John Ward Jr. doesn't remember ever running a 2-year-old 1 1/8 miles. And he would prefer not to do so now. But that's the distance for the longest ever Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), and the trainer is blessed with the ideal candidate, Sky Mesa, a colt with stamina in his bloodlines and a running style that fits two turns.
In most years, the Juvenile has been 11/16 miles. But because of Arlington Park's configuration, Breeders' Cup officials had to decide whether to lengthen the race or shorten it to a mile. They formed a committee and surveyed horsemen. Most trainers preferred the longer version, but not Ward.
"I've been very vocal against it all year long," Ward said. "I think it's pretty demanding for babies to go that far. Most at this stage are prone to being speed-biased, and they'll run their hearts out for the first mile and then still have an eighth to go."
However, Sky Mesa, who is owned by John Oxley, should have plenty of gas remaining in his tank.
"The race plays right into our hands because this horse will rate," Ward said. "He's also got tactical speed so he can stalk, lay right where he needs to, and then kick out and run home. That's the beauty of the beast."
Sky Mesa's sire, Pulpit, and dam, Caress, both were graded winners at nine furlongs. Sky Mesa also has an impressive set of credentials. Undefeated in three career starts, he scored by 13/4 lengths in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), then cruised by four lengths in the Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II) despite losing his concentration in the stretch. His clocking in the Breeders' Futurity wasn't very fast--1:46.78 for 11/16 miles--but Ward believes heavy rain slowed the Keeneland surface, even though it was rated fast by race time.
"It was a very difficult track because we had just had (the remnants of) a hurricane go through, and it had to absorb a lot of moisture," Ward said. "I know there will be a wide-open kind of debate among people about whether the slowness of his (Sky Mesa's) time was due to the lack of his ability or the track. But the way I look at it is this: He got his race run, and it didn't take much out of him, so he should be ready for Arlington."
Sky Mesa won't lack for challengers in the Bessemer Trust Juvenile. Trainer Bob Baffert plans to attack with a trio that includes Vindication, who romped by six lengths in the Kentucky Cup Juvenile Stakes (gr. III). Baffert's other contenders are the one-two finishers in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II), Kafwain and Bull Market.
Trainer Patrick Biancone has two scheduled starters, Whywhywhy and Zavata. Whywhywhy, whom Biancone also co-owns, has won three straight, including the Futurity Stakes (gr. I) at Belmont Park. Zavata scored in the Tremont (gr. III) and Saratoga Special (gr. II) Stakes before finishing third in the Hopeful. He missed the Champagne (gr. I)--won by the Juvenile-bound Toccet--because of a bruised foot. Michael Tabor, who was a partner with Sue Magnier in last year's Juvenile winner Johannesburg, owns Zavata.
Tabor and Magnier are members of the Coolmore Stud team that pre-entered five runners from the Ireland-based stable of Johannesburg's trainer, Aidan O'Brien: Hold That Tiger, Marino Marini, Ontario, Tomahawk, and Van Nistelrooy.
The Juvenile lost one of its top candidates when trainer Gerard Butler announced French group I winner Elusive City had sore shins and would not race again this year.