Pay attention, Eliza, and repeat after me: “The rain in Louisville falls mainly on the oval.”
That was a tip of the hat to the many fair ladies in my life, but also an effort to make the point that the weather is likely to play a role in the outcomes of at least some of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races run at Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday.
Rain began falling early Wednesday in Louisville and continued into Thursday. It was expected to stop by midnight, but according to my observations of a nearby online rain gauge the historic racetrack received more than 2½ inches of precipitation since Wednesday morning.
I’m not the only handicapper playing amateur meteorologist this week. While the main track is known to drain quickly and might be rated “fast” by the time the first Breeders’ Cup race is run Friday, the turf course will take longer to dry out and will almost certainly be on the soft side on Friday and likely on Saturday as well.
That should favor European runners, who are far more accustomed to galloping in the gunk than their U.S. counterparts, but it also can provide some big surprises when horses who have never run on an “off” track discover they really like it.
I’d advise paying close attention to the turf races on Friday – the Juvenile Turf Sprint, the Juvenile Fillies Turf and the Juvenile Turf – to see how the track is playing, as that may well inform your betting decisions on Saturday.
In the meantime, the #RJhorseracing handicappers are champing at the bit to get into this week’s featured races on Saturday, the $2 million Mile and the $6 million Classic. We’ll get to that momentarily after I deliver my customary cautionary note about betting the Breeders’ Cup.
With so many races overflowing with talented horses, it’s easy to get caught up in the pursuit of a life-changing score. I’m not against sudden riches, but I advise setting aside a minimum of 60 percent of your bankroll for win bets. You’ll be far less likely to head home with empty pockets if you hit even one of those, and you’ll still be able to swing for the fences a few times in hopes of hitting one out of the park.
Also try to pick your spots. While it’s tempting to gorge on the racing delights laid before you over the two days of racing, remember these are some of the most-challenging handicapping puzzles out there. Consider sitting on your hands for those races in which you don’t have a strong opinion and save your scratch for the ones where you do.
#RJhorseracing featured races
The #RJhorseracing handicapping crew is tackling the Mile, a middle distance turf race that looks to me like the most wide-open contest on the Breeders’ Cup program.
The crowd’ cappers are siding with Oscar Performance, the co-second choice on the morning line at 6-1, over 5-1 favorite Polydream and Next Shares (10-1).
“Throw out last year’s Breeders’ Cup and Oscar should give an “Oscar” performance, but not likely at 6-1,” wrote crowd ‘capper Mas Yoshinaga of the crew’s choice.
I’m a big Oscar fan myself, but I have the order reversed, with Polydream, a 3-year-old filly from France trained by the redoubtable Freddie Head, taking the measure of Oscar and fellow Euro I Can Fly (10-1) for the show.
In the headline race, the Classic at 1¼ miles on the main track, the handcappers were deadlocked at press time between 5-2 morning line favorite Acclerate and West Coast (5-1) third behind Gun Runner in this race last year.
“West Coast just keeps getting better and better — and his latest workouts show that. The race should set up nicely for him to pounce after a stalking trip,” wrote crowd ’capper Dean Wright of the crew’s co-choice, who is trained by Bob Baffert.
I’m going a different direction and siding with Mendelssohn (12-1). I like that trainer Aidan O’Brien abandoned the usual tactic of parachuting in to run and has instead been teaching the 3-year-old son of Scat Daddy to race American-style. He got caught in a speed duel with Diversify last out, but I think he will stalk and pounce in the Classic. I’ve got Catholic Boy and Mind Your Biscuits filling out the top slots.
Ellis Starr’s Breeders’ Cup Classic analysis
Catholic Boy has been handled incredibly well by up-and-coming trainer Jonathan Thomas, who has won with 25 of 96 starters in 2018. After a win last December in the Remsen Stakes which was only his fourth career start and first on dirt, Catholic Boy returned on the Derby trail with a runner-up effort in the Sam F. Davis Stakes before a fourth place finish in the Florida Derby, after which it was decided to give him some time off. That decision paid off handsomely as Catholic Boy won both the Pennine Ridge Stakes and Belmont Derby Invitational Stakes on the grass before returning to dirt to win the Travers Stakes in late August, earning a career best 109 Equibase Speed Figure in the process. The tactic of pointing to the Breeders’ Cup on workouts alone after a win in the Travers has worked well of late, as both the 2014 and 2015 Classic winners Bayern and American Pharoah took the same route and improved their Equibase figures nicely off their previous efforts. Both were 3-year-olds facing older horses for the first time, as was 2016 Classic winner Arrogate.
No horse moving from turf has won the Classic since Raven’s Pass in 2008. However, Roaring Lion has a few similarities with Raven’s Pass. He was bred in Kentucky and has a reasonable dirt pedigree. His dam’s sire is Street Sense, winner of the 2007 Kentucky Derby and Travers Stakes. Additionally, Roaring Lion is trained by Sir John Gosden, who also saddled Raven’s Pass to victory. Roaring Lion has won four straight group 1 races and has proven to be extremely determined in three of those four. In addition to having earned a career-best 124 figure in his most recent race, Roaring Lion has a perfect four-for-four record at distances of 1 1/4 miles and 1 5/16ths miles, something none of the rest of the Classic field can claim. Champion horses can run on different surfaces, so if Roaring Lion can run as well on dirt as he has on turf this spring and summer, he can post the upset.
Mind Your Biscuits was known almost exclusively as a sprinter for most of his 24 race career until trainer Chad Summers decided to stretch him out to two-turns for the Whitney Stakes this summer. In that race Mind Your Biscuits ran very respectably to finish behind a wire-to-wire winner who dominated on the front end. Nearly two months later, Mind Your Biscuits ran one of the best races of his career when drawing off to a 4 3/4-length win in the Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs, earning at 123 figure in the process. The familiarity with the surface may play to his advantage in this race and if so, Mind Your Biscuits may add to his career bankroll of $4.2 million, which already makes him the richest New York bred horse in history.
Accelerate has won three graded stakes in a row. Starting with the Gold Cup in May with a 120 figure, Accelerate won the Pacific Classic in August with a 125 figure then matched that effort with a victory in the Awesome Again Stake at the end of September. The only knock I can find with this tremendous athlete is he draws the outside 14 post in the field. Although there is a fairly long run to the first turn at the 1 1/4-mile distance, it is still likely Accelerate may be wide for the entire race and that could be just enough to take away any edge he may have over a few of the others who have proven as tough as he is in recent races.
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.