Handicapping Insights

NOVEMBER 9, 2012

by Dick Powell

The Breeders' Cup is in the books so let's take a final look at the race in chronological order.

The Juvenile Sprint kicked things off on Friday and the original field of seven was reduced to five when Super Ninety Nine was injured overnight in his stall and South Floyd warmed up poorly and was scratched at the gate. This left Merit Man as the heavy favorite but it also left him as the chasee instead of the chaser.

Pat Valenzuela put him on the lead and he was under pressure every step of the way. He repulsed the challengers from the outside but Rajiv Maragh had Hightail down on the rail and, with all the experience he gained from eight career starts, he got through and won by a nose at odds of 15-1. Nothing wrong with the inside on Friday.

Next up was the Marathon going 1 3/4 miles on the main track. Mike Smith has been riding very well in the big events but his ride on Atigun is not going to make his Hall of Fame highlight reel. He made a premature, wide move going around the clubhouse turn to press the pace instead of staying in the garden spot behind the two front runners.

Aaron Gryder had Argentine import Calidoscopio toward the rear of the field and began to pick up horses down the backstretch the second time. He was willing to sacrifice ground in order to maintain a clear path and dominated in the lane to win by 4 1/4 lengths at generous 17-1 odds and became the oldest winner of a Breeders' Cup race at the age of nine.

This race, like the Juvenile Sprint, was a nice experiment that needs to be ended. The short field in the Juvenile Sprint was a disgrace and the Marathon is not a race that stout types are pointing for. The $1 million combined purse would be better spent elsewhere and 13 races spread out over two days would be much more palatable than the nine-race marathon that Saturday has become.

The Juvenile Filly Turf was next up and the betting public made Sky Lantern the 5-2 favorite but she raced in traffic for the whole trip while stuck down on the inside. Flotilla was a hard horse to come up with since all four starts in France came on soft turf but she looked like a filly crying out for firm turf when she exploded in the stretch to win going away at 11-1 odds.

The Juvenile Fillies was up next on the main track and this race was one where it really paid to watch the board before betting. Dreaming of Julia was 5-2 on the morning line but went off at 9-2 at the start. Kauai Katie was 5-2 on the morning line and she went off at 11-2. The smart money isn't always smart but in this case it was an indication that the two fillies trained by Todd Pletcher were being avoided in the wagering and made you think twice about their chances.

Richard Mandella had Beholder entered in both the Juvenile Sprint and this race and, to the surprise of many, he entered her here despite never going farther than seven furlongs in her four starts. She had a huge win going six furlongs in her dirt debut at Santa Anita prior to the Breeders' Cup and she used that speed to gun to the front from post 1 and go gate to wire at 4-1 odds. Executiveprivilege rallied from just off the pace to loom boldly but could not get by on a track that was not playing to her running style. It was the first indication that Bob Baffert, who looked loaded for the weekend, was not going to have things go his way.

The Filly & Mare Turf was up next and this race turned into a fascinating exercise in guessing who would take to the firm turf. I liked The Fugue based on her record against superior company lines but she wound up in traffic while stuck down on the inside. Zagora stalked a modest pace and pounced in the deep stretch to get by a dead game Marketing Mix to win by three parts of a length.

The final time of 1:59.70 was amazing considering they ran six furlongs in 1:13, so they ran the final three furlongs in :33.70 on a turf course that resembled a pool table. I'm not saying the Santa Anita turf course was cut tight but instead of rating it as firm, they should have used the stimpmeter that is used in golf to measure how fast the greens are. I gave it a 13.

What bothered me about not having Zagora on top was the fact that when she won the Grade 2 Ballston Spa at Saratoga this summer, the turf course was extremely firm, and even though she comes from off the pace, she handled it beautifully. Win or lose, I try to learn what I can after the race is run and Zagora was extremely playable under these conditions.

The final race on Friday's card was the Ladies' Classic and it looked like Smith was at it again. He gave Atigun a strange ride in the Marathon and here he was on the lead aboard Royal Delta right from the start. And it's not like there was a lack of pace from the other runners but when the gate sprung, there was Royal Delta running a first quarter in :22.69 and leading the field around the clubhouse turn.

