Friday, November 1, 2013

2013 Breeders Cup Preview Part III: The Classic Countdown

We have a really fun field for this year's Classic: 5 horses who ran in the race last year, including the top 4 finishers and last year's (and this year's) favorite; the winner of the Belmont, a few hard knockers, two Europeans, and a horse that almost died last year after winning the Haskell.

Hope Springs Eternal

11.  Moreno.  The good news for him is that he's riding a 5-race streak where he's never finished out of the money. The bad news is that he's a speedball in a race with a lot of early speed, has never challenged older horses, and has shown little besides his fortuitious second in the Travers to show he can compete in Grade 1 races, much less the toughest dirt race in North America. Why isn't he in the Dirt Mile?

10.  Planteur. A horse that's over 5 years old has never won this race, even though Hall of Famers Cigar, Zenyatta and Plesantly Perfect gave it a shot. We don't see a 6yo who's never run on the dirt and isn't bred to handle the dirt being the one to break that schneid.

9.  Last Gunfighter. The only horse that's won the Breeders Cup Classic without having previously won a Grade 1 race was Volponi in 2002 at 43-1. If Last Gunfighter makes it 2, you'll be similarly compensated.

8.  Paynter.  This year's violin-laden montage on NBC will focus on this horse, who ran a good 2nd in the Belmont last year, then won the Haskell, then almost dropped dead from colic while being in and out of clinics for nearly a year. Somehow, he returned to racing, and somehow, he still has shown some talent - he ran a great allowance race in his comeback in June, then ran a fair second in the San Diego. But he's done little in his next two starts, and think he might be a pace factor, at best.

Some Like Them, Just Not Us

7.  Flat Out.  His 3 starts at Belmont this spring and summer were excellent, but his Woodward was disappointing - he couldn't get by Alpha, who stinks - and his Jockey Club Gold Cup was a step in the wrong direction.  Coupled with the 12 post, and we're inclined to think this guy's best races are behind him.

6.  Fort Larned.  The defending champ has had a goofy year: threw his rider in his first start at Gulfstream, then ran a horrible 5th at Oaklawn. He then trounced the field in the Stephen Foster, basically no-showed in the Whitney, then romped in an ungraded stakes race at Churchill against suspect competition. Now we know he had an in-and-out record last year before he won this on the lead, but there's a LOT more speed this year than there was last year - in addition to Moreno, we think Paynter will be near the front as well as another horse to discuss below.  We don't see him getting the relatively easy trip he had last year (to say nothing of the potential rail bias) and think he menaces early and fades badly at the top of the stretch.

The Contenders

5.  Will Take Charge.  Since losing the blinkers, he's run a bang-up second in the Jim Dandy, won the Travers by a nostril, and won the Pennsylvania Derby handily.  He's on the improve and has the breeding to do well in the Classic.  The issue we have with him is his lack of experience against elders: it's no coincidence that EVERY 3yo that's won the Classic has had a race against older horses first.  That doesn't mean he can't run well and finish in the money, but we'd be more inclined to like him if he had taken on stiffer competition last month.

4.  Game on Dude.  Look, he has a real chance.  Since returning from his ill-advised trip to Dubai in 2012, he's run 11 times, won 9 of them, and finished second once. His Pacific Classic was utterly fabulous.  He's really talented and it's a credit to his connections that he's run this long and at this high a level.

But we don't love him in this spot. Bob Baffert can say that this horse won't get fried in the early pace, but we don't believe it.  When he broke poorly last year, he lost all chance and resulted in his only bad race in 18 months.  He's going to be hustled out of the gate and thrown right at Moreno, Fort Larned and possibly Paynter.  We just don't see him winning the battle and the war with so much quality running behind him. We're also suspect of his last couple of speed figures where he had early uncontested leads, which also leads to inflated numbers.  We think you have to use him defensively in multi-race wagers, but are looking elsewhere for the winner.

3.  Palace Malice.  As always with this guy, the trip matters. In the Belmont and Jim Dandy, he had stellar trips and won both handily.  In the Travers, he stumbled badly at the start, had to settle into last place - not his style - and closed well but ultimately too late to get 4th.  His Jockey Club wasn't a bad trip per se but he ran outside on a day where the rail was golden.  We think the margin between him and Ron the Greek is a lot smaller than it appeared in that race and that he's much better value.

But he still needs to run faster.  His speed figures still haven't crossed 110, and he's going to need to do that to win this race. Fortunately, he's still a 3 year old with some upside, and we think he's immensely talented and bred perfectly for this race. And his stalking style should suit him perfectly.  We think he gets first run on the closers, and the big question is whether he can hold off the next two guys.

2.  Mucho Macho Man.  We've always liked this horse a lot - we picked him last year - and he finally rewarded us with a breakthrough performance in the Awesome Again last out.  Maybe he love the track, maybe Gary Stevens connected with him better than his other jockeys, or maybe he's just a little erratic.  If he runs back to that last race, we think he's going to be tough to beat; if he improves on it, everyone else has a lot of work to do to win.

The Pick

1.  Declaration of War.  So why area we going with this European instead?  Part of it, we admit, is price: Declaration of War will be at least 12-1 while MMM will be around 4-1.  The difference in talent and ability to win isn't that large.  But that's not the only reason - we think this horse has a huge shot, even though he's making his dirt debut here.

Since being purchased by Joseph Allen and the Coolmore owners, Declaration of War has had success at a range of distances. He won a pair of 1 1/4 mile races on the turf and synthetic last year.  He shortened up to a mile earlier this year and won a pair of races, including the Queen Anne at Ascot, which was more famous for the entrant who finished last: 2011 Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom.  After some decent if losing efforts, he stretched back out to 1 5/16 mile in the Juddmonte International and won impressively.  He's been laid off since then and his connections have been pointing him for this race all year.

And most importantly, he's perfectly bred for his dirt debut. Sire War Front was a good dirt runner (out of a Grade 1 mare) whose progeny have been wildly successful this year on all surfaces. His dam is out of Rahy, a great dirt sire and a great distance sire. And his great dam's sire, Gone West, is as perfect a dirt sire for a classic distance as you can get.

It's become fashionable to mock Aiden O'Brien and the Coolmore connections for their repeated failed attempts at the Breeders Cup Classic. In 12 starts, they've only had two horses finish better than 5th; take out the two years on a synthetic track, and they have a 9/0-1-0 record. Hyped horses like Galileo, George Washington, Hold That Tiger and Oratorio have been well-bet and done absolutely nothing.  But the only other time they entered this race with another horse with actual dirt breeding was in 2000 when they shipped over Giant's Causeway.  He lost by a head to the great Tiznow in an epic stretch duel.  Declaration of War is the second horse they're sending that's bred to love the dirt.  We think he takes to it fabulously, sits well off a frenetic pace, and runs down Palace Malice and Mucho Macho Man in the stretch to post an upset to end the day.

Good luck to all and enjoy the races!

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