March 2, 2024

Pace dynamics, course condition key to analyzing Breeders’ Cup implications from Belmont Park

Discreet Lover upsets the 100th running of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont Park under jockey Manny Franco on September 29, 2018 (c) NYRA/Chelsea Durand/Adam Coglianese Photography

Belmont Park staged five graded stakes over the weekend, three of them “Win and You’re In” races, but all loaded with Breeders’ Cup implications. If a couple of the winners have strong claims, others capitalized on advantageous circumstances that probably won’t line up again at Churchill Downs on November 2-3.

The two “Win and You’re In” events on dirt Saturday were a study in contrasts. The Vosburgh (G1) was as formful a result as you can get thanks to 1-5 favorite Imperial Hint, while the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) produced a wild pace meltdown to the benefit of 45-1 longshot Discreet Lover. Note that Discreet Lover was put on the vet’s list after the Gold Cup, but owner/trainer Uriah St. Lewis told Daily Racing Form it was just a case of being tired, and his Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) decision is pending.

Imperial Hint had every right to win for fun against an overmatched field in his stepping stone to the TwinSpires Breeders’ Cup Sprint (G1). Runner-up in last year’s Sprint at Del Mar, the Luis Carvajal Jr. trainee brought top current form as well, having beaten Whitmore in the True North (G2) and breezed home under 124 pounds in the Alfred G. Vanderbilt (G1). At level weights in the Vosburgh, his 12.1-point edge in BRIS Prime Power appeared insurmountable, and his rivals couldn’t even warm him up.

Javier Castellano wasted no time in letting Imperial Hint grab command in an apparently effortless wire job. Although it’s debatable whether Castellano should have wrapped up on him that much late, he runs well fresh, so probably didn’t need to be all out in pursuit of Artax’s 1:07.66 track record to crank him up for the Breeders’ Cup. His time of 1:08.27 earned only a 98 BRIS Speed rating, but the main point was that he sailed through his final prep as a lopsided favorite should.

Looking ahead to a more competitive task in the Sprint, some have noted that Imperial Hint has flopped in his only two previous tries at Churchill. I’d forgive him the 2016 Pat Day Mile (G3), just his third lifetime start at a distance beyond his scope, and the May 5 Churchill Downs (G2) came in the slop. Unless he encounters the same conditions on Breeders’ Cup Day, Imperial Hint has the high-class speed, and tactical versatility, to go one better than last year. Remember that his 2017 campaign was affected by his coming down with pneumonia in Dubai, and the Breeders’ Cup was his third start back. He’s arguably stronger now, and obviously has the winning attitude down with a 12-for-18 lifetime mark.

Conversely, Discreet Lover’s performance in the Jockey Club Gold Cup was a marked step up compared to his typical efforts. To be sure, he’s a terrific success story for St. Lewis, and he’d been holding his own in graded company all season. His breakthrough came in the April 7 Excelsior (G3) at Aqueduct, followed by honest fourths in the Met Mile (G1) and Pimlico Special (G3) and thirds in the Suburban (G2) and Whitney (G1). Still, few could have anticipated he’d advance his record to 7-for-44 in Belmont’s historic feature – after defending champion Diversify and Mendelssohn cut each other’s throats, and Discreet Lover simply boxed on better than the leg-weary principals.

Diversify figured to blast away in his free-running fashion, but Mendelssohn ended up being a complicating factor who turned it into a higher-pressure situation. Getting away cleanly and securing good position are obviously important in a dirt race, but I think Ryan Moore is overdoing the early speed. Dare I say it’s a misguided notion that his UAE Derby (G2) is replicable, or that such aggressiveness is necessary to prevent the train wreck that derailed him in the Kentucky Derby (G1)? In any event, the “tactical” part of tactical speed was missing here. In the circumstances, Mendelssohn was heroic to stick around for so long in a stubborn third, while Diversify wilted to fifth. A more patient ride might have made the difference for Mendelssohn, who used to be a sensible stalker before trying to become an on-pace runner at all costs. His Breeders’ Cup Classic chances hinge on Moore’s judging the pace.

Runner-up Thunder Snow turned in a fine Breeders’ Cup Classic prep. Note that this was only his second start back since his front-running coup in the Dubai World Cup (G1), and first on dirt. Maybe the Saeed bin Suroor pupil got something out of his last-of-eight effort in the August 22 Juddmonte International (G1), but not enough to peak at Belmont, so he stands to move forward off his Jockey Club tightener. Under a well-judged ride by Christophe Soumillon, who played the waiting game a long way back in third early, the Godolphin homebred launched his bid at the right time, only to get collared by Discreet Lover. A fit Thunder Snow presumably beats him. Aside from the prep angle, Thunder Snow fans can take heart that he responded so well to off-the-pace tactics. He doesn’t need to get a soft lead.

