Sunday, October 16, 2011

2011 Breeders Cup Preview Part I: The Year in Racing to Date

Churchill Downs, home of the 2011 Breeders Cup
For all the kvetching about racing getting no attention and the sport having no stars, recent years have seen a lot of memorable horses and dominant story lines, many of which have crossed into the mainstream.  Let's take a look back at the last 8 years at what were racing's memes:
  • 2003: Empire Maker gets a ton of hype and buildup for the Derby as the Super Horse, but it's Funny Cide that emerges and becomes the People's Horse.
  • 2004: Smarty Jones' three year old campaign lands him on the cover of SI.  If you're a little more interested in racing, you know that this is the year Ghostzapper ran lights out and establsihed himself as one of the best horses in the last 25 years.
  • 2005: Afleet Alex and Alex's Lemonade Stand.
  • 2006: Barbaro, Barbaro, Barbaro....
  • 2007: In hindsight, there was no dominant horse or story line this year.  This was a stellar crop of three year olds (Street Sense, Curlin, Hard Spun, Discreet Cat), and Lawyer Ron turned out to be a good older horse, but nobody really dominated the scene.  Rags to Riches' Belmont was a deal, but for about 2 days.
  • 2008: Big Brown, Curlin, Zenyatta's emergence, and (sadly) Eight Belles.
  • 2009: Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta.
  • 2010: Zenyatta.
So now 2011 rolls around and the dominant story line is....well, not much.  It's been a fairly benign year in racing, mainly because the horses have been so inconsistent.  To wit:
  • Three different horses won the Triple Crown races, and as we noted in June, this was the second most unpredictable TC series in the last 50 years.
  • No three year old has won more than one Grade 1 race all year.  Last year Lookin at Lucky was the champion 2 year old and won the Preakness and Haskell, so you knew he was at least a nice enough horse.  The best 3yo this year has been... I dunno, Stay Thirsty?
  • The older male horses have been equally uninteresting.  The leader in the clubhouse for the Older Male Eclipse is Tizway based on winning the Met Mile and Whitney, which were on Memorial Day and the first week of August.  You're not going to build any momentum on two wins in 5 months.  Next in line is Flat Out, who's lost to Tizway and a filly.  California has produced absolutely no horses of interest.  The most consistent male performers  have been Acclamation and Cape Blanco, who (a) ran on the turf, and (b) are now injured.
  • The three year old filly crop has been replete with decent horses who keep beating each other.  All of Plum Pretty, It's Tricky, Zazu and Royal Delta appear to be nice horses, but none is a standout.
  • The two horses that would have had some cache from last year's Breeders Cup, Goldikova and Uncle Mo, have had years out of the limelight.  Goldikova's absence from US racing isn't surprising--she's a European filly after all, and she's had a decent year, just far removed from US racing.  It's Uncle Mo whose absence has been felt.  He won an ungraded stakes race in Florida in March, lost the Wood Memorial when stopping badly, and missed the Derby with an alleged illness.  He re-emerged in a sprint race on the Travers undercard, where he lost by a nostril to the not-bad Caleb's Posse, then throttled Jackson Bend and Jersey Town in the 1-mile Kelso two weeks ago.  This makes him interesting for the Breeders Cup, but it hasn't been the Year of Uncle Mo, to say the least.
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By far the most interesting horse this year has been the 4-year old filly Havre de Grace.  She emerged in the second half of last year, with narrow losses to division winner Blind Luck in the Delaware Oaks and Alabama, turned the tables on Blind Luck in the Cotillion, then ran a good third in the BC Distaff behind Unrivaled Belle and...Blind Luck.  She figured to be one of the top older females this year and hasn't disappointed.  She won a pair of graded stakes at Oaklawn--including the Grade 1 Apple Blossom--beating Blind Luck and the fast filly Switch in the process.  After winning a meaningless Delaware race, she took on Blind Luck once again in the Delaware Handicap.  The result was the best race of the season:

After posting a 106 Gowanus Speed Figure in the Delaware, Havre de Grace's connections looked at the unexciting older crop of horses and decided to take a chance by running her in the Woodward, the 9 furlong race for older horses at Saratoga Labor Day weekend, the same one Rachel Alexandra won in 2009.  Their logic was straightforward: if they weren't meeting Blind Luck, there was nothing to gain by beating other females, and the male horses weren't exactly formidable.  Sent off as the favorite, she rewarded her connections with a very strong win:

Knowing the Horse of the Year game isn't won in September, her connections wisely then sent her to the Beldame--1 1/8 miles for fillies and mares at Belmont--where she romped over pro tem 3yo filly division leader Royal Delta.  With Blind Luck out for the season with an injury, it looks like she'll go to the Breeders Cup Classic and take on the boys once again.  And in this race, she'll meet an interesting crop of horses: the aforementioned Uncle Mo, Stay Thirsty, Tizway and Flat Out, international star So You Think, and some intriguing prospects like To Honor and Serve.  If she wins the Classic, she'll be Horse of the Year in a landslide.

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So it this the year of Havre de Grace?  Maybe.  To date she's received no attention from the non-racing press because...well, we're not sure exactly why.  She's a large and beautiful horse who's neat to watch, she does not look outmatched by colts.  Her trainer is Larry Jones of Eight Belles fame, who's very good with the media and is always sporting cowboy attire.  Her owner is Rick Porter, who some would dub insufferable, but we see as refreshing, as his barn always has fast horses entered aggressively (e.g., Eight Belles in the Derby) that run well.  And she hasn't emerged out of nowhere, because everyone in racing knew that the players in the older ladies division this year were her and Blind Luck.

Maybe it's just fatigue from the recent run of great fillies.  As we noted last year, we've had an amazing stretch of exciting fillies.  Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta were 1-2 in HOTY voting in 2009, Zenyatta won last year, and Goldikova has been omnipresent since 2008.  Havre de Grace, while good, has none of the flamboyance of these three horses.  She isn't a steamroller on the front end like Rachel Alexandra.  She isn't an explosive closer that's always exciting like Zenyatta.  And she doesn't have the amazing versatility of Goldikova.  She's just a strong, honest, fast filly.  Given that she's accomplishing things that these other three gals have accomplished so recently, maybe we're just taking her for granted.

What that gives us is another Breeders Cup Saturday that's laden with intrigue.  We'll get to some of the other storylines in the coming days, but the big one is what happens with Havre de Grace.  If she runs in the Classic and wins, she'll have quietly put together a fabulous year for a filly, one worthy of Horse of the Year, and one that should be remembered along with recent great fillies.  And if she loses...well, it's a veritable mess, because there are a lot of holes in all the other contenders for Horse of the Year and the Classic itself.

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