In focus: Future Stars Friday
‘Future Stars Friday’: that’s how they’re billing the revamped first day of the Breeders’ Cup with a card featuring all five two-year-old contests culminating in the $2m Juvenile on dirt, North America’s senior race for the young’uns.
With three turf contests following the addition of the Juvenile Turf Sprint, there are bound to be significant European runners. Probably not so much in the Friday highlight – but that isn’t always the case, as anyone with the slightest interest in the Breeders’ Cup surely knows.
Saturday November 2, 1991, was the day a new compound adjective entered the racing lexicon. Ever since, the epithet ’Arazi-like’ has been routinely used to describe anything akin to the little chestnut’s dramatic victory in the Juvenile – run then, as it will be this year, beneath the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
Not for nothing is Arazi’s display is often cited as the most memorable in Breeders’ Cup history. Not even the Zenyatta lovers among us can really argue – and Arazi is by no means the only European visitor to have claimed America’s top two-year-old championship event, with Johannesburg (2001) Wilko (2004) and Vale Of York (on the Pro-Ride synthetic strip in 2009) also scoring.
Although European interest these days is usually restricted to the odd hit-and-hope runner from Ballydoyle, the Juvenile promises an interesting clash between America’s two powerhouse trainers, Bob Baffert and Chad Brown, as Game Winner comes in from the west coast to meet New York-based Complexity.
Both horses are unbeaten. Game Winner seemingly caught everyone by surprise when beating his odds-on stablemate Roadster in the Del Mar Futurity, Baffert having always considered he wanted more of a trip than that 7f. He may have been right, because the son of Candy Ride looked even better next time when he followed up in the Grade 1 American Pharoah at Santa Anita, where he drew away to score by 4 1/2 lengths over highly fancied rival Gunmetal Gray (also Cup-bound).
While that winning margin sounds flashy, Game Runner is anything but: he is a grinder, who has improved with every race and every step up in trip – including the Juvenile distance of 1m1/2f.
Race replay: Game winner lives up to his name in the American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita.
But as solid as he is, he faces a major threat from the other side of the continent in Complexity, whose trainer won last year with Good Magic. Arguably the most impressive maiden winner at Saratoga this summer, Complexity made all to win the Grade 1 Champagne Stakes (formerly the top two-year-old race in the country before it was superseded by the Breeders’ Cup) by three lengths to set himself up for Churchill Downs.
He looked every inch a top-class performer that day, setting blistering early fractions (22.51secs and 45.31s) that were the equivalent of six-furlong sprinters elsewhere on the card. Even the normally reticent Brown was bowled over. “He’s just so strong,” said the trainer. “An outstanding talent. He’s just a rare horse. Just a remarkable talent.”
Race replay: Complexity makes it look easy in the Champagne Stakes at Belmont.
Soon reverting to cautious type, Brown did point to potential stamina worries, though, and if there is to be a surprise, among those under the radar is Champagne Stakes runner-up Code Of Honor, who lost all chance at Belmont when stumbling at the gate and then staying on in eyecatching fashion behind Complexity, who surely won’t get such an easy time up front at Churchill Downs.
Hopeful Stakes winner Mind Control is back on course after missing his Keeneland prep (won by rank outsider Knicks Go) with a fever, while Mike Smith has been booked for Florida flyer Well Defined, who led throughout for a 71/2-length romp last month in a minor state-bred stakes at Gulfstream.
The value of the form is hard to quantify – though it’s probably not much – but he could make life tricky up front for the likes of Complexity. Mind Control and Knicks Go cherish the front end as well.
Definitely missing, though, is top west coast two-year-old Instagrand, a ten-length Grade 2 scorer at Del Mar whose owner has put his foot down and insisted the horse is put away for the winter with an eye on his three-year-old campaign. Whether it is an inspired decision, or just plain bizarre, only time will tell.
There is usually even less European interest in the Juvenile Fillies, which has produced plenty of upsets in recent seasons: the last five years have featured Ria Antonia at 32-1 (after a DQ), Take Charge Brandi (60-1), Champagne Room (33-1) and Caledonia Road (17-1). Maybe this is just a statistical blip as this race has tended to be won by highly touted fillies in the past, including seven favourites in a row from 2001-2007 (and nine out of 12 after the turn of the century).
Ante-post favourite this time around is Bellafina, who has won a pair of Grade 1s by a cumulative 11 lengths for Californian-based Englishman Simon Callaghan, the son of Newmarket stalwart Neville.
