December 1, 2020

Five points to ponder: 2020 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

Jackie's Warrior at Keeneland 2020
Jackie's Warrior (Horsephotos.com/Cecilia Gustavsson)

The anchor of “Future Stars Friday” at Keeneland, the $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) could prove to be one of the deeper renewals in recent years.

The 1 1/16-mile test will likely decide the divisional championship, as usual. But looking further down the road, chances are it will have a greater than usual bearing on the Kentucky Derby (G1) trail, beyond its 20-8-4-2 points structure.

Ironically, the last Juvenile that held up pretty well through the Triple Crown was right here at Keeneland in 2015. Future Derby hero Nyquist won, and eventual Preakness (G1) winner Exaggerator was fourth. Both were ultimately overtaken by Arrogate as the 2016 season progressed, but they remained prominent in the division for longer than most Juvenile participants of late.

While illness, injury, and the vagaries of the trail can take their toll, and late developers are sure to arise, the 2020 Juvenile cast has several eligible to stick around for the long haul.

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Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Jackie’s Warrior has substance to go with the flash.

The 7-5 morning line favorite for his two-turn debut, Jackie’s Warrior has given indications that he can be effective on the stretch-out. After his exhibition of speed in the Saratoga Special and his stakes-record Hopeful (G1), the Champagne (G1) revealed that he wasn’t just a brilliant sprinter. The Steve Asmussen trainee was capable of modulating his pace over a mile, doling it out as required without being aggressive. That tractability bodes well for carrying his speed at a route.

Moreover, although it’s early to be doctrinaire about formlines, Jackie’s Warrior has been drubbing some pretty useful opponents. Reinvestment Risk was such a buzzworthy Spa debut winner that he was the even-money Hopeful favorite who had to settle for a chasing second. Mutasaabeq had the same gaudy profile until he wound up a distant third in the Hopeful. Switched to the turf, Mutasaabeq rebounded in style in the Bourbon (G2) to book his spot in Friday’s Juvenile Turf (G1). Similarly, Saratoga Special third Momos moved to turf, placed third in the Futurity (G3), and runs in Friday’s Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2). The Champagne furnished further evidence when Midnight Bourbon, the Iroquois (G3) runner-up, was well beaten in third.

2. Essential Quality has a classic profile.

It’s fitting that Essential Quality made a stunning debut on the postponed Derby Day card at Churchill Downs, since the Godolphin blueblood has a real profile for the classics. Rating off a fast pace in a 6-furlong maiden, Essential Quality made a nifty move through the pack on the far turn. That made him an eye-catcher, even before he got shut off in the stretch, came around, and won for fun.

Essential Quality was entitled to appreciate the added ground of the Breeders’ Futurity (G1), a “Win and You’re In” at this track and trip, but the manner of his victory only added to his appeal. The Brad Cox pupil employed a different running style, forcing the pace through slow fractions before powering away. Such tactical adaptability suggests he can handle a variety of situations, be beholden to none, and make his own luck.

Thus Essential Quality is the 4-1 second choice on the morning line. While he has the advantage of a course-and-distance win, it’s arguable that he’ll be even better next year.

3. Reinvestment Risk will get his best set-up in a stakes so far.

If Jackie’s Warrior deserves credit for romping over good rivals, so does his nearest pursuer Reinvestment Risk, who’s been building up big margins over the same opponents. His runner-up effort in the Hopeful was better than the Champagne, but there are a couple of reasons for that, and both point toward an improved showing at Keeneland.

As retired jockey-cum-analyst Richard Migliore has pointed out, Reinvestment Risk had to be taken out of his game to chase the pace-controlling Jackie’s Warrior in the Champagne. His smashing maiden score came by pouncing from just off the pace, and the race dynamic of a bigger field will suit his preferred running style.

Also, trainer Chad Brown has said that Reinvestment Risk didn’t enjoy the Belmont surface as much as Saratoga. Brown has often likened the Spa’s revamped main track to Keeneland, so if Reinvestment Risk agrees, he’s entitled to offer a stronger, more sustained rally.

