Countdown to the Cup: Early Angles
by Steve Haskin
Date Posted: 10/15/2009 2:24:19 PM
Last Updated: 10/20/2009 11:17:20 AM

Presious Passion won the Clement Hirsch at Santa Anita on October 11.
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Photo: Benoit

As we all know there is always an angle or two we can latch on to in the Breeders’ Cup. The trick is finding them among the morass of stakes horses that line up for the 14 races. There probably are more chances of landing a longshot on a synthetic surface, because, in all honesty, does anyone really know how to handicap these races?

How many people were really expecting Ventura to inhale Indian Blessing and the other top female sprinters with such an explosive move? How do you anticipate the boat race that was the Marathon and the total lack of form at the finish? How do you expect the 6-5 Well Armed to slog around the track without ever threatening in the slightest? For all those who took a shot with the top-class, Eastern dirt horse Munnings   in the Juvenile, will you do that again this year? Did you really expect to see the top Eastern sprinter Fabulous Strike just go through the motions in the Sprint? And finally, how many people honestly expected to see Europeans finish one-two in the Classic?

It’s become pretty evident that handicapping a Pro-Ride Breeders’ Cup is all about grass horses, synthetic specialists, and European invaders, with all three pretty much intertwined. That doesn’t necessarily mean that dirt horses are left out in the cold…or heat in this case. It just means they are unknown quantities and you’re basically guessing when you bet on them.

So, taking all that into consideration, here are some horses, most of whom ran last weekend, who could be considered intriguing betting angles.

PRESIOUS PASSION – Not that he’s going to be a big price, but he is one American turf horse who could actually give the Euros fits. The reason is simple: European horses have never encountered a horse like this. Horses who open up huge leads in Europe are almost always lesser-tier pacesetters who are just in the race to assure a cracking good gallop as they say, or as we would say, a fast, honest pace. When their job is done, they begin their rapid retreat as the entire field blows right past them. But what is going to happen when a horse opens up a big lead, sets a testing pace, and doesn’t stop? Not only does Presious Passion on most occasions not stop, good luck trying to get past him if you do catch up to him. As he showed in the Clement Hirsch (gr. IT), he can string a field out, and if there is one thing the Euros don’t like it’s a strung-out field where they have to do more running early just to stay in the race. In Europe, pacesetters can open up a huge lead, but the remainder of the horses are pretty well bunched behind them. And those pacesetters don’t set the kind of testing fractions Presious Passion does. But by making the Euros work harder early it could very well take away their explosive closing kick.

Also, at a mile and a half, Presious Passion can set a fairly stiff pace, but not as stiff as he would in a mile and a quarter race, where it’s not as easy getting the separation from the pack that he likes. That’s partially because they’re going slower behind him. That would allow him to open up by 10 or 15 lengths if he wanted, instead of the six lengths he opened up in the Hirsch. He has been known to fold his hand abruptly on surfaces he doesn’t care for, but on surfaces he does care for, like a firm Santa Anita course, he’ll let you close in on him, but he then digs in and finds another gear and dares you to pass him. If you don’t put him away on your first attempt, you’re not going to get another one. Europeans have no defense for this kind of horse other than to run faster early than they like in order to stay within striking range or drop some 20-25 lengths back and hope they don’t run out of ground. They better make the right choice and time everything perfctly, because chances are, he’s not going to come back to them.

RAIL TRIP – How about a process of elimination horse? Although several American horses, like Colonel John   and Richard's Kid  , ran big races in the Goodwood, you can come to the conclusion if you wish that if they can’t beat Gitano Hernando they’re not going to beat Rip Van Winkle or Mastercraftsman, or even Gitano Hernando again for that matter if he escapes the so-called Euro bounce. Of course, that’s not to say they can’t beat those horses, but if you’re looking to eliminate horses in a race where it’s almost impossible to eliminate anyone, then that is at least an angle. And you can be sure that Richard’s Kid, trained by Bob Baffert, will be heavily bet in the Classic off his Goodwood prep. Don’t be surprised to see the money come pouring in on this late closer.

The one proven California horse to avoid the wrath of the first Euro invader is Rail Trip, who, unlike the Goodwood horses, will come into the Classic fresh and relatively forgotten. Whether that is preferable is difficult to say, but, again, it is an angle. And Rail Trip has proven himself a versatile horse with sprinter’s speed who can win from off the pace in grade I company going 1 1/4 miles. In the Pacific Classic (gr. I), they experimented by taking him back to sixth, and although he didn’t win, he did close well along the rail to be beaten only a length. This is a horse who won his debut going six furlongs in 1:07 4/5, won his second race in 1:13 4/5 for 6 1/2 furlongs, and set half-mile fractions in those races in :44 1/5 and :44 2/5.