But, you might ask, why can’t Discreet Lover thrive with a similarly fast pace set-up in the Classic, assuming St. Lewis decides to press on to Churchill? For starters, premier Breeders’ Cup contenders Accelerate, West Coast, and Catholic Boy aren’t going to throw in the towel that easily. And if forwardly placed types do tire, other closers, with stronger resumes, are entitled to prosper. What if the top two from the Woodward (G1) – Yoshida and Gunnevera – had run in the Gold Cup? Wouldn’t either, or both, have a claim to finish faster than Discreet Lover? After all, the Woodward is working out better than first thought. Discreet Lover was jumping up from a 12th in the Woodward, and fellow also-ran Seeking the Soul came back to win Churchill’s Ack Ack (G3).

The opposite pace dynamic was in play in Saturday’s Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (G1), where course condition – a soft Widener turf – played a key role in the “Win and You’re In” for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Channel Maker posted pedestrian fractions, shrugged off his pace gadfly Teodoro, saved his fastest quarter for last (:24.72) to repel even-money favorite Robert Bruce, and opened up by 4 1/2 lengths.

Like a true son of two-time Turf Classic champion English Channel, who went out in a blaze of glory in the 2007 Breeders’ Cup Turf, the four-year-old Channel Maker needed the fullness of time to reach his potential. Between his arc of development for Hall of Famer Bill Mott, and his change of tactics to a more forward style, he’s eligible to give a good account of himself at Churchill Downs. But unless he gets to dictate on soft going again, Channel Maker figures to find it tougher to double up in the Turf – mainly because of the inevitable European challenge, but also because of lingering questions from the Turf Classic.

It’s hard to resist the what-ifs on behalf of runner-up Robert Bruce. The Arlington Million (G1) winner was reserved well off the slow pace, a full seven lengths back by the time Channel Maker reached the mile in 1:41.07. Thus he had to expend plenty of energy to cut the deficit turning for home, and understandably flattened after finally drawing near the leader’s flank in the stretch. And as others have pointed out, Robert Bruce may have been on a worse part of the course to the outside, while Channel Maker benefited on the rail. According to Trakus, Robert Bruce ran the fastest last half-mile in :49.41, versus Channel Maker’s :49.75 – it just wasn’t enough to make up that much ground.

On quicker turf, Robert Bruce likely sustains his bid to the end. We know he stays the trip in good conditions, since he capped his perfect Chilean career in the 2,400-meter El Ensayo (G1) in 2:26.14. Connections would have to pay, however, to make him eligible for the Breeders’ Cup.

Both of the weekend’s graded stakes for juveniles were held on a yielding inner turf course. In Saturday’s Pilgrim (G3), Forty Under got over the ground beautifully to remain perfect from two turf starts. Trainer Jeremiah Englehart observed that the Uncle Mo colt’s “slender…pretty slick” build is a plus on rain-softened going. Forty Under is no mudlark though, since his Saratoga maiden win came on firm, so he’ll be unfazed by whatever he finds at Churchill Downs in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1).

Yet in evaluating his form, it’s an open question of how much his Pilgrim rivals were compromised by the ground. The most glaring example is Opry, the 8-5 favorite who flailed in fourth without ever looking comfortable. Don’t take my word for it – look at the fact he’d inhaled Somelikeithotbrown in the With Anticipation (G3) at Saratoga, but couldn’t get within five lengths of the same rival who was runner-up in the Pilgrim.

If the same ground proviso applies to Sunday’s Miss Grillo (G2), its force is weakened by the fact that the undefeated Newspaperofrecord had 6 1/2 lengths in hand over her rivals. The Chad Brown filly set a steady pace before accelerating in upper stretch and tossing in a :6.08 final sixteenth, which would have been tough to beat on any ground, and making her a serious Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) threat.

Her final time of 1:42.11 garnered a Brisnet Speed rating significantly higher than Forty Under’s 1:44.37 for the same 1 1/16-mile trip in comparable conditions (99 versus 93). And the form looks solid too. Stablemate Dogtag had won Saratoga’s P.G. Johnson on yielding, yet wound up fourth here, with Varenka finishing second in both the Johnson and the Miss Grillo. Miss Technicality, a six-length winner of the Kentucky Downs Juvenile Fillies, is better than her five-wide trip in fifth, but probably not nine lengths better.

Newspaperofrecord was confirming the impression left by her 6 3/4-length Spa maiden romp, also on yielding turf. Considering that the Irish-bred displayed such a good turn of foot in the Miss Grillo, I don’t see her coming down to earth on a firm course. A bigger question would be how she handles a stiff end-to-end gallop, unlike the sit-sprints that cater to her strengths. But pending further evidence, the Lope de Vega filly strikes me as an equal-opportunity destroyer.

Finally, the sensational dirt debut of Rocketry in the Temperence Hill Invitational on Sunday is worth a mention for Breeders’ Cup undercard implications. By breaking the 1 5/8-mile track record set by the immortal Man o’ War, the Jimmy Jerkens trainee would be the one to beat if he turns up in the Marathon (G2) on the November 2 program.