Racing Roundtable: Breeders' Cup implications from Travers weekend

August 30th, 2022

The Racing Roundtable — James Scully, Kellie Reilly, and Vance Hanson — reflect this week on the Breeders' Cup implications from Travers Day and elsewhere.

Are you more bullish on Epicenter's chances facing older rivals in the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1)?

James Scully: Yes. Epicenter registered solid Brisnet Speed ratings through the Preakness (G1) (98-101-101-103), but his numbers have increased significantly since receiving a freshening this summer, earning a 107 in the Jim Dandy (G2) and a career-best 110 for his 5 1/4-length romp in the Travers (G1). His progressing form holds appeal, and the Travers marked his first win at the 1 1/4-mile Classic distance.

Kellie Reilly: Although we need to see Flightline in Saturday's Pacific Classic (G1) to get a better grasp of the Classic picture, Epicenter clearly burnished his credentials in the Travers. He proved three important points at Saratoga: devastating ability at the 1 1/4-mile distance, in a fast time; well-honed tactical versatility; and unambiguous status as the leading three-year-old male. Those weren't in serious doubt beforehand, but there was enough of a scruple to play the what-about game, until Epicenter conclusively shut it down. Yet there are a couple of caveats. Epicenter would have to buck an historical trend in the Breeders' Cup, since only Arrogate (2016) has turned the Travers/Classic double. And he could have to contend with an exceptional elder or two. Flightline has freakish potential, and Life Is Good might cope with the distance more effectively at Keeneland.

Vance Hanson: Yes. Epicenter hung up a Brisnet Speed rating in the Travers that would be competitive against some of the leading older contenders if repeated in the Classic. In addition, his versatile running style suggests he could work out a great trip, too. A little more than two months out from the Breeders' Cup, he appears the only viable three-year-old threat to win the Classic.

Who is Todd Pletcher's stronger Breeders' Cup Distaff (G1) candidate: Malathaat or Nest?

JS: I rate Nest as the one to beat in this year's Distaff. Following a 12 1/4-length win in the Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), the three-year-old filly offered a brilliant turn of foot in the Alabama (G1), and Nest has the tractability to make her own trip. She'll take some beating at Keeneland this fall. A high-class grinder, Malathaat is often involved in close finishes, getting up to win Saturday's Personal Ensign (G1) by a half-length.

KR: As a card-carrying fan of both Curlin fillies, I'd side with Nest for two key reasons: tactics and attitude. All things being equal, Nest should be more forwardly placed than Malathaat in the Distaff. Her penchant for spurting away in the stretch, combined with her stamina well beyond the 1 1/8-mile trip, suggests that Nest would be tough for the closing Malathaat to catch. The attitude angle is more subjective, but refers to Malathaat's needing blinkers of late to focus her concentration. She still gives off a slightly lazy vibe as she lumbers into gear, unlike Nest, who has a killer instinct. Malathaat does have talking points of her own — the Distaff generally tends to favor the more mature crowd over three-year-olds, and she's likelier to have a recent prep under her belt. But I think that Nest holds the upper hand.

VH: Although three-year-olds have won only 11 of the 38 runnings of the Distaff (and just one of the last seven), I lean toward Nest. Perhaps it's wrong to think this way, but Malathaat missed a golden opportunity — maybe her best — to win the Distaff last year when the leading older fillies and mares faltered. She didn't have the smoothest of trips at Del Mar, but on paper she should have been able to out-finish Japanese outsider Marche Lorraine and the well-exposed Dunbar Road. Her season this year is similar to 2021 in the sense she's needed everything to fall into place in order for her to deliver. That's often extremely good, and perhaps better than what Nest is capable of at this stage, but I find Malathaat a touch less consistent than Nest in general and thus more vulnerable at a presumably shorter price.

Whose Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile (G1) stock are you buying after this weekend?

JS: Art Collector and Laurel River. A convincing winner of the 2020 Blue Grass (G2), Art Collector has shown an affinity for Keeneland, and the five-year-old exits a sharp 4 1/4-length win in the Charles Town Classic (G2). Art Collector opted for the 2021 Classic following a victory in the Woodward (G1), but the two-turn mile trip is a much better fit than 10 furlongs. Laurel River earned his first stakes triumph, and stretched his win streak to three, rolling to a 3 3/4-length decision in the Pat O'Brien (G2). The lightly-raced four-year-old is going good for Bob Baffert, netting a 108 Speed rating.

Jack Christopher has raced at six furlongs just once and Cody's Wish has never raced at the distance, but by virtue of their respective wins in the Allen Jerkens Memorial (G1) and Forego (G1) last Saturday, they've positioned themselves with the opportunity to be named champion sprinter by winning the Breeders' Cup Sprint (G1). It seems like a no-brainer to me — they prefer one-turn distances (neither has won at two turns) and have viable chances of winning the Sprint — but the two-turn Dirt Mile is under consideration for both.

KR: Cody's Wish reached a whole new level in the Forego, and toppling Jackie's Warrior at Saratoga should be the best piece of form of anyone in the Dirt Mile. Even if "Jackie" was making uncharacteristically hard work of putting away Pipeline, the champ looked like he was going to preserve his perfect Spa record until Cody's Wish blew by. The Godolphin blueblood posted a gaudy 119 Brisnet Late Pace rating to beat Jackie, who turned in one of his faster overall races — and a career-best 105 Late Pace figure — in defeat. Cody's Wish excelled on the cutback to seven furlongs, more so than I would have expected from his pedigree and his proficiency at a mile (albeit around one turn). A two-turn Dirt Mile should be right in his wheelhouse, judging by how close he went in Tampa Bay's Challenger (G3) off the layoff in March. Of the other contenders, I still retain a lot of faith in Jack Christopher, but wonder if connections might be more inclined to shorten up for the Sprint (G1). Laurel River was a revelation in the Pat O'Brien, but his inexperience could tell on a stage like the Breeders' Cup.

VH: Given Jack Christopher and Cody's Wish might be better suited to one-turn miles, Pat O'Brien winner Laurel River might be the more intriguing sort to relish two turns at Keeneland. But the Bob Baffert trainee does have to show he can be as effective outside Del Mar, where he's turned in his most convincing efforts. In general, though, the Juddmonte homebred is hitting his best stride at the right time and looms a huge player in the Dirt Mile.