The path to the 2021 Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar on Nov. 5-6 is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 14 championship races and $31 million in purses and awards.
This blog provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders’ Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were two weeks ago.
Let’s get right to it and take a look at some of the big movers over the past couple of weeks of racing action as the focus of U.S. Thoroughbred racing centers on the 2021 Breeders’ Cup.
Now 2-for-2 after a dominant victory in the $300,000 Pocahontas Stakes Sept. 18 at Churchill Downs for trainer Bret Calhoun, Hidden Connection looks like one of the probable favorites for the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Nov. 5 at Del Mar. I went into greater detail in this week’s Making the Grade profile, so let’s opt for the condensed version of why I believe she can win the 1 1/16-mile Juvenile Fillies. In rolling to a 9 ¼-length runaway in the Pocahontas, Hidden Connection improved her speed figures (90 Equibase Speed Figure, 87 Beyer Speed Figure) while stretching out from a sprint to a two-turn race and facing stakes competition for the first time. She was impressive to say the least under jockey Reylu Gutierrez. Hidden Connection, by first-crop sire Connect, has a high cruising speed she can use to gain tactical position and the stamina to still finish fast with a final sixteenth of a mile in 6.22 seconds in the Pocahontas. There is a lot of time between now and Nov. 5, but Hidden Connection would be my pick to win the race if the Juvenile Fillies was today.
European trainer Charlie Appleby has been absolutely torrid this year with horses he ships across the Atlantic to compete in the United States and he had a fantastic weekend Sept. 18-19 at Belmont Park and Woodbine. Last weekend, Appleby won the Jockey Club Derby Invitational Stakes at Belmont Park with Yibir, a qualifying race for the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf; the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine with Wild Beauty, a qualifying race for the Juvenile Fillies Turf; the Summer Stakes at Woodbine with Albahr, a “Win and You’re In” race for the Juvenile Turf; and the Grade 1 Pattison Canadian International Stakes at Woodbine with Walton Street. Appleby has three wins and one second with seven career starters in the Breeders’ Cup, so it pays to take notice when he ships on over to run in the World Championships. Appleby’s assistants were noncommittal about the Breeders’ Cup – preferring to take a wait-and-see approach – and any of last weekend’s winners would be a threat, but I opted for Albahr in the Juvenile Turf, a race Appleby won in 2013 with Outstrip and 2018 with Line of Duty. What I liked about Albahr is that he overcame adversity and showed some toughness in winning the $400,000 Summer Stakes by 2 ¼ lengths Sept. 19 to improve to 4-for-5 lifetime. On my first watch, Albahr looked like he walked out of the starting gate (the Equibase chart says he hopped at the start) and trailed early, but he used some of his speed to move up and gain tactical position. In behind a wall of horses entering the long Woodbine stretch, jockey Frankie Dettori and Albahr muscled their way to the outside and the Dubawi gelding took care of the rest with an explosive finishing kick covering the final quarter-mile in about 23.40 seconds. The speed figures were solid but unspectacular – 94 Equibase Speed Figure, 81 Beyer Speed Figure – but if you watched the race you know Albahr was very much the best and I love to see a 2-year-old who can overcome significant trouble.
3. Gear Jockey
Sometimes the best path for a racehorse is not obvious from the outset and it takes some trial and error to find the best distance or surface or both. Such was the case with Gear Jockey, who tried sprinting and longer races on the dirt and also competed in two-turn races on the grass before finally finding the sweet spot this year in turf sprints. The 4-year-old Twirling Candy colt punched his ticket to the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint with a 2 ½-length victory in the $1 million FanDuel Turf Sprint Stakes on Sept. 11 at Kentucky Downs. He earned a terrific 104 Beyer Speed Figure for what was his first career stakes win and has demonstrated elite consistency in three grass sprints since July with Equibase Speed Figures of 111-111-112. Gear Jockey finished third in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf as a 2-year-old in 2019 in Southern California, so the firmer grass at Del Mar should not be an issue nor should shipping across the country. I think trainer Rusty Arnold has a serious player for the 2021 Turf Sprint in Gear Jockey, and I went into more detail on his chances in last week's Making the Grade profile.
