Lessons from tough Breeders' Cup for punters

Profile Picture: Alastair Bull

November 17th, 2017

OK, hands up – who out there thought Mor Spirit, Moonshine Memories, Unique Bella, Lady Aurelia, Lady Eli, Drefong, and Bolt d’Oro would all be beaten at the Breeders’ Cup?

It’s not often that only two one of the 13 Breeders’ Cup favorites win, as happened at Del Mar this year. But in an unpredictable year, only World Approval and Mendelssohn justified the betting public’s faith in them.

Some analysts believe there was a bias against horses on the fence on the dirt track, especially on day two. If so, that would help explain the losses of Moonshine Memories, Unique Bella, and Drefong. But there’s probably some other factors at play.

Let’s have a look to see if there are any trends that can be taken from the Breeders’ Cup races.

Juvenile Fillies Turf: The two favorites had contrasting fortunes. While the Irish-trained favorite Happily started poorly, got stuck on the rail well back and had no room in the stretch, hometown second pick Rushing Fall was midfield and off the fence before sprinting around them, just as she did in the Jessamine Stakes.

European fillies have a poor record in this race – perhaps they can’t cope with a turning course and a short stretch – and anyone who backed the best of the locals came away happy.

Dirt Mile: Mor Spirit was favorite after his devastating Metropolitan Handicap victory in early June, but didn’t run well in his first race since then.

As for picking out Battle of Midway … well, he had been on a “win one, lose one” streak since his Kentucky Derby third, and was due to win one, and he had won the Shared Belief Stakes on the Del Mar track over a mile. Not enough to say he was a certainty by any means, but perhaps enough to consider him as some hope on a track which not all horses appear to handle.

Juvenile Turf: Unlike the Juvenile Fillies Turf, European colts have a great record in this race, especially Aidan O’Brien, who’s now won the race four times. His contender Mendelssohn was made favorite – albeit a very loose one at 4.80-1.

However, Mendelssohn got out of the gate well and trailed the leader, a good place to be on the Del Mar Turf, and duly accelerated away. This is a race in which the European form should be followed, and he along with Masar were the only ones with group one form there.

Distaff: Stellar Wind was the morning-line favorite, but weight of public money made the 3-year-old Elate the favorite. Elate did look a genuine contender, but whether she deserved to be favorite having never raced any of the leading older horses was debatable.

Older fillies and mares usually do well in this race, and if Stellar Wind wasn’t going to be up to it from that division, then eventual winner Forever Unbridled was the most likely alternative.

Juvenile Fillies: Moonshine Memories deserved favoritism after her two grade one victories, one at Del Mar, but she didn’t look like a certainly by any means. She could have been expected to finish better than seventh, especially as she finished behind the two horses she beat in the Chandelier, Alluring Star (second) and Piedi Bianchi (fifth). If there was a track bias against horses in front on the rail, it may have counted against her.

However, if you predicted winner Caledonia Road would turn around her 3 ½-length defeat to Separationofpowers in the Frizette and win the Juvenile Fillies, finishing 5 ¼ lengths in front of fourth-placed Separationofpowers, good on you.

Turf Sprint: On paper it looked like a match between Lady Aurelia and Marsha, the first two in the Nunthorpe Stakes at York. But this is a race that European runners have not succeeded in – the turning track almost certainly doesn’t help – and maybe that extended to Lady Aurelia, the American filly whose racing has been mostly in Europe.

The result wasn’t easy to pick, unless you were a fan of Peter Miller, who trained the first two, Stormy Liberal and Richard’s Boy. The 30-1 chance Stormy Liberal perhaps deserved to be forgiven his Jaipur Invitational failure – he missed the start and then rounded the field wide before not surprisingly fading in what was a track-record time – and been considered more on his four consecutive victories previous to that.

Filly and Mare Sprint: Unique Bella was a short-priced favorite, but disappointed when fading on the turn. The reported bias against on-speed runners on the fence may not have helped, but it’s arguable she didn’t deserve to be at her short odds given she hadn’t faced any older sprinters in a race no 3-year-old has yet won.

The surprise was that the key lead-up race proved to be the 6 ½-furlong Presque Isle Downs Masters Stakes (G2) Sept. 18 on the all-weather track. Ami’s Mesa beat Bar of Gold into second that day, but in the big race Bar of Gold won at 67-1, with Ami’s Mesa second. Bar of Gold had been a little difficult to follow, and she was down the track in the 1 1/8-mile Spinster Stakes Oct. 8. However, she had mostly been running in races between a mile and 1 1/8 miles, and when returned to sprints she’d generally run better.

Filly and Mare Turf: Lady Eli was the understandable favorite given her very good record. She was in a good position but had a valid excuse as she was injured during the race.

Wuheida hadn’t won all year but she looked set to appreciate a dry track, and though she was at 11.40-1 she was third favorite as there was a lot of money on Lady Eli and Rhododendron. Her victory was a duplicate of Mendelssohn’s Juvenile Turf victory – out fast, trailing the leader on the rail, and accelerating away, emphasizing the value of tactical speed on the Del Mar turf.

Sprint: If there was a bias against the rail it may have been evident in this race, with none of the inside runners performing well. They included favorite Drefong; he didn’t run to his best, though whether his previous experience of dislodging his rider at Del Mar hurt him is difficult to know.

If Drefong didn’t run well, Roy H. was one of the most obvious contenders given his form this year, and he ran well up to it to win.

Mile: American turf milers have a good record in this race and it was extended courtesy of World Approval, who’s improved a great deal since being taken back to a mile. Tactical speed got him one off the rail and one horse back from the lead, and his ability to sprint from this very good position at the top of the stretch rewarded him with victory.

Juvenile: Bolt d’Oro was a deserved favorite here, but there were a couple of doubts: one, could he back up after an amazing speed figure in the FrontRunner Stakes, and two, would he miss the start, as he did in two previous runs prior to the FrontRunner – not advantageous when drawn 12 of 14 against the best in the land. He did miss the start, and his effort to finish third had significant merit.

That Bolt d’Oro didn’t run his race was evident by the fact Solomini, a distant second in the FrontRunner, was ahead of him in second here. Whether it was easy to predict that Good Magic would break his maiden in this race, despite his good second in the Champagne Stakes, is more questionable.

Turf: Defending champ Highland Reel was a hot favorite after the withdrawal of Ulysses. He battled well into third in his first run on firm footing since Royal Ascot, but he may not be the horse he was last year.

The eventual winner, Talismanic, was like Wuheida a horse happy to see firm footing after some lesser achievements on softer ground in Europe. Like Wuheida, he was close to the pace on the rail, and sprinted sharply at the top of the stretch.

Classic: Arrogate started favorite despite two Del Mar runs this summer that were below his best. Unfortunately for him, the same thing happened; the question is whether it was the surface that caused him problems, or if he’s not as good as he once was.

The winner, Gun Runner, arguably should have been favorite based on his U.S. record this year. He even overcame the bias against leaders on the day, though he did race well off the rail in the running. High-class lead-up form usually plays well in the Classic, and this year was no exception.