 1 on NBC.
1. SHARED BELIEF
(Last week – No. 1) The unbeaten 3-year-old gelding couldn’t even be derailed in the Awesome Again by Victor Espinoza’s efforts to channel Angel Cordero Jr., which resulted in an absurdly wide trip for Shared Belief and a week’s suspension for Espinoza. But as unfair as this may sound, Shared Belief also didn’t seem to have quite the same turn of foot on Santa Anita dirt as on Del Mar’s Polytrack in the Pacific Classic. Trakus calculated that Shared Belief traveled 66 feet farther than runner-up Fed Biz in the Awesome Again, which equates to about seven lengths. But even under normal circumstances, Shared Belief wouldn’t have gotten the same rail trip as frontrunning Fed Biz. Shared Belief probably would have been three-wide on one turn and two- to three-wide on the other, resulting in a victory of around four or five lengths over Fed Biz and a Beyer Speed Figure of about 108 instead of the 101 he got. A 108 would still make him the horse to beat in the Classic, but with much less room for error than the 115 he ran at Del Mar.
(Last week – No. 9) The Belmont winner had to step over – and perhaps on – the fallen Rajiv Maragh around the second turn of the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but still rolled from the back of the pack to win going away. The removal of blinkers by trainer Christophe Clement combined with a typically patient ride by Joel Rosario had Tonalist relaxed at the back of the pack, and after two defeats at Saratoga he now seems to be better than ever. Caveat: his three best races have all been at Belmont Park, and a trip to Santa Anita looms.
3. CALIFORNIA CHROME
(Last week – No. 2) Whether the one disappointing prep in the Pennsylvania Derby will have him ready in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to return to his early-season form – or even if he’s the same horse he was six months ago – is open for debate, as is the effectiveness of the rides California Chrome was given by Espinoza in his last two starts. Should Espinoza have been more aggressive, was he merely responding to a horse not displaying his usual aggressiveness, or is it some combination thereof? What we know is this: if California Chrome gets the trip he prefers and shows up in the Classic at the same level he did in the San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby, Kentucky Derby and Preakness, he will give Shared Belief all he can handle – and perhaps more.
(Last week – No. 5) A repeat of the frontrunning 110 Beyer Speed Figure he earned in the Pennsylvania Derby could be good enough to win the Classic. But he earned that number by getting away with a soft opening quarter- and half-mile over a super-fast Parx Racing surface; such a gift in the Breeders’ Cup Classic would be almost incomprehensible. Looking at the current probable starters for the Classic, only the tough 4-year-old Moreno looms as a serious pace threat to Bayern. But Moreno is fast and one-dimensional, and his presence alone would be enough for handicappers to question Bayern’s chances to last the mile-and-a-quarter on the lead, and also if Bayern can run as well if rated just behind Moreno.
5. TOAST OF NEW YORK
(Last week – Unranked) The UAE Derby winner and Pacific Classic runner-up is reportedly headed to Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which would be his first start over so-called “conventional dirt.” His best races to date have been on synthetic surfaces. Handicappers are rightly skeptical of synthetic specialists who switch to dirt if those horses are also effective on grass or have grass pedigrees; horses with stride action suited to grass tend to be much more effective on synthetics than dirt. Toast of New York definitely has grass in his pedigree, but it’s a mixed bag. On the track, his two grass starts resulted in his only off-the-board finishes: a fifth in his debut in England last August and a sixth in the Belmont Derby in July – after which he showed massive improvement on Polytrack at Del Mar with his second to Shared Belief in the Pacific Classic. In other words, this isn’t necessarily the typical turf/synthetic specialist that can be immediately downgraded on dirt. “There’s no reason to think he won’t go on dirt,” trainer Jamie Osborne said. “And if he does, just think of the fun we could have with him.” It could indeed be a fun Breeders’ Cup for Toast of New York’s connections if he is equally as talented on dirt, but Shared Belief is slightly better on the fake stuff.
(Last week – Unranked) This underdog 5-year-old New York-bred keeps making a case for himself. That three-length victory in the Suburban Handicap – at the time, his sixth straight win – over a loose-on-the-lead Moreno looks better in hindsight, after seeing how Moreno performed under similar circumstances in the Whitney and Woodward. Zivo didn’t appear to have an excuse in his Woodward fourth, beaten three lengths. But his clear second in Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup was a return to form, especially given the circumstances of having to avoid the fallen Maragh. "I can't believe I ran second,” said jockey Jose Lezcano. “I had to completely stop at the three-eighths pole, and he still came back and finished second. It was a very good effort for him."
