Countdown to the Cup: Where Will the Cat Strike Next?

The picture for the Breeders' Cup World Championships did not take on any new vibrant colors over the weekend, only the two "wow" performances by horses who were expected to do so, one of whom likely will not be competing at Churchill Downs on Nov. 4.

To briefly summarize a stakes-filled weekend that was supposed to provide some answers to the Breeders' Cup puzzle, Wait a While and Discreet Cat turned in their usual freaky performances in the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT) and Jerome Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II), respectively; The Tin Man again was allowed to dawdle on the lead, and then just held on to win the Clement Hirsch Turf Championship (gr. IT) by a head over the hard-knocking T. H. Approval; In the Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), Perfect Drift, as usual, finished second, again falling victim to a mistimed move, but this time ran into traffic problems as well; Premium Tap, taken well off the pace for some reason, was then sent into harms way and narrowly escaped with his life.

Turfway Park saw a parade of Polytrack upsets, with the five Kentucky Cup races being won by 15-1, 25-1, 12-1, 17-1, and 12-1 shots; heavy favorite Point Ashley failed to corner sharply on both turns in the Oak Leaf Stakes and was outrun in the stretch after breaking from the 11-post; the always reliable Healthy Addiction won the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup (gr. II) despite strolling home in :26 1/5 and :07 1/5; Ashkal Way's late-charging victory in the Kelso Breeders' Cup (gr. IIT) gave Sheikh Mohammed yet another major contender for the Breeders' Cup; and the steady It's No Joke won the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) over a mediocre field.

By Sunday afternoon, with the exception of Wait a While's spectacular performance in the Yellow Ribbon, it had not been a good week for heroes, freaks, monsters, or whatever name you want to give those rare horses with extraordinary ability who become embedded in public consciousness.

On Sept. 28, Invasor - who still is a national hero in Uruguay - came down with a fever and elevated white blood count that will force him to miss his much-awaited showdown with Bernardini in the Oct. 7 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I).

Three days later, Japan's national hero, Deep Impact - like Invasor, a Triple Crown winner - had to settle for third in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) at odds of 1-2, while European superstars Hurricane Run and Shirocco both finished out of the money in the eight-horse field. The same day, Coolmore's English, Irish, and Yorkshire Oaks (all group I) winner Alexandrova finished a non-threatening third in the Prix de l'Opera (Fra-I).

But there still was one monster left to wreak havoc, even though it was only in the Jerome Handicap, a race not exactly front and center on the world stage. That monster was Godolphin's unbeaten and untested Discreet Cat, whose heroics, in what has been a brief and unusual career, have planted the seeds of greatness in many people's minds.

The Jerome, which did produce last year's TVG Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I) winner Silver Train, normally is not a race that nurtures budding superstars. But in Discreet Cat's case, all his feats - no matter how small the stage - have been of gargantuan proportion, due to the spectacular manner in which they were achieved.

Ever since his six-length annihilation of fellow 3-year-olds and top-class South American 4-year-olds, including Invasor, in the UAE Derby (UAE-II), Discreet Cat has been a rising force bubbling just under the surface. Following yet another awe-inspiring victory in the Oct. 1 Jerome, that force is now only a grade I victory away from erupting.

But with Discreet Cat and Bernardini both owned by Sheikh Mohammed, it is not likely these two brilliant colts will square off in the foreseeable future, which is unfortunate for the sport, but certainly understandable. If you are fortunate enough to possess both the irresistible force and the immovable object, the last thing you want to do is have them collide.

In his five career victories, Discreet Cat has never even raised a sweat, winning by an average margin of 6 1/4 lengths, including an 11-length cakewalk in a solid allowance race at Saratoga off a five-month layoff and his 10 1/4-length "waltz" - as track announcer Tom Durkin described it - in the Jerome.

Although he wasn't beating major stakes horses, Valid Notebook was coming off a front-running, three-length score in a mile allowance race at Belmont, run in a snappy 1:34 3/5, and Noonmark was stakes-placed, having finished second, beaten a neck by Sharp Humor, in the Swale Stakes (gr. II) and third in the Woody Stephens Breeders' Cup (gr. II) behind Songster.

In the end, neither they, nor any of the others, could even warm up Discreet Cat, despite pulling nine to 12 pounds from the 1-20 favorite. Discreet Cat, carrying topweight of 124 pounds, broke sharply and decided he wanted to be on the lead, a tactic he hasn't used since his maiden victory last year at Saratoga. Jockey Garrett Gomez quickly realized it was best to let him have his way and just went along for the ride.

Discreet Cat went his opening quarter in :22 4/5 over a dead racetrack that was listed as good. After a sharp half in :45 4/5, Valid Notebook was already under pressure, while Gomez still hadn't moved a muscle. It was obvious that this was going to be another mere workout for Discreet Cat.

Down the stretch, Discreet Cat still had his ears straight up as he drew off effortlessly with those fluid strides of his, winning under wraps in 1:36 2/5. Although totally outclassed by the winner, Valid Notebook still finished 7 1/2 lengths ahead of third-place finisher Nar.

Trainer Saeed bin Suroor left open the possibility of pointing for the Breeders' Cup, but at this point it looks as if Discreet Cat will be headed to the Hill 'n' Dale Cigar Mile (gr. I) before returning to Dubai. But, as we found out with Invasor, things change quickly in racing, so we'll just have to wait and see what happens with Bernardini.

Both these colts are similar in several ways. Not only do they possess extraordinary class and brilliance, they seem to know exactly where they want to be - and should be - during a race. And whatever they decide, the result is always the same.

