Countdown to the Cup: Looking Past the Juvenile

Countdown to the Cup: Looking Past the Juvenile
Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese
Is Champagne winner First Samurai capable of sweeping next year's Triple Crown?
This may sound like an outrageous question in October, but could it be that we finally are going to see a Triple Crown winner next year? It just very well may be that the stars finally are aligned for it to happen.

The formula for a Triple Crown sweep in the past was simple: a horse had to be a champion 2-year-old or at least have a championship-caliber campaign. Secretariat, Seattle Slew, Affirmed, Citation and company all were household names before they ran in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I), unlike the horses of today who have won the first two legs of the Triple Crown. Neither Smarty Jones  , Funny Cide, War Emblem or Charismatic accomplished much as a 2-year-old, and only became media stars after they won the Derby.

With that said, First Samurai, at this point, certainly appears to fit the bill, having won two of the most prestigious and historic stakes for 2-year-olds – the grade I Hopeful and Champagne. The son of Giant's Causeway   is undefeated, boasts a Derby-type pedigree, has a patient, veteran trainer in Frank Brothers, and is one race away from concluding one of the greatest 2-year-old campaigns in memory.

Yes, he got a bit leg weary in the Champagne, walking home the final eighth, but the early fractions were outrageously fast, and he showed he could sit back and make a move into the teeth of a :21 3/5, :43 3/5, and 1:08 3/5 pace over a sloppy track. Tailwind or no tailwind, that is flying for a 2-year-old. Also, Henny Hughes, the horse he defeated, as he did in the Hopeful, is a brilliant, top-class colt in his own right who was nearly 10 lengths ahead of the third-place finisher

First Samurai is a big, muscular colt, and although he doesn't have the physical look of a typical stayer, neither did Secretariat, another big, muscular chestnut.

What makes this year's crop of 2-year-olds so fascinating is that there are three other colts with distance pedigrees who, if they beat First Samurai in the Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile (gr. I), also will fit the Triple Crown profile. With Private Vow, Sorcerer's Stone, and Stevie Wonderboy having romped in major stakes, any one of them would make an outstanding champion with a victory on Oct. 29. But for now, they all have First Samurai to beat.

So, basically, what we have going into the Juvenile are four distance-pedigree colts with a combined record of 12 wins in 15 starts and a combined average winning margin of better than 4 3/4 lengths. Add Henny Hughes, who certainly deserves another chance, having scored easy wins in the Saratoga Special (gr. II) and Tremont Stakes, and we have the one of the deepest and most brilliant fields in Juvenile history.

'Single' on track for double

Get ready for more whoopin' and hollerin' from the Little Red Feather tribe, headed by Chief Billy Koch. Even Koch seemed surprised and overwhelmed by the sheer power of Singletary's last-to-first move as he gobbled up his field in a matter of a few strides to win the Oak Tree Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. II).

It was Koch and his fun-loving 'Feathered' friends, including trainer Don Chatlos, who became the human stars of last year's Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championship, as they put on an infectious display of emotion, from their cheerleader-like enthusiasm, complete with "Single-Tary" chant, to Koch's humble and touching victory speech. The way Chatlos got choked up after the Oak Tree Mile was another example of the unbridled passion these guys bring to the sport.

They are what racehorse owners are all about, and in a week in which the Breeders' Cup lost Afleet Alex and Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) winner Hurricane Run, it at least gained Little Red Feather and Singletary, who will blow into Belmont Park like a much-needed breath of fresh air.

Foreigners Eyeing Classic

-- William Hills now lists Queen Elizabeth II (Eng-I) and Prix du Moulin (Fra-I) winner Starcraft, champion 3-year-old in Australia last year, as doubtful for the NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) and is quoting the New Zealand-bred colt at 12-1 for the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I), for which he would have to supplemented for $800,000, compared to $400,000 for the Mile. Owner Paul Makin said, "Money doesn't come into it with Starcraft and we'll go where our convictions take us. The Classic is the richest race in America." However, Makin and trainer Luca Cumani are concerned about the positioning of the gate for the Classic (the start is on the turn), due to Starcraft's habit of breaking a bit slowly, and will pre-enter for both races before checking out the logistics.

