January 23, 2018

First round of final Breeders’ Cup preps put some divisions into sharper focus

Beach Patrol is now a leading contender for the turf male championship, but has a potentially difficult path ahead to secure it (Viola Jasko/Adam Coglianese) Photography

The first round of final Breeders’ Cup preps this past weekend went some way toward putting several Eclipse Award categories into sharper focus.

The two divisions with seemingly firm favorites are turf female and three-year-old male. With an excellent three-for-four record this year and enormous goodwill built up over the past three seasons when she missed out on nailing down a championship, Lady Eli could sustain another upset loss (minor or otherwise) by a Euro invader in the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf (G1) and still get the nod.

With Oscar Performance finishing third in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) in his first start against older horses, so presumably went his longshot bid to become the first turf specialist to win the three-year-old male title. West Coast would have to run horribly in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) to lose this, and the way he’s going right now that would be a huge shock. Unless the exciting but relatively untested Pavel (or Good Samaritan, for that matter) somehow pull off a Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1)/Breeders’ Cup Classic double, it looks like Bob Baffert will have the leader of this division in his barn for an unprecedented third year in a row.

Oscar Performance, should he try and eventually win the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1), could obviously work his way into a turf male title, but at the moment Joe Hirsch Turf Classic winner Beach Patrol and multiple Grade 1 winner World Approval are the two main domestic candidates for the honor. Beach Patrol finished fourth and World Approval fifth in their lone meeting, in the 1 1/4-mile Manhattan (G1) in June, but World Approval could have a slightly easier path to the championship.

World Approval is targeting the Mile (G1) off back-to-back wins in the Fourstardave H. (G1) and Woodbine Mile (G1). His primary rival might prove to be Europe’s leading older specialist in that category, Ribchester, but that one will first target the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) at Ascot on October 21. That would be a quick, two-week turnaround and a long trip to California for Ribchester regardless of how he fares on British Champions Day.

Meanwhile, Beach Patrol will face a very serious threat in the Turf from Ulysses, fourth in last year’s renewal at Santa Anita and much improved this term with victories in the Eclipse (G1) and Juddmonte International (G1), and a solid third to Enable in Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1). I’d give World Approval a better chance of winning the Mile than Beach Patrol the Turf at this writing.

The older dirt male championship, meanwhile, lost a potential longshot bidder in Cupid, a dull fourth to stablemate Mubtaahij in Saturday’s Awesome Again (G1). Mubtaahij, himself, was a distant fourth behind Arrogate and Gun Runner in the Dubai World Cup (G1) in March, and it would be a surprise to see him narrow that gap completely in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Pacific Classic (G1) winner Collected seemingly remains the only other rival to Arrogate and Gun Runner for the award. Even if he wins out in the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Breeders’ Cup, Keen Ice seems highly unlikely given he is already zero-for-two this year against Arrogate and Gun Runner.

The division that saw the most shake-up this weekend (the past two weeks actually) was three-year-old filly. Abel Tasman was a solid favorite before losing the Cotillion (G1) to It Tiz Well on September 23, and on Saturday Alabama (G1) winner Elate enhanced her own credentials with a facile victory against a suspect group of older mares in the Beldame (G1), as did Paradise Woods in the Zenyatta (G1).

The Beldame and Zenyatta were GOINOs (Grade One In Name Only) of the first order this year. Most voters will give Elate and Paradise Woods full credit for winning them, but those with more discriminating tastes will be hesitant at having them be the tiebreaker or trump card in case none of the above win the Breeders’ Cup Distaff (G1), a strong possibility given the talent level of older mares Stellar Wind and Forever Unbridled.

Abel Tasman, by virtue of her victories in the Kentucky Oaks (G1), Acorn (G1), and Coaching Club American Oaks (G1), and the modest first halves of the season turned in by her main rivals, is still the favorite. If she can avoid embarrassment in the Distaff while the other three are kept out of the winner’s circle, she’ll probably scrape by.

Finally, Bolt d’Oro‘s sensational victory in the FrontRunner (G1) on Saturday has made him a very strong favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), regardless of what might happen this upcoming weekend in races like the Champagne (G1) and Breeders’ Futurity (G1). Earning a BRIS Speed rating of 105 for the win, Bolt d’Oro is arguably the most dazzling two-year-old seen since American Pharoah, who also won the Del Mar Futurity (G1) and FrontRunner, in 2014.

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