Thursday, November 4, 2010

My only tip for the Breeders' Cup, but it's a doozy

With the Breeders' Cup finally upon us, I'm going to leave the heavy-duty handicapping other pros and bloggers.

I'm gonna make just one highly controversial recommendation.

Toss Quality Road in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

I don't write that lightly, and certainly not with any joy. Quality Road's owner and breeder, Edward P. Evans, is one of the true gentlemen of the sport, and a Virginia icon, the state where some of the fondest of my early horse-racing connections (and my only two foals) happen to be. I briefly owned a stallion he bred, the late Silver Music (winner of the G2 Swaps Stakes). Folks associated with his operation have been kind enough to not only offer uncompensated advice on getting into (and getting through) this business, but to take in another older stallion I was placing, giving him a great home and third career as a teaser.

And I'm not rooting against Quality Road on Saturday. I don't do that, even when I have money on a race. I cheer for the horse(s) on my ticket, but never wish ill -- not a bad trip, not even a dull effort -- on the others in the race. They're magnificent animals who lay their lives on the line every time they race and while it's fun to bet 'em (and beat 'em), and intriguing to discuss their place in history (such as the frequent furor around Zenyatta), they all deserve our respect.

If I lose -- and oh, do I lose -- my first thought will usually be "how did I miss that?" Or at the very least: "Today was their day. Not mine."

(Sidebar: If you happen to have a calendar with the date marked on it for when my next "My Day" happens to be, please drop me a line. I've been waiting on that like a kid pining for Christmas.)

No, in this case, I think one of the more wildly talented horses we've seen in the past few years, is just not well-spotted to win this race. And I'm not sure there's anything his connections could do about it.

Some took a dimmer view of Quality Road's chances after he was assigned the 1-hole in the post-position draw. The rail at Churchill can be a tough place to start a race; ask Lookin At Lucky, who was beaten around and against the fence enough on the first trip by the stands in this year's Kentucky Derby to rob him of all chance.

But with fewer horses in the gate (12 vs. 20), the gate's positioning won't be quite so far to the inside and the rail won't "come up" on Quality Road as it does on a Derby starter as they break for a 10-furlong race from Churchill's chute. There also won't be quite the crush of horses trying to get down to the rail. And after all, if there's a horse in this Breeders' Cup Classic who is the speed of the speed if he wants to be, it's Quality Road. So I think he can actually play the 1-hole to his advantage, take the early lead, save ground all the way around while in front (others saving ground will have to shuffle back to do so) and hopefully control the pace to have gas left in the tank for the stretch.

But therein lies the trouble, in my opinion, for Quality Road. I'm not sure whether he's a gas-guzzler, like most muscle cars, or the tank just isn't quite big enough. But when it comes to getting 10 furlongs, I don't think he's the right horse.

From the perspective of just this race, Quality Road isn't likely to get an uncontested lead with a soft pace. The other two logical speed horses are drawn just to his outside -- No. 3 Haynesfield (12/1) and No. 4 First Dude (15/1) -- and have little to lose by just "going for it" from the gate. The 7, Musket Man, another horse I love but think doesn't fit at this distance, isn't the type to let the leaders back up into him too much without pushing them to go on with it. So the 5/1 Quality Road is likely to be hounded by 12/1, 15/1 and 20/1 long-shots who might be even higher in the odds by post-time.

That sets up the race for a stalker or a deep-closer, and apart from Quality Road, that's where the biggest talents of this Breeders' Cup field lie in wait. If she's on her game, expect the undefeated queen, Zenyatta (8/5), to be coming hard in the final two furlongs. I think Lookin At Lucky (6/1) might be the sharpest horse in the field right now and unlike his battering rail-trip in the Derby, can more casually find a spot from which to stalk or close from his position on the far outside. Churchill-loving Blame (9/2) and up-and-comer (but not quite gettin' there-er, sometimes by a whisker) Fly Down (15/1) can settle into good positions from their posts, 5 and 6. If he takes to the track when it's (likely) fast -- something I consider iffy -- turf standout Paddy O'Prado (15/1) could also be closing late as he did to pick up third in a sloppy Derby back in May.

So I'm confident that somebody's gonna pass Quality Road before the wire, as did Blame when they met in the nine-furlong Whitney a couple of months back. (And Blame did it even though Quality Road benefited from fractions of 24.41 and 48.06 that were far from suicidal.) In fact, I wouldn't be flabbergasted if Quality Road were passed in the stretch on Saturday by two horses. Or three. Or more.

Sealing the deal in my opinion is the fact that the undeniably gifted, brilliant, very fast racehorse that is Quality Road, is only a 50/50 proposition when asked to race beyond a mile. He has six lifetime starts at nine or 10 furlongs. He has won three of them, all at the shorter of the two distances, two in record time at Gulfstream (the 2010 Donn H.-G1 and 2009 Florida Derby-G1). But he's 0-for-2 at 10 panels.

Now look inside that raw, coin-toss-equivalent percentage and see the horses he defeated, and which horses managed to beat him in the losses.

The 9f wins, in reverse chronological order:

-- Sept. 4 this year, the Woodward S.-G1, over Mythical Power, Tranquil Manner, Convocation, Indian Dance, Arcodoro and a by-now-flightless Mine That Bird. Apart from Mine That Bird's walking on water in the 2009 Derby, there isn't even a Grade 2 win in that field. Mythical Power has won two G3s; Indian Dance an overnight stake at Laurel. The other three have never won a stakes race of any kind, anywhere. The Woodward, in fact, is Tranquil Manner's only lifetime placing in a stakes race.

