If you were handed a set of past performances with the subject’s name, pedigree, owner/breeder, and trainer blotted out, you’d wonder why this horse was in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). Surely this was one less to worry about in a loaded $4 million race.

Then comes the big reveal: this is Ulysses, the offspring of two classic winners, representing one of the winningest owners in Breeders’ Cup history, hailing from the yard of an astute horseman who’s only won the Turf four times among his six Breeders’ Cup victories.

Ulysses thus arrives at Santa Anita as an underachiever on the racecourse, but with a big home reputation for connections who know the time of day. The handicapping puzzler is whether to fall for the siren song of untapped potential, or to do as Odysseus himself did, and tie yourself to the mast to resist temptation.

The Niarchos Family homebred is bred in the purple, as a son of Galileo and 2007 Oaks (G1) heroine Light Shift, herself by Kingmambo (Miesque’s son). This star-studded family furnished the most recent Turf victor at Santa Anita, dual Eclipse Award winner Main Sequence (2014), who downed Flintshire in 2014.

Apparently young Ulysses turned heads on the gallops for Sir Michael Stoute, for he consistently attracted support in the betting market. A belated sixth in his lone start at two, the chestnut was outdueled by Imperial Aviator in an April 23 Leicester maiden. The top two pulled six lengths clear of third, and Imperial Aviator came right back to dominate a lucrative handicap for three-year-olds (styled as the “London Gold Cup”). Although Imperial Aviator subsequently failed at a higher level, he was just sold for 270,000 guineas at the Tattersalls Autumn Horses in Training Sale, and he may still make something of himself for Gai Waterhouse in Australia. Ulysses lived up to his 4-11 odds next time at Newbury, breaking his maiden in an eight-length rout.

The normal course of events would see him in a listed or possibly a Group race, but instead he was thrown right into the deep end in the Derby (G1) at Epsom. Despite the massive class hike involved in making his first start against winners in the storied classic, Ulysses was sent off as the co-fourth choice at 8-1. The occasion was too much for him anyway, but his cause wasn’t helped by being bumped and jostled in scrimmaging with Deauville in upper stretch. Unable to keep his position, Ulysses was squeezed back between foes, and jockey Andrea Atzeni wisely took care of the inexperienced colt the rest of the way in 12th. It’s anyone’s guess where he would have finished with a clean trip, but you’d be hard pressed to see him going much closer than midpack.

 

Stoute gave Ulysses a much easier assignment in the July 27 Gordon (G3) at Glorious Goodwood, and he duly obliged. Clearly enjoying the firm surface, he traveled best of all and cruised on the bridle to challenge. But he didn’t draw off as hinted; on the contrary, he was driven to a workmanlike half-length verdict over front runner The Major General, who’s a fair way down the Aidan O’Brien depth chart.

Ulysses continued Stoute’s dominance of the Gordon, giving him a record ninth win in the 1 1/2-mile event viewed as a St Leger (G1) trial. His prior Gordon winners include Conduit, who went on to win the 2008 St Leger and two editions of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

But interestingly, Stoute reportedly believes that Ulysses is more reminiscent of another of his Gordon winners, Harbinger (2009). The obvious reason is that Ulysses didn’t shape up as a thoroughgoing stayer like Conduit, and the St Leger was never in the cards for him.

I’d contend there’s an additional factor: Harbinger was an inexperienced sophomore who developed into an all-world performer at the age of four. Ulysses is likewise learning on the job, suggesting that he might not be at the peak of his powers until next season.

Ulysses had several options for his ensuing start, and Stoute opted to drop him back to about 1 1/4 miles for the August 27 Winter Hill (G3) at Windsor. Despite his narrow loss as the odds-on favorite to the four-year-old filly Chain of Daisies, there was a silver lining. The time was quite fast for the course, according to time guru Simon Rowlands.

Chain of Daisies controlled the pace, steadying in the middle stage before quickening and immediately putting most of her rivals under pressure to keep up. Ulysses, rallying from near the rear, was the only one who could match her speed. The two were in a virtual match race when opening up on the field down the lane. Chain of Daisies had the advantage of the rail to guide her, while Ulysses may have wandered a little to the outside (but it’s hard to be sure from the angle).

Still, on strict form, his near-miss in the Winter Hill (like his Gordon victory) isn’t good enough to put him in Turf contention. Chain of Daisies is an improving filly who may make this result look stronger retroactively, but she was a dual listed winner trying Group company for the first time here. You’ve got to project future accomplishments to put a good spin on the form as it now stands.

Although Ulysses will be well suited by the conditions of the Turf, he faces a searing test against superior older horses. The workwatchers were quite taken with his last drill beneath Frankie Dettori at home, prompting the Sporting Life “Catching Pigeons” columnist to remark that he “gave connections every hope a bold bid is on the cards.”

The verdict on Ulysses hinges on whether he can raise his game for this kind of war, at this point in his life. My suspicion is that this is coming a year too soon for him, but I wouldn’t be shocked if he crashes the party.

Photo courtesy of Racing UK via Twitter