Although the Breeders’ Cup dirt races will have some element of the unknown due to the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita, the unchartered waters of the $5-million Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) will be the deepest of all.
That is because the marquee horse, Curlin , has never run on a synthetic surface. Some may feel that makes him a vulnerable favorite, leaving the door open for a wide assortment of contenders; mainly the synthetic surface specialists, the horses who have performed well on both dirt and synthetic, horses who have performed well on both grass and synthetic, and the Europeans. But judging from Curlin’s five-furlong work in :59.11 between the fourth and fifth races Oct. 13, there is no reason to think he won’t handle the surface, especially after the way the Japanese-trained Casino Drive toyed with his rivals in an allowance race Oct. 12 in his first start on a synthetic surface.
Curlin and Smooth Air will be the only expected starters from America without synthetic form, although there are several who are pre-entered, but not likely to run. Both have run well on turf, which could help them adjust to the new surface, but no one knows that for sure. Go Between has become the poster child for synthetic surfaces, going from mainly a grade III turf horse to one of the top older horses in the country after switching to the synthetic tracks. His victories in the Pacific Classic (gr. I) and Sunshine Millions Classic and placings in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) make him a major threat in the Classic.
The horses who have proven they can run on both synthetic and dirt are Travers (gr. I) and Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) winner Colonel John ; Goodwood (gr. I) winner Well Armed, who was cross-entered in both the Classic and Dirt Mile with a preference to the latter; the versatile Tiago and Student Council, both graded winners on dirt and synthetic; grade I-placed Awesome Gem; and Casino Drive, who is now three-for-three in his career. Champs Elysees, who is being pointed for the Classic by trainer Bobby Frankel, has raced on turf in every race but one, but that was a fast-closing third in the Santa Anita Handicap.
As for the Europeans, Aidan O’Brien will send over his two big guns this years, Duke of Marmalade and Henrythenavigator, winner of nine group I stakes this year combined, neither of whom were cross-entered in any other races, while John Gosden has pre-entered Queen Elizabeth II (Eng-I) winner Raven’s Pass, who has staged a memorable rivalry this year with Henrythenavigator. Raven’s Pass has a second preference in the Mile (gr. IT).
If all run (16 were pre-entered), this year’s Classic will be one of the most eclectic fields ever assembled.
Another element to be considered is the number of contenders coming into the Classic off a layoff. Colonel John, Go Between, and Student Council will be coming in off nine-week layoffs, and Casino Drive, with only one race in 24 weeks.
Although most Classic winners had a prep three or four weeks out, we’ve seen a new trend developing in recent years. Invasor, after being forced to miss the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) due to a virus, won the Classic off a 13-week layoff in 2006. Ghostzapper and Saint Liam both won off seven-week layoffs in 2004 and 2005, respectively.
But all eyes will be on Curlin, and to some degree Casino Drive, who still is an unknown and untapped talent. Before committing to the Classic, Curlin’s owner Jess Jackson shipped the colt to Santa Anita the day after his victory in the Jockey Club Gold Cup to test out the Pro-Ride surface, and so far, he has met all expectations.
Breeders' Cup Classic Pre-Entries:
Duke of Marmalade(IRE)
Awesome Gem has second preference in the Mile
Casino Drive has second preference in the Marathon
Fairbanks has first preference in the Marathon
Mast Track has second preference in the Dirt Mile
Pyro has second preference in the Dirt Mile
Raven's Pass has second preference in the Mile
Well Armed has first preference in the Dirt Mile