Countdown to the Cup: Nothing Now but the Waiting

The stars will be shining down on Louisville, Ky. on Nov. 4, but many of the brightest ones will not even show up until the middle of Breeders' Cup week. As a result, several New York-based journalists, and one Jerseyite, have changed plans and will inhabit the Big Apple until the big guns complete their serious training.

Some of those big guns include Bernardini, Invasor, Henny Hughes, Pine Island, Balletto, and around 12-14 Todd Pletcher-trained horses, headed by grade I winners English Channel, Fleet Indian, Wait a While, Honey Ryder, Scat Daddy, Circular Quay, Pool Land, and Spun Sugar.

Weather permitting, Pletcher will work his Breeders' Cup horses the Sunday before the World Championships, while Bernardini is scheduled to have his final work two days later. On Wednesday, arguably the most expensive shipment of horseflesh ever will board a Tex Sutton plane for the flight to Louisville.

Of course, we still have two weeks to go and nothing is etched in stone. Kiaran McLaughlin, trainer of Invasor and Henny Hughes, could always change plans and head to Keeneland and train over the Polytrack surface should the weather prevent him from working in New York. He admits he can't afford to have Invasor, who had to skip the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) due to a fever, miss any training.

With the big day getting near, expect the jocks agents to be busy lining up mounts. Two of the nations leading riders, John Velazquez and Edgar Prado are still shopping for a mount in the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Velazquez could wind up on Flower Alley for Pletcher if last year's runner-up makes the race. As of now, he is being pointing in that direction, despite coming off two dull performances. Prado likely would rider Strong Contender if the Super Derby (gr. II) winner were to run, but trainer John Ward said at this point he is leaning against it.

Pletcher has named Prado to ride Futurity (gr. II) winner King of the Roxy in the Bessemer Trust Juvenile (gr. I). Nick Zito said Rafael Bejarano, who was sidelined a month with cracked ribs, will ride Sun King in the Classic.

"Tracy (owner Tracy Farmer) is happy with the way (Bejarano) has come back," Zito said. "He's been Sun King's regular rider, so he wants to stick with him, and I see no reason why not. It's also a tribute to the horse that so many top riders have been trying to get on him."

One horse who likely will skip the Breeders' Cup is Champagne (gr. I) runner-up Nobiz Like Shobiz, who probably will wait for the Remsen Stakes (gr. II). The son of Albert the Great is still a big baby in many ways and has some maturing to do. Although he ran a huge race in the Champagne, he didn't break alertly and was lugging in down the stretch. Owner Elizabeth Valando is looking forward to having a Derby horse next year, and she and trainer Barclay Tagg do not want to jeopardize that by rushing him into the Breeders' Cup. Their decision is not final, but as of now, that's the direction in which they're leaning.

Poly folly

There is no argument that Polytrack is a great surface for the safety of the horse, and that takes priority over everything. Our athletes, both human and equine, must be protected, and, so far, Polytrack and other synthetic surfaces, seems to be doing just that.

As a surface for Breeders' Cup prep races, so far this year Polytrack tells us very little, and whether a horse wins or finishes out of the money is no indication of how he or she will run at Churchill Downs. There have been horses who simply don't run well over it, and there have been horses running huge races that have no business doing so, based on their form, or lack of.

Polytrack seems to turn "dirt" races into "grass" races, with many contests won by horses who either have run or trained over it or have excelled on the grass.

So, rather than criticize Polytrack as a surface, which is not the intention, let's just say that if the horse you liked before for the Breeders' Cup ran poorly on Polytrack, ignore it. And don't get too excited over a horse that ran big over it. Synthetic surfaces are still in its infantile stages, and there is a lot more we have to learn about it.

Cool, as in Coolmore

Coolmore and Aidan O'Brien have received their fair share of criticism for pointing Irish Derby and Irish Champion (both group I) winner Dylan Thomas for the Classic and running him in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and then shifting gears when that didn't work out and substituting George Washington, the best miler in Europe.

Yes, George Washington likely would have been favored in the NetJets Mile (gr. IT), or second choice as worst, but in the grand scheme of things, the Mile is not a career-making or stallion-making race, at least to an operation like Coolmore.

Shooting for the moon and attempting to win the Classic, as daring and audacious a move as that may seem, is a sporting gesture that should be applauded. Racing fans claim that owners and trainers have become too conservative. Well, how can one criticize Coolmore for shaking things up and making the Classic an even more intriguing and exciting race than it already is?

If they fail, as they did with Dylan Thomas, who would have taken a lot of beating in the John Deere Turf (gr. IT), that is for them to deal with. We should just sit back and reap the rewards of their decision. They are reaching for greatness on a grand scale, something they almost achieved with Giant's Causeway  in 2000. And that is something refreshing in this day and age. So, now we have the Maktoum brothers, their arch rival Coolmore, and the blue-collar owners and horse squaring off for a shot at immortality. Bring it on.

In other Breeders' Cup news:

-- If you're looking for a top-class filly in the Distaff who may be a huge overlay, keep a close eye on Round Pond, who finished a well-beaten third in the Beldame (gr. I). The daughter of Awesome Again  tied up about two weeks before the race and, although she was fine going into it, she was forced to miss a couple of works and was only about 85% fit. She's been training very well since for Michael Matz, and has shown the ability and class to be right there against anyone.

-- Trainer Alain de Royer-Dupre told the Racing Post that Pride, winner of the Champion Stakes (Eng-I) and runner-up in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I), is still being considered for the BC Turf, which would be her third start in five weeks.

-- An American observer on the scene reports that David Junior is training up a storm for the Classic. One of Europe's most accomplished mile and a quarter horses, David Junior will be trying to win the Classic off a five-month layoff.

-- Wayne Lukas was happy with Pegasus Wind's third-place finish in the Champagne (gr. I) against two talented colts who are based at Belmont, and is looking forward to running him back in the Juvenile.

-- You won't have Arc de Triomphe winner Rail Link in the Turf, but you will have Red Rocks, who finished second to him in the Grand Prix de Paris (Fra-I).

-- In the "Oh, so close to having another superstar in the Breeders' Cup" department, Godolphin's Discreet Cat breezed a half in a bullet :47 2/5 at Belmont on Monday, the fastest of 32 works at the distance.

-- Kip Deville, winner of this weekend's Bryan Station Stakes at Keeneland, likely will make his next start in the Breeders' Cup Mile.