This year’s Breeders’ Cup will return to Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday for the ninth time after being in Southern California for five of the last six years. After all, why run in temperatures in the low 80s and a clear sky when you could be in the 40s with a chance of rain?
The two-day, 14-race event is worth $30 million in purses and awards. But the one thing missing from the Breeders’ Cup is the 13th winner of the Triple Crown. Justify, whose career was only six races, was retired after winning the Belmont Stakes. It was decided that after a minor injury he couldn’t be ready for the one prep race he was supposed to have before the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
A record 221 horses were pre-entered, although a few, such as Bob Baffert’s undefeated filly Dream Tree, have been pulled because of health issues.
At 51, there is more than your share of foreign horses, whose lack of intermediate calls in past performances confound bettors. Aidan O’Brien has 18 horses pre-entered, the most of any trainer. Each race is capped at 14 horses, except for the Juvenile Turf Sprint, which only allows 12. Post positions will be drawn on Monday.
So, these are the five story lines you can expect to contemplate this week.
Can John Sadler finally break his 0-for-41 losing streak this year?
If this was ever the year for trainer John Sadler to break his inexplicable lack of a winner in the Breeders’ Cup, this is the year. He should have two favorites, including Accelerate in the Classic. Accelerate has won five of six races this year, including three Grade 1s. His only loss was a second in the Oaklawn Handicap.
But his best chance may come in the Dirt Mile, where he has Catalina Cruiser, who is lightly raced with only four starts, all of them wins. Catalina Cruiser and Accelerate are both owned by Kosta and Pete Hronis, so Sadler has been reticent to run his two stars against each other.
“I don’t feel any more pressure,” Sadler said of his winless streak. “I’m a veteran guy and we have had a lot of success. We have a lot of seconds and thirds in these races. So, we know what’s going to happen at some point.”
Will the Classic determine the horse of the year?
Two of the last three years, the Classic winner (Gun Runner and American Pharoah) has also won the Eclipse for horse of the year. Normally, it goes to the horse who has a sustained record of high-level success and also competed in the Breeders’ Cup.
So, if Accelerate wins, he should be a lock, right? Nope. There is this horse named Justify who won the Triple Crown, but ran only six races over 112 racing days. His retirement after the Belmont Stakes has left a sour taste with some in the industry because what the sport needs more than anything is an identifiable star.
There is this undercurrent that a convincing win in the Classic by Accelerate could get some to vote for the 5-year-old. A loss or close race by Accelerate will settle the question, otherwise the talk will continue.
Are there any changes to this year’s format?
The Breeders’ Cup has three races of great U.S. interest but only two days of racing. So one of them is going to be a warm-up act. Previously, the Distaff, for female horses, was the marquee event Friday, and on Saturday, the Juvenile, for Kentucky Derby hopefuls, was the warm-up for the Classic.
This year they are running all five 2-year-old races, including the Juvenile, on Friday and moving the Distaff to a warm-up spot on Saturday. Normally, having the Juvenile as a headliner wouldn’t be such a bad thing. But this year, the top 2-year-old, Instagrand, was rested the latter part of the year in anticipation of next year’s 3-year-old campaign. It’s not a bad race, just not as good as it could be.
They’ve also added a race, the Juvenile Turf Sprint, at 5½ furlongs. The Filly & Mare Turf is getting longer, going from 1⅛ miles to 1⅜ miles.
Besides the Classic, which race should we most look forward to?
It’s the Distaff that has the interesting back stories. The favorite will likely be Monomoy Girl, who was undefeated this year until she was disqualified to second, and Midnight Bisou, who’s also entered in the Distaff, was moved to first. Monomoy Girl has crossed the finish line first in nine of 10 lifetime races. And then there is Abel Tasman, who was looking strong with a couple of Grade 1 wins until an unexplained fifth in the Zenyatta Stakes at Santa Anita.
Blue Prize is coming off a win in the Cotillion Stakes. Vale Dori just won the Zenyatta and Wonder Gadot won the first two legs of the Canadian Triple Crown before a 10th in the Travers.
Will weather be a factor in Louisville?
It rains an average of 77 days a year in Louisville, with one of those days being the Kentucky Derby of late. There is almost certain rain on Wednesday and Thursday but percentages drop to 20% on Friday and Saturday. It will be in the 40s both days, good for horses but chilly for people.