Pletcher and Baffert: U.S. best bets in Breeders’ Cup

| August 3, 2011

Another weekend of major races has passed and just over 90 days remain until the two-day Breeders’ Cup returns to Churchill Downs, but both heart and mind are barking the same message to me.

Their message has changed little in recent weeks, but a variation was inserted last weekend. European horses are going to dominate the two days of competition in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.

The addendum: if U.S. horses win any races they will likely be trained by Todd Pletcher or Bob Baffert.

Stars with accents

Performances by U.S. horses on dirt, grass or synthetic continue to be mostly uninspiring affairs, but the European sports pages are filled with the exploits of the unbeaten Frankel, who is unlikely to make the trip across the pond this year for the Breeders’ Cup, and the redoubtable superstar Goldikova, who won last year’s Mile at Churchill Downs and showed her readiness for a bid for a unprecedented – and, quite frankly, unbelievable – fourth consecutive win in that race.

Goldikova, the Grand Dame of international racing, won last weekend’s Prix Rothschild at France’s Deauville for (do we see a trend developing here) a fourth consecutive year. The win under Olivier Peslier was her 14th in a Grade I or Group I event – racing’s highest level of competition – in Europe or abroad.

The best news U.S. horses could have is that trainer Sir Henry Cecil apparently has no set of plans that include the Breeders’ Cup as a year-end stop for Frankel. After a spectacular win over five-time Group 1 winner Canford Cliffs in last week’s Sussex at Britain’s Goodwood, Sir Henry – one of the most accomplished trainers in the history of European racing – showered uncommon praise on the 3-year-old son of Galileo.

“He’s definitely the best horse I’ve ever seen in my lifetime,” Cecil said.

Let’s put it this way: if Frankel came to Churchill Downs to face Goldikova to face the great mare in the mile, it’s doubtful the great lady would be favored.

Another rising European star that could end up at Churchill this fall is Nathaniel, a 3-year-old who outran 2010 Epsom Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner Workforce in the recent King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. He is Arc-bound and a big run there could earn trainer John Gosden’s colt a trip to Louisville for the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Won 2008 Classic

Gosden’s most notable Breeders’ Cup success came when he saddled Raven’s Pass to win the 2008 Classic over Santa Anita’s now-replaced synthetic surface.

Cecil has another monster in Midday, who scored her third straight win in the Nassau at Goodwood last weekend. She won the Filly & Mare Turf two years ago at Santa Anita, but was upset by longshot Shared Account in the 2010 renewal of that Breeders’ Cup event at Churchill Downs.

Another horse casting a large shadow over U.S. horses in the approaching Breeders’ Cup is So You Think, an Australian import who now does his work for Irish champion trainer Aidan O’Brien.

Aussie legend

Dubbed perhaps the best horse he’d trained by Bart Cummings, an Aussie legend who has dominated racing Down Under for more than 60 years, O’Brien has also been effusive in his praise for a horse that could show up at Churchill Downs in the $5 million Classic. It would be his debut on traditional dirt, but that should be little problem for such an accomplished horse over a main track that is so kind to grass and synthetic runners. And So You Think is only one card in a strong hand of horses O’Brien could bring to Louisville.

Pletcher is hot

So with those Euro stars and many others looming, good things continued to happen for Pletcher and Baffert. Pletcher is winning races in bunches at Saratoga and collected victories in the Jim Dandy for 3-year-olds with Stay Thirsty, a non-factor in the Kentucky Derby, and stable newcomer Sidney’s Candy, who scored a front-running win in the Fourstardave on grass. The latter is also capable on dirt and synthetics and could be aimed the Classic or Dirt Mile, either of which would be preferable to facing the imposing Euro brigade pointing toward the Mile on grass.

Baffert saddled the weekend’s most impressive winner in Mike Pegram’s Coil, who shipped from California and overcame a poor start to nail Preakness winner Shackleford on the wire in the Haskell Invitational at Monmouth Park. Belmont Stakes winner Ruler On Ice was a non-threatening third.

A late bloomer

Coil, a son of Baffert’s 2001 3-year-old champion and Horse of the Year Point Given, is a lightly-raced late bloomer that has now placed himself in championship consideration in a U.S. 3-year-old division. But he’s a long way other impressive U.S. winner in recent days was the 3-year-old filly Winter Memories, who sparkled in an easy win for trainer James Toner in the Lake George on grass at Saratoga. She suffered her only career loss last fall in a runner-up finish in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf over Churchill Downs’ Matt Winn Turf Course. But her most likely Breeders’ Cup targets would seem to be the Mile or Filly & Mare Turf, both of which figure to be loaded with Euro stars.

Resurgent star?

It’s a familiar tune from this corner, but I keep looking for U.S. horses that could be major players at Churchill Downs in November, but just don’t see them. I’m holding out hope that Uncle Mo, who could return in Saratoga’s King’s Bishop, will be a resurgent star by Breeders’ Cup time after a difficult spring.

But looking ahead to the record eighth Breeders’ Cup at Churchill Downs, it’s difficult to imagine anything other than one of the most successful raids ever by European horses – including major wins on turf and dirt.

Unless U.S. stars step up drastically over the next few weeks, this renewal of the Championships at Churchill Downs seems likely to be one with an accent – be it one from Britain, France, Ireland, the Persian Gulf or any combination thereof.

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