Assuming the entire field actually goes to post, this is shaping up as one of the best Classics in recent memory. You have 2 Eclipse Award winners. You have the best horse from this year's class and the two best horses from last year's class. You have a top turf horse trying the dirt. You have a scrappy New York bred. You even have an intriguing Asian horse.
So the Classic merits a little more attention than the synopsis we gave the other 13 races. Let's go back to our traditional countdown from bottom to top.
Why Are You Doing This?
12. Pleasant Prince. The highlights of his career have been wins in the Oklahoma Derby and the Ohio Derby. His biggest mistake to date was not trying to complete the trifecta by running in the Osaka Derby. Entering the starting gate on Saturday is going to be his second biggest mistake.
11. First Dude. We'll save our invective about the Palins for another time and simply note that he's still 1-for-11 in his career and is early speed in a race filled with...early speed. See you next year.
Good Horse, Wrong Race
10. Paddy O'Prado. They're going to do a rain dance at Dale Romans' barn, because this horse's only good effort on the dirt was his 3rd in the Derby when the track was a soupy mess. Sadly, Saturday's forecast is only for freezing cold weather. He's developed into a very reliable turf horse, and would be competitive in the Turf, so their next step is to...go back to the dirt and take on Zenyatta? Are they gluttons for punishment?
9. Musket Man. He's a dirt performer, but has failed to indicate that he can stay more than 9 furlongs. Heck, he only has one win at more than 1 1/16 miles: the Illinois Derby last year against nobody of note. Didn't they invent the Dirt Mile for horses like this?
Too Much Early Speed
8. Haynesfield. Yeah, yeah, yeah, Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, 9-for-13, early speed, underrated. Whatever. He's never run outside of New York (let alone won) and is a need the lead horse in a race where there are at least 3 other who want to be on the front end. Just don't see it.
7. Quality Road. We're less worried about the stamina issues than others--his two races at 10 furlongs that he lost both had excuses (slop, layoffs, etc.) and weren't bad. We're more concerned that he's going to get caught up in the early pace with Haynesfield and First Dude, especially from the inside post, and have nothing left at the top of the stretch. Also, we're completely unconvinced that this guy is in as good form as he was this winter/spring. Since winning the Met Mile, he lost the Whitney when everything went his way and had a completely meaningless (and unimpressive) win in the Woodward against horrible horses. And now comes in off a 2-month layoff. For this, you want 5-1?
Real Contenders We Don't Like
6. Espoir City. The history of Japanese shippers into this race is unimpressive; Casino Drive, Taiki Blizzard and Personal Rush were three who failed to do anything. But this guy at least won the Japan Cup last year, so he has class on his side. We're more concerned with the lack of experience at 10 furlongs, because he's never run the distance. The horses that have won the Classic without ever running at the distance are Ghostzapper, Saint Liam, and Zenyatta--two of the three best horses this century, and a guy who was a solid performer in a weak year. If he's a Hall of Fame talent, we'll happily concede that we're wrong. But we doubt it.
5. Lookin at Lucky. We actually admire this guy for being consistent and usually firing his best shot. But again, it's a tall order for a 3 year old to win the Classic in his first start against elders--only Concern has ever done it (in a weak year, which this isn't). Heck, he hasn't faced a good horse since winning the Haskell in August, and depending on how you want to characterize the 3yo crop, he hasn't faced a good horse all year. He's honest and has yet to run a bad race, but we think he's going to be overbet.
Longshots for Exotics
4. Fly Down. Trainer Nick Zito's had a goofy year. He's had horses (including this one) run in the money in the Fountain of Youth, Wood, Preakness, Belmont, Jim Dandy, Travers, and Jockey Club Gold Cup, but not win any of those races. His biggest stakes win was probably Morning Line in the Pennsylvania Derby. Given this guy doesn't mind the 10 furlong distance, will be coming from the back of the pack late and is in relatively good form, it seems appropriate that Zito would finish the year with a clunk up piece of the purse in the year's biggest race at 30-1.
3. Etched. This horse has had tons of promise and only a modest payoff to date, as he's lacking the proverbial "big" performance. He's 7-for-9 in his career, has won 4 graded stakes races, and is impeccably bred (the good sire Forestry, dam is BC Distaff winner Unbridled Elaine). He's only taken one real shot against the top of the racing world: last year's Clark, where he bombed at short odds. This year he's run twice and won both times (an ungraded stakes races and the Monmouth Cup), stalking the pace and winning tough stretch battles. Now it's his third start of the year and he's taking on the big guns again while training up a storm and in great form. Yes, he'd be a strange winner, because it's rare for a horse to win the Classic without a prior Grade 1 win (in fact, we think it's never happened). But at 20-1 or so, he's very live for exactas and triples.
Down Goes the Champ
2. Zenyatta. Only an idiot would pick against a horse that's 19-for-19. Well, here are your idiots. The Queen obviously has a shot and if she wins, it'll be one of the greatest moments in racing history. But here's what she's up against:
(i) Shipping to Churchill Downs. Every indication that we have is that she's not the best shipper, otherwise Shireffs would have done it more than twice.
(ii) The toughest field she's ever faced. People like Joe Drape want to hype last year's Classic field, which is almost funny. Last year's Classic was on a synthetic surface where good dirt horses like Summer Bird spun their wheels and was more akin to a turf race: grass stars Gio Ponti and Twice Over ran 2nd and 3rd. This field has the two best horses from last year's 3yo class, the best horse from this year's crop of 3 year olds, a turf horse every bit as good as Gio Ponti, and even a Japanese invader. It's not going to be easy.
(iii) Her results this year tell us nothing. Yes, we know that Zenyatta only does what's needed to win. But her speed figures are meh and she's run against horses that would all be 40-1 or higher in this race. Last year she beat Life is Sweet, Cocoa Beach and Lethal Heat; this year the only horse of note she beat was St. Trinians. And her figures haven't improved at all.
Contrary to most others, we don't care about the switch to a dirt surface--we think she'll handle it fine. And we think she'll come roaring late. But we think she'll fall short too...
1. Blame. The biggest hole in Blame's resume is he's not Zenyatta. He's bred to get the distance, loves the track, is in good shape, and is going to get a perfect set up with a good amount of speed in the race. Which he doesn't even need--he won the Whitney and Stephen Foster this year as a closer when the pace was lackadaisical and the distance was shorter. We're willing to excuse his last race because of the two month layoff and Haynesfield freaking on the lead on his home track. But now he gets two turns and a return home and an honest pace to run out. He'll get first run on Zenyatta. Can he hold her off? We think so.
Good luck to all and enjoy the races!