Rail Trip is a rising 4-year-old star, no matter what surface he's running on.<br><a target="blank" href="http://www.bloodhorse.com/horse-racing/photo-store?ref=http%3A%2F%2Fpictopia.com%2Fperl%2Fgal%3Fprovider_id%3D368%26ptp_photo_id%3D8320303%26ref%3Dstory">Order This Photo</a>

Rail Trip is a rising 4-year-old star, no matter what surface he's running on.
Order This Photo


Countdown to the Cup: Classic Confusion

Europe's best horse, Sea the Stars, would be a shot in the arm for Classic.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) is such an odd concoction of grass and synthetic horses and undistinguished older dirt horses it’s difficult to make a worthwhile list of potential starters.


With the grade I Shadwell Travers, Pacific Classic, and Woodward coming up between now and Labor Day, as well as the grade II Pennsylvania Derby, here are a few potential Classic horses who may emerge from those races, as well as some dangerous Europeans. Swashbucklers Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator ran us clean through last year, and you can bet others as or more formidable will head to California this year to finish us off during this synthetic seizure the Breeders’ Cup is going through.


Who will stop them? In California, we have proven synthetic track horses Zenyatta, Rail Trip, Colonel John, Informed, Mast Track, Tres Borrachos, and Awesome Gem, and the 3-year-old Misremembered , winner of the Swaps Stakes.


Grass horses who have proven effective at 1 1/4 miles are Einstein, winner of the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) over the track who runs next in the Pacific Classic, and Gio Ponti  from the United States, and Sea the Stars, Mastercraftsman, and Rip Van Winkle from Europe. Rip Van Winkle? Uh, oh. Washington Irving, Sleepy Hollow, the headless horseman -- more swords, more mayhem.


Sea the Stars, whom Europeans firmly believe is the best horse in the world and one of the best to race in Europe in many years, would provide quite a shot in the arm for the Classic, pitting a 3-year-old male superstar from Europe against a 5-year-old female superstar from the U.S. in Zenyatta. That would be the dream scenario for the Classic, excluding Rachel Alexandra, of course. As of now, Sea the Stars likely is headed for the Irish Champion Stakes (Ire-I) and then the Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I). But if Longchamp comes up too soft for him, look for trainer John Oxx to turn his attention to Santa Anita instead. He may come anyway considering the four week interval this year. It’s a longshot, but can you imagine top-class grass horses Sea the Stars, Mastercraftsman, Gio Ponti, and Einstein all locking horns in the Classic? Something’s just not right here.


As thrilling as that sounds, there is no denying the Classic has lost its way and its identity. It did last year and likely will again this year, and needs desperately to get back on dirt. It’s the Classic, not the Grassic.


Now, if Rail Trip should win the Pacific Classic impressively to go with his Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I) romp, then we could also have a rapidly rising 4-year-old star. If Colonel John goes in the Pacific Classic and wins impressively, then he would be the 4-year-old to watch. These two horses and Zenyatta, especially, would transcend synthetics, as would Einstein, who runs on anything. Zenyatta and Colonel John have at least won a grade I stakes on dirt, and Rail Trip looks to be a special horse, regardless of the surface. It would be a shock if he wasn’t as brilliant on dirt as he’s been on synthetic, especially considering how much of the Hollywood Park Cushion Track is now dirt. I don’t think anyone really looks at any of these three as synthetic horses, so a victory by any of them would remove that stigma, which hung heavily over the race last year.


Now, what if Quality Road  turns in another monster performance in the Travers? He is an unknown on synthetic, so we have no idea what to expect from him. The same applies to Summer Bird, who most likely will test the synthetic waters in the Classic despite his lack of experience over it. Mine That Bird, on the other hand, is proven on Woodbine’s Polytrack and would be a major player in the Classic if he should run big in the Travers.


