Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: Classic Picture Looking Bright

Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: Classic Picture Looking Bright
Photo: Barbara D. Livingston
Street Sense

The following is a long-range look at how the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I) is shaping up, ranked in order, and with the latest odds in the Wynn Las Vegas Race Book.

1. Street Sense (7-2)
With the cloud that has been hanging over Rags to Riches during the past five weeks, it looks at this point as if Horse of the Year is his to lose. He can afford to get beat in his Classic prep and still be the favorite for racing’s highest honor. He’s not going to instill fear in his opponents, but he always shows up and never runs an off race. He’s most dangerous when he can lag far back off a fast pace and unleash his explosive kick on the far turn. He doesn’t deliver that kind of powerhouse move when he’s forced to sit closer to a slow pace, as he did in the Travers (gr. I), Toyota Blue Grass (gr. I), and Jim Dandy (gr. II). But he can beat you either way. His odds appear to be too short in relation to the others. There is not that much separating him from fellow 3-year-olds Any Given Saturday and Curlin.

2. Any Given Saturday (6-1)
If he can duplicate his Dwyer (gr. II) and Haskell Invitational (gr. I) performances going 1 1/4 miles, he just may be unstoppable. His overall record should be better than it is, but he was compromised by a foot bruise in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands (gr. I) and had everything against him in the Wood Memorial. He’s as brilliant a horse as there is right now, having dusted Curlin, Hard Spun, and Nobiz Like Shobiz in his last two starts, and is going to be tough to handle in the Classic, especially with a monster performance over the track. But it must be noted that he will be going into the Classic off only one race in 12 weeks.

3. Lawyer Ron (8-1)
We’ll find out in a few days whether his spectacular record-breaking effort in the Whitney (gr. I) was an aberration or whether he’s that good right now. Having seen him every day for two weeks prior to last year’s Kentucky Derby, one thing is for certain: he is a horse who is enthusiastic about everything he does, whether it’s racing or training. His two dismal efforts last year going 1 1/4 miles is a bit of a concern, but he’s improved with maturity, and has learned, with the help of draw reins in the morning, to harness some of that enthusiasm, which has caused him to get rank early in some of his races last year. His owner has mentioned the possibility of pointing for the BC Dirt Mile, but don’t count on it if he wins the Woodward (gr. I).

4. Curlin (7-1)
For a horse who has lost three of his last four starts, he’s still considered a major candidate for 3-year-old honors, and even Horse of the Year, and deservedly so. His disappointing third-place finish in the Haskell, off a two-month layoff, had his connections scratching their heads. But having crammed six races, including all three Triple Crown races, into an 18-week period to begin his career, he may have simply crashed after coming down off that big of a roll and adrenalin high. And you just don’t know how those two gut-wrenchers in the Preakness (gr. I) and Belmont (gr. I) affected him. Coming back off and eight-week layoff, racing a bit dull, and then being given another eight weeks off is unusual to say the least, but this apparently is what his connections feel is best for him. We do know that he’s an immensely gifted horse, and if he bounces back with a big effort in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I), he could get back on a roll for the Classic. But he, too, will go into the BC off one race in 12 weeks, and two races in five months, giving him one of the most lopsided campaigns ever. We know what he’s capable of racing steadily and hard. Now, we’ll find out if he’s as effective racing sparingly.

5. Manduro (12-1)
When Andre Fabre starts mentioning the BC Classic as a target this early, it is best to pay attention. Most Europeans will state emphatically that this is the best horse in the world right now, and after having seen his last two starts, they could be right. The German-bred has an electrifying turn of foot, and his victory over Dylan Thomas and Notnowcato in the Prince of Wales’s Stakes (Eng-I) was one of the most impressive performances of the year anywhere. Dirt will be a big unknown, especially with his grass-oriented pedigree. His lone dirt connection is through his broodmare sire Be My Guest, who sired 1990 Belmont Stakes winner Go and Go. Fabre does a lot of serious training on the dirt at Chantilly, and he’ll have a good idea how this horse handles it, just as he knew about Arcangues. German-breds are as tough and resilient as they come and can handle all kinds of surfaces, and this colt is getting so good right now, the sky’s the limit.

6. Lava Man (30-1)
He would be much shorter odds if his connections hadn’t stated they’re seriously considering him for the BC Dirt Mile (and 70 yards), but even then, these odds are way out of line. The Dirt Mile seems like an odd move, running in a non-graded stakes with Horse of the Year on the line, especially for a horse who has won seven grade I stakes at 1 1/4 miles. If he indeed can’t win outside of California, it’s not going to make much difference in which race he runs, as the Dirt Mile likely will be a tough race in its own right. Monmouth Park will be the closest thing he’s ever going to see to an old-fashioned California track, so it would seem logical to run at his best distance and have a shot at Horse of the Year. Veteran horsemen will tell you an exceptional older horse will beat an exceptional 3-year-old the vast majority of the time, so it’s not as if he needs to avoid Street Sense and Co.

