May 20, 2022

Five points to ponder: 2021 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile

Corniche used his high cruising speed in the American Pharoah Stakes ©BENOIT PHOTO

Friday’s Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) is creating a sense of déjà vu about a few contenders. Will the similarities be verified and patterns renewed, or new paradigms be established?

The divisional Eclipse Award is at stake, along with an enhanced Kentucky Derby (G1) points structure of 20-8-4-2 to the respective top four at Del Mar.

Here are my five points to ponder:

1. Is Jack Christopher more like Complexity, or Uncle Mo?

Update: Late Thursday night, news came that Jack Christopher was out due to an issue with his left shin. We’ll leave this point to ponder for posterity.

Trainer Chad Brown has sent an unbeaten Champagne (G1) winner to this race twice before, and both failed their two-turn test in the Juvenile. Thus on paper, Jack Christopher could be viewed as the successor to Practical Joke (2016) and Complexity (2018). Indeed, his pedigree is no more appealing from a route perspective; in fact, it screams sprinter.

Yet Jack Christopher strikes me as a different type of beast. Unlike Complexity, who appeared to be the typically precocious front runner, Jack Christopher combines high speed with tractability. In his Travers Day unveiling at Saratoga, a rival on the inside wanted the lead. Jack Christopher attended without being aggressive, then pummeled them as the 11-10 favorite. In the Champagne, he eased back on the inside, switched out as a stalker, dismissed Hopeful (G1) hero Gunite with alarming ease, and delivered the coup de grace.

Jack Christopher could work out similar trip from the rail here. He can lead if it’s handed to him, or defer and set up shop on the flank. I remain skeptical of his long-term prospects as a Derby candidate, with the likelihood of distance limitations. Still, judging by how he’s conducted himself on the racetrack, Jack Christopher could be more in the mold of another Travers Day firster who dominated the Champagne and the Juvenile – Uncle Mo.

2. Is Baffert’s top chance Corniche, or Pinehurst?

Highly-regarded Corniche leveraged his inside post in the American Pharoah (G1) to control the pace and win handsomely, but he’s stuck on the far outside post 12 here. The $1.5 million OBS Spring Sale topper has gunned it from a wide post before. In his smashing debut over 5 1/2 furlongs here, Corniche blasted to the lead from post 10. So he has the engine – unless Hall of Famer Mike Smith opts not to ask him for that much effort out of the gate. He’d likely have to burn more energy to clear stablemate Pinehurst, who could be the Baffert runner best positioned to lead from post 9.

Pinehurst was last seen wiring the Del Mar Futurity (G1). Two back, he recovered rapidly from a troubled start on the rail to score on debut. That day, Pinehurst showed terrific resolve to repel and edge away from stablemate Enbarr, who broke his maiden in the Capote next out at Los Alamitos. As a fellow unbeaten with speed, the pedigree to stretch out, and the salutary experience of overcoming adversity, Pinehurst looks overpriced at 8-1.

Barossa has the gaudiest pedigree of the Baffert trio, as an Into Mischief colt from the family of Havre de Grace et al, but the least on his resume. He was all out to break his maiden in his third try last out Oct. 15, and a leap forward is required to trouble the principals.

3. Will Oviatt Class or Commandperformance fulfill parallels?

Oviatt Class offers a proper parallel with Texas Red. That predecessor’s storyline in a nutshell: Inexpensive Keith Desormeaux runner breaks maiden in first route on main track, rallies for third off a moderate pace in the FrontRunner (G1), thrives off hot tempo to upset Juvenile. One obvious difference is that Texas Red didn’t have to tangle with the FrontRunner winner in the Juvenile – a certain American Pharoah, who would go on to have that race renamed in his honor.

But Oviatt Class likewise figures to get a better pace set-up here. And like Texas Red, Oviatt Class has the profile of a colt who will blossom. Both were bred by top-class operations and sired by classic-winning champion three-year-olds. For whatever it’s worth, Oviatt Class has a much deeper female line, hailing from the same family as last year’s champ Essential Quality.

The other Juvenile hope prompting comparisons with a past winner is Commandperformance, who is trying to emulate Good Magic’s maiden-breaking score in 2017. Both were promising seconds at the Spa and in the Champagne.

Yet I’d argue that the resemblance is more superficial. Good Magic came closer in those first two starts. And the crux was that he was exceeding expectations early on for a son of Curlin, who promised to improve on the stretch-out. Commandperformance is likewise eligible to continue his progress around two turns, but it’s more debatable whether the Union Rags colt would make a similarly big leap.

4. Can the sentimental longshots serve up a feel-good story?

Two colts by late, great horses look up against it, but an upset victory would furnish a poignant storyline.

Arrogate, unraced himself at two, has come up with a Juvenile runner in his first crop. If that’s a bit unexpected given his own background, his hope arrives from an unexpected quarter – Japan. Jasper Great looked a class apart in a Hanshin newcomers’ race, but this is a ferocious spot to try winners, let alone American Grade 1 dirt performers.

At the opposite end of the life cycle, Giant’s Causeway has a Juvenile contender from his final crop, an extraordinary thing since he bequeathed only three named foals of 2019. Giant Game attended a slow pace in his driving maiden win at Keeneland, and it’s a totally different ball game here.

5. Will Rattle N Roll be flattered in absentia?

Breeders’ Futurity (G1) romper Rattle N Roll would have been a major player at Del Mar, but for a bruised hoof that’s ruled him out. Since trainer Ken McPeek had sounded inclined to skip it anyway, with a view toward maximizing his development on the Derby trail, this could be a blessing in disguise.

Two Breeders’ Futurity alumni will fly the flag instead. Runner-up Double Thunder adds blinkers, potentially a decisive equipment change considering how he won the Bashford Manor (G3) and Sapling while still on the learning curve. American Sanctuary, second in the Sapling and fourth at Keeneland, is a pretty consistent yardstick. If either runs better than forecast, let the what-ifs begin about Rattle N Roll.