Two of the leading contenders for the Nov. 7 Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) – projected early favorite Improbable and Tiz the Law – are aiming to overcome the same historical factoid. Both were beaten favorites in their respective runnings of the Kentucky Derby (G1), a result that’s generally associated with underperforming in the Breeders’ Cup too.
Granted, the sample size isn’t large enough to make sweeping conclusions, and if you want to call it a trend, it’s likely more of a negative for sophomore Tiz the Law than 4-year-old Improbable. Still, any clue is worth exploring as we assess the Classic field.
Beaten Kentucky Derby favorites in the Breeders’ Cup
Of the beaten Derby favorites who subsequently competed in the Breeders’ Cup, only one has won, and she’s an anomaly that doesn’t really fit. Life’s Magic was part of the favored entry in the 1984 Derby, but stablemate Althea was the one driving their 2.80-1 odds. Both wound up well behind Swale at Churchill Downs, with Life’s Magic faring better than her entrymate in eighth. Advancing to the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), Life’s Magic was second to the imperious Princess Rooney, and in the 1985 running at Aqueduct, Life’s Magic delivered her own Distaff romp.
Otherwise, beaten Derby favorites have found the Breeders’ Cup just as insoluble.
Easy Goer (1989), second as the 4-5 favorite in a muddy Derby, came the closest to making amends in the Classic. Only he again found archrival Sunday Silence too tough to catch in their final joust at Gulfstream Park.
The only other beaten Derby favorite to place in a Breeders’ Cup race was Serena’s Song, and she did so the following year. Like fellow D. Wayne Lukas runner Life’s Magic, Serena’s Song was part of a favored entry in the 1995 Derby, going off at 3.40-1 in tandem with champion colt Timber Country. She tired to 16th in the Run for the Roses behind another Lukas pupil, Thunder Gulch. Although rebounding for a productive summer campaign, Serena’s Song regressed to fifth in the 1995 Distaff. She performed much better in the 1996 edition at Woodbine, where she was runner-up to Jewel Princess.
Five beaten Derby favorites failed to hit the board in the same year’s Breeders’ Cup. Chief’s Crown (1985), third as the 6-5 Derby favorite, and Lookin at Lucky (2010), sixth as the 6-1 choice in a rough Derby trip from the rail, both finished fourth in their respective Classics. Much worse were the efforts of General Challenge (1999) and Harlan’s Holiday (2002), unplaced in both the Derby and Classic, and Arazi (1992), who flopped in the Derby and Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) on turf.
The plus side for Tiz the Law and Improbable
From that brief survey, Tiz the Law can claim to resemble Easy Goer more than any of the others. Likewise dominant going into the Derby, the 7-10 favorite did not produce his best effort over a Churchill track he might not appreciate – just as happened in his 2-year-old finale – but still placed second. And there’s precedent for other Derby-losing sophomores (if not favorites) to win the Classic that same fall, in Proud Truth (1985), Cat Thief (1999), and Curlin (2007).
Improbable can make an even more persuasive case for himself: namely, that he’s in the “beaten Derby favorite” category by an accident of history. After all, he inherited Derby favoritism virtually by default, thanks to the scratch of Omaha Beach, who’d beaten him in the Arkansas Derby (G1). Bettors ended up making Improbable the 4-1 favorite as the next-best, and he crossed the wire fifth (elevated to fourth via the disqualification of Maximum Security).
The 4-year-old Improbable is a far stronger model than the raw sophomore, though. In that respect, he fits the profile of Derby losers who won the Classic as older horses. Skip Away did so in 1998, but it’s becoming more of a pattern with three of the last seven Classic winners having competed in the Derby in a prior year. Mucho Macho Man (2013 Classic) and Gun Runner (2017 Classic) were third in their respective Derby editions. Vino Rosso, ninth to Justify in the 2018 Derby, is the latest example as he romped in the 2019 Classic.