Updated September 9, 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) Unbeaten and essentially untested, his 115 Beyer Speed Figure from the Pacific Classic is the highest recorded by a 3-year-old this year. He may or may not be superior to California Chrome, and he may have to beat “Chrome” in the Breeders’ Cup Classic to claim the 3-year-old championship, but in this Classic-specific poll he has ascended to the No. 1 spot because he is one step ahead in the run-up to the first Saturday in November: He has beaten older horses at a strongly-run 1¼ miles while overcoming a bit of adversity from an awkward start, and did so in a running time usually fast enough to win the Classic. Expected to run next in the Sept. 27 Awesome Again Stakes.
2. CALIFORNIA CHROME
(Last week – No. 2) His between-races workout Saturday at Los Alamitos (six furlongs in 1:10.37) was a doozy: He seemed to do it effortlessly, like a good horse should. That drill was a key tightener for his scheduled start Sept. 20 in the Pennsylvania Derby, where he faces Tapiture, Protonico, Albano and others that the $1 million purse is sure to lure. And it isn’t just the casino-fueled purse that caught the eye of Team Chrome: Parx Racing is also dangling an extra guaranteed $100,000 for the owners and $100,000 for trainer Art Sherman. For that kind of cash, Parx deserves to get the best horses. If California Chrome can escape the cross-country trip and an unfamiliar surface with a victory, the next challenge would be a Classic showdown with Shared Belief.
3. GAME ON DUDE
(Last week – No. 3) The 7-year-old may have finished a well-beaten fourth in the Pacific Classic, but it was actually as strong a performance as his Santa Anita Handicap win back in March. The presence of Argentinian speedball Mystery Train created an impossibly fast pace over a synthetic surface more unkind to frontrunners than a dirt surface. The average Polytrack fractions for the Pacific Classic were :24.1, :48.2 and 1:12.8, and Game On Dude was forced into splits of :22.49, :45.75 and 1:10.08 over a surface no faster than the norm. In short, the pace scenario gave him absolutely no chance to win on Polytrack. Don’t underestimate the effect of Del Mar’s synthetic track in the outcome – if Game On Dude had run an identical race at Santa Anita, Shared Belief would have been all-out to run him down. The “Dude” has now lost six of his last seven races, and at age 7 he can’t be trained as aggressively week in and week out. But he showed Sunday that when Bob Baffert hones him sharply for a given race, he still has some heat on his fastball.
4. MAJESTIC HARBOR
(Last week – No. 5) He didn’t do a lot of running in the Pacific Classic despite a favorable pace scenario, but going into the race he was a question mark over synthetic surfaces. Additionally, he had already earned a guaranteed spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic via his victory in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, so there was no need to fully crank him up for a 100% effort. Earning second- or third-place money would have been welcomed, but his appearance in the Pacific Classic can be viewed primarily as a need to run him somewhere to maintain his level of fitness. His career-best 111 Beyer Speed Figure in the Gold Cup was on the same surface (Santa Anita) and at the same distance (1¼ miles) as the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
5. WILL TAKE CHARGE
(Last week – No. 6) Trainer Wayne Lukas skipped the Woodward to give his long-striding colt a mini-break before the Jockey Club Gold Cup. That might be a good idea after a strenuous travel schedule during the first half of the year, and because he still hasn’t gotten back to the sharp form he showed in defeat in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, the Donn and Santa Anita Handicap. Remember, these are Classic rankings. Get Will Take Charge back to Santa Anita for a fast-paced mile-and-a-quarter, and a sixth-place Classic projection might actually be too low.
(Last week – No. 7) As the Woodward demonstrated, not much separates Itsmyluckyday from the gritty Moreno. Wearing blinkers for the first time, Itsmyluckyday wore down Moreno in the final yards to win by a half-length while getting two pounds under the stakes conditions. But one significant advantage this 4-year-old has over his Woodward rival is his versatility. Not only can he be more patiently ridden when the circumstances are different, he should run better that way at a mile-and-a-quarter. Itsmyluckyday isn’t a sure thing for the Breeders’ Cup, because he isn’t a nominee and a supplemental nomination fee of $200,000 would have to be paid. But the guess here is that he’s likely to run in the Breeders’ Cup regardless, probably with a race in between – but according to trainer Eddie Plesa, it won’t be the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
(Last week – No. 8) In the Pacific Classic, he rallied from last place to nip Game On Dude for third on a Del Mar Polytrack surface he had struggled with in two previous tries. In so doing, he earned a 107 Beyer Speed Figure, proving his 107 in the Charles Town Classic (also at the expense of Game On Dude) wasn’t a one-off. The early pace battle between “Dude” and Mystery Train worked in his favor at Del Mar, but he’s also likely to get a quick pace in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at the same mile-and-a-quarter distance and over a Santa Anita surface he handles well. If he gets up on the right side of the stall on Breeders’ Cup morning, he could get a share.
8. WICKED STRONG
(Last week – No. 9) From a visual perspective, the Travers Stakes seemed like a head-scratcher. Why would Rajiv Maragh on Wicked Strong and particularly Joel Rosario aboard Tonalist go after Bayern so aggressively in the opening stages of the race? If Bayern duplicated his Haskell form, he was going to win the Travers, anyway, regardless of efforts by Maragh and Rosario to keep him close at hand. But a post-race look at the pace figures tell a different story entirely. Bayern’s pace was realistic but hardly over-the-top; in fact, the pace figures Wicked Strong ran were almost identical to what he did with the addition of blinkers in his Jim Dandy victory, and his Beyer Speed Figure in the Travers was two points faster. Wicked Strong actually ran his race again and had no strong excuses. As improbable as it sounds, he was simply outrun on the day by his less-heralded stablemate V. E. Day. Perhaps a case can be made that Wicked Strong and Tonalist would be more effective if ridden with less urgency, but to me, the Travers outcome makes a stronger case that right now, their forward development is minimal. We should get a line on how they stack up with older horses in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.
(Last week – No. 10) Sure, he’s every bit as good as Itsmyluckyday when he running of the race suits him. And while the pace of the Woodward picked up considerably in the third quarter, the opening splits of :24.01 and :47.41 weren’t exactly supersonic. Moreno has a fighting chance to win the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but the waters should get more turbulent for him with the likely pace competition in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Last year, he battled early with Game On Dude and Fort Larned in the Classic and faded to finish 10th of 11. Even his brash trainer, Eric Guillot, is viewing the Classic with a fatalistic attitude. “There’s going to be a 14-horse field with a lot of speed,” he told Daily Racing Form. “It’s going to be a pipe dream.” If Game On Dude doesn’t make this year’s Classic, though, Moreno’s chances may improve sharply.
(Last week – Unranked) Not much separates the Belmont Stakes winner from Wicked Strong. As pointed out above in the commentary on Wicked Strong, the moderate pace figures for the Travers Stakes make me less likely to give either colt much extra credit for the way that race was run. Tonalist was perhaps taken out of his typical running style more so than Wicked Strong, but who’s to say that shouldn’t have put him at a tactical advantage in getting first jump on Bayern? Again, the Jockey Club Gold Cup will give us a better idea about how much fall improvement to expect.