If the Kentucky Derby is the most prestigious race in all of horse racing, the Breeders’ Cup Classic is the most daunting. In the Kentucky Derby, a field of twenty 3-year-olds, not all of them proven contenders, only a handful of which will ever be champions, vie for a chance at immortality. Even the winners of the Kentucky Derby will not necessarily ever go on to do much thereafter. But the Breeders’ Cup Classic is a race of champions, the final grudge match where Grade I winners have a final stage to duke it out in two minutes to prove once and for all who is the best amongst them. There are no poseurs here, only proven contenders who have earned their way to the biggest show of the year, with $5 million dollars on the line. This year, the horses range in age from 3 to 7; the contenders are everything from a Kentucky Derby winner, an Arlington Million winner, a Breeders’ Cup winner, a Belmont and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, to champions of the European classics. But only one of them will take the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Any one of the contenders this year could take the Classic respectably; any one of them deserves the chance to prove him or herself to be the best of the best. So who stands a better chance? The answer may lie in the way the Classic was run last year, and will be again this year. Because the contest will be held on Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride synthetic surface, one must examine it as a turf race; this automatically gives any dirt horses without previous synthetic experience a clear disadvantage. Of the 13 horses in the field, Summer Bird, Quality Road, and Girolamo are the only horses without previous synthetic or turf race experience. Does this mean they will be last place? Absolutely not, but when each of the contenders in the race stand an equal chance of winning, someone has to finish out of the money. And if your money is on a horse without previous experience on turf or synthetics, you stand a bigger chance of going home empty-handed.
The rest of the field consists of veritable contenders who either know and love synthetics, or are proven over turf. Last year, the Euros invaded and dominated over our American champion dirt horses, finishing 1-2, and the same is likely to happen this year. Europe’s biggest gun is Rip Van Winkle, certainly no sleeper when it comes to dogging it out on all the biggest stages; in Europe, he has been living in the shadow of what some call the best horse Europe has ever seen, Sea the Stars. Rip will come with a shining class that could blind some of our less-seasoned American horses, and that’s why he stands a good chance at doing exactly what Raven’s Pass did in 2008, taking the American championships and proving exactly what kind of race the Classic is when run on anything but dirt. The other Euro contender is Twice Over, a four-year-old colt whose resume isn’t a shade as illustrious as Rip’s, but has won his last three starts, the last of them being the Group I Champion Stakes. He may not be in my top five, but Twice Over will come at a good price, and you can’t really afford to count out a winning Euro in the Classic given last year’s outcome.
Considering a grass horse for the Classic? Then you must count in Gio Ponti, the American superhorse over turf this year, the winner of four consecutive Grade Is, including the Arlington Million and the Man o’ War Stakes. In his last time out, Gio Ponti was beaten by a mud dauber when longshot Interpretation fought back in the driving rain over a turf that can only be described as some form of swamp to win the Grade I Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont. Gio Ponti already has a win over Santa Anita’s Pro-Ride surface, the Grade III Sir Beaufort Stakes, which he won on December 26th, so there’s no reason to think he won’t like the Pro-Ride. His questionable fifth-place finish in the Grade II Strub does leave one to wonder if he’s better on turf, however, as he didn’t face as tough competition in the Sir Beaufort.
And if you like Gio Ponti, you have to like Einstein. Beaten only a head in the Grade I Pacific Classic by Richard’s Kid, Einstein is the rare horse that has no boundaries—turf, synthetics, dirt, he has seen and conquered them all, earning graded stakes on each surface. The 7-year-old horse won the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap there in March against a quality field, and has had a breather since his loss in the Pacific Classic. The Breeders’ Cup Classic has been the goal for this black beauty all year-long, and it would be a sweet victory if he was to taste success in the Classic to cap his long career before retirement to stud.
Richard’s Kid’s victory over Einstein in the Pacific Classic came as a shock to everyone but his trainer, Bob Baffert. The 4-year-old colt proved his triumph over the tested Grade I winner was no fluke when he came back in the Grade I Goodwood and finished a blazing third to Gitano Hernando and Colonel John. Though he doesn’t have the resume of most of the horses in this Classic field, Richard’s Kid proved he is a force to be reckoned with, and will come running late when the field turns for home; his class suggests he won’t be able to look Rip Van Winkle or Zenyatta in the eye, however.
One horse who’s always been a puzzle is Colonel John. A gorgeous colt with beautiful breeding, Colonel John hadn’t won since the 2008 Travers when he cinched the 1-mile Wickerr Stakes on turf this past July at Der Mar. Since then, he has continued on a losing streak, though he was right at the winner’s throatlatch in the Grade I Goodwood on October 10th. When it comes to backing the Colonel, I’d rather see him at a mile and in a smaller field; it’d be a shock to me if he was finally able to take down this caliber of competition when it counts.
