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Breeders' Cup Distaff 2013: An Early Look

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What began as a preview of the Distaff devolves into a rant on the Breeders' Cup schedule.

Princess of Sylmar edges Beholder in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks. They'll face eachother again in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park on November 1st, 2013.
Princess of Sylmar edges Beholder in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks. They'll face eachother again in the Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park on November 1st, 2013.

All hail the return of the Breeders' Cup Distaff! Okay, so the Distaff never went any where as it was simply re-named the Ladies' Classic in a move to make the race less confusing to casual fans that probably didn't know what a distaff was. But now it's back. Well, sort of. I'll write "sort of" until the Distaff is returned to Saturday afternoon with the rest of the Breeders' Cup races instead of the unfortunate slot that is Breeders' Cup Friday.

Overall, I'm in favor of the expansion of Breeders' Cup races the last few years. The juvenile turf events have been excellent betting races; the addition of a turf sprint was long overdue despite the fact that I generally hate to bet turf sprints; the Marathon, while derided by some, doesn't bother me at all. The Juvenile Sprint really didn't work and the Filly & Mare Sprint has pretty much eliminated the occurrence of a top female horse taking on the boys, but that's a nitpick from me. I can see the value to the "new" races.

While I generally like the expanded Breeders' Cup lineup, the two-day split just hasn't worked on a lot of levels. Personally, I'd rather we run all 14 races on Saturday in one big, action packed day of racing than split some of the best races off from the main spectacle. And, personally, I don't think the logistics are that difficult.

if we wanted to run the Breeders' Cup in one day, first post at Santa Anita this year could be 10:25am on the West Coast* (1:25 out East) with races every 35 minutes all day long until the Classic at 5:50pm Pacific, a perfect 8:50pm Prime Time out East. Boom; we have all 14 races on the same day and on a weekend. (No matter how great a Friday afternoon card at the track sounds, televising some of your "Championships" on a weekday when a sizable portion of the population is working for a living is never going to help to draw eyeballs.)

*Last year, the first race at Santa Anita kicked off at 10:05 am with the first official Breeders' Cup race at 11:51 am, so this wouldn't be a life-altering change.

And, really, you could arrange the day in a perfect excitement building manner, like perhaps this:

Pacific Eastern # Race
10:25:00 AM 1:25:00 PM 1 Marathon
10:50:00 AM 1:50:00 PM 2 Juvenile Fillies Turf
11:25:00 AM 2:15:00 PM 3 Dirt Mile
12:00:00 PM 3:00:00 PM 4 Juvenile Turf
12:35:00 PM 3:35:00 PM 5 Filly & Mare Sprint
1:10:00 PM 4:10:00 PM 6 Turf Sprint
1:45:00 PM 4:35:00 PM 7 Juvenile Fillies
2:20:00 PM 5:20:00 PM 8 Filly & Mare Turf
2:55:00 PM 5:55:00 PM 9 Juvenile
3:30:00 PM 6:30:00 PM 10 Turf
4:05:00 PM 7:05:00 PM 11 Sprint
4:40:00 PM 7:40:00 PM 12 Mile
5:15:00 PM 8:15:00 PM 13 Distaff
5:50:00 PM 8:50:00 PM 14 Classic

Look at that: we could get both the Distaff and the Classic in prime time for TV and also a great balance of alternating dirt and turf races all day long. You could finish with the Mile, Distaff and Classic, featuring Horse of the Year Wise Dan, two-time Distaff winner Royal Delata, and a battle for possible Horse of the Year in the Classic. Heck, you could arrange things so you have an all-turf Pick 4 early on, or maybe an all-sprint Pick 4. To me, that's a lot more enticing than spiting the event in two with one of the two days severely lacking depth.

Anyway, I've gotten off topic...well, not really because by putting all races on the same day we would bring races like the Distaff, Filly & Mare Turf and Juvenile Fillies back to the main show on Breeders' Cup Saturday where they rightfully belong. Thankfully, the Breeders' Cup moved some of those races to Saturday this year but we've still got the Distaff on Friday and a split in the whole program.

Long story short - the Distaff deserves a bigger stage. Why? Because it's an awesome race that showcases a great field of high quality fillies and mares. And it's going to be just as awesome this year.


Close Hatches.

Princess of Sylmar.

Royal Delta.

That's just four of the names expected to line up in the starting gate for this year's Distaff at Santa Anita. Without even getting into the other possible entrants, watching those four contenders would be worth the price of admission all on its own.

Beholder was a runner-up to Princess of Sylmar in the Kentucky Oaks and is a ho-hum 6-5-1-0 all time in her career at Santa Anita. Royal Delta is the two-time defending Distaff champion. Princess of Sylmar won the Oaks and just beat Royal Delta in the Beldame. And Close Hatches dominated Dreaming of Julia earlier this year and is a sparkling 7-5-1-0 on her lightly raced resume.

Perhaps the key to this race will be the fillies and mares that round out this field; will a couple of early speed types find their way into the field? How about an off-the-pace runner, like Bryama (GB) or something similar? I think it's safe to assume this year's Distaff won't feature a full field of 14 but the inclusion of just two or three would add some spice.

Beyond the question of the additional contenders that may or may not enter the Distaff, I think the key question is whether anyone will go with Beholder and Gary Stevens in the early stages of the race. That's a big question because of a couple of factors. First, if you let Belholder get a comfortable lead I'm not sure she comes back to you in the last quarter mile. Second, if Santa Anita's main track plays similar to last year's Breeders' Cup weekend, well, if you let a horse get an easy lead in the first half mile you might as well take the picture and hand the connections the trophy right there. Classy champions like Beholder or Royal Delta aren't going to magically come back to the field if given a free path right from the gate.

If we're asking whether anyone will go with Beholder we invariable must ask: can Mike Smith afford to not have Royal Delta on the lead after the second call? Can you afford to stalk Beholder? I'm not sure I'd answer that question with a "yes". In fact, I think he's got to take the race to Beholder right from the start and, even then, I don't know if Royal Delta can get the lead easily. That, to me, is the crux of this year's Distaff.

Princess of Sylmar, or at least her connections, have to be licking their chops as the possibility of Stevens and Smith trying to gun their mounts to the lead. What more could you ask for than to have two of the prime contenders battling each other while you stalk and pounce?

Throw in Close Hatches, a filly that likes to be up front but can stalk a swift early pace and would also prefer if Royal Delta and Beholder engage in a pace duel early on, and you have a very interesting race from a tactical perspective, regardless of the field size.

Like most races, pace is going to definitely make the race. But there are some critical decisions that the human connections need to decide that will determine what that pace is going to look like. Trying to figure out what those decisions are going to be gets to the heart of handicapping this year's Distaff.