7. Rags to Riches (20-1)
Who knows at this point what her status will be come Breeders’ Cup day? If all goes well, chances are she’ll run in the Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I), but the Classic is still being tossed around. First, however, she has to make it to any race, whether it’s the Sept. 8 Ruffian (gr. I) or the Sept. 15 Gazelle (gr. I). If Todd Pletcher can get her ready to win the Classic off a single one-turn 1 1/16-mile or 1 1/8-mile race in five months (not to mention two fevers and a phantom ailment that necessitated a trip to New Bolton), it would be a monumental achievement, even for Pletcher, and would stamp her as one of the greatest fillies, if not the greatest, of all time.

8. Tiago (40-1)
These are attractive odds on a horse who has won the Santa Anita Derby (gr. I) and Swaps Stakes (gr. II), was a troubled third in the Belmont Stakes, and appears to be maturing into a classy horse who should be at his best going 1 1/4 miles. It looked to be a wise move getting him away from that astonishingly slow track at Del Mar, and now he’ll likely head east before returning home to prep in the Goodwood Stakes (gr. I). He’s in the best of hands with John Shirreffs, and could be a major force by late October.

9. Hard Spun (25-1)
Now that he has his all-important grade I win, he can return to more conventional Classic preps. Many feel the BC Dirt Mile is more his “speed,” but his connections seem intent on pointing for the Classic. His second-place finishes behind Street Sense in the Kentucky Derby and Any Given Saturday in the Haskell show he belongs. He’s probably better at slightly shorter distances, but has shown he’s capable of big efforts at any distance, and those post-sale incentives are awfully enticing.

10. Surf Cat (50-1)
Yes, he’s been sprinting, and if trainer Bruce Headley does decide to make a rare trip back east, it could very well be for the BC Dirt Mile. But the feeling here is that this horse is as talented as anyone out there, regardless of the distance. While he has run two big races in defeat in sprint stakes on synthetic surfaces, he has resorted to closing steadily in the stretch instead of demonstrating the explosive burst of speed he showed in his earlier races on dirt going two turns. He is one of the most versatile horses in the country and should his connections elect to shoot for the moon, there is still time to stretch him out. But it seems unlikely. It would be the Classic’s loss, because he is bred top and bottom to run all day and is inbred to Buckpasser, one of the great classic and stamina influences.

After that, there are a large group of horses that are lumped pretty close together, with several of them likely to sort themselves out in Saturday’s Woodward, and to a lesser degree in Monday’s Pennsylvania Derby (gr. II).

Suburban (gr. I) winner Political Force (20-1), Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) winner Corinthian (25-1), last year’s Donn Handicap (gr. I) winner Brass Hat (40-1), and Whitney runner-up and third-place finisher Wanderin Boy and Diamond Stripes, respectively, all are slated to run in the Woodward, along with Magna Graduate, and if any of them can knock off Lawyer Ron, they will propel themselves right into Classic contention. Look for an improved effort from Brass Hat, who just didn’t fire at all in the Whitney. He appeared to struggle with the track, especially being down on the inside, which was not the place to be, but his connections have elected to give the Spa another try. Chalk the Whitney up to a bad day.

With his sensational performance in the Travers, who knows how good Grasshopper is and how rapidly he’s improving? By nearly knocking off the Kentucky Derby winner in his stakes debut, there is no doubt this is one classy, talented colt, who has been brought around with great patience by Neil Howard. He has speed, tactical speed, and stamina, which will make him a dangerous foe for anyone.

Out west, Pacific Classic (gr. I) upsetter, Student Council (30-1), still has to prove himself in top stakes company on a conventional dirt track. Runner-up Awesome Gem (30-1) seems to handle any kind of track and looks to be heading in the right direction.

One horse to keep a close eye on is Daaher (was 100-1, but obviously much lower now), whose coming out party in a Saratoga allowance race last weekend caused more than a few raised eyebrows. Trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for Shadwell, the son of Awesome Again responded big-time to the addition of blinkers, opening up by 12 lengths at the eighth pole and winning by nearly 14 lengths. He didn’t beat much, but this was a huge step forward.

Although he finished sixth in last year’s Classic, Coolmore’s George Washington (30-1) deserves another crack at the Americans, especially with stablemate Dylan Thomas and several classy 3-year-olds to point for the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT). George Washington seemed to handle the dirt well at Churchill Downs. He was stuck on the rail down the backstretch, and when he moved out at the five-sixteenths pole, he was matching strides with Invasor when Lawyer Ron came out and bumped him, knocking him into Invasor. He took several solid bumps from both sides while in extremely tight quarters, and was unable to sustain his run after that. He couldn’t get off his left lead and began drifting in and out down the stretch. Having that bad a trip in his first start ever on dirt, he did well to get beat only seven lengths, finishing ahead of Lava Man, Lawyer Ron, Sun King, Perfect Drift, and Flower Alley, among others.

Others to watch on the Classic trail are Suburban runner-up Fairbanks (35-1); the hard-knocking European Notnowcato (50-1), who is a 10-furlong specialist; and Sun King (60-1), who will try to rebound in the Woodward.

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