Other potential Classic starters from the older ranks include surprise Whitney winner Bullsbay , who ran horribly over synthetic in the Hollywood Gold Cup; surprise Suburban (gr. I) winner Dry Martini, who has dabbled on the grass, but has no synthetic experience and ran poorly in the Whitney (gr. I); and mildly surprising Stephen Foster (gr. I) winner Macho Again, whose two appearances on synthetic were less than encouraging. So, it’s possible the older dirt horses from the East will be virtually invisible in the Classic. What’s that about retiring our top 3-year-olds too early?


Speaking of 3-year-olds, it seems that this year’s crop, as usual, is being maligned, despite most of its early stars being retired or on the sidelines. How soon people forget how everyone raved about I Want Revenge , Pioneerof the Nile , Old Fashioned, Friesan Fire , The Pamplemousse, Dunkirk, General Quarters, Desert Party , and Regal Ransom, all considered at one time to be exceptional horses with impressive speed figures. To lose so many big-name horses and still have classic winners Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, and Quality Road and Charitable Man, and rising stars like Kensei, Our Edge, and Misremembered , and late developers Soul Warrior and Warrior's Reward  says a lot for the depth of the crop.


Another knock is that Mine That Bird is winless since the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and is already being branded a mediocre Derby winner by all those impatient souls who don’t spend the time to strip away the outer layers before seeing what’s there. Considering he had a rough trip in the Preakness and was given terrible rides in the Belmont (gr. I) and West Virginia Derby (gr. II) when he was prevented from using his biggest weapon (an explosive late move beginning at the five-sixteenths pole), shouldn’t we at least wait until he gets a good trip and is allowed to run his kind of race (as he did in the Derby and Preakness) before we send him to the dungeon of Derby winners? It’s only August. How about waiting until November before we assess Mine That Bird and the rest of the 3-year-old crop that’s still around.


Flat-out runner


Speaking of rising stars, one you might want to hitch your wagon to is the little known Flat Bold, who finished fourth in the Jim Dandy Stakes, in which he ran evenly in the final furlong and didn’t make much of an impression. What few noticed, however, was how good he looked visually from the five-sixteenths pole to the three-sixteenths pole. On a speed-favoring track, he demonstrated an explosive turn of foot and was really motoring at the head of the stretch. If you watch the replay you’ll see that he’s building up so much momentum his body is at a distinct angle turning into the stretch. But after a :47 3/5 half, Kensei and Warrior’s Reward, running one-two the whole way, simply closed too fast in front of him in a race run in a quick 1:47 4/5. He was only beaten 3 1/2 lengths, and although he couldn’t outclose multiple stakes winner Charitable Man for third, this was his first stakes attempt, and he should only keep improving off this race.


He seemed less effective as a pace stalker, but he’s come from farther back in his last two going two turns and has run two bang-up races. Watch out for him in the Pennsylvania Derby. Trainer Kiaran McLaughlin said he is also a possibility for the King’s Bishop (gr. I), which would seem an odd race in which to run him, considering the drop-back in distance and brutally tough competition. He looks like a horse who has relished stretching out in distance.


No holding back in Travers


If you’re looking for a real dark horse in the Travers, take a look at the Kentucky Derby chart and past performance line on Hold Me Back. Then go watch a replay of the Derby. You will see the Equibase chart and past performance line are not correct. After a half, Hold Me Back was running in 14th, about a 12-14 lengths off the lead, not in fifth, as the chart shows. Now watch the extremely odd move Kent Desormeaux makes, pushing Hold Me Back along the inside, as the colt charges down the backstretch from 14th to 4th (almost third) in a quarter of a mile, just about a length and a half off the leader. Of course, he came up empty in the stretch, but Desormeaux basically stopped persevering with him in the final three-sixteenths (which was probably a wise move), although he did give two intermittent cracks of the whip while almost standing in the irons. It is safe to say the colt’s trip did not go according to plan, and that race can be considered a total throwout.


