Lea rates as 5-2 favorite in return to turf in Woodbine Mile
Although Sunday's Woodbine Mile (G1) lost its biggest name with the retirement of Wise Dan, the two-time U.S. Horse of the Year still casts a shadow over the C$1 million "Win & You're In" event for the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1). Lea, the 5-2 morning-line favorite, placed twice to Wise Dan when last seen on turf two summers ago, while Obviously, Grand Arch, and Mark Casse's duo of Kaigun and Za Approval have also been beaten by the future Hall of Famer.
Lea, a son of the Giant's Causeway stallion First Samurai and out of a Galileo mare from a grassy family, began his career on turf. The Bill Mott pupil concluded his sophomore season with a victory in the 2012 Commonwealth Turf (G3) at Churchill. Back over the same course in the 2013 Firecracker (G2), Lea finished second in Wise Dan's epic, hedge-skimming run in the rain. A well-beaten third behind Wise Dan in the Fourstardave (G2) next time out at Saratoga, he subsequently switched to the main track.
The Claiborne Farm and Adele Dilschneider homebred was in career-best form on the Gulfstream dirt in early 2014, storming clear in the Hal's Hope (G3) and defeating champion Will Take Charge in track-record time in the Donn H. (G1). Sidelined for 11 months, Lea returned to defend his title, despite traffic, in the January 10 Hal's Hope, but hasn't won since. Second in the Donn, third in the Dubai World Cup (G1) and a near-miss runner-up in the Stephen Foster (G1), he was a lackluster sixth in the Whitney (G1) in his latest, sparking the surface switch.
"He kind of ran up close to a fast pace. I don’t think that helped," Mott said of the Whitney. "By the same token, I don’t think he handled the ground that well. I’m giving him that excuse.
"We were pleased enough with the way he worked on it (turf) that we thought he deserved another chance. Well, it’s a million dollar race. You’re going to run into good horses, if you’re trying to prove your horse, and we know he’s a Grade 1 horse."
Lea will break from post 10 with regular rider Joel Rosario.
It's no mystery where the Woodbine Mile pace is coming from -- Southern California shipper Obviously, the exuberant front runner who has drawn the rail. Unraced since his fifth in last November's Breeders' Cup Mile, the multiple Grade 1 winner has historically run well fresh. Trainer Phil D'Amato decided to scratch him from his initial comeback spot, the Del Mar Mile (G2), in favor of this purse -- and the "Win & You're In" provision.
"He loves to run four or five races a year and just gives you everything he's got," D’Amato said. "He runs great fresh and if he wasn't training as well as he ever has, if not better, I wouldn't even consider this off the bench. But he is training like a horse possessed so we're going to take a shot in a $1 million race and a chance at a 'Win and You're In.'"
Obviously is a Breeders' Cup veteran who has competed in the past three runnings of the Mile. In his first two tries, he finished third (2012) and fifth (2013) behind Wise Dan.
Grand Arch, second to Wise Dan in last October's Shadwell Turf Mile (G1), enters in top form off a victory in the August 15 Fourstardave at the Spa. The superb runner-up was none other than Ironicus, who just came back to capture Monday's Bernard Baruch (G2) in course-record time. Grand Arch was only fifth in the 2014 Woodbine Mile, but that was influenced by a wide trip from post 11. Drawn in post 2 on Sunday, the Brian Lynch charge is entitled to do better. After all, he boasts a strong 8-3-1-3 local mark, including a score in last summer's King Edward (G2) at this trip.
"He’s going to fight every inch of the way, and that’s precisely what he did that day (in the Fourstardave)," Lynch said. "This guy just keeps getting better with age."
The Casse pair of Kaigun and Za Approval, second in the last two editions of the Woodbine Mile, would do well to replicate that result this time.
Za Approval was second to Wise Dan in both the 2013 Breeders' Cup Mile and Woodbine Mile, but the seven-year-old is no longer performing quite up to that level. Switched to Casse after a second to Kaigun in the November 28 Seabiscuit (G2) at Del Mar, the Live Oak homebred has compiled several graded placings this term. Za Approval wheels back off a closing second in a salty optional claimer August 28.
Kaigun was in sharper form at this time a year ago. During his 2014 campaign, he was runner-up in both the Maker's 46 Mile (G1) (to Wise Dan) and Manhattan (G1), and also victorious in the local prep, the Play the King (G2), prior to his bang-up second to British shipper Trade Storm in this race. Kaigun's missed six months this term, but in his second start off the layoff, he was a rallying third in the August 23 Play the King. Perhaps he's rounding back toward his peak.
Rounding out the local contingent are the top two from the Play the King, Reporting Star and Tower of Texas; fifth-placer Platinum Glory; and rank outsider Turncoat.
Tower of Texas, a convincing winner of the June 21 King Edward in his turf debut, ought to gain revenge on Reporting Star here. Last time, Reporting Star took the inside route while receiving six pounds from Tower of Texas. In the rematch, Reporting Star is hung out in post 11, Tower of Texas is in post 6, and each carries the same weight (121 pounds).
As usual, the Woodbine Mile has international interest in the form of France's Mr. Owen and British shipper Mondialiste. Full details (with video) are found in that linked post.
Mondialiste has found new life since joining turnaround artist David O'Meara, as evidenced by back-to-back wins in the Pomfret and Strensall (G3).
And Mr. Owen is very much on the upswing for Francois Rohaut. Third in the French 2000 Guineas (G1) earlier in the season, he was most recently successful in a solid listed race at Deauville. The son of Invincible Spirit and 2007 E.P. Taylor (G1) winner Mrs. Lindsay is trying to become the first three-year-old to win this race, according to Woodbine. Nevertheless, Mr. Owen is a very attractive 8-1 chance.
Photo of Lea courtesy of Churchill Downs/Reed Palmer Photography.