Also-Eligibles: Let’s start with the three other Appleby winners. Yibir flashed explosive finishing speed in the Jockey Club Derby Sept. 18 to complete a last-to-first rally for a 2 ½-length win. The 3-year-old Dubawi colt entered the race off a Group 2 win in England and would be a quality candidate for the Longines Turf should he come over. He seems to have a strong preference for firm turf, so if he makes the trip, he’d warrant respect. … I loved Wild Beauty’s 2 ¼-length victory in the Natalma Stakes Sept. 19 and the speed figures were encouraging – 101 Equibase Speed Figure, 89 Beyer Speed Figure, 95 Brisnet rating – but jockey Frankie Dettori mentioned after the race that he got an ideal setup in the Natalma and he did not think Wild Beauty handles turns particularly well. That would be a significant concern at Del Mar. … Walton Street is a seasoned veteran with stakes wins in North America, Germany, and the United Arab Emirates in five seasons of racing. With seven wins and 14 top-three finishes from 19 starts, he’s a consistent 7-year-old who would be a factor in the Longines Turf should he make the journey. His 120 Equibase Speed Figure, 110 Beyer Speed Figure, and 107 Brisnet rating were top notch for a 5 ¾-length romp in the Grade 1 Pattison Canadian International Sept. 18 at Woodbine. … Imperador earned a big 123 Equibase Speed Figure for winning the $1 million Calumet Turf Cup Stakes by a neck Sept. 11 at Kentucky Downs and merited consideration for a spot in the top three above. He also ran a solid race in his previous start when second in the United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park on a turf course that is more similar (compared with Kentucky Downs) to the one he would compete on at Del Mar in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf Nov. 6. I think he’ll be a longshot if he goes on to the World Championships but he could be interesting at a price. … Ricoh Woodbine Mile winner Town Cruise led every step of the way Sept. 18 at Woodbine to post an 8.65-1 upset. However, he was completely unchallenged on the lead with very little speed in the race and he’s not currently nominated to the Breeders’ Cup. … I’ll close this out with Princess Grace, a 4-year-old Karakontie filly who is a personal favorite of mine. She improved to six wins in seven starts with a half-length win in the Grade 3 Kentucky Downs Ladies Turf Stakes Sept. 11 and is unbeaten in three starts this year. My concern with Princess Grace as it pertains to the Breeders’ Cup is there does not appear to be an ideal race for her to compete in. She could try males in the FanDuel Breeders’ Cup Mile Presented by PDJF or she could stretch out beyond 1 1/16 miles for the first time in the 1 3/8-mile Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf. The first option probably is the better one, but that’s a tough test.
This 4-year-old Munnings filly still is a high-level talent having run first or second in nine of her 11 career starts, but her last two starts have not been especially encouraging and it seems like her connections are trying to find her niche. She ran in the Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint last November at Keeneland in her final start as a 3-year-old and was unplaced. She won her turf debut in her first race of 2021, then ran an OK second in the Grade 1 Clement L. Hirsch Stakes going 1 1/16 miles on the dirt main track at Santa Anita. Most recently, Venetian Harbor faded to 10th as the even-money favorite in the Grade 3 Mint Ladies Sprint Stakes, a turf sprint Sept. 11 at Kentucky Downs. I don’t view that race as representative of Venetian Harbor’s talent and for a $600,000 purse it was worth a shot, but it’s not clear what surface or distance is ideal moving forward. Sure, she’s versatile enough to be effective on multiple surfaces, but horses need to be at their best in a perfect spot to win a Breeders’ Cup race. At this point, I don’t see a great spot and it doesn’t help that she’s coming out of the worst start of her career.
2. Set Piece
Set Piece entered the Ricoh Woodbine Mile Sept. 18 on a nice roll that featured three wins and two seconds in his previous five starts, including a Grade 2 win in the Wise Dan Stakes in June at Churchill Downs. A Juddmonte Farms homebred, the 5-year-old Dansili gelding was the 1.65-1 favorite for the Woodbine Mile but never really threatened after a slow start. Set Piece finished seventh, beaten by 4 ¾ lengths, but he did encounter significant traffic in the stretch when he was bumped between horses while making his bid. I do not believe, even had he not been slowed by trouble in the stretch, that Set Piece was not moving well enough to challenge for the win and probably would have still finished outside the top three in the race. The Woodbine turf course can be a bit tricky the first time a horse races on it so I’m willing to give Set Piece a bit of a pass, but the decline of 11 points to a 99 Equibase Speed Figure is concerning nonetheless.
3. Stellar Tap
I’m loath to put lightly raced 2-year-olds on the cooling down list, but there were not a ton of options. Stellar Tap in August made headlines when he gave Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen his North American record-breaking 9,446th win by drawing away to a 5 ¼-length score at Saratoga. He earned an 87 Equibase Speed Figure for the win and was tabbed the even-money favorite by bettors in the $300,000 Iroquois Stakes Sept. 18 at Churchill Downs. He got a perfect stalking trip behind a moderate pace and moved to the lead briefly on the final turn. Stellar Tap battled with eventual winner Major General for about an eighth of a mile in the stretch but faded in the final sixteenth and finished fifth, three lengths behind the winner. Trying stakes competition for the first time and stretching out in distance around two turns are two significant hurdles for a 2-year-old, so Stellar Tap can definitely learn and improve off of his Iroquois defeat. But I did not come away especially impressed with this race overall, so Stellar Tap’s loss and subsequent 75 Equibase Speed Figure surprised me a bit. He still has a good chance to develop into a really nice racehorse, but the Iroquois was a step in the wrong direction when considering his chances for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Presented by Thoroughbred Aftercare Alliance.