Breeders’ Cup 2017: Reflections on champions past, present, and yet to come

Profile Picture: Kellie Reilly

November 6th, 2017

From a handicapping post-mortem perspective, the 2017 Breeders’ Cup boils down to a woulda-coulda-shoulda for me, so there’s much food for thought from the Del Mar extravaganza.

Gun Runner ascendant

The “nephew” of 2005 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1)-winning Horse of the Year Saint Liam has now emulated his uncle. Even more laudable, Gun Runner did so by beating a rival in the form of his life – Collected – at his own front-running game. Although the beautifully bred son of Candy Ride was already beginning his transformation into a beast over the winter, he reached a new level after his runner-up effort in the Dubai World Cup (G1). I used to think that Street Cry (the 2002 World Cup winner) and Victory Gallop (third in 1999) were even better after returning from Dubai, but neither finished his season. Gun Runner is now the poster boy for post-Dubai stardom as the undisputed Horse of the Year, under perfect management by Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen.

Conversely, it’s painful to watch how World Cup winner Arrogate has fallen from his pedestal. In hindsight, my blind hope that he would be back to his best in his Classic title defense was no more than that, a bad case of hope-dicapping rather than grimly logical handicapping.

Deeply satisfying Distaff

After planning to pick Forever Unbridled on top for some time, I stupidly swooned for Elate in the end, but even that lapse of judgment didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for the outcome. Form students can rarely find a neater result, since Forever Unbridled had finished a superb third to Beholder and Songbird in the 2016 Distaff, and she picked up the mantle by beating Songbird in the Personal Ensign (G1). The last-minute jockey switch from Joel Rosario (whom I really felt bad for) to John Velazquez worked just as well, as the Hall of Famer gave her a perfectly-timed ride. And Dallas Stewart executed a brilliant training regimen for a mare who’d been sidelined earlier in the year and raced just twice ahead of the Breeders’ Cup. Abel Tasman, who I’d feared had gone over the top, rebounded in a strong-closing second to remind everyone that yes, she is the champion three-year-old filly. Funny that the Bob Baffert runner I was more concerned about ran perhaps the best race of the lot of them.  

What-might-have-beens linger on the turf

Godolphin swept the Turf (G1) and Filly & Mare Turf (G1) with career-best efforts from the surprising Talismanic and the more foreseeable Wuheida. But it’s difficult for me not to indulge in counterfactuals. What if Turf morning-line favorite Ulysses hadn’t been scratched? Doesn’t his wicked turn of foot carry the day? Or am I still stubbornly underestimating Talismanic? The blaze-faced looker took a substantial leap forward in American conditions, setting a new course record over the valiant Beach Patrol and Highland Reel, who turned out to be vulnerable second off the layoff after missing most of the fall.

I was never a fan of shortening the Filly & Mare Turf to nine furlongs – mainly because it changes the character of the race from more of a classic test to an extended mile – but having 14 horses scrambling for position from the diagonal chute turned it into a rugby scrum. Lady Eli was badly struck into early, suffering lacerations and puncture wounds, and accordingly couldn’t pick up as usual in her swan song. We’ll never know exactly where she would have finished with a clean trip, but it’s safe to say much better than seventh. After all, she’d previously won 10 of 13 and was beaten less than a length combined when second in her other three. You also had to feel for Rhododendron, whose win chance went out the window as soon as she drew post 14, yet she finished a mighty second to Wuheida.

The Mile (G1) didn’t have the same degree of regret, since the victorious World Approval ran just as well as he was entitled to, and thereby clinched a divisional title. But it was frustrating to watch my audacious pick Zelzal travel like a dream just behind the pace, then sit, suffer, and steady in the stretch. Finally having room to maneuver on the inside, he was beaten less than two lengths in sixth in a wall of horses. Had Zelzal seen appreciable daylight earlier, he might well have grabbed second.

Indecipherable sprints

If I’d have known that Unique Bella was going to try to wire the Filly & Mare Sprint (G1), I never would have picked her. The whole point of running there, or so I thought, was that the oft-headstrong filly would settle rather than pulling fiercely. Particularly after she drew post 11, I anticipated a trip similar to the L.A. Woman (G3) – close up before kicking on for home. Perhaps that was always too rosy a scenario, but when she blazed away early, it was a case of fingers crossed. She couldn’t sustain her pace and faded behind the inscrutable 66-1 Bar of Gold. Since near-misser Ami’s Mesa and Bar of Gold had run one-two in the Presque Isle Downs Masters (G2), that event has re-asserted its relevance to the Filly & Mare Sprint despite being on Tapeta. At any rate, this result reinforces my colleague Vance Hanson’s argument to ditch a separate champion female sprinter Eclipse Award.

Thankfully the males are a lot more straightforward. Roy H has an impeccable case as the Sprint (G1) champion, who should have gone unbeaten this season but for terribly bad luck in the Bing Crosby (G1). And it was great to see Imperial Hint go so close. Remember how sick he’d gotten after shipping to Dubai, and having to scratch from the Golden Shaheen (G1)? Although I was too optimistic about Drefong in his Sprint title defense, especially after drawing post 2, would anyone have guessed that he’d never show a hint of his customary early speed? That was even more shocking than Bella leading in hers.

