As the Breeders’ Cup Challenge series kicks off stateside with Monday’s Shoemaker Mile (G1), it’s an opportune time to assess the state of the various divisions at this still relatively early stage of the season.
The older dirt male division is in need of new leadership after the retirements of Classic (G1)-winning champion Accelerate and Dirt Mile (G1) star City of Light. The January 26 Pegasus World Cup (G1) marked their mutual career finale, with City of Light impressing and Accelerate winding up third en route to their new lives as Lane’s End stallions.
Accelerate’s connections – Hronis Racing and trainer John Sadler – hope that their recruit Gift Box becomes his successor. The son of Sadler alum Twirling Candy has shaped as a potential heir so far, winning his first two for the barn and beating a couple of high-profile rivals in the process. Edging ill-fated Battle of Midway in the December 26 San Antonio (G2) in his first start off the layoff, Gift Box outgamed McKinzie in the April 6 Santa Anita H. (G1). Now Gift Box tries to advance the Accelerate parallel by following up in Monday’s Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1). If he turns the Big ‘Cap/Gold Cup double, he’ll claim two major scores over the 2019 Breeders’ Cup Classic track and trip.
McKinzie, long highly regarded by Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert, came right back to dominate the May 3 Alysheba (G2) on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs. While this counts as a form boost for Gift Box, McKinzie has displayed more spark in the seven-to-nine furlong range than at 1 1/4 miles so far. A disappointing 12th behind Accelerate in last fall’s Classic, McKinzie went down by only a nose in the Big ‘Cap, but the question remains if he finds the trip a tad beyond him at the highest level. If so, the Dirt Mile might loom as a more attractive Breeders’ Cup option. McKinzie could earn an automatic berth in the “Win and You’re In” Metropolitan H. (G1) on Belmont Day.
The Met Mile will take some winning with an all-star cast set to line up, from Godolphin’s globetrotting Thunder Snow, and trip specialists Coal Front and Firenze Fire, to stretch-out sprinter Mitole (see below). Thunder Snow, last seen nipping Gronkowski to become the first two-time Dubai World Cup (G1) winner, plans to revert to a mile as he begins another Classic quest. The Saeed bin Suroor trainee was third to Accelerate and Gunnevera last November. Gunnevera also tried the March 30 Dubai World Cup, faring best of the U.S.-based contingent in third. Other Breeders’ Cup/World Cup veterans due back in action include Seeking the Soul and the turf/dirt Grade 1 winner Yoshida, both reportedly on course for the June 15 Stephen Foster (G2), a “Win and You’re In” for the Classic.
Another dual-surface Grade 1 hero, Catholic Boy, promises to be a force on the New York dirt this summer. That’s the strategy after his comeback score in the grassy Dixie (G2) on Preakness Day. The July 6 Suburban (G2) and the Whitney (G1), a Classic “Win and You’re In” August 3, are on his radar according to trainer Jonathan Thomas. Considering that his 2018 Breeders’ Cup Classic ended virtually as it began when he was banged up early, Catholic Boy deserves more opportunities on dirt. Yet his turf prowess continues to give him options. Note that Thomas has inherited multiple Grade 1-winning millionaire Diversify from the late Rick Violette Jr., and it will be interesting to see how his campaign is mapped out.
Also not to be forgotten is the Sadler-trained Catalina Cruiser, who flopped as the hitherto unbeaten favorite in the 2018 Dirt Mile. The Hronis colorbearer is slated to return in the True North (G2) on Belmont Day, and it would be no surprise to see the lightly raced five-year-old get back into the Breeders’ Cup picture. Tenfold was still behind the developmental curve when third to Justify and Bravazo in last year’s Preakness (G1), but might have turned the proverbial corner in the Pimlico Special (G3). Although the well-bred son of Curlin has to build upon that bare form, Hall of Famer Steve Asmussen believes “the sky is the limit.”
Unlike the 2018 Triple Crown, this year’s sophomore scene is in a continuous state of flux. Preakness winner War of Will would assume pro tem leadership if he can add the Belmont (G1), but a more thoroughgoing stayer (like Tacitus) is eligible to interject. Waiting in the wings are Kentucky Derby (G1) demotee Maximum Security, who’s eyeing the Haskell Invitational (G1), a Classic “Win and You’re In” July 20; promoted Derby winner Country House and last year’s champion two-year-old male Game Winner, both on the Travers (G1) path; and the sidelined Derby favorite, Omaha Beach. Although all would need to step up to cope with the elder brigade, in any Breeders’ Cup division, Vekoma and Improbable could emerge as factors for the Dirt Mile.
TWINSPIRES SPRINT/TURF SPRINT/FILLY & MARE SPRINT
The respective top four from last year’s Sprint – two-time champion Roy H, Whitmore, Imperial Hint, and Promises Fulfilled – are all still around, and seven-year-old X Y Jet finally won his Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1). But it’s a measure of the vitality of the division that new faces are commanding attention.
