Breeders’ Cup lineup is almost settled

| October 13, 2011

We’ve almost made it through the last of the preps for the 15 races of Breeders’ Cup 2011 at Churchill Downs and the roster of top stars is pretty much set, although we’re not exactly sure in which event those horses might run.

One of the most compelling questions is which horses will adapt to the one-mile dirt track at the home of the Kentucky Derby. Longtime readers of this column know my stand: the Churchill Downs dirt is handled by most horses, and is especially kind to horses that have raced on synthetic or grass surfaces.

If this is indeed true, and I believe the evidence is clear to anyone who really examines the seven previous Breeders’ Cup events held at Churchill Downs, the Euro stables will send strong candidates to bid for glory on the dirt.

Pilot error?

Wins by Arazi and Sheikh Albadou and near-misses in the Classic by Swain and Giant’s Causeway (with the latter losses attributed by many critics at home as being due to pilot error) should have those stables looking for dirt wins that could lift the international reputations of their runners, and future breeding prospects, to new heights.

The Breeders’ Cup is so anxious to find a star for this year’s event that it’s still promoting Zenyatta, retired for nearly a year following her runner-up to Blame in last year’s memorable finish in the Classic, as the centerpiece of its pre-event ad campaign. But there are compelling horses out there and each of those previous Breeders’ Cups at Churchill Downs have produced at least one finish that makes the list of top performances in the event’s more than quarter-century of existence.

Here is one observer’s opinion of the most intriguing horses that, if all goes well for the next month, will compete beneath the Twin Spires in the 2012 Breeders’ Cup.

Goldikova: The amazing French-mare is on track to bid for an unprecedented, and close to unbelievable, fourth consecutive win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile. She comes into this year’s race off back-to-back narrow losses, leading some observers to suggest the 6-year-old could have lost a step. But there’s also the possibility that trainer Freddie Head, with an eye toward her age, has been slowly bringing her to top form for the Mile.

So You Think: A top-level winner in Australia and Europe, he could add a Grade I win on a third continent in the Classic for trainer Aidan O’Brien. Fourth in the recent Arc de Triomphe after being given far too much to do by his rider, So You Think is expected to run Saturday on grass in the Qipco Champion Stakes at Britain’s Ascot in advance of a U.S. raid for his dirt debut in the Classic.

Aussie training legend Bart Cummings said last year that So You Think could be the best horse of his 58-year career.

A New Zealand-bred, Austrialian-based runner now trained by Ireland’s top trainer would place So You Think with Argentine-bred, Uruguayan Triple Crown winner Invasor as the most international of Classic winners.

Havre de Grace: trained by Hopkinsville-native J. Larry Jones for Fox Hill Farm, she could be the favorite for the $5 million Classic and her connections are shooting for Horse of the Year honors. She’s fast and whipped males in the Woodward (a feat previously accomplished only by Rachel Alexandra), and has a stalking running style that should fit the race well. The 1 1/4 mile distance against top-notch males might be her only question mark.

Uncle Mo: It’s easy to picture Uncle Mo being one of the heaviest favorites in Kentucky Derby history before an unusual illness resulted in a late scratch from the Run for the Roses.

He is coming off a fast win in the one-mile Kelso at Belmont Park which might not be as good as it looked, but the Uncle Mo buzz is back. A win in the Classic would be a spectacular achievement and would have us all wondering what might have been had he been a healthy horse on the First Saturday in May.

Union Rags: This 2-year-old scored an emphatic win in the Champagne and brings an unbeaten record into the Juvenile for Michael Matz, the trainer of 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro. Nothing Uncle Mo accomplished during his stellar 2-year-old campaign a year ago has impressed me more than Union Rags’ races this year.

Aruna: A romping winner of the Spinster on synthetic Polytrack at Keeneland, this grass star is an exceptional talent trained by Graham Motion, who saddled Animal Kingdom to win the Derby. Motion is tinkering with the idea of a run on dirt in the Ladies Classic and the Churchill Downs track, with its kindness to grass and synthetic runners, provides an excellent opportunity for that gamble.

Flat Out: The forgotten U.S. horse in the Classic, he would be one of the top stories of the Breeders’ Cup if he was trained by Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert rather than Kentucky veteran Scooter Dickey. If his problem feet hold up for four more weeks, he could be the bet of the Classic at odds a good bit longer than they should be.

Acclamation: This California-based grass star could take a shot at the Classic on dirt, and he will be a compelling longshot if he does. He has won five consecutive races and owner-trainer Bud Johnston said weather would determine if Acclamation runs in the Classic or the 1 1/2-mile Turf.  Given Acclamation’s Polytrack win in the Pacific Classic, he should handle the Churchill dirt and could be poised for a front-running upset.

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