In the Virginia Derby on turf, he was stuck behind horses most of the way with nowhere to run, got shuffled back in traffic at the top of the stretch, altered course, dropping sharply to the inside in the stretch and was unable to threaten, finishing fifth, beaten only 3 1/2 lengths. These are not the kind of trips you want for such a long-striding horse.


In his best races, both on synthetic, he was able to use his big stride by making sweeping moves to win the Lane’s End Stakes (gr. II) going away and finishing a fast-closing second in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes (gr. I).


He doesn’t have the brilliance of some of those in the Travers, nor is he proven on dirt, but if Julien Leparoux can give him the right kind of trip, he has shown enough to indicate he could be closing strongly in the final furlong. His last work, six furlongs in 1:13 breezing on the Oklahoma training track, suggests he may be ready for a big effort at a big price.


A Travers horse still looking for his identity is Warrior’s Reward, who has yet to establish a running style. He’s been on the lead, he’s been just off the lead, and he’s come from far back. None of them has resulted in a stakes victory, but you can expect him to come from off the pace on Saturday. That’s when we’ll find out how good he really is.


The unknown factor in the Travers is Nick Zito’s speedball, Our Edge, winner of three in a row. But he’ll be moving way up in company, and it will be interesting to see how far he can take them.


In other Breeders’ Cup news:


-- Three of the major stakes-winning Classic hopefuls – Informed, Bullsbay, and Colonel John – are sired by recent Hall of Fame inductee Tiznow . And he could have had four if Well Armed had not been injured.


 -- Coral bookmakers in England have Sea the Stars, Zenyatta, and Rip Van Winkle as co 4-1 favorites, and they list Fame and Glory and Mastercraftsman both at 12-1, just below Quality Road (8-1) and Rail Trip (10-1). Rip Van Winkle, Fame and Glory, and Mastercraftsman are all trained by Aidan O’Brien, and you know at least one, probably two, will run in the Classic, a race Ballydoyle has been trying desperately to win for years. By the way, you can get Mine That Bird at 20-1 and Summer Bird at a delicious 33-1.


-- Trainer Rick Dutrow said 2007 BC Mile winner Kip Deville, who has been a disappointment recently, will either return to the races next year or be retired. Dutrow did not disclose any particular injuries.


-- From the look of the 2-year-old male division so far we could have an interesting Juvenile, and maybe a more interesting Derby trail. So far, we’ve had several impressive stakes winners, including the consistent and relentless Sanford winner Backtalk , a son of Smarty Jones  and a half-brother to stakes winner BSharpsonata; Best Pal winner Lookin at Lucky, a half-brother to Jim Dandy and Dwyer winner Kensei by Smart Strike; runaway Saratoga Special winner D’Funnybone (by D’Wildcat); and brilliant maiden winners Dublin, Sidney's Candy, and Discreetly Mine, a half-brother to Discreet Cat. All three look like potential classic horses. Sidney’s Candy, a son of Candy Ride  who broke his maiden at Del Mar Saturday, has a beautiful way of moving and generates a good deal of power. He gets most of his blazing speed from his tail-female line. Dublin (by Afleet Alex ) and Discreetly Mine (by Mineshaft ) both looked spectacular breaking their maiden and have a limitless future.


-- Will next Saturday’s King’s Bishop produce any contenders for the Sprint, the Mile, or none of the above? Seven furlongs is such an in-between distance, and this year, we have some brilliant seven-furlong specialists in Munnings , Capt. Candyman Can (who can surely stretch out to a mile), Big Drama, Just Ben, and Not For Silver. Last year’s 2-year-old sensation Vineyard Haven, purchased by Godolphin, would be in a tough spot coming off a layoff, but he’s been working like gangbusters, and we all know what kind of feats he’s capable of. Everyday Heroes and Custom for Carlos  are accomplished at six furlongs. Although not sure of his plans, watch out in the near future for another Godolphin runner, Girolamo, following his brilliant comeback victory. He’s been looking good in the mornings.