Breathtaking? Yes. Impressive? Most definitely. Good enough to win the Breeders’ Cup Mile?
Coming off a pair of narrow defeats in graded stakes company at Saratoga, the four-year-old filly Tepin was expected to be rebound with a victory while cutting back to her preferred distance of a mile for the October 3rd First Lady Stakes (gr. I) at Keeneland. The soft course also figured to help her chances, and after tracking fractions of :24.38, :48.90, and 1:13.69, she appeared poised to take command of the race any time she pleased.
She did so with authority.
When jockey Julien Leparoux asked her for run, Tepin responded with an incredible burst of acceleration. Leaving her rivals far behind, she rocketed through the seventh furlong in :11.56 seconds–a spectacular fraction given the course conditions–and she continued to extend her advantage through a final furlong in :11.79. All the while, she was just under a hand ride from Leparoux, and when she crossed the wire seven lengths in front while stopping the clock in 1:37.04, it was clear that Tepin had turned in a spectacular performance.
Just how spectacular would become clear a little later that afternoon, when a talented field of older male horses contested the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. I) over the same course and distance. Despite a much faster pace (:48.00 and 1:12.27)–which usually leads to a faster time–victorious Grand Arch could only run his final two furlongs in :12.29 and :12.89 for a final time of 1:37.45, not nearly as fast as Tepin. Keeping this in mind, it’s starting to appear as though Tepin might be the best turf miler in the United States, and while the Breeders’ Cup Mile is expected to draw several talented European shippers, I am planning to include Tepin in my wagers, particularly if the course comes up wet on Breeders’ Cup day.
But getting back to the Shadwell Turf Mile, the horse to watch coming out of this race might be The Pizza Man, who was in last place early on before rallying powerfully to be beaten just a head. The Pizza Man has long been an admirable graded stakes competitor, but he’s taken his game to a whole new level this year, and could definitely be a factor in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. I) later this month while stretching back out in distance. Tourist also made a big move from mid-pack to finish third in the Shadwell Turf Mile, and the usually front-running/pace-pressing colt could thrive with a return to firm turf and speedier tactics in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Two-year-old colts were the star of the Keeneland show in the Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I), in which Dale Romans’ up-and-coming colt Brody’s Cause unleashed a strong rally from the back of the pack to win going away by a length. He did take advantage of racing outside in muddy conditions where the rail was the slowest part of the track, but from a visual perspective, he looked great and seems like a colt that will thrive with more distance. That said, I really liked the effort turned in by runner-up Exaggerator, who spent the majority of the race running along the rail before splitting horses in professional fashion to seize the lead in the homestretch. While he did tire late to finish second by a length, he might have fared better if he had been able to stay off the rail, and it’s also important to note that he had been ill after winning the Saratoga Special (gr. II) in August and wasn’t at peak fitness for the Breeders’ Futurity. Taking all of this together, I think Exaggerator might just be the best two-year-old colt in the country right now, and at the moment, I think he could be a possible single in multi-race wagers on Breeders’ Cup day.
For the same reasons, I think that Judy the Beauty warrants a lot of respect in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. She hasn’t been in the winner’s circle since scoring a narrow victory in the 2014 Filly & Mare Sprint, but she ran a solid race to be third by just over a length in Keeneland’s Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (gr. III) despite racing along the bad rail. With no standouts in the Filly & Mare Sprint division this year, Judy the Beauty should have every chance to defend her title, and she might even go off at a good price thanks to her defeat last weekend. But take nothing away from Fioretti, who was as game as could be in the homestretch to hold off challenges from both sides and triumph by three-quarters of a length. The final time wasn’t stellar–1:10.04–but it’s worth noting that Fioretti entered the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes off a solid runner-up effort in the one-mile Groupie Doll Stakes (gr. III) at Ellis Park, proving that she is capable of handling longer distances than six furlongs. This is particularly noteworthy since the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint–unlike the Breeders’ Cup Sprint–is held at seven furlongs, and the ability to handle that seventh furlong can be the difference between winning or losing the race.
