Rip Van Winkle at the 2009 Breeders Cup.

Rip Van Winkle at the 2009 Breeders Cup.

Anne M. Eberhardt

Countdown to the Cup: Where to Go With Rip

Coolmore must decide whether to go for the BC Classic or Mile with Rip Van Winkle.

OK, we’ve made it through September, picking up a few Breeders’ Cup horses along the way, and now it’s time to gear up for the big prep weekends at Belmont, Hollywood Park, and Keeneland, and, of course, at Longchamp. Only then will the BC races be truly defined.

This past weekend saw several interesting races in Europe. At Ascot Saturday, Rip Van Winkle was nipped right on the wire by Godolphin’s Poet’s Voice in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I), a race he won last year. So, now comes the question, in which direction does Aidan O’Brien and Coolmore go with their son of Galileo? Considered by his connections a miler who can stretch out to 1 ¼ miles, two of his best performances came in last year’s 10-furlong Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I), when he was beaten only a length by superstar Sea The Stars, who had to come again to beat him, and this year’s 1 5/16-mile Juddmonte International (Eng-I).


Rip Van Winkle’s pedigree is pretty much all grass and he did try the BC Classic (gr. I) last year, only to tire badly, finishing 10th. Galileo didn’t fare much better in 2001. So, why even consider the Classic again?


Because O’Brien and Coolmore have been trying their best to win this race ever since Giant’s Causeway’s narrow defeat 10 years ago, and Rip Van Winkle is much better prepared for the task this year, not having the injury-prone season and grueling classic campaign he had last year. In the QEII, he showed once again he doesn’t have the speed and turn of foot when there is give to the ground that he does on firm going. The first indication he might be vulnerable was his inability to accelerate away from his own pacesetter after turning for home, while carrying his head a bit high. While there is no guarantee what kind of turf he’ll get at Churchill Downs, if the Classic should come up sloppy or muddy, it could actually move him up. Whichever direction they go with him, he is going to be dangerous, because of his brilliance and raw talent, and his willingness to battle when challenged.


As for Poet’s Voice, who was coming off an impressive score in the Celebration Mile (Eng-II), he definitely is headed for the BC Mile (gr. IT).


Also at Ascot Saturday, we witnessed another monster performance from Juddmonte’s electrifying 2-year-old Frankel, who has decimated his opponents in all three of his starts. In Saturday’s Royal Lodge Stakes (Eng-II), he quickly cruised up to the lead from last and then powered away from his opponents to win by 10 lengths.


Trainer Henry Cecil said the colt’s next start will be either the group I Dewhurst Stakes or Racing Post Trophy, which is unfortunate considering who this colt is named for. It’s terrific that Juddmonte picked a potential champion to name after their longtime trainer Bobby Frankel. But doesn’t it defeat the purpose, even just a little, to name a horse after one of the legends of American racing and not bring him to America? All we can do is hope Frankel continues his success in Europe and then comes here for next year’s Breeders’ Cup.


If trainer Jane Chapple-Hyam has her way,  Klammer, who finished second to Frankel, will run next in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, despite the 10-length margin.


One undefeated 2-year-old who will be heading for America is Pathfork, winner of the group I National Stakes and group II E.B.F. Futurity Stakes. The son of Distorted Humor will point for the BC Juvenile (gr. I) on dirt rather than go for the Juvenile Turf. The National Stakes form was boosted last weekend when runner-up Cassamento scored an impressive victory in the Juddmonte Beresford Stakes (Ire-II) at the Curragh.


We are all well aware that German invaders always have to be respected, and that would apply to Scalo, who powered his way to a 1 ¾-length victory in the Preis von Europa (Ger-I) Sunday. However, Scalo is a 3-year-old who had gone off form in the summer and is just now returning to top form, so we’ll have to wait to see the plans are for him.


Morning light


Nick Zito is known for his outbursts of joy after winning a big race. But following Morning Line’s gutsy neck victory in the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) Sept. 25, Zito, watching from the rail with assistant Tim Poole, was more subdued than usual, offering only a slight smile.


After all his tough defeats in major stakes this year, Zito was taking nothing for granted, and, despite the assurances he had won, he wasn’t about to accept victory until the numbers were posted on the tote board.


Zito has had a run of hard-luck defeats this year that has left him frustrated and apprehensive. That’s what happens when you finish second in the grade I Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (with Ice Box), Belmont Stakes and Travers (with Fly Down), third in the grade I Preakness (with Jackson Bend), and second in the grade II Jim Dandy (with Miner’s Reserve), Fountain of Youth (with Jackson Bend), and grade I Wood Memorial (with Jackson Bend).


So, it was understandable why Zito was uncertain and held back his emotions.


“He won it, right?” Zito asked. “Did he win? I hope so. I’ve been losing so many photos, you never know. Are you positive he won?”


