Big Blue Kitten smashes Fantastic Light's course record in Joe Hirsch, makes BC Turf statement
Big Blue Kitten stated his case to be regarded as the leading American-based hope for the Breeders' Cup Turf (G1) with a course record-smashing victory in Saturday's $600,000 Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park. Well handled by Joe Bravo, the Ken and Sarah Ramsey homebred stormed off the taxing pace set by his rabbit and finished 1 1/2 miles on the firm Widener course in 2:23.39 -- lopping nearly a full second off the old benchmark of 2:24.36 set by Fantastic Light in the 2001 Breeders' Cup Turf.
But before going too far in jubilation, it must be pointed out that Twilight Eclipse was a bitterly unlucky third. Stuck behind the winner's spent pacemaker, Shining Copper, turning into the stretch, Twilight Eclipse lost whatever meaningful chance he had as he sat, suffered, and at length finally made his way into the clear. West Point Thoroughbreds' old reliable regrouped and made up more than four lengths inside the final furlong, but he simply had too much to do, and came up about three-quarters of a length short.
Ironically, Big Blue Kitten had suffered similar trouble in the 2013 Joe Hirsch, where he was stymied on the inside, picked up strongly, and missed on an agonizing head-bob to Little Mike. In his second try at the Joe Hirsch in 2014, he finished fourth to subsequent Breeders' Cup Turf hero (and dual Eclipse Award champion) Main Sequence.
This marked Big Blue Kitten's third attempt at the Joe Hirsch, and it was a case of third time's the charm. Or as the British would say, third time lucky. Perhaps it was an omen that a horse named Third Time Lucky won the Cambridgeshire at Newmarket earlier Saturday. That angle didn't work for Twilight Eclipse, though, who was third time unlucky.
Shining Copper had held on much better in his two previous pacesetting roles, when fourth to Big Blue Kitten in the July 5 United Nations (G1) and an even closer third to The Pizza Man and Big Blue Kitten in the August 15 Arlington Million (G1). The difference on Saturday may well have been trying to carry that high speed over 1 1/2 miles. After opening up a massive lead through fractions of :23.79, :47.18, 1:11.45 and 1:35.26, he came back to the field at the 1 1/4-mile split in 1:59.48.
Big Blue Kitten, who had dropped as many as 19 lengths back early, was making the most noticeable headway on the final turn. Vaulting into contention on the outside, he swept past 8-5 favorite Red Rifle, his own stablemate Slumber, and the blocked Twilight Eclipse, and drew off by three lengths in midstretch. Just when the seven-year-old looked on the verge of emulating sire Kitten's Joy, an emphatic Joe Hirsch winner during his Eclipse campaign in 2004, Big Blue Kitten wandered to the outside.
That loss of concentration, or whatever it was, arrested his momentum, and allowed Slumber and Twilight Eclipse to cut the deficit late. Slumber just held second in the photo with Twilight Eclipse, giving trainer Chad Brown the exacta.
There was a 6 1/4-length gap back to the lackluster Red Rifle, who may have paid the price for racing second most of the way. For a horse whose recent improvement was tied to more patient tactics, he probably should have gotten the trip that the top two enjoyed. In any event, this was not the same Red Rifle of Saratoga, the dominant winner of the Bowling Green (G2) and clear second to French globetrotter Flintshire in the Sword Dancer (G1). After all, Red Rifle left Twilight Eclipse well astern in third that day.
But the mere mention of Flintshire brings up the other aspect of the Joe Hirsch: being arguably America's top Turf contender might not get you very far when the formidable Europeans come calling at Keeneland. Aside from Flintshire, such stalwarts as Free Eagle, The Grey Gatsby -- dare we hope even Golden Horn -- will be tougher to dispose of than the usual U.S. suspects.
If it hasn't started already, I'm sure that The Pizza Man's fan club is offering a "point of order" -- what of the Illinois-bred hero who edged Big Blue Kitten at Arlington? My instinct is that Big Blue Kitten did quite well to get within a neck of The Pizza Man on the latter's favorite course, and the 1 1/4-mile trip that's not as congenial to Big Blue Kitten. If The Pizza Man does choose the Turf over the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1) (a decision that won't be made until after next Saturday's Shadwell Turf Mile [G1]), I'd give an edge to Big Blue Kitten in their rematch over 1 1/2 miles at Keeneland.
The biggest hesitation about Big Blue Kitten in the Breeders' Cup is that there's a sense of deja vu. Back in 2013, he was in razor-sharp form with victories in the United Nations and Sword Dancer, and his woulda-coulda-shoulda in the Joe Hirsch. And yet he was only eighth in that season's BC Turf at Santa Anita. Bravo's adamant that Big Blue Kitten didn't run his race on that occasion. Fair enough, but he tried the Canadian International (G1) last fall and finished second to British shipper Hillstar, who was a solid chap at the time, but not quite in the league of the BC-bound Euros. Fourth in that same Canadian International was The Pizza Man.
I almost forgot to mention that the Joe Hirsch is a "Win and You're In" for the BC Turf. But Big Blue Kitten was already safely in the field, having secured a spot in a previous Breeders' Cup Challenge event, the United Nations.
Big Blue Kitten photo courtesy of NYRA/Adam Coglianese Photography.