DEL MAR, Calif. – With all eyes focused on morning line favorite Gun Runner and the talented Arrogate, this could be the year we see an unlikely visitor to the Breeders’ Cup Classic winners’ circle.
It certainly has a very good chance to be a Bob Baffert-trained horse, who has four from his barn entered in the race, including last year’s winner, Arrogate.
The climactic event of the two-day racing festival being held at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club for the first time ever has a purse of $6 million and will have a say in this year’s Horse of the Year. Post time for the Classic is 8:35 p.m. EDT on NBC (Ch. 2).
Both of the big two names have questions surrounding their chances in the final of 13 Breeders’ Cup races over the weekend, where the turf meets the surf.
Gun Runner has never won at a mile-and-a-quarter and lost his only meeting with Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup in March. He comes off an impressive summer capturing the Stephen Foster and the two older handicap races at Saratoga, the Whitney and the Woodward, all in convincing fashion.
He holds the best form in training right now moving onto the big southern California stage on a foreign track. Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen thinks he’ll handle the new surface, just as he’s handled others on route to the No. 1 ranking in the National Thoroughbred Racing Association poll since late July.
“As far as Del Mar and never running over the racetrack, he has accepted quite a few racetracks,” said Asmussen. “He has traveled well and, you know, nothing but respect for a deep and quality field in this year’s Classic.”
Arrogate, after having one of the best four-race streaks of all-time winning last year’s Travers and BC Classic followed by the inaugural Pegasus and the aforementioned World Cup, has lost two straight over the Del Mar strip. Questions on whether his sublime World Cup effort gutted him or that he just doesn’t fancy the San Diego track, hover over last year’s 3-year-old champion.
Baffert, who has won three straight Classics, all with 3-year-olds, is as baffled as any regarding Arrogate’s regression, but he isn’t quite ready to blame the racing surface. “I think he’ll handle this fine,” said Baffert. “I mean in the Pacific Classic, he actually ran a pretty good race there, you know? But I’m not going to use that as an excuse. I think he just wasn’t bringing it and I think now, he looks great.”
Mike Smith who rode him through the streak and the two Del Mar losses retains the mount, but you have to wonder if he would rather ride Travers and Pennsylvania Derby winner West Coast (6-1). If not for losing by a head in his third career race West Coast would be coming into the Classic on a seven-race win streak.
Javier Castellano gets the mount on the 3-year-old son of Flatter. He’ll try to keep the streak of sophomores winning the Classic started by Bayern in 2014 and followed by Triple Crown winner American Pharoah (2015) and Arrogate (2016). It will be his first ride aboard West Coast, the impressive late bloomer who missed the Triple Crown season.
“I just feel very fortunate that I’m in this situation,” said Baffert on Thursday morning in front of barn BB. “He (West Coast) came around a little late, but he keeps getting stronger and stronger. We have won it with 3-year-olds before, so that goes to show you that they can compete this time of year, but it’s a tall order,” said Baffert.
If Arrogate and West Coast weren’t enough, Baffert has a horse who won the Grade 1 Pacific Classic at the classic mile-and-a-quarter distance over the same track. Collected (6-1) held off Arrogate from the inside, which was the place to be that day, to post the victory.
“He’s on the outside, but he likes this track, he’s a front runner so he’ll be forwardly placed. I would have preferred him to be a little bit inside. The break is important, he could be on the lead or laying second, whatever, but he’s quick. He’s a fast horse that likes this place,” said Baffert.
Baffert has an amazing statistic this year in that he has won 35 percent of his starts of his horses that won their last race. This scenario fits both West Coast and Collected, in addition to Mubtaahij (12-1), his fourth entry in the race.
Is there a horse who could surprise the four logical horses mentioned above in the race? Gunnevera (30-1) could be an interesting horse to use underneath in the exotics, due to his late closing style. If the race would happen to melt down, Antonio Sano’s son of Dialed In could pick up the pieces.
He finished a strong second to West Coast in the Travers, where there was no pace to run at. There’s likely to be a little more speed involved on Saturday. He comes into the race “fresh” according to Sano who has trained up to the Classic since Saratoga.
“He has got more weight since New York, we’re hoping for a big performance from him on Saturday,” said Alex Sano, the trainer’s son on the Del Mar backside Thursday morning. “He’s adapted well to the surface so far, so that’s something to be happy about.”
It was a toss up for me between Collected and West Coast, but either way we'll see Baffert in the Del Mar winner's circle.
Post Time Outlook: 1 –Collected, 2-West Coast, 3-Gun Runner, 4-Arrogate
Gene Kershner, a Buffalo-based turf writer, is a member of the National Turf Writers and Broadcasters Association, and tweets @EquiSpace.
POST POSITION CHART
$6 Million Breeders’ Cup Classic – Del Mar - Post Time: 8:35 p.m. ET
|3||Win the Space||Papaprodromou||Talamo||30-1|
|4||War Story||Navarro||Ortiz J||30-1|