We're three weeks out from the Breeders Cup, which means it's time to start taking stock in the quality of the fields and getting some general ideas about the potential runners. Let's start the process by looking at a horse that may get overlooked in the big race, the Classic.
So far the Classic has taken a beating in the horse racing media, and they haven't even drawn the field yet. Sea of Stars, who was hailed as the best European horse since Mill Reef, retired after the Arc despite being perfectly healthy. The best horse in America, Rachel Alexandra, has called it a year, having beaten every three year old of note and all the east coast dirt horses that are any good. The next best storyline, the undefeated filly Zenyatta, may or may not decide to take on the boys in the Classic, and even if she does, she'll be overbet based on her record.
Turning to the probable favorites in the Classic beyond Zenyatta and it stays a little dicey. In the wake of two Euros making up last year's Classic exacta, the favorites on everyone's tongue are Aidan O'Brien's pair of accomplished milers, Rip van Winkle and Mastercraftsman. While clearly they can win, they're going to be 2-1 and 5-1 respectively, and offer no paramutuel appeal. Summer Bird, winner of the Belmont, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup, is a nice horse, but hasn't won anything outside of New York and has trained like garbage over synthetic tracks. American turf sensation Gio Ponti should be competitive with his usual effort, but his previous efforts on synthetics are unimpressive. California mainstays like Colonel John, Tiago and Richard's Kid do not exactly get the pulse racing. And the top East Coast older horses like Macho Again and Bullsbay look to be too slow.
However, still lurking out there is a colt that once made headlines and has since disappeared from the public's eye....
...this year's Kentucky Derby winner, Mine That Bird.
We know, we're the same guys that ranked him 20th of 20 in the Kentucky Derby, where all he did was rally from DAF'ing last to win by the largest margin since Assault. What's he been doing since then, for those of us who haven't been paying attention?
Preakness: Mine That Bird loses jockey Calvin Borel to Rachel Alexandra and picks up Mike Smith as his new rider. Perhaps as a result of the bad karma that came with Smith (his ex-girlfriend, Chantal Sutherland, was MTB's regular rider in Canada), Mine That Bird runs a huge race, but doesn't get a great trip and has to settle for second behind Rachel Alexandra. Arguably, it's more impressive than his Derby win.
Belmont Stakes: Calvin Borel has one of the odder weeks for a jockey. Even though he's based out of Kentucky and is not particularly familiar with the Belmont surface, Borel takes the entire week of the Belmont off and doesn't ride a single race at the track until the Stakes. Bad idea. He fails to appreciate how quirky Belmont's enormous turns are and misses a pronounced rail bias, makes a premature move in the turn with MTB, who flattens out to run third to Summer Bird and Dunkirk. It's unclear if he would have won with a better ride but he certainly would have had a shot if Borel knew how to ride at Belmont.
West Virginia Derby: Eschewing the big early August races (the Jim Dandy and Haskell), the connections of MTB send him to bucolic Chester, West Virginia to run in the West Virginia Derby for a seemingly easier paycheck. Wrong. Sent off at 9-10 odds, he gets the quick pace he wanted, but Mike Smith, back in the irons, sends him after the leaders way too early, and he has nothing left for the stretch run as he settles for third place. This prompts the connections to decide to take off the rest of August and September, and have one prep for the Breeders Cup:
Goodwood: With Borel back in the saddle, MTB sets in at dead last about 12 lengths off the lead, and runs 6th. Oddly, this was his best race since the Preakness. He wasn't asked to move until 2 furlongs out, and did respond, albeit not with rocket speed. He closed nicely into a moderate pace and looked like a horse that needed the race to "tighten" up for a big spot. (As noted by Steve Crist, Zenyatta, who ran that same day, would have lost to him.)
So where does this put him for the Breeders Cup Classic? Well, there's still no guarantee he likes a synthetic track; he ran dead last in the Breeders Cup Juvenile last year, and Borel's comments after the Goodwood weren't that inspiring. What is true, though, is that we can expect a fair pace in the Classic this year and the extra furlong will be to his benefit. We're not sure he can win. But you're getting a horse that likes the distance, likes the race shape, and may be peaking at 15-1 or possibly higher. Is he the answer we're looking for? He just may be.