Like an abstract painting that you’ve stared at for far too long, the 38th running of the Breeders’ Cup – now just six weeks away – is suddenly snapping into shape.
Many horses whose connections are aiming for the two-day “World Championships” of thoroughbred horse racing already have earned a spot in the starting gate at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6, either via a “Win and You’re In” qualifying race or a victory in some other prestigious stakes.
For those that haven’t, it’s put up or shut up time in a flurry of races beginning this weekend.
Much of the focus Saturday will be on Parx Racing, formerly Philadelphia Park, where two stakes with possible Breeders’ Cup implications will be run.
Tops is the $1 million Pennsylvania Derby for 3-year-olds, led by 5-2 morning line favorite Hot Rod Charlie, runner-up in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile and this year’s Belmont Stakes, and his star-crossed rival Midnight Bourbon, who fell after clipping heels with Hot Rod Charlie in the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, then was nipped by Essential Quality in the Travers Stakes last month at Saratoga.
The Grade 1 race, which also drew other familiar faces from the Triple Crown, Keepmeinmind (8-1), Weyburn (12-1) and Bourbonic (12-1), would have been even more interesting had trainer Bob Baffert not withdrawn Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit. Baffert made the call on Tuesday, saying he was unhappy that the colt drew the 9 hole for the race.
A victory in the 1⅛th mile race, which also features several late blooming sophomores, would likely pave the way for an entry in the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Nov. 6, where the victor can expect to face the likes of top older horse Knicks Go and likely 3-year-old champ Essential Quality, both trained by Brad Cox, as well as other seasoned foes like Code of Honour, Maxfield, Max Player and others.
The preceding race on Saturday at Parx, the $1 million Cotillion Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, also could have ramifications for the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. The Steve Asmussen-trained Clariere is the 2-1 morning line favorite.
A tragedy and a farewell
Very sad news from across the pond on Thursday when the Daily Racing Form reported that Santa Barbara, who captured two Grade 1 races in the U.S. this summer, had been euthanized after suffering complications from a fractured pelvis.
The 3-year-old filly had been considered likely to return for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf at Del Mar after capturing both the Belmont Oaks Invitational Stakes in July and the Beverly D. Stakes last month at Arlington Park with an explosive turn of foot.
Trainer Aidan O’Brien had said earlier in the week that the daughter of Camelot, whom he and his wife also bred, had suffered a “setback” after the injury.
It pales in comparison, but it was announced Thursday that the sensational mare Monomoy Girl has been retired after suffering a minor injury while training at Churchill Downs on Tuesday. The 6-year-old mare, who will be bred at Spendthrift Farm, wraps up her scintillating career with 14 wins from 17 starts and two divisional championships for Cox.
Finally, Arlington Park will run what may be its final race on Saturday, after which owner Churchill Downs Inc. is expected to quickly announce which bidder will get the coveted property outside Chicago. Most observers are betting that won’t include horse racing, but slivers of hope remain for now.
Ellis Starr’s Pennsylvania Derby analysis
Trainer Bill Mott is in the Hall-of-Fame for many reasons, and one of those is his ability to know when a horse in his care is talented enough to compete at the top level. With that in mind, Speaker’s Corner is my top choice to win this year’s Pennsylvania Derby. Speaker’s Corner is the most lightly raced horse in the field, having run just three times. He debuted a little over one year ago and finished third then improved sensationally off the experience to win last October. Whatever kept him away from the races from last fall until last month is irrelevant now as Speaker’s Corner returned on Aug. 14 to win impressively, beating older horses at the distance of 7 furlongs, which is a difficult task off a long layoff. Jose Ortiz rode Speaker’s Corner for the first time last month and returns again with a colt that is highly likely to take a big step up second off the layoff, just as he did in his second career start. Considering Speaker’s Corner earned a 107 Equibase Speed Figure with the effort last month, he could easily run faster than favorites Hot Rod Charlie (113 in July) and Midnight Bourbon (109 last month). In addition to the physical and mental improvement expected in his second start off a layoff, we can also expect Speaker’s Corner to improve based on Bill Mott’s record when stretching a horse out from sprint to a route off in its second start off a layoff in the past two years. Specifically with 3-year-olds like Speaker’s Corner, Mott did this with Candy Man Rocket when saddling him to victory in the Sam F. Davis Stakes this winter, and with Art Collector last month in the Alydar Stakes at Saratoga. Additionally, owner/breeder Godolphin, whose Essential Quality is one of the top 3-year-olds of 2021, is on a hot streak as they owned the winners of the Summer Stakes, the Natalma Stakes, the Pattison Canadian International and the Jockey Club Derby Invitational last weekend. As such, it may be very difficult to pass on Speaker’s Corner as a win bet at high odds in this year’s Pennsylvania Derby.
Americanrevolution is also likely to go to the gate at high odds, even though he has a perfect three-for-three record in 2021. Moving to the barn of Todd Pletcher for his first start of the year and second of his career and following eight months off, Americanrevolution won a sprint, then improved dramatically stretching out to two turns for a seven-length win in the New York Derby. Better still, in the Albany Stakes last month at Saratoga and at the distance of the Pennsylvania Derby, Americanrevolution won in a hand ride by five lengths to earn a 108 figure which is logically going to be improved upon on his current pattern. Jockey Luis Saez, who recently captured the Saratoga riding title against the strongest jockey colony in North America, has been aboard for all three of the colt’s wins to date and will be in the saddle once again. A son of Constitution, whose Tiz the Law won four graded stakes as a 3-year-old last year, Americanrevolution has tremendous potential to run well in this race and I would not hesitate to bet him to win in addition to Speaker’s Corner if the odds are high.
Hot Rod Charlie is a street fighter of a horse, with a very strong competitive instinct backed up with great ability. First, second, or third in seven straight races, Hot Rod Charlie has never lost his physical edge since last October when earning his first win. Beaten one length when third in the Kentucky Derby and earning a career-best 109 figure in the process, Hot Rod Charlie battled head-and-head for most of the last half-mile in the often grueling Belmont Stakes five weeks later, beaten a bit over a length and 11 lengths clear of third place finisher Rombauer, who had just posted the upset win in the Preakness three weeks earlier. Then, in the Haskell Stakes in mid-July, Hot Rod Charlie did everything asked when beating Mandaloun by a nose, but was disqualified and placed last for drifting in with an eighth of a mile to go and, in the stewards’ view, causing Midnight Bourbon to trip and lose his jockey. That effort earned Hot Rod Charlie the best last race Equibase Figure in the field 113 which, if repeated, would make him very tough to beat. That is, if Speaker’s Corner and Americanrevolution don’t continue their patterns of improvement and run faster.
Midnight Bourbon has only won two of 11 career races, finishing second in four others. The best of those four came in his most recent race last month in the Travers. After leading from the start in an otherwise paceless race, Midnight Bourbon dug in and went head-and-head with Essential Quality for the entire last eighth of a mile, coming up a neck short and earning a 109 figure. Certainly if he can repeat that effort in the Pennsylvania Derby, Midnight Bourbon could be in the thick of the action at the finish.
The rest of the field, with their best Equibase Speed Figures: Bourbonic (100); Fulsome (102); I Am Redeemed (111); Keepmeinmind (106); and Weyburn (109).
Ellis Starr is the national racing analyst for Equibase. Visit the Equibase website for more on the race or to purchase handicapping products.