Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Countdown to the Cup: Now Comes the Waiting

By Steve Haskin

There is so much to discuss after the weekend’s stakes extravaganza, but one race that likely had the most profound effect on the Breeders’ Cup was the Goodwood Stakes (gr. I). As if Americans didn’t have enough to fear from Europeans like Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman in the Classic (gr. I), they took it one step further by basically sending out invitations for other Euros to join them.

They did this by falling to 18-1 English invader Gitano Hernando, who was coming off an allowance victory over the all-weather surface at Wolverhampton and who was facing older horses in his stakes debut. Gitano Hernando looks to be a much-improved horse on the all-weather and was once being considered for the Belmont Stakes (gr. I), but he was never tested for class in Europe and certainly was not mentioned in the same breath as Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman. But more later on Gitano Hernando, who to his credit did earn a 106 Beyer, which is huge on Pro-Ride.

The question for now is, what does his victory do to the Classic picture? Let’s put it this way: the original Rip Van Winkle was known for catching z’s. Well, there is one “z” the current Rip Van Winkle and his compatriots will find hard to catch, and that is the mighty Zenyatta. It is still too early to know whether America’s Mega Mare will contest the Classic or the Ladies Classic (gr. I), but if the S.O.S. the Goodwood horses sent is any indication, there is little doubt her presence in the Classic is needed.

But whether the Classic needs her or not, her connections will continue to place her where they feel is the right spot for her. So, we’ll just have to wait to see if the headline attraction of this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be seen on Friday or Saturday.

Zenyatta never ceases to amaze. Other than her last-jump nail biter in the Clement Hirsch (gr. I), it is difficult to tell her races apart. She just seems to make the exact same move at the exact same time and is in the exact same spot at the three-sixteenths pole. And she wins the exact same way – her 1 1/2-length victories, while taking one stride to everyone else’s two strides, are accomplished with the same ease as those who win by 10 lengths. Be honest, is there any of her races where at any point in the race you actually looked at another horse? In the Lady’s Secret for example, did you look to see how the pacesetter was moving or even know who was setting the pace…or cared? Did you look to see where CocoaBeach was? Did you pay any attention to Life is Sweet rallying from far back? I for one never took my eyes off Zenyatta, and I’ll bet that 90% percent of those watching would say the same. In fact, I can’t remember watching any of Zenyatta’s races where my eyes were not fixed squarely on her every step of the race.

There aren’t many horses, if any, you can say that about. That is how totally dominant she is. Her stretch runs are basically this: Zenyatta moving effortless to the lead on the far outside with two or three seemingly Lilliputian horses fighting it out for the place and show spots.

From her pre-race show, highlighted by her unique strut, her tongue flapping, and her people watching, to her overpowering and almost robotic performances, it is safe to say she may have the most commanding presence – from both a physical and racing aspect -- of any horse we’ve seen since Forego.

With that said, the decision that faces the Mosses and John Shirreffs is far from a no-brainer. While most clamor for Zenyatta to run in the Classic, one has to be a realist. The likely 14-horse field, comprised of grade and group I winners from the U.S. and Europe, is unlike anything Zenyatta has faced, and is not as conducive to her sweeping, one-move running style in 5- to 8-horse fields, devoid of traffic problems. And speed gurus will point to the fact that she earned a 97 Beyer, compared to 106 in the Goodwood, and that she would have had to run a final sixteenth in about :05 3/5 to win the Goodwood. Can she win the Classic going 1 1/4 miles for the first time? Of course she can, because she does only what she has to. There is little doubt she has much more to give, and just needs a foe or foes worthy enough to get her to reach deeper into her reservoir. She has an amazing engine that should carry her as far as she wants to go, and as mentioned before, her presence would be a major boost to the Classic, and a second or third probably would do more for her stature than another win in the Ladies Classic. But it is a huge step up, especially with the European presence, and all these factors must be taken into consideration. This is not as easy a decision as one might think.

So, we just sit back and wait. Right now, there is no wrong decision. One thing is for sure, wherever she runs, you can bet no one will take their eyes off her.

