This is the 5th installment in a series of posts previewing the upcoming 2011 Breeders' Cup at Churchill Downs. Part 1 looked at the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies, and the chalky nature of those races over the years. Part 2 examined the Turf, and the recent decline in the quality of that race. Part 3 looked at the Classic, and the history that Uncle Mo is trying to overcome. Part 4 examined both the Juvenile Turf and the Juvenile Fillies Turf. This post will look at the the Breeders' Cup Mile.
I think it's a fairly safe assumption to state that if Goldikova were to win a fourth straight Breeders' Cup Mile on Saturday that she would likely set a standard never be reached again in the event's history. She's already the only horse to ever win three Breeders' Cup races. But four? That would be tough to match. Zenyatta and Ouija Board (GB) each came close to winning three in a row, but neither of those great fillies were able to accomplish the feat (Ouija Board (GB) was denied by Intercontinental (GB) in the 2nd of three races in the Filly & Mare Turf, while Zenyatta fell a long head short of Blame in last year's Classic). And of the horses that have run in four or more Breeders' Cups (Affirmed Success, Awesome Gem, Bertrando, Better Talk Now, El Senor, Hollywood Story, Kona Gold, Perfect Drift, Pleasant Tap, Precisionist, Red Rocks (IRE), and Risk Averse), none were anywhere near as successful as Goldikova.
For anyone that's followed Goldikova's career these past four years, the six-year-old mare appears to be just a step or two off of her best form this season. But while the 2011 edition of Goldikova might not be as good as previous versions, it would be extremely premature to declare her "over the top." Goldikova has run five times in 2011, all against Group 1 competition, notching two wins and three seconds. And while that may seem underwhelming for a mare with the her stature and accomplishments, a season in with two Group 1 wins and three Group 2 2nds would make a career for many horses. In her five races in Europe this year she's received Racing Post Ratings of 125, 122, 122, 126 and 119, all of which compare favorably to her ratings in previous years.
The prime rival to Goldikova this year is Gio Ponti, the two-time American Champion Turf Horse that finished 2nd in last year's Mile. He's only won one race in 2011, but it was impressive performance in the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland. He won that same race last year before finishing 1 ¾ lengths behind Goldikova.While Gio Ponti has spent most of his career running at longer distances, he's been devastating in races at eight furlongs. He's a sparkling 7-5-1-0 at a mile with three Grade 1 and two Grade 2 wins. One can't help but wonder what his record would look like if he'd been running at a mile throughout his career. [Note: the only race at a mile where Gio Ponti didn't finish in the top 3 was the inaugural running of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf at Monmouth Park in 2007.]
This is Gio Ponti's fourth trip to the Breeders' Cup and it's the last chance for a one of the best American turf horses in recent years to grab a final signature win before heading off to retirement. Strategy and running position will likely play a key roll in this race; Jockey Ramon Dominguez can't afford to give Gio Ponti too much to do, as he has in some of his other efforts. Last year he was over eight lengths back in the early going, a running position that makes it awfully tough to catch Goldikova in the stretch, especially with his propensity to get stuck in traffic in the final furlongs.
The path to a win in the Mile is a bit clearer for everyone with the absence of Frankel (GB), the undisputed best miler in the world. The brilliant Juddmonte colt is receiving a much deserved break in his native England following an undefeated three-year-old campaign and with "The Freak" not making the trip to Louisville, everyone else gets a chance at a victory. But while the European contingent of Mile contenders lacks a certain punch, but it is in no way "weak".
Byword (GB), winner of the Group 2 Prix Dollar at Longchamp on Arc weekend, has finished behind Goldikova in two previous tries against the mare in his career. In his most recent race at Longchamp, he defeated Cirrus des Aigles (FR), the horse that would go on to win the Group 1 Champion Stakes at the inaugural British Champions Day on Oct. 15th. Byword hasn't raced at a mile all that often (4 starts), but he's performed well at the distance (3 wins, 1 second).
Richard Hannon's Strong Suit comes into the Mile of back-to-back wins in the Group 2 Challenge Stakes at Newmarket and the Group 2 Lennox Stakes at Goodwood. He carried 131 lbs. in the Challenge Stakes, eight more than he'll carry in the Mile. In his one race against Frankel, Strong Suit finished 6th, over 12 lengths back.
Zoffany (IRE) gained a lot of acclaim for coming the closest to beating Frankel when he finished only ¾ of a length behind in the Group 1 St. James's Palace Stakes at Royal Ascot on June 14th. But after running a good 2nd in the Group 1 Prix Jean Prat at Chantilly in his next start, Zoffany has fallen drastically off-form. He's finished 12th and 8th in his last two starts and was beaten by more than ten lengths both times. His last effort was the Grade 1 Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, his first in North America. While Zoffany ran well earlier in the year in Europe, his current form is borderline atrocious. He'll have to bounce back in a big way if he is to have any chance to win at the Breeders' Cup.
There should be plenty of speed in this year's Mile with the presence of Courageous Cat, Get Stormy, and Sidney's Candy. Jeranimo could also factor in the early pace; he's closed from the back of the pack in most races at a mile but showed a lot more early speed when winning the G2-Oak Tree Mile on Oct. 8th. Strong Suit also prefers to race on or near the lead, but it's a big question as to whether he can flash the kind of speed necessary to grab the lead from those North American front-runners. That would be a tough strategy to employ and still expect to hold off Goldikova and Gio Ponti in the stretch.
Reports from the clockers indicate that Todd Pletcher has been able to get Sidney's Candy to relax a bit more in the mornings, but it remains to be seen if he can win without running his competition into the ground; that's been his m.o. since he first started racing in 2009. At least the connections aren't still talking about running this colt on dirt.
The expected fast pace should be a benefit to both Goldikova and Gio Ponti, as well as the winner of the G1-Woodbine Mile, Turallure. The Charles Lopresti trained colt used a torrid closing move to win at Woodbine on Sept. 18th, covering the final quarter mile in 23.15, with a final furlong of 11.55, according to the Trakus data.
Finally, I don't think Mr. Commons has got a big shot to win this race, but I've liked the looks of this colt for quite some time now. He's run really well when asked to go a mile on the grass, even if he's clearly a notch or two below the top contenders in this race. A son of 2005 Breeders' Cup Mile champion Artie Schiller, Mr. Commons could be a horse to keep an eye on for next year's Breeders' Cup, especially with the event returning to Santa Anita.
Over the years, the Mile has produced some of the best payouts at the Breeders' Cup when compared to the original eight races. The median winning payout is a healthy $12.20, which ranks right in the middle all-time. However, it's the exotic payouts where the Mile churns out the bigger money.
There is some nice dollars to be made in the Mile and, like a lot of the Breeders' Cup races, it's primarily driven by large odds horses that run 2nd through 4th, keying boxcar payouts in the exotics. A median $2 exacta of $145 is incredibly nice. And although the trifecta has historically been a tad light, the superfecta (if you can hit it) is a good way to line your wallet and ensure a profitable day of wagering.
Payouts in the Mile have been down slightly the last three years due to heavily bet Goldikova completing the three-peat. It's one of the few races that has essentially given you a "free square" on the day, although that might not be the case in 2011.
While there's not a lot of life-changing scores in those numbers, there are still opportunities to be had. Take a look at last year's exacta payout of $18.20; that's not a bad return for a Goldikova-Gio Ponti 1-2 finish.