Chief among them is Mitole, who extended his winning streak to six in the Churchill Downs (G1) on Derby Day. Whatever happens in his Met Mile experiment, the Asmussen speedster figures to be a major threat come TwinSpires Sprint time. Cistron’s turf-to-dirt move worked beautifully in his Kona Gold (G2) tour de force at Santa Anita. The seventh furlong of Saturday’s Triple Bend (G2) found him out, as Air Strike caught him, but back in the vicinity of six, the Sadler pupil can continue to make hay out west – pending Roy H’s return from the foot trouble that ruled him out of the Golden Shaheen.
The versatile World of Trouble, just denied by two-time champion Stormy Liberal in the 2018 Turf Sprint, has since compiled a four-race skein across turf and dirt, notably including the Carter (G1). Trainer Jason Servis might well opt for another shot at the Turf Sprint. As a more mature four-year-old in their rematch, World of Trouble is capable of turning the tables on a Stormy Liberal who’s settled for minor awards in his ensuing three. One top contender who missed last year’s Turf Sprint, Imprimis, is two-for-two this term. Most recently overcoming a bad stumble at the start to mug Bound for Nowhere in the Shakertown (G2), the Joe Orseno charge will fly the flag at Royal Ascot.
Trainer Peter Miller has turned the Sprint/Turf Sprint double in both 2017-18 with repeat champs Roy H and Stormy Liberal, respectively, and two distaffers are adding to his hand this season. Belvoir Bay is a more natural Turf Sprint candidate, and she already has world-class form versus males as the runner-up in the Al Quoz Sprint (G1) (beating Stormy Liberal) on World Cup night. Yet she’s shown ability in stakes events transferred from the Santa Anita turf to the main track, scoring in the Las Cienegas and finishing second in Sunday’s Monrovia (G3). Stablemate Spiced Perfection is among the Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) contenders by virtue of her La Brea (G1) and Madison (G1) scores.
Mia Mischief is arguably atop the female sprint division thanks to her victory in a loaded Humana Distaff (G1) over Marley’s Freedom, Amy’s Challenge, and Spiced Perfection. Perhaps over the top when ninth in last year’s Filly & Mare Sprint to upsetter Shamrock Rose (whose career is reportedly in limbo due to injury) and Chalon, Mia Mischief could be a different proposition in this year’s edition.
The filly who beat Mia Mischief in an epic Test (G1) at Saratoga, Separationofpowers, has a right to get involved as well. The Chad Brown pupil promises to move forward off a comeback third in the Vagrancy (G3) to Heavenhasmynikki. Also worth mentioning, if only for the Breeders’ Cup home court angle, is Danuska’s My Girl, in the midst of a four-race winning spree at Santa Anita including the Las Flores (G3) and Desert Stormer (G3).
The older fillies and mares might have their hands full, however, if Brad Cox’s dynamite sophomores Covfefe and Break Even maintain their form through the fall. Covfefe smashed Pimlico’s six-furlong track record when posting 1:07.70 in the Miss Preakness (G3), two weeks after Break Even put on an exhibition of speed in the seven-furlong Eight Belles (G2).
Reigning champion Monomoy Girl’s reappearance has been postponed after a “mild case” of colic a couple of months ago, and it remains to be determined if her dominance at three will carry over to four. In the meantime, rival Midnight Bisou has won three straight graded events at her optimal distance of 1 1/16 miles, capped by the Apple Blossom (G1).
As sophomores, there was little between Midnight Bisou and Monomoy Girl at that trip – witness the Cotillion (G1) where the champion was disqualified and Midnight Bisou awarded the victory. Nine furlongs proved more of a stretch for Midnight Bisou, as evidenced by her placings, including a third in the Distaff. She remains at 1 1/16 miles for the “Win and You’re In” Ogden Phipps (G1) on Belmont Day.
Fellow Asmussen trainee She’s a Julie, who sported a progressive profile at three, is likewise perfect so far at four. She earned a Grade 1 breakthrough with a hard-fought decision in the La Troienne (G1) over Beholder Mile (G1) heroine Secret Spice and comebacker Blue Prize. She’s a Julie will bid for a Distaff ticket in the “Win and You’re In” Fleur de Lis (G2) on Foster night.
At Santa Anita, the oft-frustrating Paradise Woods put it all together, for the moment at least, in her Santa Margarita (G2) conquest. Has new trainer John Shirreffs figured her out, or will she relapse? In any event, her ability to fire when in the mood at her home track must be kept in mind for the Breeders’ Cup.
