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Sunday, November 6, 2011

Random Thoughts on Breeders’ Cup 2011

While this Breeders’ Cup certainly provided two exciting days of racing, more than ever I’m left convinced that claiming it is both a “world championship” event and vital to determining end-of-year honors rings hollow. All that it did prove is any good horse can step up and win a big race on any given day—and it’s definitely not always the best horse. I’m only half-kidding when I suggest that Rapid Redux should win the Eclipse award for Horse of the Year. Setting aside the issue of whether or not a claiming horse could actual defeat any “top” horses on the racetrack, the fact is no other horse in America was so tested, nor rose every time to the challenge, than Rapid Redux. He’s 17 for 17 this year, racing at seven different tracks, from 5-furlongs to 9-furlongs, and with six different riders. I know I’m in the minority here, but with no other clear-cut candidate, if I had a vote, it would be for him. Let the flame fest begin!

In retrospect, other than Perfect Shirl’s whopping upset in the F&M Turf, the restricted-gender races were quite formful. Juvenile Filly Turf winner Stephanie’s Kitten hadn’t missed a placing in four starts, including a Grade 1 victory in the Alcibiades last out. F&M Sprint winner Musical Romance had placed in eight of 13 starts this year, including a narrow second-place in the Grade 1 Princess Rooney in July, a win in the Grade 2 PID Masters’ followed up by another close runner-up finish in the Grade 2 Thoroughbred Club of America at Keeneland. Juvenile Filly winner My Miss Aurelia, undefeated in three starts, had won the Grade 1 Frizette last out, while Ladies’ Classic (Distaff) winner Royal Delta had won three of six starts, including the Grade 1 Alabama before her runner-up finish behind Havre de Grace in the Grade 1 Beldame. Interestingly, none of those BC winners saw a jockey change, except Perfect Shirl. That filly had run six times this year without a victory, but was in the money four times including a narrow second-place finish in the Grade 2 Canadian most recently.

The juveniles also provided little in the way of surprises. Juvenile Sprint winner Secret Circle remained undefeated, as did Juvenile male Hansen while Juvenile Turf winner Wrote had never missed a placing, including a third in the Group 2 Royal Lodge at Newmarket. None of the juvenile winners had raced too early in the year either: Stephanie’s Kitten (four starts since July 9), My Miss Aurelia (three starts since July 22), Secret Circle (two starts since July 23), Wrote (four starts since August 15), and Hansen (two starts since September 9).

While those stats are understandable, the other results in open company races defied logic in some instances. Marathon winner Afleet Again hadn’t won in eight starts this year; his last victory was back in April 2010, in the Grade 3 Withers—14 starts ago! Mile winner Court Vision won last year’s Grade 1 Woodbine Mile, but had been unplaced in four starts this year including a seventh-place finish last out. Far more seemingly qualified and formful horses just couldn’t pull it together, perhaps just indicative of how poor in quality racing has become at the highest level in this country, regardless of surface and distance. Why? In many instances I’m convinced it’s poor or overly-ambitious placement, chasing the Derby dream or aiming for all the wrong events. Or perhaps the Breeders’ Cup races themselves have become too diluated…

Other random thoughts:
  • Mile winner Caleb’s Posse ran arguably the most impressive BC race, closing like a freight train to snatch victory from a game Shackleford, the latter looking amazing fresh making his 10th start of the year. If they return as 4-year-olds, I’d love to see them hook up again in the Grade 1 Met Mile and other events between 7- and 8.5-furlongs. Please, avoid the temptation to stretch them out.
  • Running Uncle Mo in the Classic was not brave or gutsy; it was pure selfish egotism and nothing more. Not only did he have to overcome a serious illness this year, but also take on more battle-tested older horses going a distance he had never attempted. It was a ridiculous thing to ask of him—and someone should have known better. A start in the Dirt Mile would have been far more appropriate, although I’m not sure even he could have defeated Caleb’s Posse or Shackleford.
  • Talk about a powerhouse prep race for the Breeders’ Cup! Since its inaugural running five years ago, the Presque Isle Masters’ Stakes has produced 3 consecutive F&M Sprint winners: Informed Decision (2009), Dubai Majesty (2010) and Musical Romance (2011). Kudos to PID’s Tapeta surface for providing just the right amount of fitness conditioning, and to the trainers wise enough to make this out-of-the-way track a key stop on the road to the Breeders’ Cup.
  • While at the time the Grade 1 Travers looked good, turns out the Grade 1 Haskell was even better, with runner-up Shackleford second in the Dirt Mile and Ruler On Ice third in the Classic behind older horses. Travers winner Stay Thirsty and runner-up Rattlesnake Bridge finished well-back in the Classic.
  • Who would have thought that another key race this year would have been the 5-horse Grade 2 Brooklyn Handicap? In addition to Marathon winner Afleet Again who finished dead-last, the winner Birdrun ran second in the Marathon, while runner-up Drosselmeyer captured the Classic.
  • And joke all you will about D’Tara, but the Grade 1 Belmont Stakes provides just the type of stamina test our best horses need. 2010 Belmont winner Drosselmeyer and fourth-place finisher Game on Dude fleshed out this year’s Classic exacta, while Ruler on Ice justified his Belmont win this year with his third-place showing in the Classic—not to mention Belmont third-place finisher Brilliant Speed turned in a spectacular appearance capturing third in the Turf, and fifth-place finisher Shackleford ran second in the Dirt Mile. All hail, Big Sandy!