Don’t look now, but the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park is just more than five months away, and the first North American leg of the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series kicks off this weekend.
Handicappers will be happy to know several key Breeders’ Cup divisions look wide open this year, which should make the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series races exciting and competitive. Let’s quickly run through seven of the primary Breeders’ Cup divisions and examine how they’re shaping up with five months to go.
It’s safe to say the Classic division is pretty much in shambles at this point. Two-time Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Thunder Snow might be the early favorite, because he thrives running 1 1/4 miles and has repeatedly proven himself against top company. But he isn’t even based in the United States, and most members of the home team have either done their best running at shorter distances (think McKinzie) or have yet to run particularly fast in terms of Beyer speed figures (like the entire 3-year-old crop, including Maximum Security, Country House and War of Will).
Gift Box did show some serious potential while edging McKinzie in the 1 1/4-mile Santa Anita Handicap (G1), but overall this division could be ripe for someone to step up their game and dominate through summer. Potential candidates include last year’s Travers Stakes (G1) winner Catholic Boy, fresh off a win in the Dixie Stakes (G2) on turf, or perhaps Arkansas Derby (G1) winner Omaha Beach on the comeback trail after undergoing surgery to correct an entrapped epiglottis.
Last year’s Distaff winner and champion 3-year-old filly Monomoy Girl is the horse everyone is waiting to see, but an episode of colic has delayed her 4-year-old debut. That’s the bad news, but the good news is her old rival Midnight Bisou is in great form. She has three straight wins this season, including a triumph in the Apple Blossom Handicap (G1). The veteran Elate is also back for another campaign, while She’s a Julie is on the rise, with a recent win in the La Troienne Stakes (G1) marking her best effort to date. As I outlined in my Breeders’ Cup Distaff Top 10, there’s a lot of quality in this competitive division.
Which Europeans might make the trip won’t be clear for months yet, and even the home team for the Turf is a bit up in the air. Bricks and Mortar, undefeated in three runs this year and with two grade 1 wins under his belt, could be the main U.S. hopeful, but he’s unproven running 1 1/2 miles. So far he’s been a middle-distance specialist, so he could just as easily cut back in distance for the Mile. At least we know Channel Maker can handle 1 1/2 miles, but while his recent win in the Man o’ War (G1) was a nice rebound off a series of losing efforts, he seems to prefer larger turf courses (with milder turns) than the one he’ll find at Santa Anita.
As with the Turf the Europeans figure to hold a strong hand, but we won’t know who to expect to see at Santa Anita until autumn. But that’s OK, because the home team runs deep. Bricks and Mortar could be dangerous if he cuts back in distance, while tried-and-true milers Delta Prince (winner of the grade 1 Makers’ 46 Mile) and Catapult (runner-up in last year’s Mile) remain in good form this year and figure to make noise in grade 1 events throughout the summer and fall.
Filly & Mare Turf
Depth and quality runs deep in the Filly & Mare Turf division. Last year’s winner, Sistercharlie, has yet to make her 2019 debut, but in her absence, we’ve seen Rushing Fall win the Jenny Wiley Stakes (G1), Homerique surge to victory in the Beaugay Stakes (G3) and Competitionofideas finish a strong second in the Beaugay five months after winning the Americans Oaks (G1). And those are just the top contenders trained by Chad Brown. Outside of Brown’s remarkably deep stable, Irish shipper Magic Wand (fourth in the 2018 Filly & Mare Turf) looks like a big player for trainer Aidan O’Brien. Magic Wand has already traveled to the U.S. twice this year, when she finished second behind Bricks and Mortar in the Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) and third behind Channel Maker in the Man o’ War Stakes (G1).
Two-time Sprint winner Roy H will be seeking a historic three-peat this fall. While he missed a scheduled start in the March 30 Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1) because of a hoof abscess, his season-opening win in the Jan. 19 Palos Verdes Stakes (G2) was effortless and he’ll have a home-track advantage at Santa Anita. He might well need it, because Mitole looked powerful winning the Churchill Downs Stakes (G1) and is an up-and-coming 4-year-old to watch. Throw in the Golden Shaheen winner X Y Jet and versatile Carter Handicap (G1) winner World of Trouble, and you have the makings for a high-quality division. And that’s without mentioning grade 1 winners Promises Fulfilled, Whitmore and Imperial Hint, who can all be competitive on their best days.
Filly & Mare Sprint
No clear leader has emerged in the Filly & Mare Sprint division, in part because last year’s winner, Shamrock Rose, is winless in three starts this season. She most recently finished fifth in the Madison Stakes (G1) at Keeneland. The Madison was won by Spiced Perfection, in a photo finish over Amy’s Challenge, but those two subsequently struggled home fourth and third in the Humana Distaff (G1) behind Mia Mischief and Marley’s Freedom. Perhaps a talented 3-year-old, like six-time graded stakes winner Bellafina or Break Even (undefeated in four starts, including the grade 2 Eight Belles Stakes) can seize command of the division this summer.