What makes this Classic a bit different for most is how badly the older horse contingent has fallen apart. Gone because of injury are Palace Malice, Lea, Game On Dude, Moonshine Mullin and Will Take Charge. That would seem to open the door to the three year olds, right?
Maybe. We had this in 2002, where the older horse contingent just looked dreadful - Evening Attire was a New York bred that won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and nobody thought he was anything special. The public responded by betting heavily a series of 3 year olds (Came Home, War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, even first-time dirt starter Hawk Wing), figuring the winner had to come from that contingent. Perpetual underachiever Volponi blew that theory to shreds, running away with the race at 43-1.
The 1999 Breeders Cup posed a similar situation. Real Quiet, Victory Gallop and a few others never made it to the big race, leaving an over-the-top Behrens and not-great River Keen as the obvious choices for older horses, so much of the action went on 3yos Lemon Drop Kid and General Challenge. A 3yo did win the race, but it was Cat Thief at 19-1.
So let's not just accept that we have to take a short priced 3 year old and move on. Let's count them down from worst to first.
This Seems Rather Ambitious
14. Imperative. The only race where he was remotely competitive this year was his 26-1 shocker int he Charles Town Classic. We're thrilled for his connections that their horse became a millionaire this year, but think his series of no-shows after that race are more indicative of his ability.
13. Toast of New York. He actually has the highest last-out speed figure, a 111 he earned running in the Pacific Classic. Of course, he was throttled by Shared Belief in that race, and this race is on dirt, not synthetic. There had to be an easier spot for him to make his dirt debut.
12. Footbridge. It's a bad sign when your last race had a perfect trip and ideal setup and the best you could do was a slow third.
The Pace and the Distance Seem Problematic
11. Moreno. We know this guy's two best "figures" were the Whitney and Woodward at Saratoga this summer, but we think his best race was actually the Suburban, where he ran fast as hell early and just got passed in the final sixteenth of a mile. Mind you, he's now back to the 10 furlong distance, and is going to get pressed on the front end by...
10. Bayern. ...a horse that has shown zero ability to rate or carry his speed for 1 1/4 miles. We're actually a little sad he's not running in either the Sprint or the Dirt Mile, two races where he'd be our pick. Here, he's reduced to pace fodder.
9. California Chrome. The lone attribute this guy has is his affinity for Santa Anita. Other than that, he's not in great form, doesn't look to get a particularly good pace setup, probably doesn't do his best running at the distance, and has never taken on older horses. We wouldn't take 20-1 on this guy, let alone 4-1. Rest up for next year, big fella.
Maybe for the Superfecta. Maybe.
8. Majestic Harbor. If he runs back to his Hollywood Gold Cup 3 starts ago, he could be dangerous. But every other start in his career makes it look like that race was the exception, not the rule.
7. Prayer for Relief. We don't see a way that a horse that hasn't won since last August and has won exactly 1 graded stakes race in his last 23 starts can take a $5 million race. But he actually isn't in terrible form - his closing third on a speed favoring track in the Woodward was a sneaky-solid angle. He was supposed to start in the Jockey Club Gold Cup but was scratched when he flipped in the paddock. We can't endorse him on top, but as filler for trifectas and superfectas, he's a potential bomb to his the board.
6. V.E. Day. So can this guy, who will be dead last early and passing tiring horses late. It's a fair question as to whether his rough start in the JCGC cost him that much position and mentally took him out of the race. Again, we don't see anyway he wins the race, but most years, horses clunk up for 3rd or 4th in this race that you don't expect. He's got a shot to be one of them.
A Real Chance at a Square Price
5. Cigar Street. There's plenty to like here - good breeding, good connections, and some actual upside since he's just making his 9th career start thanks to his injury history. And having tactical speed is an asset. But we're a little more wary than we were a couple of weeks ago. First, everyone is touting this guy as their sleeper alternative. At 20-1 we were intrigued; we think he's going to be under 10-1 come post time. Second, he reminds us a little too much of Etched, who we touted as a shot to hit the board in 2010 and did very little. He's never run in Grade 1 company, and has never beaten a horse of any consequence. He's an interesting possibility on the come, but we think a level below the next few.
4. Zivo. This guy actually is in the running for Older Horse Eclipse Award and has a big shot. He won his first five starts of the year, the last being his coming out party in the Suburban, where he took on open company for the first time and rallied through the stretch. Trainer Chad Brown set his sights on this race and decided to give him two prep races: the Woodward and JCGC. The former went so-so; he was running against the grain of the track, but still couldn't get past Prayer for Relief for third. His JCGC was much more impressive, where he was a good second and lost some momentum when a riderless horse blocked his path.
The two key questions are whether he would have gotten to the winner anyway and how his New York form translates to California. We say no on both. We don't love older horses that have never left a single state before, and think the harder California surface just may not play to his style. But would we be shocked if he won? Not at all.
3. Candy Boy. Huge sleeper potential here at a big price. His last two races were actually quite good - he just got nosed out by an improving Tapiture in the West Virginia Derby, and ran a better-than-it-looks third in the Pennsylvania Derby, trying to overcome a freak performance by Bayern and a speed bias. He actually closed pretty well all things considered. Now he's back at his home track where he's never finished out of the money, is working out well, and has good connections behind him. If he were 10-1 we'd pass. But at 30-1 or higher? Very, very live.
The Obvious Contender
2. Shared Belief. Look, there's not too much to criticize here. He's undefeated, has looked sensational in past races, is bred for the distance, has great connections, and should get a nice trip. So why aren't we picking him over...
1. Tonalist. A couple of reasons, besides the price differential. First, we aren't sure that Shared Belief is as good on dirt as he is on a synthetic surface. Sure he's 2-for-2 on dirt, but his speed figures on polytrack easily exceed his dirt speed figures. By contrast, we know Tonalist loves the dirt and will love 10 furlongs. Second, we really think Tonalist is blossoming and improving right now. We wonder if Shared Belief has already fired his best shot and is trying to work back to his Pacific Classic. Could he do it? Sure, and we'd be foolish to tell you to leave him out of your bets. We wouldn't be shocked if he romped. But we still think Tonalist is at least as talented as him on the dirt. We see Tonalist sitting 8-10 lengths off a hot pace, making a big move on the far turn, and running down Shared Belief in the stretch.
Enjoy the Breeders Cup everyone!