A similar case could be made for Rombauer, the American Pharoah (G1) runner-up, who closed from last and missed by just three-quarters of a length to front-running Get Her Number. The difference is that the Santa Anita feature came up relatively light compared to the points races back East. On the other hand, there is a trend about American Pharoah losers coming back to win the Juvenile.

4. Sittin on Go, King Fury need to step up from Churchill stakes wins.

The Dale Romans-trained Sittin on Go was a 24-1 overlay in the Iroquois, the first scoring race on the Road to the 2021 Kentucky Derby. The terrific 5-furlong debut winner at Ellis Park backed it up with a similarly robust charge from well back at Churchill. Another strong pace is on tap in the Breeders’ Cup, and Sittin on Go should be able to close just as well around two turns.

The only thing is that he’ll have to run down better horses. Iroquois runner-up Midnight Bourbon found that the buildings got pretty tall when he crossed the Hudson, as Woody Stephens used to say, when a remote third in the Champagne. Third-placer Super Stock was beaten almost the same distance by Essential Quality in the Breeders’ Futurity, which appears more of a question mark on that form than a boost for Sittin on Go. The good news is that he has plenty of scope to keep progressing.

Three from the Breeders’ Futurity are taking on Essential Quality again – runner-up Keepmeinmind, the disappointing dead-heat sixth Calibrate, and King Fury, who’s already rebounded from his poor eighth. King Fury returned to the scene of his Churchill maiden win to take the Oct. 25 Street Sense over the honest Super Stock, which suggests he still has something to find on Essential Quality. A $950,000 son of Curlin and Taris, King Fury has every right to improve with age.

Keepmeinmymind, the 52-1 longest shot on the board in the Breeders’ Futurity, was also second in his off-the-turf debut at Churchill. The winner of that race, Arabian Prince, was fourth to King Fury in the Street Sense so the Kentucky 2-year-old form is all tied together. Although Keepmeinmymind ran on well as best-of-the-rest in the Breeders’ Futurity, his maiden status leaves some cause about the form. But another solid effort here, in first-time blinkers, can erase that talking point. Still, it’s tough to see him breaking his maiden in this spot a la Good Magic in the 2017 edition at Del Mar.

Calibrate had shown high speed in his debut maiden romp at the Spa, so it was a plot twist that he never got involved from the start of the Breeders’ Futurity. Drawn in the far outside post 14 here, the Asmussen runner might be forced to play his hand early.

5. Debut conqueror Classier has to buck a trend.

It’s possible for a last-out maiden winner to capture the Juvenile. That’s happened only twice, though, and both times at a Santa Anita Breeders’ Cup, when a locally based 2-year-old capitalized on home field advantage. At least Action This Day (2003) and New Year’s Day (2013) had won over a route, but Classier is an even bigger outlier attempting it off a 6 1/2-furlong sprint.

That said, Classier won like a horse with a world of ability for four-time Juvenile winner Bob Baffert, who engineered the coup with New Year’s Day. Effortlessly advancing from what can be a tough rail post for newcomer, the $775,000 Empire Maker colt just dominated an Oct. 24 Santa Anita maiden at every call. Classier was deceptively fast, as the best often are.

Three more maiden winners are taking a swing as well. Camp Hope, the only firster in a 1 1/16-mile maiden on Churchill’s Oct. 25 Stars of Tomorrow I card, romped from just the off slow pace with authority. Santa Anita shipper Hot Rod Charlie took four tries to score, but did so in his first dirt route, and adding blinkers, to beat Parnelli (who’s also placed second to both Superman Shaq and Spielberg). Hot Rod Charlie previously placed to Get Her Number in a turf sprint. Likeable grabbed the lead and spurted away around Belmont’s one-turn mile, but he shortened stride late, and the form hasn’t worked out so far.

Two others are coming off wire jobs in Keeneland allowances. Next drew off by 11 3/4 lengths in an off-the-turf contest Oct. 24 for Wesley Ward, and Dreamer’s Disease nicked it through modest fractions Oct. 3. The only Juvenile winner to come off an allowance score was Brocco (1993), another Santa Anita exception to the rule.