(Last week – No. 4) Maybe he bounced in the Kelso after his gutsy Woodward stretch battle with Moreno. Maybe he needs more distance than a one-turn mile. Whatever the reason, he was simply outrun as the 3-5 favorite in the Kelso and his Breeders’ Cup Classic “cred” took a hit. Jockey Paco Lopez had him close to the pace, but that was no excuse. The opening quarter-mile of 23.55 down a straightway and over a very fast Belmont strip should have been completely within his capabilities, and when the one-turn distance and surface speed is taken into account, pace figures show he ran no faster for the first six furlongs of the Kelso as he did for in first six furlongs of the mile-and-an-eighth Woodward. Itsmyluckyday isn’t a Breeders’ Cup nominee, so now trainer and co-owner Eddie Plesa must decide whether to incur travel costs to Santa Anita (the Woodward wasn’t a Breeders’ Cup Challenge “Win and You’re In” race, so he receives no travel stipend) and pay a $200,000 supplement for the Classic, a $120,000 supplement to run in the Dirt Mile, or bypass the day altogether.
8. CIGAR STREET
(Last week – Unranked) Three months ago, the only people who had the Breeders’ Cup Classic on their radar for Cigar Street were trainer Bill Mott and co-owners Jake Ballis and NBA veteran Rashard Lewis. Heading into Saratoga, Cigar Street hadn’t run for 17 months due to a fractured right hind leg – and had missed nine months earlier in his career with a fractured left hind. But Cigar Street finished a close second off the shelf in a 1 1/8-mile allowance at Saratoga, then defeated Departing in Saturday’s Homecoming Classic at Churchill Downs. “We certainly had the Breeders’ Cup Classic on our mind,” Mott said. “But Saturday wasn’t a ‘Win and You’re In’ race. So we’ll sit down and talk to the connections and see what our next move will be, but I wouldn’t rule the Classic out at this point. He ran a great race. That was his second start back and we obviously didn’t think he was ready to go to the Jockey Club Gold Cup, so we really weren’t sure what he would do going into Saturday. But we were impressed with his performance and I think he’s moving forward like we had hoped.” Cigar Street earned a 101 Beyer on Saturday, but he’s probably better than that. In his final race before his most recent injury, he won the March 2013 Skip Away at Gulfstream with a 104 Beyer in an effort much stronger than it looks on paper: he won by two lengths over Take Charge Indy, who in his next start won the Alysheba at Churchill Downs by six lengths with a 109 Beyer. And the Skip Away third, Pants On Fire, was beaten 8¾ lengths – in his nine subsequent races to date, he’s been beaten that badly only in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile and Japan Cup Dirt. Cigar Street comes by his name honestly; he’s by Street Sense but out of a half-sister to two-time Horse of the Year and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Cigar, who proved infertile as a stallion but now has a surprising chance to make his presence felt again in a Breeders’ Cup.
(Last week – No. 7) Thanks to the unexpected presence of pace rival Big Cazanova, Moreno’s biggest impact on the Jockey Club Gold Cup was the abrupt move toward the rail he was asked to take by Junior Alvarado that cut off Wicked Strong and dropped jockey Rajiv Maragh. As a one-dimensional frontrunner, Moreno also figures to be at a disadvantage in the Breeders’ Cup Classic due to the presence of 3-year-old speedster Bayern. But Moreno definitely looks like a better horse than last year, when he meekly succumbed in the Classic stretch after battling early with Fort Larned and Game On Dude. And if he draws a post position inside Bayern this year, he could force Martin Garcia into a tricky decision: attempt if possible to clear Moreno and drop over, or avoid a potential speed duel and stalk Moreno from close range on the outside. In the latter scenario over a likely speed-favoring Santa Anita strip, Moreno might lead the field much farther than many think.
10. MAJESTIC HARBOR
(Last week – 10) In these rankings, no horse’s Breeders’ Cup Classic stock took more of a nosedive than Majestic Harbor’s. Perhaps his previous No. 3 ranking was too high, but that was based on his dazzling 6¼-length romp in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita at the same distance and venue as the Breeders’ Cup Classic. That race wasn’t a mirage – he really did run a career-best Beyer Speed Figure of 111 that was completely legitimate despite his 14-1 odds. But in his return to Santa Anita dirt, he ran just a fair-to-middling fourth in the Awesome Again, finishing behind 34-1 Footbridge in a slow race by Grade 1 standards. That was nowhere near his Gold Cup form, but it was roughly the same performance level the 6-year-old had typically shown in his previous best races. That scintillating Gold Cup is looking in hindsight more like a pace-fueled aberration than a sign that Majestic Harbor has suddenly reached a new plateau.