One thing Royal Delta does beautifully is cruise along effortlessly and, despite what the teletimer said, she was galloping along down the backstretch with her head down and well within herself. I had a terrible Friday betting and needed Include Me Out to run first or second to bail me out. Joe Talamo had her between horses for much of the trip but when he swung her to the outside turning for home, not only did it look like she would be second but for one, fleeting moment, she pulled alongside Royal Delta.

At this point, at 12-1, it looked like Include Me Out would definitely be in the exacta but just as soon as it looked that way, her tank went to empty and My Miss Aurelia, who Include Me Out had passed at the top of the stretch, came back on to get up for second. Talk about deflating.

Saturday began with the Juvenile Turf and the field of 14 had half the field at single-digit odds with Noble Tune the lukewarm chalk at 39-10. I liked Artigiano but he was quickly shuffled back from the inside and never had clear running room to threaten.

Ryan Moore is one of the big-money riders in the world and he had the mount on George Vancouver, who was coming in off a third in the Group 1 Dewhurst Stakes going seven furlongs. Moore kept him out of trouble in the bulky field and moved him out for clear sailing at the top of the stretch in the Juvenile Turf. It's one thing to get your horse in a winning position but horses respond to Moore. George seized command with a furlong to run and Noble Tune's final surge was too late.

It was a big win for the boys from Ballydoyle as they won a $1 million race with a colt that is by the first crop of their own sire, Henrythenavigator. Joseph O'Brien, who had been riding him, could not make the 122 pounds, which opened the door for Moore.

The Filly & Mare Sprint was up next and it showed how great Groupie Doll is. Winner of her prior four starts after blinkers were added, she rallied wide from off the pace to win going away and showed that any inside speed bias was not going to be enough to stop her. The fact that she was able to win the way she did does not negate the speed bias but is a testament to how good she is.

The Dirt Mile was next and the public made Emcee the narrow 26-10 favorite over Shackleford. Continuing the speed-favoring pattern on the main track, Emcee gunned to the front and was stalked by Tapizar, who moved up wide on the first turn. It was a winning move by Corey Nakatani as the ground loss was nothing compared to being able to run up on the pace.

When Emcee packed it in turning for home, Tapizar took over and nobody was able to make up any meaningful ground as he cruised to a 2 1/4-length win at odds of 15-1. Seven-year-old Rail Trip got up for second and Delegation completed a healthy $3,901.40 trifecta.

Tapizar was a hard horse to come up with since he was exiting a 20 3/4-length defeat in the Grade 2 Kelso and his prior start was at Mountaineer Park. But he did fit the winning profile on the main track and Steve Asmussen runners usually run on the pace. Great move by Nakatani on the clubhouse turn paid off handsomely.

The Turf Sprint was up next and this one was a real head scratcher. The betting public almost got it right as they made Unbridled's Note the 47-10 favorite. Mizdirection was 20-1 on the morning-line but opened up at 4-1 and would off going off just under 7-1. The money showed and they were right when she stormed down the stretch under Smith to nail Unbridled's Note on the wire in her first start in 160 days. She certainly was a horse for the course with two wins in two starts already on the course and Mike Puype had her sharp as a tack.

The Juvenile was up next and, while the stretch run was pretty slow, it was very exciting with almost everybody having a shot. Title Contender gunned to the front for Baffert and was pressed by Rosie Napravnik aboard Shanghai Bobby. When the field turned for home, Title Contender checked out and Shanghai Bobby took the lead.

As soon as he took the lead, Shanghai Bobby started looking for company and he was quickly joined by He's Had Enough. Once he had someone to run with, he dug in and, despite running the last five-sixteenths of a mile in :34.30, he hung on to win by a hard-earned head, which should clinch the Eclipse Award.

For Napravnik it means that, right now, she's aboard the early favorites for not just the Kentucky Derby with Shanghai Bobby but the Grade 1 Kentucky Oaks aboard Sign.

By now, it's been a pretty long day and there were still four races to go. European turf horses are better than their North American counterparts and the 1 1/2-mile distance certainly favors them. What doesn't favor them is a turf course that was playing outrageously fast.

I never thought Little Mike would get the distance, but if he ever did it would be on a turf course like he was on Saturday. Joe Bravo sent Turbo Compressor to the front and he was stalked by Optimizer and Jon Court. Ramon Dominguez was content to sit behind them while saving ground on Little Mike and Johnny Velazquez had favored Point of Entry farther back than normal in ninth-place.