Wet tracks also played a role in the major races at Belmont on “Super Saturday.” In particular, the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) for two-year-olds seemed to be impacted by the sloppy, sealed conditions. Ralis was the heavy favorite off an easy win in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) at Saratoga, but the Doug O’Neill-trained colt didn’t seem to handle the conditions and wound up finishing a distant sixth. In the meantime, Saratoga maiden winner Greenpointcrusader–a sibling to Algorithms and Justin Phillip, both of which won graded stakes on sloppy tracks–rallied impressively in the final furlong to win going away by 4 1/2 lengths. The final time for a mile was 1:36.25 seconds, good for a respectable Beyer speed figure of 94. A son of Bernardini trained by Dominick Schettino, Greenpointcrusader should have enough stamina in his pedigree to succeed around two turns in good company, although it will be interesting to see if he can reproduce his Champagne form on a (presumably) fast track in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile.
One race before the Champagne, two-year-old fillies took to the track in the Frizette Stakes (gr. I), a race that lacked star power due to the absence of the Spinaway Stakes (gr. I) 1-2 finishers Rachel’s Valentina and Tap to It, who skipped the race to train up to the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies. As a result, the Frizette looked ripe for an upset, and Nickname did just that while scoring at odds of 5.40-1. After tracking solid fractions of :22.78, :46.10, and 1:10.93, she easily took command from favored She’s All Ready and drew off to win by 3 1/2 lengths. However, she was tiring in the homestretch, running the final quarter-mile in :26.83 for a final time of 1:37.76, substantially slower than Greenpointcrusader ran while winning the Champagne. Additionally, Nemoralia–a European shipper making her debut on dirt–finished second by 1 1/4 lengths over She’s All Ready, who was in turn nine lengths clear of the fourth-place finisher, all of which suggests that the Frizette might not have been the strongest race.
The feature race of the day was the Jockey Club Gold Cup, in which Tonalist won by 4 3/4 lengths to secure his second straight win in the prestigious ten-furlong race. Settling near the rear of the field early on, Tonalist made an early move to reach striking range on the far turn, then went inside Wicked Strong at the top of the stretch to take command and win under a hand ride. Now, the sloppy track probably enhanced Tonalist’s performance (he’s now 2-for-2 on wet tracks), and we know he loves Belmont Park, but this was nevertheless a very impressive and dominant performance that should set him up well for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. If American Pharoah and Beholder hook up too soon, who knows? Tonalist’s combination of tactical speed and solid finishing kick might give him the best chance to wear them down in the homestretch.
On a different note, the disappointment of the Jockey Club Gold Cup was Constitution, who tired badly after setting the pace and retreated to finish last of six. However, it’s worth noting that the previous worst race of Constitution’s career came in an allowance race at Belmont last fall, so perhaps he just doesn’t care for the track at all. Also, the sloppy track and ten-furlong distance probably didn’t help his chances either, and I would look for him to rebound at a big price if he switches to a more ideal track in the near future.
The one-mile Kelso Handicap (gr. II) also drew a lot of attention thanks to the presence of Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) and Whitney Handicap (gr. I) winner Honor Code, who was using the race as a prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He showed a more early speed than usual while settling just four lengths off the pace after an opening quarter-mile in :23.50, an encouraging development given the complete lack of early speed he has shown since late last year. Perhaps as a result of staying closer to the pace, or perhaps as a result of the sloppy track, Honor Code didn’t unleash quite the same burst of speed in the final furlong as he has in his last two start, but nevertheless put in a respectable rally to finish third, beaten 3 3/4 lengths. It wasn’t a great performance, but it was by no means a bad performance, and given the circumstances–sloppy track, small field, not a lot of pace–I was actually expecting Honor Code to lose, so to my eye, his effort in the Kelso was very respectable. All told, I think it was a very solid prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, giving him a chance to try and sharpen his speed and get in a solid race without getting too tired out from a big effort in the ten-furlong Jockey Club Gold Cup. If you liked Honor Code’s Breeders’ Cup Classic chances before the Kelso, I don’t see any reason to jump off the bandwagon now, especially since he’s bound to be a better price coming off a defeat.
