It was a weekend that helped shape the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I), Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I), and John Deere Turf (gr. IT). Of course, no big weekend at Belmont Park this fall would be complete without a controversy surrounding the use of pacesetters.First off, the most important point to remember about the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) is that Borrego was going to win regardless of the odd tactics employed. With that said, the race turned out to be a case of the rabbit cooking the chef.It turned out to be an ill-conceived plan that only got worse when put in motion. In fact, it was pretty similar to the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) when a misplaced fear of one horse backfired on trainer Todd Pletcher. In the Derby, Pletcher used Bandini's owners'colt, Spanish Chestnut (trained by Patrick Biancone), to soften up Bellamy Road. Unfortunately, Spanish Chestnut also cooked the Pletcher-trained Bandini and Flower Alley, who was equipped with blinkers for the first time, which meant he likely was going to be close to the pace. Both these horses were stalkers and were just as liable to be victimized by a scorching pace as Bellamy Road. Yes, Bandini did come out of the race with an injury, but who knows when and why it occurred, and he wasn't going to be around at the finish in any event.In Pletcher's defense, he no doubt was not thrilled with the prospect of having Flower Alley chase Lava Man, in case the older colt tried to dictate the pace. By putting a rabbit in there, he was hoping that Flower Alley would relax and settle a couple of lengths off the pace. But it didn't happen, and then everything fell apart.What made this situation so tricky was that Lava Man, unlike Commentator, the victim of a double-barreled rabbit attack in the Woodward (gr. I), was not a confirmed frontrunner by any means, and in fact was normally a stalker, much like Flower Alley. And whatever fear Pletcher had of the horse was based on one race, the Hollywood Gold Cup (gr. I), in which he didn't even go to the lead. He then got hooked up in a torrid speed duel in the Pacific Classic (gr, I), and that's the scenario Pletcher obviously was hoping for in the Gold Cup.Also, Lava Man had been vanned off in an ambulance after the Pacific Classic. It was made to sound as if he was just rubber-legged and basically hitched a ride back to the detention barn, which may very well be true. But the fact is, he was taken off in an ambulance, and would go on to get beat 45 lengths in the Gold Cup. It was later reported he bled a 3 out of 5.
In the Gold Cup, Flower Alley got keyed up early, and Velazquez found himself eyeball to eyeball with his own rabbit, Bishop Court Hill. Looking over at Chantal Sutherland, who had a stranglehold on Bishop Court Hill, it was as if Velazquez was pleading with her to do something, anything, to get the heck away from him. Sutherland kept looking back, as if just as puzzled as Velazquez. If they hadn't been wearing the same silks, one would have thought Bishop Court Hill was a rabbit for Borrego with instructions to kill off Flower Alley.The two were so close for three-quarters of a mile they looked more like soul mates than stablemates. Lava Man then moved up outside Flower Alley to engage the Pletcher pair, with the others getting into the fray, right behind. With only four lengths separating the first seven horses in the eight-horse field, it left an inviting target for Borrego, who was galloping along by himself, just waiting for the command to strike from jockey Garrett Gomez. When he gave it, Borrego circled the field with gazelle-like strides and swept by the field so quickly he made the winners of the Travers (gr. I), Hollywood Gold Cup, Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II), Oaklawn Handicap (gr. II), and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II) all look as if they had simultaneously stepped in quicksand.Before anyone knew what hit them, Borrego was seven lengths in front, a margin that was cut to 4 1/2 at the wire only because Gomez wrapped up on the son of El Prado at the eighth pole and let him "walk" home, as track announcer Tom Durkin described it in frenetic fashion. In the final sixteenth, Borrego looked more like a horse pulling up after the wire.As for Flower Alley, it's not as if he finished a competitive second or third. He was fourth, beaten 15 lengths. He did not lose because of Bishop Court Hill. He lost because he never settled, which usually spells doom for a 3-year-old running against tough older horses for the first time. Of course, the rabbit didn't help matters, but it's time to forget this race and look forward. As Pletcher said afterward, "Obviously, the plan didn't go the way we designed it. Sometimes you learn more from your losses. We've got four weeks to adjust and get ready for the Classic."It is hard to believe watching Borrego inhale the entire field in a matter of seconds that this was once a horse who was so unappealing to look at, not a single person bid on him as a yearling, and he was bought back for a meager $20,000. Another attempt to sell him as a 2-year-old proved just as unsuccessful and he was bought back again, this time for $70,000.So, what was wrong with the horse? John Greely IV, who owns Wintergreen Stallion Station in Kentucky in partnership with his brother, trainer Beau Greely, said Borrego was "like a big, gangly kid" when he was growing up on the farm. Beau said he looked like a giraffe. As if that weren't enough of a deterrent, Jon Kelly, who owns Borrego in partnership with Brad Scott, Raleigh Ralls, and Dennis Foster, named the colt after the Spanish term for sheep horns because of two protruding bumps on his forehead. Former trainer Gary Jones, who is Kelly's racing manager, described the young Borrego as "gangly and ugly, with two horns sticking out of his forehead." All Jones wanted to do was "get rid of him." Now he admits he is "eating humble pie and loving it."Labeled throughout his career as a horse who didn't know how to win, Borrego was able to destroy a top-class field of grade I and grade II winners with a move unlike anything seen at Belmont in a long time.So, just what do we make of this new Borrego? With a powerful, late-charging victory in the Pacific Classic and now this monster performance in the Gold Cup, he has gone from being winless in 13 stakes appearances to the winner of back-to-back million-dollar races. It proves that time can indeed change an ugly duckling into the proverbial swan.With Rock Hard Ten's successful return in the Goodwood Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II), we now have a three-horse battle brewing in the Classic, all of them having faced off earlier in the year in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I), won by Rock Hard Ten. That was Saint Liam's only race at 1 1/4 miles.Briefly touching on some of the other races over the weekend:-- In the TVG Sprint (gr. I), the picture is simple: Lost in the Fog keeps winning and all the other top sprinters keep losing.-- There were some great winning performances over the weekend, most notably by major contenders Shakespeare, Ashado, and Megahertz. But let's not forget the equally great losing performances by English Channel, Happy Ticket, and Island Fashion. The last named was bumped on several occasions in the Lady's Secret (gr. II) by the winner, Healthy Addiction. If it didn't cost her the win, it surely had to cost her second, and I thought for sure, because of that, the winner would be taken down. But the stewards saw it differently.-- Early longshots to keep an eye on: Film Maker in the Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), Silver Wagon in the Sprint, and Choctaw Nation in the Classic. Choctaw Nation had no shot in a four-horse field in the Goodwood, especially with a :48 3/5 half, and still was beaten only two lengths. He's been right there with Rock Hard Ten and Borrego, and if Belmont is playing fair he'd be one to watching flying late.And even with his victory in the Clement Hirsch (gr. IT), Fourty Niners Son is going to be a big price in the Turf, and with his consistent closing kick, he could make his presence felt.