-- This year's Donn Handicap in February, the second time Quality Road has set the Gulfstream Park track record for a mile and an eighth, this time at 1:47.49. (He also holds the Saratoga record for 6.5f, a blistering 1:13.45.) Second place was Dry Martini, a rugged war-horse, four-time G2 or G3 winner (including at 10f) and millionaire who has been among the closest to chase home Quality Road more than once. Third was Delightful Kiss, G2 winner of the Ohio Derby. A respectable trifecta. The rest of the field: Mambo Meister; Helsinki; Past the Point; Kiss the Kid; Duke of Mischief; Dubai Gold.

-- The 2009 Florida Derby, a 1:47.72 track record win over Dunkirk (two G1 placings, no stakes wins before he became another Unbridled-line to break and be retired after five races), Theregoesjojo (only horse ever to beat Quality Road at less than 9f, in a 7f Gulfstream allowance, but whose only stakes performance besides two losses to QR is a third at Prairie Meadows), Stately Character (listed winner at Calder, but with three wins from 27 starts), Sincero (listed win at Calder, 5-for-24 lifetime), Casey's On Call (lone stakes win, the Western Canada Handicap at Northlands Park), and Toby the Coal Man (2-for-19 lifetime, no blacktype).

The losses, in reverse chronological order:

-- Quality Road lost the mile and an eighth Whitney to Blame, with Musket Man in third (again, in defiance of his own distance limitations, but still not good enough to win). Haynesfield, who was more than a handful during the gate-loading, was fourth. The only other two horses in the sparse field were a hopeless (yet still just 12/1) Mine That Bird and terribly overmatched Jardim (30/1).

-- Last fall as a 3-year-old, Quality Road was second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup-G1 at a mile and a quarter to eventual 3-year-old champion Summer Bird. Hardly an embarrassing "beat." But the horses who finished behind? By finish order: 3. Tizway (now a G2 winner, then a non-winner of any stake); 4. Macho Again (gutted by his narrow loss to Rachel Alexandra in the Woodward, later skipped the Breeders' Cup, on the downward spiral toward retirement); 5. Dry Martini; 6. Sette E Mezzo (only career stakes-placing, third in a G2); 7. Asiatic Boy (in the last race of what had been a competitive, albeit not-often-winning, graded-stakes career).

-- In August 2009 at Saratoga, Summer Bird handed Quality Road the first of his two "beats" in head-to-head match-ups, winning the Travers in 2:02.83 for 10 furlongs. Second that day was Hold Me Back at 10/1. Quality Road settled for third as the beaten favorite. The also-rans: Charitable Man; Warrior's Reward; Kensei; Our Edge.

I'm not wishing to disparage the horses who finished behind Quality Road in these races, or to offend their connections. Almost to a horse, they're stakes-performers (at some level, if not graded) and six- or (rarely) even seven-figure earners. They're far better than the average racehorse in this age.

But if you look at all those names and let the caliber of their stakes careers tumble around in your mind just a bit, it isn't a stretch to say that anytime there was a horse in a 9f/10f race who seemed to be anywhere in Quality Road's ballpark on talent and form, that horse managed to beat him. Nor is it off-base to add that of the names of those who finished behind him, you wouldn't put many, if any, on the marquee.

Frankly, Quality Road arguably hasn't faced as many top-shelf-talented horses in his first 12 starts combined as he'll face in one race on Saturday.

I think Quality Road is a monster. All the way out to nine furlongs. He might win the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile in a laugher, if he ran it. But I know that isn't the race his connections want ... nay, need ... to win.

Quality Road might make me look the fool and win the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday under John Velazquez, for trainer Todd Pletcher and owner/breeder Ned Evans, some of the most respected -- and respectable, and respectful -- people in this business. After all, I was dead-wrong last year when I suggested it might be best to root for Zenyatta in the Classic, but to bet against her.

But I've been taking a stand against him in personal discussions for awhile, based on the 10 furlongs. (That is, the last one furlong more than the first nine.) And I feel strongly enough about it to go public.

Good luck to all. And safe trip.


  1. I both agree and am trepidatious.

    He has never been a 10F horse, and he certainly shouldn't be a factor on paper in a race like this.

    But ...

    Pletcher made a very bold move. He's given him 9 weeks of training all pointing for this race and 10 panels. Pletcher is the second or third best big name trainer out there (Baffert's undeniably #1 in my book, and you can argue who's #2 all day long), and if Pletcher had a plan to get this horse to go 10F, then that could be scary.

    But going back to agreeing, there's just so much pace here, and the closers are terrific.

    And Big Z will pass them all right before the wire *grin*

    It's Christmas Time in November, boys and girls!! What a 36 hours ahead of us!!

    David H.

  2. You're right about Pletcher's skills and his ability to formulate a plan. And I don't have any doubt that the past nine weeks were better-spent by Pletcher training the horse up to this race than if the horse had been asked to prep one more time in-between. (Another nod to that gas-tank issue, maybe?)

    I think Quality Road will be sharpened to a razor's edge. But it looks like Lucky is, too. And I couldn't fathom how fast Zenyatta worked the other day; not so fast as Lucky, but still very quickly.

    Should be exciting, and I'm so much more geared-up to see this one than I was the last two on synthetic at Santa Anita. ... Finally (once again), dirt races that are DIRT races.


I welcome comments, including criticism and debate. But jerks and the vulgar will not be tolerated.