Race replay: Bellafina lights up the Chandelier Stakes at Santa Anita.
Restless Rider, described by trainer Kenny McPeek as “really, really special”, looks offers an alternative; she is maturing all the time, as a comfortable victory last time over a big field at Keeneland demonstrated. She loved the distance there, as her pedigree suggested she would; first-time Lasix probably helped as well.
Then we must address that cliched phrase “could be anything”? Have a look at the Tom Amoss-trained Serengeti Empress, who won the Ellis Park Debutante by more than 13 lengths, and then scored by nearly 20 in her Grade 2 prep over the Cup course and distance.
The speed figures haven’t come up formidable but she barely saw another horse; a below-par effort previously at Saratoga is harder to fathom, but easily forgiven as plenty of horses just don’t fire there for some reason.
Race replay: Serengeti Empress rules in the Pocahontas Stakes at Churchill Downs.
Of the others, Joel Rosario, who could have ridden three or four possibles, partners all-the-way Frizette winner Jaywalk; among those he jumps off is Sippican Harbour. Irad Ortiz isn’t a bad substitute.
JUVENILE FILLIES TURF
When the Juvenile Turf and its fillies’ counterpart were introduced about a decade ago, there was a widespread belief that European horses merely had to turn up to claim the honours. It hasn’t been quite as easy as all that, and subsequent Epsom Classic winners Masar and Qualify figure among the defeated.
Group 1 winners La Pelosa and Lily’s Candle plus Just Wonderful, The Mackem Bullet, East and Beyond Reason may figure among a European contingent that could make up half the field in the Juvenile Fillies Turf – but they’ll have to buck a trend that has seen only two previous runnings going to overseas horses, namely French-trained Flotilla in 2012 and Charlie Hills’s Chriselliam 12 months later.
Otherwise, this race is a Chad Brown benefit, America’s champion having scored four times in a race (three of the last four) that went a long way towards establishing his reputation.
Once again, the master US turf trainer has six-length Belmont winner Newspaperofrecord at the head of the market. Don’t let any rain put you off either, as it was yielding that day when she won the Miss Grillo Stakes, a Grade 2 contest Brown also used for previous winners Lady Eli and New Money Honey.
Race replay: Newspaperofrecord steals the headlines in the Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont Park.
Dual Del Mar scorer Summering is set to represent the west coast, while Concrete Rose looked good in winning the Grade 3 Jessamine at Keeneland; that was the final race in the Breeders’ Cup ‘Win-and-You’re In’ series.
Europe has won seven of the 11 runnings so far for a strike-rate of 63.7%; having won four of the last seven editions, Aidan O’Brien is the undoubted king of the hill here. In fact, anyone looking for a ‘no-brainwork-required’ system might well just consider backing O’Brien in the colts’ race and Brown in the fillies – but possibly not vice versa, as bizarrely neither man has won the other race.
Among those bidding to thwart Messrs O’Brien and Appleby will be the Todd Pletcher-trained Current, who beat fellow Cup contender Henley’s Joy with a last-gasp effort in Sunday’s Dixiana Bourbon at Keeneland, plus Pilgrim Stakes winner Forty Niner.
However, the US team was seriously diminished when Brown’s Fog Of War was ruled out with a shin injury.
JUVENILE TURF SPRINT
Given that Ballydoyle’s Declarationofpeace led home a 1-2-3-4 for the visitors in a race with similar conditions at Del Mar 12 months ago, hopes will be justifiably high of European success in this newest addition to the Breeders’ Cup menu.
Cornwallis Stakes winner Sergei Prokofiev would be an obvious candidate for O’Brien (Land Force also in the running), though Archie Watson’s Soldier’s Call would also be a leading fancy after such a fine effort in the Prix de l’Abbaye. Signora Cabello and Well Done Fox, respective winners of the Queen Mary and Roses Stakes, could also come here while Robert Cowell has long had this in mind for Phoenix Thoroughbreds' Pocket Dynamo, who got no sort of run in the Cornwallis.
That said, Wesley Ward is operating in his own backyard in Kentucky and Royal Ascot’s favourite adopted son could have as many as five entries, among them Pocket Dynamo’s Norfolk Stakes conqueror Shang Shang Shang. Other domestic probables include Futurity Stakes winner Uncle Benny – so named as his owner bears a striking resemblance to Benny Hill. Seriously.
Race replay: Declarationofpeace wins the Juvenile Turf Sprint in 2017.