Countdown to the Cup: All Eyes on JC Gold Cup

The main topic of conversation at Belmont Park these days is the much-awaited showdown between Bernardini and Invasor in the Oct. 7 Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). Both colts are doing extremely well, according to their connections, with Bernardini already on the muscle and itching for a fight. The winner likely will take on the role as favorite for the Breeders' Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I).

British bookmaking firm William Hill lists Bernardini as the 13-8 favorite, with Invasor next at 7-2. They are followed by Lava Man at 5-1, Shirocco 10-1, David Junior 11-1, Dylan Thomas 12-1, Sun King 14-1, Jazil, who likely will not be ready, 16-1, Lawyer Ron 20-1 , Brother Derek, Second of June, and Super Frolic at 25-1, and Giacomo, Perfect Drift, Strong Contender, and Suave 33-1.

Bernardini tuned up for the Gold Cup, breezing an easy five-furlongs in 1:02 2/5 at Belmont Monday, while Invasor, worked a half-mile in :48 3/5 Sunday.

Flower Alley, who looked to be on of the favorites before turning in two disappointing efforts, has checked out well physically, according to trainer Todd Pletcher, who said there are no current plans for the son of Distorted Humor .

"I don't know what (owner Eugene Melnyk) is going to do," Pletcher said. "He's got a lot of offers on the table."

An interesting match-up in Saturday's Super Derby (gr. II) will be Lawyer Ron facing off against Strong Contender, with the winner likely going on to the Classic. Also possible is California invader Point Determined, who worked five furlongs in :59 4/5 at Santa Anita Monday.

John Ward Jr., trainer of Dwyer (gr. II) winner Strong Contender, said he was happy with the colt's third-place finish in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), in which he had a rough trip throughout and encountered traffic problems. Ward recently showed off the grand-looking colt that has developed into an awesome physical specimen.

"He's a May 15 foal, and over the past six weeks he's finally caught up to the other horses," Ward said. "If he runs big in Super Derby, the Classic would be a consideration. If he gets beat by Lawyer Run, we'll just go look for something else. We just want to have him right for his 4-year-old year."

Murray Johnson has decided to pass on the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) for Perfect Drift in favor of the Sept. 30 Kentucky Cup Classic (gr. II), a race the 7-year-old won in 2003, defeating Congaree. Perfect Drift is on schedule for an unprecedented fifth appearance in the Classic. The son of Dynaformer finished fourth in 2004 and third last year.

John Shirreffs said Giacomo, who is coming off a fifth in the Pacific Classic (gr. I), would prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic in the Oct. 7 Goodwood Breeders' Cup (gr. II), where he could tangle with Lava Man again. Shirreffs felt that being stuck on the inside did not help Giacomo in the Pacific Classic, and he was expecting a regression following the colt's big win in the San Diego Handicap (gr. II) off a 4 1/2-month layoff and jumping up from 1 1/16 miles to 1 1/4 miles. He feels the 1 1/8-mile Goodwood will set him up perfectly for the Classic and a return visit to Churchill Downs.

Shirreffs said La Jolla Handicap (gr. IIT) winner A.P. Warrior would remain on the turf and point for the Oak Tree Derby (gr. IIT) at Santa Anita.

One horse whose connections had hoped would be ready for the Classic is Corinthian, who recently returned from an injury suffered in the Fountain of Youth Stakes (gr. II) with a third-place finish in allowance company at Saratoga. The son of Pulpit, however, came out of that race with a skin disease, which hasn't healed as well as expected, signifying a possible underlying problem with the immune system. It has been decided to send him to the farm, with the long-range goal being the Donn Handicap (gr. I) at Gulfstream.

At this point, it doesn't appear as if last Saturday's Brooklyn Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) will have any impact on the Classic. The wire-to-wire winner, Wanderin Boy, who controlled the race, is not likely to head in that direction, although it will be interesting to see where runner-up Awesome Twist runs next. The son of Awesome Again  stretched out to 1 1/8 miles from sprint races and was closing strongly over a speed-favoring track, indicating he is a horse who is just now finding himself.

The most diplomatic quote of the week goes to Bernardini's rider Javier Castellano, who was aboard Wanderin Boy in the Brooklyn. When a fan shouted to him after the race: "Hey Javier, can he beat Bernardini?" Castellano, broke into a smile and simply said of Wanderin Boy, "He's a good horse."

3-Year-old Eclipse: Bernardini or Barbaro?

Let's look into the future. Bernardini has won the Breeders' Cup Classic and it's time to vote for the Eclipse Awards. In a move that seemingly makes no logical sense, yet one that actually makes very good sense, albeit in a convoluted way, the vote may very well go like this: Bernardini for Horse of the Year; Barbaro for champion 3-year-old. These are two horses that both deserve an Eclipse Award, and there is no other way to achieve that.

Look at the 3-year-old division this way: Bernardini has won the grade I Preakness and Travers, and grade II Jim Dandy and Withers. Barbaro won the grade I Kentucky Derby and Florida Derby and grade III Holy Bull and Tropical Park Derby. But Barbaro won on the grass and in the slop, and most important, he won the Kentucky Derby -- by 6 1/2 lengths against one of the strongest and deepest fields assembled in years. Forget his miraculous recovery and the unprecedented publicity he generated for the sport. In the 3-year-old division, he will have achieved basically just as much as Bernardini, who with a victory in the Classic would make him as worthy a Horse of the Year as we've had in years.

So, if Bernardini does win the Classic, it may be time to throw away conventional wisdom and reward two horses who both deserve championship honors.