The two main European shippers, defending champion St Nicholas Abbey and Shareta, raced toward the rear of the second flight. After a mile in 1:35.28, everyone maintained their positions around the far turn and they hit the top of the stretch in 1:59.58. Optimizer checked out and was followed quickly by Turbo Compressor. Dominguez moved Little Mike into the clear and he suddenly had the lead with a furlong to go.

Velazquez had Point of Entry in a furious drive but it was too late as he fell a half-length short. St Nicholas Abbey wound up third but never really threatened. For Dale Romans, it was another big win in a big race as he is clearly in the middle of the Eclipse Award for trainer of the year. For Dominguez, it was another cagey victory as he nursed Little Mike to a win at a distance he had no business winning. And for Little Mike, it thrust him into the conversation for the Eclipse Award for male turf horse since he has three Grade 1 wins on the year.

The Sprint is tough enough but with a 14-horse field it was nearly impossible this year. But, if you were watching the main track the past two days and saw how well speed was doing, it wasn't impossible to come up with Trinniberg. One of the fastest horses in the field, he broke beautifully with Willie Martinez and went up to challenge Sum of the Parts through a first quarter in :21.41 and a half in an eye-popping :43.73.

Sum of the Parts began to weaken, Trinniberg went on and he was joined by The Lumber Guy in the stretch. Those two battled through the lane but Trinniberg was able to hold him off and win by three parts of a length in 1:07.98. To show you how bad Baffert's weekend was going, Coil was left at the gate and could not make up ground out in the middle of the track.

The Mile only drew nine but it was a fascinating race as it looked like the locals had a good chance against the Europeans. As expected, Obviously gunned to the front but only had to go :23.34 to cover the first quarter. From there to the finish, the pace got faster and faster as he and Suggestive Boy covered the half in :46.16 and six furlongs in 1:08.81.

Velazquez had Wise Dan tucked in behind them perfectly while saving ground and, when he pulled out to make his challenge, the race was over. Obviously tired on the lead and Excelebration's rally was flattening out. Wise Dan was in full stride and nobody was catching him. He finished 1 1/2 lengths ahead of Animal Kingdom, who rallied suddenly to beat Obviously for the place.

Wise Dan's final time for the mile was 1:31.78 and it was the culmination to a great year as he won five times -- four on the turf and one on synthetic. His lone loss was a head defeat on the dirt at Churchill Downs in the Grade 1 Stephen Foster and he is certainly in the conversation for Horse of the Year.

At this point, I felt like a rented mule with welts all over my wagering carcass. But hope springs eternal and I loved Mucho Macho Man in the Classic. How I could like anyone at this point is hard to understand but I thought that he was in the perfect position to be forwardly placed while clear and use his massive stride in the stretch to win.

The public ignored the Baffert karma and made Game on Dude the 13-10 favorite. With the way the main track was playing, it made sense that he would use his speed to best advantage and be a tough customer to run down.

But, at the start, Game on Dude broke poorly and was nowhere near the lead. Alpha, who figured to be up near the pace took back and Mario Gutierrez did not send Handsome Mike to the front as I expected.

Instead, it was Brian Hernandez Jr. loose on the lead aboard Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man was forced to do all the work chasing him after the events in the first quarter-mile worked out the way they did. We saw in the Grade 1 Whitney that Fort Larned is a tough customer when up on the pace and he had things his own way through a fast pace of 1:10.12 for the first six furlongs.

At no point did I think Mucho Macho Man was going to lose the Classic. Even though he wasn't getting the best setup, he looked like he would go by when he wanted but when they turned for home, Fort Larned was still battling along. Just like the Ladies' Classic when I thought Include Me Out was going to get second, I had the same feeling with Mucho Macho Man but it was deja vu all over again when Fort Larned kept going and would not be denied. The final margin was a half-length and the final time was 2:00.11.

I had the pleasure of seeing the Grade 3 Cornhusker Handicap in person this year at Prairie Meadows. I bet Fort Larned that night at 37-10 odds and cashed a nice ticket. Never did I think I was watching the winner of the Breeders' Cup Classic. But a speed horse on a speed track that gets the right setup and negligible pressure for the lead adds up to a mild upset win and the final blow of a lost weekend of wagering.