Now, here is the kicker. Rail Trip has been taught to rate off the pace, but the Classic is looking like a race devoid of speed. Quality Road   also has been rating just off the pace, and he, like Rail Trip, has the sprinter’s speed to go right to the front. We don’t know if the Santa Anita surface is going to be kinder to speed horses than it has been, but assuming the track is playing fair, either of these two horses are more than capable of stealing the Classic if left alone on the lead. So, do they both change tactics to take advantage of the pace scenario at the risk of both camps having the same idea or will only one revert back and put himself in an advantageous position? Or do neither of them take the initiative, making it a cat-and-mouse game, which will favor the Europeans? We know what Rail Trip can do on this surface. We don’t know what Quality Road can do. If he handles it as well as dirt he is going to be very tough to beat, whether on the lead or sitting right off. But, unlike Rail Trip, he is a guess on this track.

The other fresh horse who likes the track is Einstein  , but the question with this hard-knocking 7-year-old is whether he’s as fast as some of the others. He ran against much better horses finishing second in the Pacific Classic than he did winning the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I).

SQUARE EDDIE – I don’t know what the plans are for this horse, but off his sixth-place finish in the Ancient Title, it’s easy to picture him as a very live horse in the BC Dirt Mile (gr. I). He likes the track, a mile probably is his best distance, he has shown his class at 2 and at 3, he demonstrated an explosive move on the turn in the Coolmore Lexington Stakes (gr. II), and is sure to improve coming off the six-furlong Ancient Title, his first start in six months. He actually looked like he was going to be a factor at the head of the stretch, moving strongly into contention nearing the eighth pole, but couldn't sustain his run in the final furlong. Even so, he still was beaten only five lengths. The other Ancient Title horse who could move way up in the Dirt Mile is runner-up Crown of Thorns  , but he should be a shorter price and doesn’t have quite the resume in top-class races Square Eddie has.

AMEN HALLELUJAH – This could be a real sleeper in the BC Juvenile Fillies (gr. I). She broke from the 9-post in the Darley Alcibiades (gr. I) and proceeded to race at least 4-wide every step of the way. Her third-place finish, beaten 2 3/4 lengths, was a lot better than it looks on paper. Considering the first two finishers saved ground most of the way, she could have easily won this race with a better trip.

SKYRUSH – Can a horse who finished fourth in the Oak Tree Mile at 13-1 come back and run big in the BC Mile (gr IT)? Consider this: He was making only his second start in this country, winning the Brubaker at 1 1/16 miles and then dropping back to a mile. He ducked in at the start, got a bit rank early while being shuffled back to last and in tight along the rail, and managed to close well enough to be beaten only 3 1/2 lengths. His last two races in Argentina were at 1 1/2 miles and 1 3/8 miles, and in his last start at a mile he won in allowance company at San Isidro. He should improve in his second straight mile race. He could be more of an interesting play in the exotics and a much shorter price than Whatsthescript, who certainly will relish running back-to-back miles, as he did when he finished third in last year’s BC Mile. Speaking of the mile, don’t throw out Justenuffhumor  , who obviously couldn’t handle the soft course in the Shadwell Turf Mile. He’ll love the firm going at Santa Anita.

FOREVER TOGETHER– What, last year’s Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) winner and champion grass mare is an angle? Considering how this filly has been trashed and given up for dead this year, yes, she is an angle. Despite her record in 2009, she always fires big and basically had no shot in the First Lady (gr. IT), dropping 20 lengths off the pace on a soft course she likely didn’t care for at all. A mile is not her best distance by any means, and the fact that she closed like a rocket to finish third, beaten only 1 1/2 lengths, bodes well for another huge effort in the Filly & Mare Turf over the same course on which she won last year. Whether she’s a notch below last year or not, this filly has still got it.

In other Breeders’ Cup news:

Team Valor president Barry Irwin said Wednesday Gitano Hernando will be pointed for the BC Classic, and he will be monitored closely. If everything looks perfect, he most likely will be entered. Irwin said Monday on "At the Races with Steve Byk" his long-range goal for the son of Hernando is the $10-million Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) and he wants to make sure the Breeders' Cup is going to move him forward toward that goal rather than turn into a "roadblock."

After conducting a vote among the partners, West Point Thoroughbreds has decided to run Macho Again in the Classic, joining stablemate Awesome Gem, who is considered 90% certain. The feeling is that the Stephen Foster (gr. I) winner “bounced” in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) off his huge effort against Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward Stakes (gr. IT). The sloppy track in the Gold Cup played against his style of running, making it very difficult to come from that far back and catch horses who are closing in fast fractions. The main question with him is the synthetic surface, over which he has run two poor races. He probably will do the bulk of his training at Churchill Downs and ship to Santa Anita close to the race.
 



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