Juvenile taking shape

With the Futurity (gr. II) and Matron (gr. I) scheduled for this Saturday, two weeks after the big Breeders' Cup preview weekend, many trainers of horses coming out of those races are going to be in a dilemma about what to do regarding the Breeders' Cup. Had those races been run last weekend, as in the past, trainers would have had the option of running back in four weeks in the Champagne and Frizette Stakes (gr. I). But with the Futurity, Champagne, and Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I) each separated by only three weeks, it is highly unlikely that any horse will run in all three, which means the horses coming out of the Futurity and Matron will have to run in the Juvenile off a six-week layoff. On a positive note, Stevie Wonderboy won the Juvenile last year off a 7 1/2-week layoff, although that race was run around one turn.

Speaking of the Juvenile, the battle lines have been drawn between East with West, with the Todd Pletcher pair of Circular Quay and Scat Daddy, first and second, respectively in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I), heading the East Coast team, and the Del Mar Futurity (gr. II) one-two finishers Horse Greeley and Great Hunter representing the West. But you also have the Best Pal (gr. III) winner, Principle Secret; Saratoga Special (gr. II) runner-up King of the Roxy; Midwest stars Unbridled Express, Passport, and Officer Rocket; and the big gun from Calder, Straight Faced.

But there are two others who definitely bear watching, and they are the runaway maiden winners Nobiz Like Shobiz and Tiz Wonderful. Both colts demonstrated an electrifying turn of foot to blow away their respective fields, and each has the look and pedigree of a horse who wants to run long. Nobiz Like Shobiz, in particular, is a big, powerful colt who looks more like an older horse. The son of Albert the Great, trained by Barclay Tagg, won under wraps and still covered the mile in 1:35 in his career debut. Tiz Wonderful, a son of Tiznow  and trained by Scott Blasi, also is a physical presence, and could show up in Saturday's Futurity.

Wait is worth it

With William Hill establishing Ouija Board (2-1), Alexandrova, and Gorella (both at 7-2) as the three clear-cut choices for the Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), it leaves 3-year-old Wait A While as one of potential overlays at 8-1. Although the top three have all established themselves as powerhouses, especially Ouija Board on an international scale, it is extremely rare to see a 3-year-old filly show the brilliance that Wait a While has shown in her last two starts, so we have no idea just how good she really is. At 8-1, she is an attractive proposition, despite the talent and class of the big three.

For your approval

While on the subject of William Hill, it finally has latched on to one of America's best kept secrets by making Miesque's Approval co-fourth choice at 10-1 for the NetJets Mile (gr. IT) following the comeback kid's victory in the Sept. 9 Red Bank Stakes (gr. IIIT) at Monmouth in 1:33 1/5 for the mile. It was the 7-year-old's fourth stakes victory in his last five starts.

Prior to that, he had scored only once in 12 starts and looked to be pretty much over the hill. He was turned over to trainer Marty Wolfson last fall, and after a fourth-place finish, he began his current roll, which has seen him boost his career earnings to $1,450,079. His last three victories have all come in fast-run mile events, and in his score in the Sunshine Millions Turf in January, he came from 11th to win in a scorching 1:44 4/5 for the 1 1/8 miles.

Hill lists California rocket Aragorn as the 7-2 favorite for the Mile, followed by Europeans George Washington (4-1), Iffraaj and Librettist (5-1), and Araafa (10-1, along with Miesque's Approval and Gorella.

Lost forever

Monday was a sad day in Thoroughbred racing, with the death of Lost in the Fog. It was too much to ask for two miracles in one year. Although last year's champion sprinter ran a disappointing race in the TVG Breeders' Cup Sprint (gr. I), no horse in memory provided as much excitement and anticipation leading up to the race. There is no doubt the colt again will make his presence felt in this year's BC Sprint, as racing fans all over the country remember and pay tribute to one of the most brilliant, honest, and durable sprinters of all time.

In other Breeders' Cup news:

-- Becrux and Rebel Rebel establishled themseles as legitimate contenders for the Mile with a stirring one-finish in Sunday's Bell Woodbine Mile (gr. IT). Rebel Rebel, trained by Rick Dutrow, lost a good deal of ground going extremely wide, and then closed strongly out in the middle of the track, but couldn't get by a game Becrux, trained by Neil Drysdale.

-- Trainer Barclay Tagg said he'd prefer moving Showing Up to a mile and a half in the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf rather than drop him back to a mile. Tagg felt the 3-year-old ran a big race in his first try against older horses in the 1 3/8-mile Man o' War Stakes (gr. IT).

-- Discreet Cat appears to be scaring most of the top 3-year-old milers away from the Oct. 1 Jerome Handicap (gr. II). Bobby Frankel, trainer of the improving Latent Heat, said he's considering the about seven-furlong Perryville Stakes (gr. III) for the colt's next start. Frankel also is high on On Board Again, who came again to defeat Superfly by a neck in a mile allowance race run in 1:35 flat on Saturday.

-- Another 2-year-old to watch is the Eoin Harty-trained My Golden Opinion, who slipped through along the rail to win a 6-furlong maiden race at Belmont by 2 1/4 lengths in 1:10 3/5. Also on the 2-year-old front, Bob Baffert's 1-2 favorite Chief's Magic couldn't hold on to a 2 1/2-length lead at the eighth pole and was upset by 30-1 shot Roman Commander in Sunday's Barretts Juvenile at Fairplex. The day before, the Mel Stute-trained Quick Little Miss came from 10th at the head of the stretch to win the Barretts Debutante by 4 1/2 lengths at odds of 29-1.