2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic international scouting report: Roaring Lion, Thunder Snow, Mendelssohn

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

October 27th, 2018

Thunder Snow (c) Dubai Racing Club

While it’s nothing new for high-class Europeans to try the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), the gambit is typically an afterthought, and the discussion centers upon their chances of transferring international turf form to the dirt. This year is unusual in that just one of the invaders fits that profile – Roaring Lion. The others are not only old hands on the surface, but also enter with the benefit of an American prep.

So we’ll start our international homework by scouting out the dirt newcomer before looking at the more familiar protagonists.

ROARING LION: As the top-rated horse in the Classic according to the Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings, the winner of four straight Group 1s would pose a major threat if he runs up to form. Under John Gosden’s masterful tutelage, Roaring Lion has developed from a talented but wayward juvenile, who nearly threw away last fall’s Royal Lodge (G2) and then let Saxon Warrior come back on him in the Racing Post Trophy (G1), into Europe’s premier three-year-old colt.

Forget his first two efforts of the season. His distant third in the Craven (G3) can be chalked up to the hostile British winter that compromised his training, and he was still racing himself fit when a solid fifth to Saxon Warrior in the 2000 Guineas (G1), despite being somewhat isolated on the stands’ side.

Everything clicked, mentally and physically, third time out in the Dante (G2) at York, where Roaring Lion displayed a superb turn of foot to win decisively. His performance was a harbinger that about 1 1/4 miles was his ideal trip.

For that very reason, the French Derby (G1) was the classic to suit him best, but there’s only one Epsom, so his Qatar Racing connections gave him a chance at the 1 1/2-mile Derby (G1). Although he’s by Kitten’s Joy, Roaring Lion likely gets his lethal burst of speed from granddam Cambiocorsa, queen of Santa Anita’s downhill turf sprints, and there wasn’t enough stamina from his sire to carry him home in front. Rallying boldly before stalling late, he nevertheless underlined his class in third.

Roaring Lion’s been unbeatable since, all in major events versus elders. Back down to his optimal 1 1/4 miles, a more professional Roaring Lion got up to deny Saxon Warrior in the Eclipse (G1). He was downright imperious on his return to York for the Juddmonte International (G1), visually similar to the course-and-distance Dante, only this time he was pulverizing a far better field including Poet’s Word, Benbatl, and Thunder Snow.

His ensuing victories in the Irish Champion (G1) at Leopardstown and the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) at Ascot were much closer, but compelling for different reasons. The race shape was all against him in Ireland, where old nemesis Saxon Warrior had the scenario drawn up by playbook. Roaring Lion still had the terrific acceleration to run him down. If his feat was assisted by Saxon Warrior’s career-ending injury, his closing rush was remarkable enough.

The QE II deck was stacked against him as well, between the abrupt cutback in trip to a straight mile and the unsuitably soft going on Champions Day. Roaring Lion prevailed in the QE II on class alone because he never looked completely at home at any stage, just edging Breeders’ Cup Mile pre-entrant I Can Fly.

Two things can prevent him from duplicating his high standards in the Classic. First, the quick turnaround from the October 20 QE II, at the tail end of a long season that was not designed to culminate here, is a question. Gosden’s prior Classic score with Raven’s Pass (2008) isn’t terribly instructive, since he had a full month between his QE II victory and tackling Santa Anita’s old synthetic surface. Given Roaring Lion’s tough constitution, I’d give him benefit of the doubt.

But the second obstacle, the dirt, is more problematic. My hesitation is based upon Roaring Lion’s running style. His turn of foot is his biggest weapon, unlike the dirt-friendlier style of a galloper who kills you more by high cruising speed. That means he’ll likely face a lot of kickback – a concern for Gosden, who’s made it clear this is the owner’s call – or else go unfavorably wide to avoid it.

It’s true that Churchill Downs has been known to play kindlier to turf/synthetic performers than the garden variety main track, and Roaring Lion is a dual-surface winner having romped over Kempton’s Polytrack at two (interestingly attending the pace). His broodmare sire, Street Sense, certainly loved it at Churchill, so much so that he broke the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1)/Kentucky Derby (G1) jinx. Look out if he’s passed that trait on.

