As the seasons turn, so, too, do the handicappers.
With the first day of fall on Sept. 23 about two weeks away, that means the Breeders’ Cup is also drawing near.
The advantage of taking an early look at how the various championship races to be run Nov. 3 and 4 at Churchill Downs are shaping up is that we’ll have a baseline to compare against when they arrive. That can help identify underlays and overlays based on successes or setbacks that occur in the next eight weeks and overly influence perceptions on race day.
This week we’ll look at the early contenders for the $6 million Classic.
Accelerate has stamped himself as the clear leader of the older horses at the classic distance on the dirt. Most recently, he was a romping 12½-length winner of the Pacific Classic on Aug. 18 at Del Mar. He also has racked up victories in the Santa Anita and Gold Cup handicaps, both Grade 1s, and the Grade 2 San Pasqual Stakes. The John Sadler-trained 5-year-old son of Lookin at Lucky is expected to have his final prep for the Classic in the Awesome Again Stakes on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita.
But other older horses such as Diversify, winner of the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 4, and Yoshida, who came from far back to win the Woodward Stakes on closing weekend at the Spa, also are in the conversation.
And Bob Baffert might have a say in the outcome of the Classic, with West Coast and Collected back in training.
Catholic Boy, meanwhile, has moved to the head of the 3-year-old division with the retirement of Triple Crown winner Justify and his defeat of Bravazo, Good Magic, Gronkowski and other top colts in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 25. The versatile Jonathan Thomas-trained colt, who owns Grade 1 victories on dirt and turf, is expected to make one more start, to be determined, before the Classic.
Good Magic is sidelined at the moment after his disappointing next-to-last-place finish in the Travers, but is assured of a spot in the Classic starting gate if he checks out sound by virtue of his victory in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park on July 29.
Also in play are McKinzie and Hofburg, both on the comeback trail and bound for the Pennsylvania Derby on Sept. 22.
The accompanying chart has my top nine contenders at this juncture in order of preference. I’ll undoubtedly shuffle the list in the coming weeks, but this gives me something to review at the last minute to make sure I haven’t overlooked a logical contender in the heat of the handicapping battle.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicappers venture to Franklin, Kentucky, this week to partake in the unique turf racing presented for just five days each year at Kentucky Downs.
Our quarry are the $500,000 Kentucky Turf Sprint Stakes at 6½ furlongs and the $750,000 Kentucky Turf Cup at 1½ miles, both carded for 3-year-olds and up.
In the former, a Grade 3 6½-furlong dash for 3-year-olds and up, the crew believes that White Flag, 6-1 on the morning line, will refuse to surrender to his rivals, while Blind Ambition (9-2) and Proforma (20-1) complete the trifecta.
For once, I’m almost in complete agreement, though I have Master Merion (6-1) in the third slot.
In the Turf Cup, a 1½-mile marathon for 3-year-olds and up, the ’capping crew is firmly in the corner of 7-2 morning line favorite Oscar Nominated, who won this race last year and is 2-for-2 at Kentucky Downs. They see Arklow (12-1) and Nessy (15-1) besting the others.
I agree that Oscar Nominated is the horse to beat, but I’ll try with Bigger Picture (9-2), who got hit in the eye by a rival rider’s whip in his last race, the Grade 1 Sword Dancer at Saratoga, according to his trainer, Michael Maker. I have Oscar Nominated second and Arklow third.
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Ellis Starr’s Kentucky Turf Cup analysis
Although Oscar Nominated is a strong contender to repeat in this year’s Kentucky Turf Cup, I believe Patterson Cross can post the upset if he draws into the race. A 5-year-old with just 14 races under his belt, Patterson Cross proved he belongs at this graded stakes level and marathon distance with three superb efforts in a row in the winter of 2017, including a neck defeat in the Pan American Stakes behind multiple graded stakes winner Sadler’s Joy. The best of those efforts earned Patterson Cross a 113 Equibase Speed Figure. Two months ago he bettered that when missing in a four horse blanket finish at Saratoga, earning a career-best 121 figure. Next out he was rallying in the stretch in the Johns Call Stakes when he was impeded. That effort earned a 118 figure so Patterson Cross enters the Turf Cup off the two best efforts of his career, with both figures better than the 114 figure Oscar Nominated earned winning this race last year.
Oscar Nominated has won five races in 25 turf starts, including last year’s Kentucky Turf Cup. He began his 2018 campaign with a win in the McKnight at the distance of the Turf Cup, but has run well only once in three races since, when second (beaten under a length) in the Elkhorn Stakes in April. Still, considering he really likes the course at Kentucky Downs where he’s undefeated in two races (the other being the Dueling Grounds Derby in 2016), Oscar Nominated must be given a lot of respect as a contender to win this race for the second year in a row.
Big Bend could be worth a wager at high odds. He’s a lightly raced 4-year-old with just 16 starts, 12 on turf, including four wins. One of those wins came in his only previous try at Kentucky Downs — the 2017 Dueling Grounds Derby (the same race Oscar Nominated won in 2016) with a 113 figure. Jockey Drayden Van Dyke rode Big Bend to his win last year in the Derby and comes in to ride again, having just won the riding title at the recently concluded meeting at Del Mar in California. As such, we might be kicking ourselves after the race if we ignored the chances of Big Bend in this race.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.