The 28th Breeders' Cup World Championships are less than a week away and more than 193 horses, including 29 from overseas, have been pre-entered to compete next weekend in Louisville. The Cup consists of 15 championship races for $26 million in purse money.
Churchill Downs will host thoroughbred racing's most prestigious global event for a record eighth time under the Twin Spires on Friday, Nov. 4, and Saturday, Nov. 5. The climactic event, the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, will once again feature a filly facing males with a legitimate shot at Horse of the Year. The 4-year old Havre de Grace will seek to become the second female to win the Classic. Zenyatta won the 2009 Classic at Santa Anita, before losing last year's epic battle to Blame under the lights at Churchill.
The major intrigue surrounding the Breeders' Cup involves many story lines that will develop over the two days at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Here's a snapshot of what to watch for, including the races I believe will receive heightened focus next weekend.
1. Can the filly prevail in the Classic? Facing males for the second time after prevailing in the Whitney at Saratoga, Havre de Grace's main challengers appear to be the likely post time favorite, Uncle Mo and Jockey Club Gold Cup champ Flat Out. Uncle Mo, the Derby favorite when the calendar turned in January, is working back from a gastrointestinal issue that sent him to the sidelines for the better part of a year. Flat Out has been working lights out for the past few weeks and figures to be in the mix after a strong summer. The addition of overseas shipper So You Think adds some mystique to the race, trying a dirt surface for the first time in 20 career races. If the track comes up wet, Stay Thirsty also has to be respected.
2. Will Goldikova capture her fourth straight Cup win in the Mile? The 6-year-old mare has finished first or second 23 times in 26 career races and has missed the board only once in a glorious career. No horse has ever captured four straight Breeders' Cups, and she seeks to etch her place in the permanent record books in the turf race that precedes the Classic. Both runners-up in the last two editions of the BC Mile are also entered. Three-time Eclipse award winner Gio Ponti, last year's runner-up, and Courageous Cat, second in 2009, have their sights on preventing the record-breaking attempt by Goldikova.
3. Ladies Classic features a battle of the ages. The 3-year old fillies that have dominated the division and the last three Grade 1 races will face off to most likely decide the divisional championship under the lights in Friday's finale. The Alabama champion Royal Delta, Coaching Club American Oaks winner It's Tricky and Cotillion champ Plum Pretty have taken turns all summer winning the division's major races. Plum Pretty also captured the Kentucky Oaks back in May over the Churchill strip. All three will receive a three-pound weight break from the others in the field. That's not to say some of the elders won't have a say in the outcome. The talented 4-year-old West Coast filly Switch will try the Ladies Classic for the first time. Ask the Moon swept the two Grade 1 races for older fillies and mares at Saratoga this summer, but faltered in her most recent outing in the Lady's Secret at Santa Anita. The 6-year-old has never raced at Churchill, and will have to be respected.
4. The Dirt Mile is loaded and figures to be wide open. The race to key on should have great betting value as this gate will be loaded with talent. I can see up to five runners in this field who have the ability to win this race. Preakness winner Shackleford shortens up after a long season running in the classics and mostly in route races. Cigar Mile champ Jersey Town could be sitting on a big one after struggling in the slop last time out. The mile distance could be just the answer trainer Kiaran McLaughlin has for the talented Trappe Shot. Trainer Bob Baffert will send out The Factor, a speed horse who should relish the mile distance, as well. Trainer Todd Pletcher could have up to three horses running in this race between Rule, Aikenite and Sidney's Candy, all very capable of capturing the win.
5. Is next year's Derby champion running in the Juvenile? It's never too early to search for your Derby horse and what better place to start than the BC Juvenile. Last year's winner, Uncle Mo, never made it to the gate on Derby day, but has reemerged as a top contender in this year's Classic. Union Rags appears to be the cream of the Juvie crop, and also sports an impressive win in the slop in the Grade 2 Saratoga Special. Hansen has won his only two career races in impressive fashion at Turfway Park. The grey Tapit colt won both races by a combined 25 1/2 lengths; this will be his first try on dirt going two turns. Lest you forget, last year's Kentucky Derby champion, Animal Kingdom, won his final prep at Turfway Park. Other horses that have piqued my interest in the Juvenile include Norfolk champ Creative Cause and the European shipper Daddy Long Legs, a Scat Daddy colt who will run for the talented conditioner, Aidan O'Brien. Lastly, Optimizer is an intriguing entry after a solid performance on the poly at Keeneland following two strong turf efforts at the Spa. He has a fabulous pedigree and could surprise at a price.
When studying the advance entries be sure to keep an eye on the weather should it change for the worse. The final post position draw for each of the 15 races will take place on Monday morning. With that amount of races to examine be sure to pick your spots and start looking for the races that should offer the most betting value.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer and handicapper who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com and tweets @EquiSpace.