THUNDER SNOW: If you blotted out all his turf starts and looked only at his dirt resume, you’d find a respectable 8-4-3-0. That lone flop, though, is what sticks in the mind – his 2017 Kentucky Derby bucking bronco debacle, likely a case of an idiosyncratic colt reacting to the unfamiliar “wet-fast” surface splashing on him. The four-year-old Thunder Snow has given evidence of being more mature, and eligible to erase those unhappy memories of Churchill with a more representative effort.

Although the Godolphin colt’s resume strongly indicates he’s better on dirt, a few of his turf performances shed light on his overall quality. Twice he was able to capitalize on his tactical speed to capture Group 1s in France, the 2016 Criterium International (G1) and 2017 Prix Jean Prat (G1), and he nearly made it three when third in last summer’s Prix Jacques le Marois (G1). Thunder Snow’s placings in the Irish 2000 Guineas (G1) (to Churchill) and St James’s Palace (G1) (to Barney Roy) put him in proximity to the leaders of his generation.

That also puts his productive dirt career in context. Thunder Snow is not just a creature who makes hay at the Dubai Carnival, but a proper Group 1 animal on the international level. That said, trainer Saeed bin Suroor’s past Classic near-missers, Sakhee (repelled by Tiznow in 2001) and Swain (third in 1998 after his infamous drift to the outside rail), both had gaudier records on turf too.  

Thunder Snow first proved his affinity for dirt in the 2017 UAE 2000 Guineas (G3), attending the pace before drawing off from Bee Jersey, the future Met Mile (G1) winner. In the UAE Derby (G2), he showed the ability to ease behind the pace, helping his cause from post 13, only to undermine himself with a goofy run down the stretch. Regular rider Christophe Soumillon needed all his considerable skill to rescue the situation as Thunder Snow just barely recovered to nip Japan’s Epicharis.

After the “what-might-have-been” if the rain hadn’t hit ahead of the 2017 Derby, Thunder Snow had the opportunity to return to a fast dirt surface at the 2018 Dubai Carnival. He was never worse than second in four starts, but his fortunes were trip-dependent on the speed-favoring circuit.  

Off a step slow in the Maktoum Challenge Round 1 (G2), Thunder Snow was out of position and had no chance of catching Heavy Metal (the future Godolphin Mile [G2] winner). He secured a much better stalking position on the step up to about 1 3/16 miles in the Maktoum Challenge Round 2 (G2). Happier to be on the outside, and displaying perhaps a newfound focus and resolve, Thunder Snow relentlessly wore down North America to prevail by a neck. North America gained revenge in the Maktoum Challenge Round 3 (G1), when Thunder Snow was not the best away from post 2, and pinned among horses early, before settling for a distant second.

The situation was reversed in the Dubai World Cup (G1). Thunder Snow, again best served by being drawn on the outside, broke smartly, while North America whiffed it, and crucially, West Coast conceded the lead. “Soumi” was not one to let this chance get away, sending Thunder Snow onward, and he controlled the $10 million prize the rest of the way in a track-record 2:01.38.

Given a deserved vacation, Thunder Snow was not sighted again until the August 22 Juddmonte International (G1) at York. He wasn’t primed to handle Roaring Lion in any event, but losing two shoes likely contributed to his last-of-eight finish.

At least Thunder Snow got a warm-up for his U.S. prep, the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont Park, where his runner-up effort proved that he could transfer his Meydan form to the American dirt. Moreover, he showed tactical versatility by rating off the ferocious pace before swooping, and race-fitness likely told as he succumbed to Discreet Lover late.

Now Thunder Snow will make the Breeders’ Cup his third start off the layoff, so theoretically he’ll be at the top of his game. An outside post would be preferable to keep him free of kickback, and an inside post could be a negative. Regardless, he figures to get decent early position.

Aside from the obvious challenge of tackling the top dirt horses on American soil, Thunder Snow confronts an historical obstacle: no reigning Dubai World Cup winner has gone on to claim the Classic in the same year. The traffic goes the opposite way, with Classic winners thriving a few months later in Dubai. But Thunder Snow can do himself justice here.

