Get ready, everyone! The Triple Crown is over and less than 4 ½ months remain until the 2018 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs, which means it’s time to start ranking the top contenders for each race.
In this new weekly series, I’ll rotate through the thirteen different Breeders’ Cup divisions, focusing on one or two races per week while placing an emphasis on the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I), the much-anticipated annual highlight of the championships.
Let’s kick things off by ranking the top contenders for the Classic….
The undefeated Triple Crown winner has to be considered the early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic by virtue of his speed, talent, accomplishments, and durability—just look what he achieved this spring, rising from an unraced maiden in February to become one of the sport’s greatest stars in recent memory. He’s already run fast on the speed figure scales and might get faster as he matures later in the season, much like 2015 Triple Crown winner American Pharoah. Furthermore, the fact that Justify won the Kentucky Derby going ten furlongs at Churchill Downs (the same conditions as this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic) is another positive since Churchill Downs can be a tricky track for some horses to handle.
Justify’s older stablemate made a name for himself with wins in the Travers Stakes (gr. I) and Pennsylvania Derby (gr. I) last year and subsequently rattled off a trio of strong efforts against tougher company when third in the Breeders’ Cup Classic and second in the Pegasus World Cup (gr. I) and Dubai World Cup (UAE-I).
Ten furlongs isn’t an issue for West Coast, and he’s certainly got speed—check out the 117 Beyer that he fired off in the Pegasus World Cup. His defeat as the favorite in the Dubai World Cup could be considered disappointing by some, but he was compromised by a wide trip over a track that strongly favored horses racing on the inside, so there’s no reason he shouldn’t return to top form over fair tracks following his spring break from racing.
He’s already won two high-class races going ten furlongs this year, cruising to impressive victories in both the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (gr. I). While he might lack the overall flashy past performances boasted by Justify and West Coast, Accelerate seems to be putting everything together and finding his best stride as a five-year-old, adding further depth to California’s contingent for the Breeders’ Cup.
The impressive winner of the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I) did benefit from a favorable track bias, but the way he crushed the likes of U.S. shippers West Coast, Mubtaahij, Pavel, and Forever Unbridled to win by 5 ¾ lengths was eye-catching. Whether he can repeat it under less favorable circumstances is open to question, but the Godolphin-owned four-year-old would have to be viewed as a threat if he ships for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
I’m not sure if Bee Jersey really wants to run ten furlongs, but he’s been a beast going a mile this year for trainer Steve Asmussen, recording four straight wins at four different tracks. In his most recent effort, he posted steady fractions of :23.08, :45.71, and 1:09.28 in the Runhappy Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) before holding off the multi-millionaire Mind Your Biscuits to win by a nose in 1:33.13, running the final quarter-mile in a quick :23.85 seconds. If Bee Jersey stretches out in distance this summer, he could become an intriguing player for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Following a lengthy string of defeats against tough company, Pavel caught an easier field in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I) at Churchill Downs and responded with a resounding triumph, rolling past the leaders with authority to win going away by 3 ¾ lengths. With that confidence-building effort under his belt, Pavel could be poised for a strong summer.
The champion two-year-old male of 2017 reached his peak during the spring with a game runner-up effort behind Justify in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and ran well again when beaten just a length by that rival in the Preakness Stakes (gr. I). The son of Curlin is bred to improve with maturity, a development he’ll likely need if he is to turn the tables on Justify later this year.
He was no match for Bee Jersey when seventh in the Metropolitan, but Good Samaritan has always been better going longer and ran very well at Churchill Downs when beaten a half-length in the Clark Handicap (gr. I) last fall. He deserves a chance to rebound going nine or ten furlongs this summer.
Granted, Mendelssohn finished last in the Kentucky Derby after a rough trip, and granted, he rode a strong track bias to victory in the UAE Derby (UAE-II) back in March. But this son of Scat Daddy has shown enough talent throughout his career to suggest that the Breeders’ Cup Classic might not be out of his league, and with a trip to the Breeders’ Cup already penciled in on his schedule, Mendelssohn is one to keep an eye on this year.
He was no match for Accelerate when finishing second in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, but this improving son of Lookin at Lucky has made great strides this year for trainer Bob Baffert and his best might still be to come.