Finally, the order of finish was posted, after which Zito threw his fist in the air and hugged Poole and assistant Ricardo Troncozo.


“You gotta believe in God, that’s all,” he said. “What else can I do? This year has been unbelievable, so you have to be humble.”


As he left the paddock and headed to the rail, Zito stopped to sign autographs. Some things never change. “They love me in Philly, too,” he said.


And Zito obviously loves Philly, having captured two runnings of the Pennsylvania Derby, with Sun King in 2005 and Anak Nakal in 2008.


Zito had walked on the track from the barn area, and was sweating through his shirt. “I need some water,” he said as he spotted a cooler near the rail. “That track is really tiring.”


Morning Line’s victory certainly was no shock, as he was sent off as the 7-2 third choice, coming off a scintillating 11-length victory in a Saratoga allowance race. But it was the way he won, battling back against seasoned graded stakes horses after looking beaten at the head of the stretch that was surprising.


First Dude, who always runs big, but seems to find a way to get beat, made his own trouble nearing the quarter pole when he started backing up and then got squeezed by Morning Line and A Little Warm. He came charging late after being taken to the outside, but Morning Line also battled back after being passed by A Little Warm and stuck his neck in front at the wire, just as his sire Tiznow did on several occasions.


His time of 1:47.85 for the 1 1/8 miles was solid, earning him a 103 Beyer, and it looks as if Morning Line will now step up again in the Classic, as will First Dude.


“This one is very gratifying,” Zito said. “Look, I’m human like everyone else. You have be content, and I try to be, but when you’re in a sport that’s this competitive, it hurts when you keep losing like that. I’m extremely blessed to have had a horse in every major 3-year-old race this year. I can’t thank God enough and my people, my owners, and my horses.”


One of the first to congratulate Zito was co-owner Olin Gentry, who with Thomas Gaines, founded Legends Racing, which also consists of partners Omar Trevino, Stacy Schanher Berge, and Jessica Martin.


“This validates Nick’s thinking all along that this is a top horse, which he’s said from day one,” said Gentry, whose father is noted sales consignor Tom Gentry, and grandfather is Olin Gentry, former farm manager for Darby Dan Farm and Col. E.R. Bradley’s Idle Hour Farm.


“How game is this sonofabitch?” he said, watching the replay of the stretch run.” “He looked them in the eye and outran them.”


Gentry then received a text message from Bob Baffert, another of the Legends’ trainers, who has the leading 3-year-old in the country, Lookin At Lucky. The message read: “I’ve never rooted so hard for a Zito horse.”


As Zito headed back to the barn, he again needed a drink of water, but this time with a little something extra added.


“I’m gettin’ holy water,” he said.


Apart from the Breeders’ Cup


Apart’s victory in the Super Derby (gr. II) stamps the son of Flatter as a horse to watch the rest of the year and especially next year. Following the same pattern as his stablemate Blame, Apart also will most likely head for the Fayette (gr. II) at Keeneland and the Clark Handicap (gr. II) at Churchill Downs.


What was impressive was the way he was trapped down on the inside, losing his position a couple of times, and then came flying once taken to the outside. This colt has a long, powerful stride and was just getting started as he drew clear inside in the sixteenth pole.


Although this was far from a stellar field, it was the way he did it that made it so impressive. The Breeders’ Cup obviously is out of the picture, so we’ll just have sit back and wait for next year, just as we did with Blame last year.


In other Breeders’ Cup news:


-- Keep an eye on Garden State Stakes runner-up Curlinello, who in his two starts has taken a while to find his best stride. But once he does, he makes up ground quickly. He covers a lot of ground and has a pedigree that will carry him 10 furlongs with no problem. With stablemates Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty, he could give Todd Pletcher a powerful trio in the BC Juvenile (gr. I).


The third-place finisher in the Garden State, Astrology, made a threatening move before tiring and should keep improving. This appeared to be a deep, slow track, and he ran as if he didn’t particularly care for the ground.


-- With no real Breeders’ Cup preps on Polytrack coming up, a decision will have to me made with Stately Victor, who ran off with the Ontario Derby, much as he did in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I). He could go to the turf or return to dirt, where he showed little in the Kentucky Derby and Belmont.


-- Other horses that may have stamped their entry into the Breeders’ Cup are Kent Stakes (gr. IIIT) winner Grand Rapport (Mile), Selene Stakes (gr. III) winner Biofuel (Ladies Classic), and Turf Amazon winner Rose Catherine (Turf Sprint). Grand Rapport looks like an up-and-coming star. You won't see a horse level off any better than he did in the stretch, and you had to be impressed with the way he was covering ground in that final furlong. This looks like a very good horse and definitely is one to keep an eye on.