Three-year-olds vs older horses in the Breeders’ Cup -- Who Has the Edge?

Profile Picture: Joe Kristufek

October 16th, 2019

Here is the group win percentage for three-year-olds in nine eligible Breeders’ Cup races:

  • CLASSIC: 34% (12 wins/35 races)
  • DISTAFF: 31.4% (11/35)
  • MILE: 28.6% (10/35)
  • SPRINT: 25.7% (9/35)
  • TURF: 25.7% (9/35)
  • F&M TURF: 25% (5/20)
  • DIRT MILE: 25% (3/12)
  • F&M SPRINT: 9% (1/11)
  • TURF SPRINT: 9% (1/11)

Breeders' Cup Classic Picture

It’s been a strange year for the three-year-old division, to say the least. Four different sophomores “won” Triple Crown races, with Country House taking the Kentucky Derby via DQ over Maximum Security; War of Will winning the Preakness; and Sir Winston capturing the Belmont Stakes. Of those, only War of Will has a chance to compete in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Ten three-year-olds have won the Breeders’ Cup Classic:

  • 2016 – Arrogate (8-5 odds): Defeated California Chrome in memorable stretch battle
  • 2015 – **American Pharoah (3-5): Triple Crown champion bounced back fresh off loss in the Travers
  • 2014 – Bayern (6-1): Slammed several rivals out of the gate but his wire job stood
  • 2008 – Raven’s Pass (13-1): Euro turf specialist took advantage of the synthetic surface
  • 2007 – Curlin (4-1): Dominated in the slop over Derby winner Street Sense, with 3yo Hard Spun second
  • 2000 – Tiznow (9-1): Battled every step of the way and outgamed 3yo Giant’s Causeway
  • 1999 – Cat Thief (19-1): Longshots ruled this Classic & superfecta paid $692K for a buck
  • 1994 – Concern (7-1): Finished 2nd or 3rd in seven straight races leading up to Classic
  • 1992 – A. P. Indy (2-1): Bounced back off consecutive losses to win final career start
  • 1990 – *Unbridled (6-1): Won Derby & Classic but Criminal Type named Horse of Year
  • 1989 – *Sunday Silence (2-1): Narrowly won the third of four meetings over division rival Easy Goer
  • 1985 – Proud Truth (7-1): Troubled 5th in Kentucky Derby, Classic marked 4th straight win.

** Won Triple Crown
* Won Kentucky Derby

Six three-year-olds are listed as possible for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic. By level of interest, let’s take a closer look at the potential starters:

Code of Honor: With a second in the Kentucky Derby (via DQ) and four graded stakes wins (including Jockey Club Gold Cup [G1] by DQ) on his resume this year, son of Noble Mission has easily been the 3-year-old division’s most reliable commodity. He’s proven effective at 10 furlongs and on BRIS numbers (108 in each), Code of Honor has also improved significantly in his two most recent starts. His strength lies in the ability hang tough in the middle stages of the race and then finish better than the majority of his foes late. You have to respect his consistency, but the Shug McGaughey trainee will likely be one of the public’s top choices in the Classic. The decision is yours.

Omaha Beach: Expected Kentucky Derby favorite, who scratched just days before the race with an entrapped epiglottis, is the Classic wildcard. His scheduled return this late summer/fall was rerouted several times and it took him nearly six months to get back to the races. He did win the Santa Anita Sprint Championship (G1) off the bench, but that was a hard race. Running 1 ¼ miles four weeks later, even in a watered-down edition of the Classic, would be asking a lot. If he does start in the Classic, Omaha Beach will need to run faster than his career two-turn top BRIS Speed rating, a 99 in the Arkansas Derby, to even get a piece of it. The Richard Mandella pupil is going to stud either way, and the connections have indicated that the Malibu (G1) on December 26 and Pegasus World Cup (G1) on January 25 are on the radar. If Omaha Beach does run in the Classic, he’s likely to be an underlay based on name recognition.

Owendale: He only has a trio of Grade 3 stakes wins on the resume, but this son of Into Mischief has been one of the crop’s most consistent performers. He was third in the Preakness, and a seven-wide run off the turn may have cost him the win. Beaten five lengths by Code of Honor in the Travers, Owendale’s BRIS numbers indicate he ran much faster in the middle of the race than accustomed to. He does his best work when allowed to settle and finish, as indicated by huge BRIS Late Pace figs in the Lexington (G3), Ohio Derby (G3) and Oklahoma Derby (G3) -- all wins. If the Classic pace is honest and the track favors off the pace types, this guy is worth a second look.

War of Will: A troubled eighth in the Kentucky Derby, he bounced back with a perfect trip win two weeks later in the Preakness. A major disappointment in both the Belmont Stakes and Jim Dandy (G2), War of Will bounced back with a much better performance in the Pennsylvania Derby (G1), pressing into a slow pace from between horses before being run over late by the longshot Math Wizard. The 99 BRIS Speed figure he earned that day was actually the best of his career, but he’ll need to run faster in the Classic. With only two starts all summer, War of Will will enter fresh and possibly could be dangerous.