Turf talk

The race that saw the most action over the weekend was the John Deere Breeders' Cup (gr. IT). Hurricane Run's lackluster fourth-place finish behind Rail Link, Pride, and Deep Impact certainly gives hope to the Americans, with Cacique, The Tin Man, and T. H. Approval having completed their preps and heading to Louisville in top form, along with Meteor Storm, who returned off a layoff and ran a big race to finish third in the one-mile Kelso Breeders' Cup at a distance way too short for him. Give a lot of credit to T. H. Approval for deviating from his normal running style and tracking The Tin Man's pedestrian pace the whole way, and then rallying gamely with a final quarter in :22 4/5 to just miss by a head.

Last year's Turf winner, Shirocco, who has been mentioned as a potential candidate for the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I), was in great position in the Arc, running comfortably in second, but had no punch in the stretch and quickly retreated to finish last, which was totally out of character for this tough, consistent horse. His status for any Breeders' Cup race now has to be up in the air, assuming he came out of the race OK.

As for Hurricane Run, last year's Arc winner apparently is not the force he was as a 3-year-old, having lost three of his last four starts. In his defense, he wasn't given a chance to run until it was way too late. Boxed in throughout and kept pinned in by Yutaka Take on Deep Impact, he had to wait for most of the field to clear him before he could swing to the outside. By then, the race had passed him by, and he could only trudge home a well-beaten fourth.

It will be interesting now to see how the European forces shape up. Pride ran another super race against males and would be a major force in the Turf should her connections decide to go that route. The longer the distance the better for this daughter of Peintre Celebre, who has already defeated Hurricane Run in the Grand Prix de Saint-Cloud (Fra-I) and finished second to David Junior in last year's Emirates Airline Champion Stakes (Eng-I).

That leaves English Channel to complete the main body of the American contingent. The son of Smart Strike has had a tendency to get rank behind a slow pace, and now gets his very own rabbit – the newly acquired Icy Atlantic – for Saturday's Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT). Barclay Tagg has indicated they are leaning toward the NetJets Mile (gr. IT) with Showing Up, but deep down he believes the son of Strategic Mission would be competitive at a mile and a half. Let's see if they start having second thoughts after seeing the Arc.

While and wonderful

Bring on Ouija Board, Gorella, and any other filly and mare turf horse. As magnificent as those two are, and in spite of what they have accomplished, it just may be that Wait a While is the Bernardini or Discreet Cat of the female turf division. Her last three performances have been so freaky, for lack of a better word, that she just may be unbeatable.

The daughter of Maria's Mon does not get herself into trouble because of her excellent tactical speed, and she has the rare ability to turn turf races into dirt races in the way they are run. You just don't see turf races where a horse will sit and sit and sit just off the leader, regardless of the pace, and then explode to the lead and draw well clear with hardly any urging from the rider. You rarely see a turf horse run away from the field the way she does.

Granted, the Yellow Ribbon was not a particularly strong field, but they still were older fillies and mares - including several who had won or placed in grade I stakes - and Wait a While simply blew them away with a final quarter in :23 1/5 to win by more than four lengths for the third time in a row while covering the 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 2/5. So, in her last three starts, she has run 1 1/4 miles in 1:59 1/5 and 1:59 2/5 and 1 1/8 miles in 1:46 2/5.

She obviously likes firm going, but it must be noted that, in her only turf start at 2, she broke her maiden by five lengths over a course labeled good. In summation, the excitement a turf horse generates usually is based on the acceleration and power they display in the final furlong. With Wait a While, the race is over by the final furlong.

She no doubt will be tested in the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) by fillies, the likes of which she has never faced before. But as classy and talented as Ouija Board and Gorella and some of the others are, can they match the raw speed and power of Wait a While – something they have never seen before?

Drifting toward the Classic

The day after the Kentucky Cup Classic, trainer John Kimmel was still pretty upset over the near disaster that befell Premium Tap. Kimmel couldn't understand why Kent Desormeaux took the horse, normally a stalker, some five lengths back in fifth in a race that saw the pacesetter, 12-1 shot Ball Four, set soft fractions and go on to win.

Desormeaux then tried to squeeze through on the rail and had to take up sharply. Premium Tap stumbled badly - nearly going down - but somehow recovered and quickly got back into stride. The Woodward (gr. I) winner came on again to challenge along the rail, and although he couldn't sustain his run, he still was beaten only 1 3/4 lengths. Desormeaux claimed foul on the winner, but the stewards quickly dismissed it.

For a six-horse field, this race turned into a total mess with Julien Leparoux aboard Perfect Drift getting stuck behind horses in the stretch with nowhere to go. After seeing one hole close up on him, Leparoux steered Perfect Drift to the inside and squeezed through another hole. The 7-year-old came through running and closed in on the winner, but fell a half-length short, while coming home his final eighth in :12 flat.

It's all about timing with Perfect Drift, whose runs seem to come a little too early or a little too late. But the old warrior can still run with anyone on any given day, and a return to Churchill Downs could be just the tonic he needs to put it all together and time that move right on Nov. 4. Perfect Drift has become almost a cult figure, and if he should upset the Classic in his own backyard (actually Churchill's nearby training track at the Sports Spectrum), be prepared for one of the loudest ovations ever heard at the Downs.

Good Reward, coming off a disappointing effort in the Brooklyn Breeders' Cup (gr. II), found the Polytrack surface to his liking and closed well late to get third. It should be noted that the first three finishers have all had success on the turf.

So, that brings us to next weekend's stakes extravaganza, where Bernardini and Lava Man attempt to distance themselves even farther from the pack. Of course, there is still Invasor; but he will now have to run in the Classic off a 13-week layoff, not the ideal way to go into the race.