Gitano mano

As complicated as the BC Classic puzzle was before last weekend, it got even more complicated when Gitano Hernando, along with this jockey Kieren Fallon, came here and knocked off the winners of the 2009 Kentucky Derby and Pacific Classic, and the 2008 Travers and Santa Anita Derby, as well as a number of grade II winners. His 106 Beyer suggests he simply may be a very good horse on the synthetic. But there is always the nagging question of how good the American horses are over this surface compared to the Europeans, who totally whipped our butt last year.

What was different about Gitano Hernando’s victory was the fact that he showed tremendous courage by overpowering Parading and then holding off the challenge of Colonel John, refusing to let the WinStar colt get by him.

It became apparent by the three-eighths pole that Mine That Bird was not going to fire. He seemed to be climbing a bit early on and never uncorked his big move on the far turn. Whether or not he was having a problem handling the surface (he did finish last over it in the 2008 BC Juvenile), he eventually did level off and closed some ground, but way too late. To demonstrate how synthetic racing, especially on this track, is basically brown grass racing, Mine That Bird, despite finishing sixth and never threatening, still was beaten only 3 3/4 lengths and somehow managed to close his final eighth in a ridiculous :11 flat. Sorry, that is not dirt racing nor does it resemble dirt racing.

For further proof, just look at the result of the grade I Juddmonte Spinster, with the one-two finish of Proviso, a European grass horse – what else is new? -- who was disqualified to second, and Mushka, who did have good form on dirt early in her career, but had been running on turf for the past 14 months. Add to that the dismal performance turned in by the favorite, Swift Temper, a grade I winner who had finished in the money in her last seven races, all on dirt).

An important factor in the Goodwood was the fast-closing third by Richard's Kid, who validated his Pacific Classic victory while dropping back an eighth of a mile. Off this race, he must be given a big chance in the BC Classic.

Getting back to Gitano Hernando, the question now is, do Team Valor and Gary Barber run him back in the Classic and risk the so-called Euro bounce? The way he ran on Saturday, having a hard race off the plane, there is always that concern. One would have to think he could possibly have won the Classic or been right there had he waited and run at the longer distance, for which he is better suited. But that is pure speculation. Who knows, he just may be that good and could actually improve off this race. He's used to racing in traffic, and was covered up beautifully by Fallon, and won despite staying on his left lead. It is something his connections will have to ponder. Although history has shown it is extremely difficult for European shippers to double up, it could go either way. In short, this was a terrific effort.

Hidden heroes

The weekend had plenty of Breeders’ Cup-defining performances by top-class horses. The ultra-consistent Informed Decision looked super in the Thoroughbred Club of America Stakes (gr. II) at Keeneland, defeating California invader Carlsbad. Presious Passion proved again he is one of the most entertaining and amazing turf horses we’ve seen in years by spread-eagling his field to win the Clement Hirsch (gr. IT). Last year’s BC Sprint runner-up Fatal Bullet was sharp and game winning the Phoenix Stakes (gr. III). Court Vision showed a new dimension winning the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT) off a layoff. Magical Fantasy continued her winning streak in the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT). Cowboy Cal established himself as a leading contender in the BC Mile (gr. IT) with a wire-to-wire score in the Oak Tree Mile (gr. IIT) in 1:33 flat, in which he looked to re-break at the wire. Biofuel looked spectacular wining the Mazarine Stakes (gr. III) at Woodbine. Forever Together had an excellent prep for the BC Filly & Mare turf (gr. IT), closing from far back to finish third to Diamondrella (where do you run her?) in the one-mile First Lady Stakes (gr. IT). Gayego showed he will be a major force in the BC Sprint after his exciting late charge to win the Ancient Title Stakes (gr. I). And Interactif established himself as the likely favorite for the Juvenile Turf with his powerful victory in the Bourbon Stakes (gr. IIIT).

But there were other performances that may have gone unnoticed, but could have a major bearing on the Breeders’ Cup.

Todd Pletcher is sitting on a pair of live 2-year-olds in Aikenite and Super Saver. The former, with his fast-closing third in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) on dirt and even faster-closing second in the Dixiana Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I) on Polytrack, looks like he should be ready for a huge performance in the BC Juvenile. He obviously can run on anything and has the kind of kick that should serve him well at Santa Anita. Watch out for this one.