Math Wizard: Claimed out of the first three starts for $16,000, $16,000 and $25,000, he has now earned over $860,000. Math Wizard wore blinkers the first six starts of his career, but appears to have gotten better since taking off the hood. He just missed behind Owendale in the Ohio Derby and was a very respectable third behind Mr Money in the Indiana Derby (G3). He shook off a dull effort in the West Virginia Derby (G3) to pull off a 31-1 upset in the Pennsylvania Derby, closing strongly into a slow pace, but had the benefit of racing on the much better part (outside) of the track. Math Wizard has never run 10 furlongs, which is an obvious strike against him.

Gray Magician: A good second in the UAE Derby (G2) on March 30, he left doubt about his quality finishing last in the Run for Roses. Given nine weeks off, Gray Magician has been really good since, posting two wins and two seconds. Neither of those victories were in graded stakes but the two runner-up performances were. He was all out to win a recent second-level allowance at Keeneland, and his BRIS figure did decrease noticeably. Trainer Peter Miller made his name in California, but a run in the Classic would be pushing the envelope.

Breeders' Cup Distaff Picture

Midnight Bisou, and possibly Elate, will be a formidable older foe in the Distaff, but the speedy Serengeti Empress is dangerous when right. Dunbar Road has been a model of consistency and Street Band is just now coming into her own.

A few big name 3-year-old fillies, led by likely favorite Covfefe, are being pointed towards the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint (others include Guarana, Bellafina and Royal Charlotte). Last year, Shamrock Rose became the first sophomore to win it.

Eleven three-year-old fillies have won the Distaff:

  • 2018 – *Monomoy Girl (9-5 odds): Lone defeat during seven-race 3yo season came via DQ
  • 2014 – *Untapable (8-5): Only loss from seven 3yo starts came against males in Haskell
  • 2013 – Beholder (5-2): Legend won three Breeders’ Cup races in her illustrious career
  • 2011 – Royal Delta (2-1): Would go on to repeat as Distaff champ the following season
  • 2004 – *Ashado (2-1): Won the Juvenile Fillies the year prior; 3rd in ’05 Distaff
  • 2001 – Unbridled Elaine (12-1): Not only pulled off the upset, but overcame nightmarish trip
  • 2000 – Spain (55-1): 2-5 favorite RIboletta through in a clunker, opening the door
  • 1997 – Ajina (9-2): Sealed the 3yo championship in wide-open division
  • 1993 – Hollywood Wildcat (6-5): Distaff was her fifth consecutive win in dominating season
  • 1991 – Dance Smartly (1-2): Canadian Horse of the Year won all eight 3yo starts
  • 1987 – Sacahuista (5-2): Nine consecutive losses before winning Spinster & Distaff

* Won Kentucky Oaks

By level of interest, let’s take a closer look at the potential three-year-old starters for the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Distaff:

Serengati Empress: Her career has been littered with ups and downs, but when she’s right and the circumstances are in her favor, watch out. She began her 2019 campaign with a breathtaking romp in the Rachel Alexandra (G2) at Fair Grounds, but then flopped when she bled as the overwhelming 1-5 chalk in the Fair Grounds Oaks (G2). She righted the ship in the Kentucky Oaks, and the believers got paid to the tune of 13-1 for the wire job. In her next two starts, the Tom Amoss charge produced solid seconds behind two of the top one-turn fillies in training, Guarana and Covfefe. The Cotillion (G1) proved to be a clunker, but Serengeti Empress was forced to press into ridiculously hot fractions from the dead rail. She once again takes to the big stage with darkened form, so much like the Kentucky Oaks, and the price will likely be higher than it should be.

Dunbar Road: Was left high and dry in Louisville when she didn’t have enough points to make the Kentucky Oaks starting gate, but she’s proven herself to be one of the best in the division. Dunbar Road rattled off easy wins in a first-level allowance, the Mother Goose (G2) and Alabama (G1) in advance of her first try against elders in the Spinster (G1). Despite a dream run up the rail, she finished third best behind Blue Prize and Elate, but earned a career high 101 BRIS Speed figure in the process. Consistency is unquestioned and she may not have reached her ceiling just yet.

Street Band: Trainer Larry Jones and regular rider Sophie Doyle have done a nice job with this filly, who now has a trio of graded stakes wins on her resume. I hate poking holes when it comes to her, but a deeper dive into those victories shows they were somewhat circumstantial. In the Fair Grounds Oaks, the odds-on favorite Serengeti Empress bled. The competition wasn’t all that tough in the Indiana Oaks (G3) but to her credit, Street Band was able to close over a racetrack that favored forward types. Most recently in the Cotillion, a hot pace and a track that favored outside rallies worked in her favor. A Distaff win is a tough ask, but a placing certainly isn’t out of the question, particularly with an honest pace almost assured.