Last year's Arc de Triomphe winner Bago is likely to pre-enter for the Classic and the John Deere Turf (gr. IT), as is the Andre Fabre-trained Valixir, winner of the Queen Anne Stakes (Eng-I) for the Aga Khan.

One horse likely for the Classic is the English-trained Jack Sullivan, a colt loaded with dirt breeding who has not done much on the grass this year. However, he won two dirt races in Dubai earlier in the year before finishing fourth in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I). The son of Belong to Me also finished second in last year's UAE Two Thousand Guineas (UAE-III) and fourth in the UAE Derby (UAE-II). He is trained by Gerard Butler, no stranger to American racing.

William Hills still lists Saint Liam as the 7-4 favorite for the Classic, followed by Borrego and Rock Hard Ten at 3-1.

Perfect Drift, who did not seem to like the sloppy track in the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II), in which he finished fourth, came out of the race stiff in his back and hind end, but has worked out of it and still is on target for the Classic.

Zito readies troops

Nick Zito has pretty much firmed up his Breeders' Cup plans. Zito, who lost two of his biggest guns in Bellamy Road and Commentator, said he's considering two horses – Sun King and Sir Shackleton – for the Breeders' Cup Classic. Florida Derby (gr. I) and Fountain of Youth (gr. II) winner High Fly will drop back in distance following his second in the one-mile Jerome Handicap (gr. II) and point for the TVG Sprint (gr. I).

Zito will send out the consistent and durable In the Gold, winner of the Gazelle Handicap (gr. I), in the Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I) and Superfly, a well-beaten third in the Champagne, in the Bessemer Trust Juvenile (gr. I). Zito liked the way the colt came on again to get third after dropping out of it at the five-sixteenths pole. In his last six appearances in the Champagne, Zito has four wins and two thirds.

In other Breeders' Cup news:

-- It is still not certain if Ancient Title Breeders' Cup (gr. I) winner Captain Squire will run in the Breeders' Cup Sprint or the seven-furlong Sport Page Handicap (gr. III) on the undercard. The 6-year-old son of Flying Chevron scored one of the gutsiest victories of the year in only his second start since June, 2004. Under pressure the whole way through torrid fractions of :21 flat and :43 1/5, he fought back gallantly on the rail to out-finish the late-closing Zanzibar and Indian Country, covering the six furlongs in 1:08 4/5. Coming back from an apparent career-ending injury, this old warrior demonstrated what Thoroughbreds are made of.

-- Although Battle Won could finish no better than fifth in Sunday's five-furlong Woodford Stakes on the grass at Keeneland, don't count him out in the Sprint. He was stuck in traffic for most of the way, then had to swing out five-wide. Although he raced evenly in the final furlong, he was only beaten 1 1/2 lengths, and should be a sharp horse in his return to the dirt. The last time he raced on the grass, he ran a very similar race, finishing fourth, beaten 1 1/2 lengths in the Shakertown (gr. IIIT) at Keeneland. He came off that effort to win the Churchill Downs Handicap (gr. II) by 3 1/2 lengths in a blistering 1:20 2/5.

-- Even with Hurricane Run out of the Turf (gr. IT) with a fever, the European contingent will be a strong one with English Derby (Eng-I) winner Motivator, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth (Eng-I) winner Azamour, Arlington Million (gr. IT) winner Powerscourt, and possibly Bago. Jockey Johnny Murtagh is convinced Motivator will show big improvement off his fifth-place finish in the Arc. Andre Fabre, trainer of Hurricane Run, may still be represented by Arc fourth-place finisher Shirocco, winner of the Gran Premio del Jockey Club (Ita-I) in Italy this year and the German Derby (Ger-I) last year.

-- Patrick Biancone, who had Henny Hughes taken from him by Darley Stable and sent to Kiaran McLaughlin, will have two definite Breeders' Cup starters and one possible starter. The two definites are Pomeroy in the Sprint and Angara in the Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT). Biancone said Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III) winner Stream Cat, third in Saturday's Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. I), is listed as a possibility. He is looking for a big classic campaign next year from the son of Black Minnaloushe. Biancone also said he hoping for rain around Breeders' Cup time to ensure some give in the ground for Beverly D. (gr. IT) winner Angara, who does not like a hard turf course.

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