But the biggest curveball was Lady Aurelia’s failure to fire at all in the Turf Sprint (G1). While her career highlights have come at Royal Ascot, she’s no slouch over here either, as her victory in the Giant’s Causeway at Keeneland in April demonstrated. She appeared to be in good position, only to lack her typical punch. I could never have endorsed Stormy Liberal, not only off the layoff, but as a Santa Anita downhill aficionado who’d hadn’t run as short as five furlongs in his life. Stablemate Richard’s Boy made much more sense while living up to his penchant for close losses. Amazing that they served up the exacta for trainer Peter Miller, who also ruled the main track speedsters with Roy H.

Juveniles give much to look forward to in 2018

Although I feared Bolt d’Oro was in danger of regressing off his superlative FrontRunner (G1), my second choice Good Magic couldn’t really break his maiden in the Juvenile (G1), right? Well, there’s a first time for almost everything, and the son of Curlin broke through in this first opportunity to tackle two turns. He brings massive upside into his classic campaign, but Bolt d’Oro deserves extra plaudits for this third from an impossible tactical position. Hung out wide from post 11, he covered 78 feet (!) more than Good Magic, according to Trakus. Indeed, I thought he was ridden as if he were Big Brown in the 2008 Kentucky Derby (G1). Yet Bolt d’Oro still had the legs to finish the last sixteenth in :6.49, second-best to Good Magic’s :6.35, and fell just a length shy of overtaking Solomini for second. He was the only closer to get involved too, in a performance full of merit. Fourth-placer Givemeaminit is one of those Dallas Stewart types you’ve got to keep an eye on stretching out, and ditto for Dale Romans’ work-in-progress Hollywood Star who closed from last for sixth.

They’ve picked up a new rival on the Derby trail in Aidan O’Brien’s Mendelssohn, who continued his rapid progress with a professional score in the Juvenile Turf (G1). The $3 million half-brother to Beholder and Into Mischief refuted my doubts about whether he was mentally advanced enough for this. Sure, he was whinnying like a baby in morning training, studdish in the paddock, and jockey Ryan Moore believed he was idling in front. All are indicators that he’s still learning, so the fact he could win a Breeders’ Cup race anyway – engineering an ideal ground-saving, stalk-and-pounce trip – is a wildly encouraging sign for the future. And the Scat Daddy colt is a May 17 foal yet to fill out his frame. Apparently O’Brien’s right that he “grew another leg” once they put the blinkers on. Not to be overlooked was the terrific runner-up effort by my rooting interest, Animal Kingdom’s son Untamed Domain, who circled the field covering 68 feet more than Mendelssohn. Trained like Dad by Graham Motion, he might give the dirt a whirl himself. We haven’t seen the best yet from Voting Control, a troubled third. You can say the same for Catholic Boy, a close fourth off a two-month holiday, and Godolphin’s unlucky sixth Masar, who was hampered by William Buick’s losing an iron (on top of his six-wide passage into the lane).

Ground loss throughout didn’t hinder Rushing Fall from prevailing in the Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1), where only the insanely wide fifth Fatale Bere traversed more ground. Still, you’ve got to think O’Brien’s September would have given the winner a fight if she hadn’t fluffed the start, putting her third into perspective. I’ve long thought of the Deep Impact-Peeping Fawn daughter as an Oaks (G1) filly, and she’ll have abundant opportunity to fulfill her classic potential at home. So will her unfortunate stablemate Happily, who never saw daylight on the rail. In any event, it was a big ask for her to travel after missing the Fillies’ Mile (G1) with a temperature and dirty scope.

In the Juvenile Fillies (G1), I made the mistake of taking a dim view of the Frizette (G1) altogether, which led me to put aside its otherwise logical runner-up, Caledonia Road. Providing an immediate return on investment for new co-owner Newtown Anner Stud, the Ralph Nicks trainee uncorked a sustained rally to win handsomely. The pace collapse helped her cause, and the final time was much slower than Good Magic (1:45.05 compared to 1:43.34), making it more tempting to look for the Kentucky Oaks (G1) winner elsewhere. Yet Caledonia Road is by Abel Tasman’s sire Quality Road, and she’s eligible to keep progressing on the Oaks trail. Finally, I really want to see my troubled pick Wonder Gadot back on the dirt. Dropping farther back than expected early, the Medaglia d’Oro filly appeared to climb, possibly reacting to the unfamiliar spray, but she kept on through it and worked her way into the picture in the stretch. Unfortunately, she got squeezed back and sawed off in the midst of her rally, or else she would have been better than sixth. Since she was beaten all of a half-length for fourth, Wonder Gadot could have at least rounded out the superfecta. Fast-finishing Blonde Bomber would likely have been third anyway, while Alluring Star tired in second after pestering Moonshine Memories (seventh) early. Here’s hoping trainer Mark Casse perseveres on the dirt road with Wonder Gadot, although the Ontario-bred likely has the Canadian classics on her radar.

Bolt d’Oro and Wonder Gadot are both by top sire Medaglia d’Oro, who advertised his versatility by turning quite a Breeders’ Cup double with Talismanic in the Turf and Bar of Gold in the Filly & Mare Sprint.

Is it too early to look forward to Breeders’ Cup 2018 at Churchill Downs?

Gun Runner photo by Cecilia Gustavsson/

Talismanic and Good Magic courtesy of Wendy Wooley/EquiSport Photos