The Breeders' Cup Classic is typically the race that carrier the most weight in determining Horse of the Year with the exception of years where a running in another division clearly stands above the rest. That was the case last year when Wise Dan's victory in the Mile, along with a lack of a standout horses in the Classic division, propelled him to the title of 2012 Horse of the Year.
Like last year, Horse of the Year honors is still very much up for grabs. Game On Dude is the leading contender for most, and I'd have a hard time disputing that given his undefeated season, but he needs a strong performance in the Classic to sew up top honors. In that respect, Wise Dan, despite the end of his winning streak in the Shadwell earlier in October, can once again state his case as the best horse in the country with a dominating performance in the Breeders' Cup Mile.
Looking at this year's Mile pre-entries, it appears (at least on paper) that this race will once again set up perfectly for Wise Dan. And, like last year, the top European horse is coming into the race after a short rest following a run during British Champions Day.
Before we get into how this race might shake out, let's talk pre-entries from the European side: Cristoforo Colombo, Magician (IRE), Mshawish, Olympic Glory (IRE), Toronado (IRE) and Flotilla (FR). I'm not including No Jet Lag in this group since he's run in last two races in North America (and shown to like firm ground quite a bit).
When the Breeders' Cup is at Santa Anita (or any track where we're pretty much guaranteed a firm going), I think the first thing to look at when evaluating the Europeans is their success over harder ground. Honestly, I'd rather play a borderline Group 3 winner that loves firm ground over a Group 1 winner over a bog at Longchamp For me, the differences in the condition of the ground and the layout of the courses is a bigger issue than the quality of the competition. That's probably why an Arc winner has never come back to win the Turf - while they are both 12 furlong races on the grass they are actually very different in terms of the conditions and the profile of the winners.
Anyway, I'm looking for horses that can handle firmer going since it's highly unlikely the Santa Anita turf course will be anything but it's usual rock-hard "firm" next weekend.
Cristoforo Colombo: He's never won a group race in Europe; that's certainly not a plus. He's spent most of his time sprinting, which is typically not the strongest of divisions across the pond. He's had some success over standard tracks but his run in this year's Guineas over good-to-firm ground at Newmarket was pretty poor if we're looking at the big picture. This colt's not on my radar given the strength of this year's Mile.
Flotilla (FR): Won last year's Juvenile Filly Turf at Santa Anita, so we know she'll take to the course, and followed that up with a win in the French 1,000 Guineas at Longchamp this past spring. Unfortunately, her last two races were simply awful and I'm not sure the ground at Santa Anita will move her up enough to be a legit contender in this race. [As noted below in the comments, Flotilla won't run in the Mile.]
Magician (IRE): He won the Irish 2,000 Guineas and ran well over a standard track and Dundalk early in his career. Seems to clearly be a couple steps below the top performers but there's enough in the history to suggest he could at least run well at Santa Anita. Magician is also pre-entered into the Turf.
Mshawish: He raced two times over firm going in France - one in Deauville and one in Chantilly - with a win and a second, and has a win over soft going at Saint-Cloud. I like the versatility to run over a variety of surfaces as that should make the transition a bit easier to handle. He's also run up near the front of the field and towards the rear and had success with both styles, something else I love to see from a European horse coming to the U.S. for the first time given the typically much quicker pace scenarios. [Also as noted below in the comments, Mshawish also won't run.]
Olympic Glory (IRE): Here's a colt with a huge change at an upset victory over Wise Dan. Olympic Glory lost by a nose to the excellent Moonlight Cloud in the Group 1 Jacques le Marios over firm ground at Deauville (must have been a dry summer in northern France). He won the QE II at Ascot at this year's British Champions Day and will wheel back in two weeks for the Mile. The quick turnaround is a bit of a concern considering the travel so I wouldn't want to take too short of a price, but he's certainly got the talent to win this race under these conditions
Olympic Glory will likely run at the rear of the field, as he done in Europe for most of his career, so he'll need some clear racing room when coming off the far turn in order to run down Wise Dan, a task that will likely be quite difficult. If he does get a clean trip, and he's fit and ready to run big, he'll probably have the best chance of any of the contenders to pull off the upset.
Toronado (IRE): Pre-entered by not expected to run, according to the connections.
All right, with the Euros out of the way, let's next to the three horses that might have the biggest influence on this race: Bright Thought, Silver Max and Obviously (IRE).
Silver Max may have beaten Wise Dan in the off-the-turf-for-some-unknown-absurd-reason Shadwell at Keeneland this month but there's no way he gets an easy lead with Bright Thought and Obviously in this field. All three of those horses need the lead to win, although I think Bright Thought is going to be in deep trouble early on as he'll have to work very hard to keep up with the other two through the first quarter mile. If you're the connections of any one of those three horses you probably don't want to be the one that draws inside of the other two.
With what should be at minimum a two-way battle for the lead, and perhaps a trio of pace setters, things start to look awfully good for defending champion and reigning Horse of the Year Wise Dan. Last year's winner loves to sit a length or two off the speed before rolling up on the leaders coming off the far turn with his high cruising speed and he should get a chance to use that same move once again in this race.
Of course, coming to the conclusion that this race sets up perfectly for Wise Dan assumes his loss in the Shadwell is one you can throw out and, personally, while I think it is a race to draw a line through I also think Wise Dan won't keep churning out great effort after great effort until the end of time. (Or maybe he will. Who knows.) He's a six-year-old gelding that hasn't run a bad race in over two years and has really run only a handful of clunkers in his entries 26-race career, which is incredibly impressive. At the same time, his odds are going to be short; Wise Dan was right around 9/5 in last year's Mile and he'll likely be less than that this year. So we're left with the decision of trying to build tickets around a short-priced horses or taking our chances with some unlikely winners.
If I'm taking a chance and trying to beat Wise Dan, do you go with a horse that could steal it on the front end, or with something running from the back of the pack? Like I wrote earlier, the pace looks like it will be strong and it's hard to see Silver Max or Obviously taking this thing gate-to-wire. Which sort of leaves the default choice of looking for a horse that might be able to pick up the pieces.
We've already hit on Olympic Glory but the quick turnaround gives me some hesitation on hoping for a big effort (and I doubt he'll be available at a big price).
On the other hand, Mshawish really intrigues me and is a colt that should be a big number on the tote board (30/1 or higher) and is a horse I could envision tracking a length or two off of Wise Dan, as opposed to rating at the complete rear of the field. That might be a recipe for success. Might be. So, with Mshawish out, yeah, not much intriguing in this race besides Wise Dan and Olympic Glory. We'll have to wait and see how it shakes out but, on paper, I have a hard time seeing Wise Dan lose this race unless he not 100% fit.