December 15, 2018

Potential Breeders’ Cup rivals look to remain in Justify’s shadow

West Coast #4 ridden by Mike Smith won the $1,000,000 Grade I Pennsylvania Derby at Parx Racing in Bensalem, Pennsylvania on September 23, 2017. Photo By Joe Labozzetta/EQUI-PHOTO

by SCOTT SHAPIRO

With the Triple Crown series in the rearview mirror, it is time to start thinking about the second half of the 2018 racing calendar.

On the top of all racing fans’ minds is when will Justify compete next and where will it be. Regardless of where his connections opt to send him for his return race, the ultimate goal will be a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) on November 3 in Louisville.

At this point the undefeated Bob Baffert trainee has to be considered an extremely heavy favorite to capture the “Grand Slam,” much like American Pharoah did in 2015, but who are the runners that are likeliest to upset the apple cart this fall? While I have little interest in the moment in finding a futures wager on any of the horses below in the $6 million event at Churchill Downs, here are those that have the “best” chance:

Accelerate — For most of his career I doubted whether this son of Lookin at Lucky was cut out for a mile and a quarter, but he has proven me wrong of late. The five-year-old John Sadler trainee won the Santa Anita H. (G1) and the Gold Cup at Santa Anita (G1) in impressive fashion and appears to be in the best form of his life. The problem is not only will the race be conducted outside of his comfort zone in Southern California, but the quality of the fields he has faced were not very strong.

I would be very surprised if he gave Justify a run for his money.

West Coast — The 2017 three-year-old champion male got his career off to a late start, but he had a great second half of the year with wins in the Travers (G1) and Pennsylvania Derby (G1), as well as a strong third-place effort to Gun Runner and Collected in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. He appeared poised for a strong four-year-old campaign after a runner-up finish to Gun Runner in the Pegasus World Cup, but ran an unimpressive second in the Dubai World Cup in March. He has not been seen since.

The son of Flatter has every right to rebound in a big way when he returns to racing, but he does not appear to be on the same level as his stablemate even on his best day.

Mendelssohn — The well-bred Aidan O’Brien colt showed he can ship to the States and win capturing the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf (G1) at Del Mar last year, but he flopped badly after losing all chance at the start in the Kentucky Derby (G1). I can forgive his effort on the first Saturday in May due to the less-than-ideal beginning and the condition of the track.

If I had to lean on the likeliest to beat Justify at the moment it would be this half-brother to Into Mischief and Beholder. That still seems like a reach though.

Good Magic — The runner-up in the Kentucky Derby got a perfect trip that day and could not get to Justify and then dueled inside the Triple Crown winner in Baltimore two weeks later and was turned away in the lane.

I have a great deal of respect for the 2017 two-year-old champion, but he will need to improve or hope Justify tails off later in the year to beat him in early November.

Audible — This son of Into Mischief rattled off four consecutive victories before a third place finish in the Derby. The winning streak included two impressive graded stakes wins in Florida for trainer Todd Pletcher. He has been on the sidelines since.

Much like Good Magic I think there is some serious quality here, but getting the best of Justify in the fall is a big ask.

In my least hot take of the year, if Justify stays healthy and fails to regress during the second half of the year he will be very tough to beat in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.