But while most of the Kelso attention was focused on Honor Code, one shouldn’t overlook the victorious Appealing Tale, who was relaxed on a clear lead through fractions of :23.50, :46.35, and 1:09.89 before kicking clear and holding off a late run from Red Vine to triumph by 1 3/4 lengths. The final time of 1:34.86 was much faster than Greenpointcrusader ran in the Champagne, and translated to a massive Beyer speed figure of 108. Now, Appealing Tale did get a very easy lead in the Kelso, but took advantage of the situation with a big performance, and since he’s proven he can carry his speed around two turns, he looms as a very intriguing contender for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I).
I would also keep an eye on Red Vine, who stumbled at the start and had to settle near the rear of the field early on as a result. He usually shows much more speed than that, so it was encouraging to see him produce a sharp rally to finish second despite a change in running style. With a more forwardly-placed trip, I think he would have had a chance to catch Appealing Tale, and while he’s yet to win a graded stakes race, he is quietly compiling a very solid record in top company this year. He’s another that could be worth a close look in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, especially since he has the versatility to rate off the lead if the pace is fast.
To wrap up the grade I action at Belmont, we’ll quickly recap the action in the ten-furlong Flower Bowl Stakes (gr. I) on turf, in which the six-year-old mare Stephanie’s Kitten won by 1 1/2 lengths. Position her near the lead on a wet turf course, and I don’t think there’s a filly or mare in the country that can out-kick her in the homestretch, and that was certainly the case on Saturday, as Stephanie’s Kitten was never more than 2 1/2 lengths back before pouncing to the lead in the final furlong. Despite the soft going, she ran her final quarter-mile in about :23 4/5, and although some very talented European shippers are expected to contest the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. I), she could have a legitimate chance to pull off an upset if the turf comes up wet. Should she win, it would mark her second win in a Breeders’ Cup race, given that she won the Juvenile Fillies Turf (gr. II) back in 2011.
Finishing second in the Flower Bowl was Stephanie’s Kitten’s Chad Brown-trained stablemate Danza Cavallo, who set a slow pace before finishing a clear-cut second, 3 1/4 lengths clear of the rest of the field. It was a solid effort, but Chad Brown noted that a start in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf is unlikely.
With Santa Anita having held their “Super Saturday” on September 26th, the racing action there was a bit lighter last weekend, although there was still one grade I race on the schedule, that being the Santa Anita Sprint Championship. An incredibly fast pace (:21.44 and :43.93) set by Distinctiv Passion and Masochistic set the race up for the stretch-runners to sweep on by, and that’s exactly what happened, with Wild Dude and Kobe’s Back rallying powerfully to finish 1-2 while separated by a neck. However, the final time was a modest 1:09.45 seconds–a bit surprising given the fast pace–and while California sprinters must always be respected in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, I have the feeling that they may be a bit weaker this year than in recent years. The retirements of Secret Circle and Goldencents, who have been the best sprinters out west for past couple of years, has definitely weakened the division, and while Wild Dude and Kobe’s Back are both very talented, I don’t think they’re in quite the same league as the best sprinters in the nation.
For that reason, I’m hugely excited about the chances of the three-year-old Runhappy in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. I have already recapped his impressive win in Keeneland’s Phoenix Stakes (gr. III) elsewhere on this site (click here to read), but in brief, he was spectacular running an interior furlong in an almost unheard of :09 4/5 to seize command after a slow start and win in decisive fashion. He did drift out in the homestretch, but this was an intentional move on jockey Edgar Prado’s part to get Runhappy off the tiring rail path, and for Runhappy to win like he did despite the obstacles he faced… well, I have the feeling that he might be more than just a very good colt. To put it bluntly, I think he is perhaps the most talented sprinter we have seen since Midnight Lute. As long as he draws an outside post position in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, where a slow start wouldn’t hurt his chances as much, I am strongly thinking of singling him in my multi-race wagers on Breeders’ Cup day.
My apologies that this post has grown so long, but I hope you’ve enjoyed it! With the second “Super Saturday” behind us, the wait now begins for the Breeders’ Cup pre-entries to be released. Stay tuned for plenty of pre-race analysis as the championship races draw closer!
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