Last year’s hard-charging runner-up in the Distaff, Wow Cat, just returned to the worktab Sunday for Brown. The former Chilean Horse of the Year and Triple Crown winner took time to acclimate, hitting her peak last fall, and she might become the star of the Spa this summer. But that also depends upon Elate. Although beaten by Midnight Bisou in both the Azeri (G2) and Apple Blossom, the Bill Mott mare is entitled to find herself again going longer.
As with the three-year-old males, the fillies are establishing a pecking order, and much improvement is required to challenge their elders. Serengeti Empress made a statement in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), but her hit-and-miss tendencies are a concern. Black-Eyed Susan (G2) winner Point of Honor has loads of upside, as does Dunbar Road, both of whom lacked sufficient points to make the Oaks. And as disappointing as Bellafina has been at Churchill, she puts her best foot forward at Santa Anita. Her plans will crystallize after she shortens up for the Test.
TURF/MILE/FILLY & MARE TURF
European stars Enable and Magical, who fought out the finish in a memorable Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), remain in the picture. Enable, pointing for an unprecedented third Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1), is on course for a five-year-old debut at Royal Ascot. Magical has been unbeatable this season for Aidan O’Brien, already racking up three Group wins versus males. After her romp in Sunday’s Tattersalls Gold Cup (G1), she is in the mix for the Prince of Wales’s (G1) at the Royal meeting. That’s one option for Enable, along with the Hardwicke (G2) in her 1 1/2-mile wheelhouse.
Yet the American turf, so muddled last year, has produced a clear divisional leader in the Brown-trained Bricks and Mortar. The inaugural Pegasus World Cup Turf (G1) hero has not only added the Mervin H. Muniz Memorial (G2) and Old Forester Turf Classic (G1), but he’s seen his form franked as well. Channel Maker has since captured the Man o’ War (G1), getting the jump on Arklow, and Delta Prince shortened up to take the Maker’s 46 Mile (G1).
The major hesitation about Bricks and Mortar from a Breeders’ Cup perspective is that it’s not easy for a horse who reaches peak form in January to stay on the boil. And the Brown barn has others sure to step up over the course of the year, including last year’s Arlington Million (G1) exacta of Robert Bruce and Almanaar (who just garnered Saturday’s Monmouth [G2]). Aside from his well-known crew, watch out for Chilean import Ya Primo, who crushed the Gran Premio Latinoamericano (G1) in 1:56.68 for 2,000 meters (about 1 1/4 miles).
The 2018 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) result left more questions than answers, and hopefully this year’s renewal will offer more clarity. The victorious European shipper Expert Eye is now at stud, but near-misser Catapult is still in action. Seeking a Breeders’ Cup berth in Monday’s Shoemaker Mile, the Sadler charge hopes to defend his home turf from the aforementioned Delta Prince. Another 2018 Mile alum who could try again, Sir Michael Stoute’s Mustashry, hit a new career high in the May 18 Lockinge (G1) at Newbury.
The ubiquitous Brown is well stocked in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) division too. His embarrassment of riches begins with reigning champion Sistercharlie, whose return timetable was reportedly affected by illness. The Eclipse Award winner is expected to be back for a Diana (G1) title defense. Also worth waiting for is Uni, last seen landing the Matriarch (G1). In the interim, their trainer can rely upon the likes of Rushing Fall, who picked up right where she left off in the Jenny Wiley (G1); new recruit Homerique, a sharp winner of the Beaugay (G3) in her U.S. debut; and fellow ex-Euros Environs and Precieuse. Although Newspaperofrecord was overturned by Rusty Arnold’s Concrete Rose in the Edgewood (G3), the previously undefeated sophomore is entitled to regain her luster down the line.
Outside of the Brown sphere, Fair Grounds stakes winners Mitchell Road and Beau Recall have made a splash on the big stage. The Cox-trained Beau Recall captured the Churchill Distaff Turf Mile (G2) on Derby Day, and Mitchell Road, Country House’s half-sister and stablemate, wired the Gallorette (G3) on Preakness Day. Both are under consideration for the Just a Game (G1) on Belmont Day, where Rushing Fall is expected to lead Team Brown. Out on the West Coast, Vasilika bids to extend her current streak to four in Monday’s Gamely (G1).
Turning to the internationals, last year’s Filly & Mare Turf runner-up, Godolphin’s Wild Illusion, resumed with a useful sixth versus males in Sunday’s Prix d’Ispahan (G1). Trainer Charlie Appleby forecasts improvement next out, likely in the June 28 Pretty Polly (G1) at the Curragh. O’Brien’s Magic Wand has been busy since her fourth in the Filly & Mare Turf, placing second to Bricks and Mortar in the Pegasus Turf and third to Channel Maker in the Man o’ War.
So that’s the general lay of the land on Memorial Day weekend. Now on to Breeders’ Cup prep season!
Gift Box edges McKinzie in the Santa Anita H. (G1) (c) Benoit Photo