Speaking of horses on a losing streak, as much as I can’t support Colonel John in big field going over a mile, I can’t help but feel the Kentucky Derby winner still stands a chance at redemption. Mine That Bird hasn’t won since his signature performance on the first Saturday of May, but he has been plagued with bad rides; his best shot after the Derby was in the Preakness, but as he came rocketing from last place under a smart ride by Mike Smith, he ran into the freak that is Rachel Alexandra, and became just another snack on her monstrous smorgasbord of champions. Now that he’s back with the jockey who etched him in the record books, Mine That Bird’s running style has been cemented. His only hiccup was put into words by Mr. Borel, who stated the Derby Bird just wasn’t as good on synthetics as the dirt. But now that he has the Goodwood under his belt, might he come back to the same winning form he had on the synthetics at Woodbine, where he reeled off four in a row? What’s more, ask yourself if you can risk tossing out this gelding who won the Kentucky Derby at 50-1?
And what about the “other Bird?” Currently listed as the morning line’s third choice at 9-2, Summer Bird has been a model of consistency since his coming out party at the Belmont Stakes, where he won at odds of 11-1. Only beaten since by Rachel Alexandra in the Haskell, Summer Bird has taken both the Travers and the Jockey Club Gold Cup on his campaign for 3-year-old male of the year. Since winning the Gold Cup, Summer Bird has been training up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, taking the same route as the Curlin of 2008, and looks to be handed the same fate as his champion predecessor. At least there was a red flag for Curlin when he tried turf for the first time and finished second to Red Rocks in the Man o’ War to wonder if he wouldn’t run as well over the synthetics; Summer Bird has had no such test to clue us in on how he will fare over a non-dirt track. Sure, he has trained well at Santa Anita, but so did Curlin. If Summer Bird wins the Breeders’ Cup Classic over the Pro-Ride, he will have accomplished a wonder few horses could hope to emulate, and I will have to regard him as one of the top choices for Horse of the Year, as well as one of the top 3-year-olds of this decade.
Summer Bird’s classmate and newly-minted rival, Quality Road, is in a tough spot. Not only is he in post position #12, bookended by only one horse to his right, but he hasn’t had a chance to run on his terms since he won the Amsterdam on his comeback from a plague of quarter-cracks. At one time revered as the best 3-year-old of the crop, Quality Road now sits as the underdog choice in the Breeders’ Cup Classic; his last two outings have been in the slop, which is obviously not his cup of tea, but still he finished 2nd and 3rd. Now he is expected to not only run 1 ¼ miles, but to do so over a surface he’s unfamiliar with. Quality Road could be a tremendous horse if given the opportunity, but this field is not going to be accommodating for a horse that isn’t fit or yearning for a confidence booster. Look for Quality Road to sit just off the pace, which will likely be Girolamo and Regal Ransom; if one of these pace-setters tries to steal the race, the Road won’t let them sleep on the lead and may just take over and try to steal it himself.
And then there’s the contender I believe has super powers. Scant horses have the ability to show up in each and every race, whose glistening hide seems to shine with a bullet-proof shield to adversity, those who will the wire to reach them and not the other way around. But there’s one living in California right now, and if you listen, you can almost hear her say, “Okay, fellas, now you’re on my turf.”
Of course, I’m talking about the California Colossus, the Runaway Train, the Freak Filly, the undefeated 13-for-13 mare standing at 17.1 hands, the unconquerable Zenyatta. Yes, she is finally confirmed once and for all to set the boys on the gauntlet, to run ’em into the ground like she does best with her rocketing late-kick. In my eyes, this mare can only be thwarted by one kryptonite: a bad ride. Zenyatta has never been passed once she has grabbed onto the lead, and the only time she came within a whisker to defeat was when her jockey, regular rider Mike Smith, misjudged the competition and didn’t ask her to run until it was almost too late. If you watch that race again, it doesn’t seem possible Zenyatta is going to get up to the wire in time; it’s almost as if she used some kind of supernatural force to bend the finish line to that extra nose she needed to defeat the two fillies daring to challenge her. I’m telling you, there’s something weird about this mare, and be forewarned if you should try to bet against her.
The extra distance should give Zenyatta a chance to really stretch her legs. Though she has never run at 1 ¼ miles, and she will have to extend herself a full furlong longer than she ever has ever run before, Zenyatta usually comes back to the winner’s circle as cool and collected as if she’s just rolled out of bed. So how will she fare against the best field she’s ever faced in her career? Will she beat males for the first time and become the first female ever to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic? I can already hear the thundering of hooves, I can already see those late-runners uncoiling their stride and passing tired foes, reaching for the wire, gobbling up ground like a fury of devils was after them.
My crystal ball says “Go with what you know,” and I know that Zenyatta has never lost a race in her life, and if she’s tested, her heart will get her the wire, if not her cosmic energy.
Post Positions and Morning-Line Odds
1. Mine That Bird 12-1
2. Colonel John 12-1
3. Summer Bird 9-2
4. Zenyatta 5-2
5. Twice Over 20-1
6. Richard’s Kid 12-1
7. Gio Ponti 12-1
8. Einstein 12-1
9. Girolamo 20-1
10. Rip Van Winkle 7-2
11. Regal Ransom 20-1
12. Quality Road 20-1
13. Awesome Gem 30-1
The Breeders’ Cup Classic will air on ESPN this Saturday, November 7th live from Oak Tree at Santa Anita. Post time is set for approximately 3:45pm PT. Coverage of the entire world championships can be seen throughout the day on ESPN, ESPN2, and ABC. Consult your local listings for airtimes. Post positions for all of Saturday’s races can be found here on Equibase.com.