Handicapping Insights: Jockey Club Gold Cup

Profile Picture:

TwinSpires Staff

October 2nd, 2018

By Dick Powell

In the 1978 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1), Triple Crown winners Affirmed and Seattle Slew met for the second time, the second time such a meeting had ever occurred. The first came earlier in the fall in the Marlboro Cup (G1) at nine furlongs and Seattle Slew and new rider Angel Cordero Jr. got the jump on Affirmed and never looked back covering the distance in 1:45 4/5. Affirmed skipped the Woodward Stakes (G1) that year and Seattle Slew easily beat Exceller.

They were all back for the Gold Cup at 1 ½ miles and Affirmed came with a rabbit – Life’s Hope. On a dreary Saturday afternoon over a very wet track, there was drama even before the race. Seattle Slew broke through the starting gate and luckily the assistant starter never let him go. He was re-loaded and at the bell, all three broke fast and went for the lead. Life’s Hope was doing his job but Affirmed’s saddle slipped and Steve Cauthen was holding on for dear life. To make matters worse, Cordero lost his irons out of the gate so both Triple Crown winners were engaged in a suicidal speed duel while their riders could do nothing about it.

The trio raced through the first quarter mile in 22 3/5 seconds, the half-mile in :45 1/5 and six furlongs in 1:09 2/5. Life’s Hope gave it up and Affirmed chased futilely. Cordero was back in the irons and suddenly had a big lead. But as soon as it looked like Seattle Slew was going to win, Bill Shoemaker came out of the clouds aboard Exceller. The Shoe was flying on the inside part of the track and Cordero was trying to give Seattle Slew a breather.

Cordero looked to his inside passing the three-eighths pole and there was Exceller. He never thought about shutting him off and it looked like all was lost at the top of the stretch. But Seattle Slew was not done fighting and even after Exceller surged past into a clear lead with a furlong remaining, the exhausted winner of the 1977 Triple Crown was coming back on him. I was lucky enough to be there and still get goosebumps thinking about how Slew looked when he racing past me on the Belmont Park apron. His eyes were bulging out and impossibly, he was coming back at Exceller. The mighty Slew just missed in the guttiest performance I have ever seen. And when you factor in the circumstances, the pace and the quality of competition, it put Slew on a pedestal he has never left.

Saturday’s Jockey Club Gold Cup was run at 1 ¼ miles and while it was not in the Seattle Slew class, it had a suicidal pace duel that was eerily familiar. Diversify was favored at 3-5 off a gallant win in the Whitney Stakes (G1) at Saratoga. The Belmont Park main track was playing extremely fast on Saturday and it looked all set up for the speedy New York-bred son of Bellamy Road. But when the gates opened, Ryan Moore quarter-horsed Mendelssohn to the front. Irad Ortiz Jr. aboard Diversify countered and the match was on.

Diversify raced the first quarter in 22.72 seconds and the half-mile in :45.64. Now that he was lit up, there was no rating Diversify and he charged down the backstretch almost out of control. Moore kept up the pressure on Mendelssohn and was two lengths behind through six furlongs in 1:09.13. Amazingly, Mendelssohn kept applying pressure and he swung outside of Diversify to take him on. It looked like Moore was out of horse but that is the way he rides. In the third quarter of the race, run in 23.49 seconds, they opened up an even bigger gap ahead of Dubai World Cup (G1) winner Thunder Snow.

At the top of the stretch, after a mile in 1:33.89, Ortiz Jr. went to the whip aboard Diversify and didn’t get much response. Moore was still flailing away aboard Mendelssohn and Christophe Soumillon had Thunder Snow in perfect position to go by the dueling leaders. But even though the brutal pace duel had Diversify backing up, Mendelssohn was still battling with a furlong to go and had a head in front. Thunder Snow had too much energy for him and just when it looked like we might have a Jockey Club Gold Cup where the second-place finisher runs the memorable race, here came Discreet Lover at 45-1 on the far outside, to run them all down in the shadow of the wire to get up and win by a neck.

Thunder Snow finished second and Mendelssohn came about two lengths back in third. The final time was 1:59.99 and the winner of the $1 million purse was not only trained by Parx regular Uriah St. Lewis but also owned by him. The little guy beat the Godolphin and Coolmore operations with a horse that he bought at auction for $10,000. Discreet Lover’s last stakes victory came in the Excelsior (G3) at Aqueduct and he also won the Swatara at Penn National last November. He had to do it the hard way in the Gold Cup, carrying the same weight as Thunder Snow while giving Mendelssohn four pounds. Now guaranteed a spot in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1), Discreet Love will at least have some sentimental value on the first Saturday of November.

As far as a prep race for the Classic, it will be interesting to see how Mendelssohn comes out of the race. He emptied out in the final yards and it will take all of Aidan O’Brien’s training acumen to have him ready again five weeks later. But O’Brien’s stable has been red-hot the past month and if Moore can get him to relax after asking him for speed out of the gate, Mendelssohn will be tough again. Thunder Snow looked fantastic and should only improve. I can’t see Diversify at all and the rest of the field came away with more questions than answers.