Super Saver, despite finishing fourth in the Champagne, turned in a gutsy effort after setting a fast pace, getting passed turning for home, and battling back to be beaten only two lengths for the win and a nose for third. And he did this without changing leads. By Maria’s Mon, out of an A.P. Indy mare, he’s only going to keep getting better the longer he goes. He’s another to watch out for.

The horse who beat him a nose for third was Hopeful runner-up Aspire, who had a horrible trip, getting hopelessly boxed in nearing the eighth pole just as he was ready to make his move. He had to alter course to the outside after the victorious Homeboykris cleared him and closed well, but it was far too late to have any chance to win. Speaking of the winner, trainer Rick Dutrow indicated he’d prefer waiting for the Remsen Stakes (gr. II). He already has D’Funnybone for the Juvenile.

If Homeboykris doesn’t run in the Breeders’ Cup, it means the majority of winners of the big New York preps this year will be staying home. It looks as if the winners of the grade I Champagne, Hopeful, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Vosburgh, and Woodward will not be participating. We’re also waiting to hear the status of Jamaica (gr. IT) winner Take the Points and Jerome (gr. II) winner Girolamo. To show how crazy a year this is, two of the top middle-distance turf horses in America – Gio Ponti and Einstein – will point for the Classic. Also, two horses who were scratched from Belmont turf races on Super Saturday weekend because of the soft course – Presious Passion from the Turf Classic and Court Vision from the Kelso (gr. IIT) – went elsewhere and won their preps.

Getting back to the weekend, the soft course at Keeneland seemed to have an effect on several good horses, including Shadwell Turf Mile third-place finisher Mr. Sidney, who has won on yielding courses, but might be better suited right now for the BC Dirt Mile. And how about the effort of runner-up Karelian, who set all the pace and was beaten a nose, fighting Court vision to the wire, despite coming off a 10 1/2-month layoff. It is important to note he loves firm going and is not even a speed horse. Terrific training job by Rusty Arnold.

Also at Keeneland, watch out for Amen Hallelujah, who finished a solid third in the Darley Alcibiades Stakes (gr. I) at 10-1 after breaking from post 9 and racing 4-5 wide every step of the way, while stretching out from six furlongs to 1 1/16 miles.

Who had the highest Beyer figure this week? How about Pashito the Che, who won the Gallant Bob Handicap at Philly Park earning a 111 Beyer. The son of Flatter, who is 7-5-2-0 in his last seven starts, defeated Custom for Carlos by a nose, as well as other top-class sprinters in 1:08 2/5. The high Beyer was no doubt given based on the 6 3/4-length gap back to the third horse.

On the Euro front

Still no word on Sea the Stars, so until we hear anything official, it’s just best to assume he’s not running, based on trainer John Oxx’s comments, such as this one last week: “He has done all we can ask of him. The Breeders' Cup isn't until November 7 and you have to wonder if it would be fair to him, and what would be gained by it. He is in such great shape that he probably could carry on, but you have to wonder if it would be right to ask him.”

Oxx, however, did say the horse came out of the Arc in terrific shape and was “very fresh and well,” and had put back the weight he lost in the Arc. Owner Christopher Tsui said Sea the stars was 50-50, which is at least more encouraging than last week. A decision should be made in the next couple of days.

The Breeders’ Cup did get some good news when it was announced that the vastly improved miler Zacinto, a strong second to Rip Van Winkle in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I), had been withdrawn from consideration for the Champion Stakes (Eng-I) and instead will point for the BC Mile.

On the other hand, Irish Derby (Ire-I) winner Fame and Glory, who was thought to be a major player for the BC Turf (gr. IT), will run in Saturday’s Champion against the top-class filly Sariska.

There have been rampant rumors that all was not right with Conduit, so much so that betting was suspended on the horse, but trainer Michael Stoute insisted Monday there was nothing wrong with the colt, other than having a brief bout with colic that has since cleared up, and he will attempt a second straight victory in the BC Turf.

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