MENDELSSOHN: Bidding to exorcise his Derby demons like Thunder Snow, Mendelssohn is likewise in line to make history. He’ll try to give Aidan O’Brien an elusive first Classic, while becoming the first horse to win Breeders’ Cup races on both turf and dirt.

The $3 million son of Scat Daddy has already added to the legacy of his illustrious dam, Leslie’s Lady, whose progeny are a perfect four-for-four in the Breeders’ Cup. Her multiple champion daughter Beholder won the 2012 Juvenile Fillies (G1) and two runnings of the Distaff (G1) (2013 and 2016), and Mendelssohn maintained the strike rate in last year’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).

A work in progress as a May 17 foal, Mendelssohn “grew another leg” after adding blinkers at two, in O’Brien’s phrase. He responded with a second in the Dewhurst (G1) on the way to Del Mar, where he parlayed the perfect trip into a career high in the Juvenile Turf.

I’ve been contrarian about his Breeders’ Cup win, considering that Catholic Boy might have needed the race (and didn’t have a great trip), Masar was desperately unlucky for the rider to lose his iron, and Mendelssohn needed only to take the silver platter handed him. But if like Thunder Snow, he prefers dirt, then that argument needs revision. He’d deserve extra credit for winning a major race on his second-best surface.

Mendelssohn’s perfunctory comeback in the Patton S. at Dundalk doesn’t tell us much, other than that he can win on synthetic too. That was simply a tightener for his show-stopping UAE Derby on Dubai World Cup night. Even allowing for the fact that Mendelssohn was entitled to transfer his game to dirt, this was ridiculous in the best sense of the word.

As outlined in my Dubai-Breeders’ Cup analysis, however, the circumstances of the UAE Derby combined to give him the perfect canvas to produce an 18 1/2-length romp in track-record time. Those circumstances have not obtained since, and additional factors complicate the picture.

Mendelssohn had no chance in the Kentucky Derby after being body-slammed at the start, and the unfamiliar sloppy conditions were enough to put him all at sea. O’Brien crafted a plan to bring back a savvier customer for the Breeders’ Cup, and his ensuing American raids have accomplished that objective.

At first blush, Mendelssohn’s badly tiring third to Firenze Fire in the Dwyer (G3) looks disappointing, but viewed through the prism of O’Brien’s plans, it was step one. Despite the well-publicized virus that hampered Ballydoyle in the height of summer, Mendelssohn hit the mark in step two with a much improved second to Catholic Boy in the Travers (G1).

Reportedly O’Brien’s initial idea was to train him up to the Classic. But he called an audible for the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which makes me wonder if that weren’t a case of going for the gold then, rather than hazarding all on the Breeders’ Cup. Indeed, Mendelssohn moved forward again with a stubborn third after chasing Diversify’s unsustainable pace. That was an ill-advised tactic, and Mendelssohn could have finished closer with more patient handling.

Hence the tactical conundrum in the Breeders’ Cup: will Ryan Moore continue to use his on-pace tactics, or revert to his turf/synthetic stalking style? Either way, Mendelssohn will have to do something he’s never done before: survive intense early pressure from high-caliber opposition, or stalk and pounce effectively on the dirt.

Mendelssohn will retire to Coolmore’s Ashford Stud for 2019, and his stud fee is hinging on the answer.

TOAST OF NEW YORK: Barring a couple more (unexpected) defections, the 2014 Classic near-misser is unlikely to draw into the main body of the field, and we’ll probably see him in the Marathon (G2) instead.

I covered “Toast’s” incredible trajectory, from world traveler to brief stud career and back again, in his Pegasus World Cup (G1) scouting report. Apparently he was a little too enamored of Stellar Wind in the preliminaries at Gulfstream, and subsequent gelding has given him another chance at racing. Launching his latest comeback for Jamie Osborne in the Lukas Classic (G3), he traveled like his old self and stuck on gamely, despite a wide trip, for second. It’s difficult to see him bridging the gap with Mind Your Biscuits, but a rejuvenated Toast can keep adding to his bankroll with judicious placement.