The pace pressure from the August 8 Whitney H. (G1) was missing, allowing the front-runner to get away with reasonable fractions on a clear lead, but the dominance was impressive nonetheless. Liam’s Map garnered his first graded victory with a 4 ¾-length thrashing in Saturday’s Woodward (G1) at Saratoga and will bring dangerous speed to his next expected engagement, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland on October 31.
The 2015 Classic promises to be memorable. The prospective cast includes Triple Crown winner American Pharoah, the outstanding racemare Beholder and leading older horse Honor Code. Gleneagles was added to the mix recently and would bring an infusion of class from overseas. Travers winner Keen Ice is thriving at the right time of the year and Frosted remains another talented 3yo. And the stock of multiple Grade 1 hero Tonalist promises to rise with a victory in the October 3 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) at Belmont Park.
A big question surrounding Liam’s Map is the 1 ¼-mile Classic distance. Considered a candidate for either the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (G1) or Classic prior to the Saratoga meet, he solidified his status for the latter by virtue of a neck second to Honor Code in the Whitney and the Woodward tour-de-force. As a son of Unbridled’s Song, the top side of his pedigree is no issue but the 4yo colt hails from a mare by the speedy Trippi.
However, distance was a major concern surrounding Bayern last year. The speedster recorded convincing wins in the Haskell (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G2) at nine furlongs but sandwiched those preps with a disappointing last in the 1 ¼-mile Travers.
Bayern led all the way posting a 6-1 Classic upset.
Liam’s Map’s early zip is intriguing as well.
Here is my top 10 for the 10-furlong Classic:
- American Pharoah: The Travers shaped up on paper like the Belmont Stakes (G1), which American Pharoah dominated on the front end, but everything changed when Frosted advanced to apply pressure entering the first turn. They went at it head-to-head over the next mile, with American Pharoah eventually winning the battle but losing the war as Keen Ice overhauled him late. It was still a respectable runner-up performance and I’m expecting different tactics next time – the last thing trainer Bob Baffert and jockey Victor Espinoza want is to be dueling early against a quality field at 1 ¼ miles. American Pharoah turned in monstrous performances when rating just off the speed in the Haskell and Arkansas Derby (G1), and I expect him to settle nicely in second or third at Keeneland before offering his best run.
- Beholder: She still must prove herself outside of California (winless from two previous attempts) but her move on the far turn of the Pacific Classic (G1) was one of those “wow” moments that won’t be forgotten. Beholder could not have been more brilliant that afternoon, winning her first attempt at 1 ¼ miles by a resounding 8 ¼ lengths, and the 112 BRIS Speed rating she earned is the top number presently in the Classic field. A speed demon earlier in her career, Beholder settled nicely about five lengths off the pace before rallying boldly last time and similar to American Pharoah, those tactics are a necessity at longer distances with legitimate pace.
- Honor Code: A phenomenal deep closer, Honor Code registered 110 BRIS Speed ratings for eye-catching wins in the Met Mile (G1) and Whitney and his late-running theatrics could continue to play well in this year’s Classic. His connections are apparently taking an unconventional approach, using the one-mile Kelso H. (G2) on October 3 as his final Classic prep, but we can be confident Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey knows what’s best for his horse.
- Liam’s Map: His speed could’ve proved deadly in previous editions but this may be the wrong year for a Classic theft job, with a couple of talented challengers looking to take aim by the far turn if American Pharoah and Beholder show up in the starting gate as expected. I’m still impressed by how Liam’s Map has blossomed late in the season for Todd Pletcher and won’t dismiss his chances at this stage.
- Gleneagles: A juvenile Group 1 winner, the 3yo colt has reeled off consecutive wins in the English Two Thousand Guineas (G1), Irish Two Thousand Guineas (G1) and St. James’s Palace (G1) this season. All came at a mile, but classy European milers such as Giant’s Causeway and Raven’s Pass shipped over to run huge races at 10 furlongs in the Classic and Gleneagles is eligible to make a seamless transition as well. Trainer Aidan O’Brien has won more Breeders’ Cup races than Pletcher (8-to-7) but the Classic is the one prize that still eludes him. He’ll have Gleneagles primed for his best; it’s just a matter of whether the Galileo colt handles dirt.
- Tonalist: After opening 2015 with an authoritative win in the Westchester (G3), Tonalist has dropped his last three starts as the favorite, finishing second in the Met Mile and Suburban (G2) before a third in the Whitney. He’s eligible to turn things around when making a title defense in the October 3 Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) but the fact remains the 4yo colt has never won a stakes race outside of Belmont Park, losing all four attempts. Late runner could be sneaky if he takes to the Keeneland track, but that’s a big if.
- Keen Ice: Eligible for a non-winners of one “other than” allowance prior to the Travers, Keen Ice recorded a breakthrough performance that bodes well for his future. My biggest issue this spring was how he never made up any ground on the far turn, remaining far back until clunking up in the stretch drive (he was even eight lengths back at the quarter-pole of his maiden win), but he offered a better kick on the far turn in a runner-up Haskell finish and raced much closer to the pace in the Travers, only 4 ½ lengths back in third after the opening three-quarters of a mile. Keen Ice may not be good enough to offer a serious win challenge in the Classic, but his improving form offers at least some appeal for the minor awards.
- Frosted: Jose Lezcano was a late Travers substitution for Joel Rosario, who had to be taken to the hospital after being dislodged from his mount two races earlier, and Frosted was taken out of his best run style by contesting the pace. Still performed in gamely in third and Grade 1-winning sophomore has the potential to win a number of major races next year if he stays healthy. Will look for more from him down the road.
- Catch a Flight: Hard-trying Argentinean import is the leading older male in California, recording a trio of graded victories, a runner-up in Pacific Classic and a close third in the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) in his last five starts. However, 10 furlongs may not be his best distance and the Classic competition will be extremely imposing.
- Effinex: Moderate pace did him no favors as he returned from a two-month freshening in the Woodward and won’t be surprised to see him improve upon the fourth-place showing in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Liked the grit Effinex displayed narrowly defeating Tonalist two starts back in the Suburban, as well as the 110 BRIS Speed rating, and late runner will have a puncher’s chance for a small share if he receives a hot pace in the Classic.