The path to the 2016 Breeders' Cup is a road with plenty of ups and downs as talented racehorses vie for a spot in one of 13 championship races. This blog provides a capsule look at three horses who are heating up on the Road to the Breeders' Cup World Championships and three horses whose Breeders' Cup chances are not quite as strong as they were a week or two ago.
For this week's edition, the two major races were restricted to 3-year-olds and that's where the results took us for each of the names below. I think we can say at least one sophomore emerged as a probable favorite for a race on the Breeders' Cup World Championships card, while quite a few other 3-year-olds came up empty.
Originally, I planned to make Songbird an honorable mention. She was already the dominant leader of the 3-year-old filly division and one of the clear favorites for the Longines Breeders' Cup Distaff, so she had no room to move up significantly. But ultimately, Songbird is without question the most likely Breeders' Cup winner to come out of the racing action last weekend. In the Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes, she defeated a couple of highly regarded opponents in Carina Mia and Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Cathryn Sophia and also recorded a new career-top 122 Equibase Speed Figure, a 10-point jump from her previous career best earned while winning the 2015 14 Hands Winery Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Sure, three-time champion Beholder would present Songbird her toughest challenge to date in the Distaff, but this is an absolute superstar at the pinnacle of her game.
While many of the other elite 3-year-olds are heading in the wrong direction, lightly raced Connect just seems to be finding his best stride. He had won three of his first four starts, including a stakes win at Saratoga Race Course, before a troubled sixth-place finish in the Travers Stakes. But Connect bounced back in a big way on Sept. 24 in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby, outfinishing Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands and Travers Stakes third-place finisher Gun Runner and beating both Kentucky Derby winner Nyquist and Preakness Stakes victor Exaggerator. By two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, Connect seems to be improving as his 3-year-old season progresses, much like his sire did in 2007, and he earned a new career-best 108 Equibase Speed Figure for the Pennsylvania Derby victory. Connect has consistently been fast since his debut and, while he'll face a tall task in the Breeders' Cup Classic, he is in terrific form.
3. Noholdingback Bear
Before a third-place finish in August at Saratoga Race Course in the Grade 1 Ketel One King's Bishop Stakes, Noholdingback Bear's best races had come on synthetic surfaces. But after pairing a strong King's Bishop with a 1-1/4-length win in the Grade 3 Gallant Bob Stakes on Sept. 24, this Put It Back colt looks like a legit threat for the Twinspires.com Breeders' Cup Sprint. Three-year-olds historically can compete with older runners in the Sprint -- Runhappy last year and Trinniberg in 2012 won the race at 3 -- and, while there are some talented Sprint contenders, there are no true standouts. With 111 and 113 Equibase Speed Figures in his last two starts, Noholdingback Bear could pack a nice surprise on Breeders' Cup Saturday.
It was a tough call for the third spot between Noholdingback Bear and Texas Chrome, but I felt like Texas Chrome certainly warranted a mention after winning the Grade 3 Oklahoma Derby for his third straight victory. Looking back even further, he's actually been strong all year. Texas Chrome has not finished worse than third in seven races this season and has four stakes wins. He's recorded Equibase Speed Figures between 101 and 106 (the career-top he earned Saturday) in his last five races, so he's also very consistent. He reportedly will target the Breeders' Cup Las Vegas Dirt Mile, a race in which he figures to fit well. Sure, Runhappy would be a heavy favorite should he make the Dirt Mile, but he has not yet raced once in 2015. Take Runhappy out of the mix, and the Dirt Mile is wide open.
It's easy to forgive one bad performance, but back-to-back duds indicate to me that Exaggerator has either gone off form or hit a wall this season. One race after he finished 11th, beaten by 33 lengths, in the Travers Stakes, Exaggerator never fired in the Pennsylvania Derby and ran a nonthreatening seventh. Beaten by 12 lengths by Connect on Saturday, this is not the same horse who won the Preakness Stakes in May during a stretch of 10 straight races in which he either won or finished within three lengths of the winner. There's no doubt Exaggerator is a gifted racehorse. Let's hope trainer Keith Desormeaux can find the key to get him back to his best.
Hall of Famer Bob Baffert is as good as any trainer in bringing a 3-year-old back after the Triple Crown trail for a great second half of the season. After Cupid won the Grade 2 Indiana Derby, I had great confidence he was poised for a huge second half. His four-length runaway in the Grade 2 West Virginia Derby reinforced that confidence, but in the Pennsylvania Derby he came up empty when eighth, beaten by more than 14 lengths. It feels like Cupid is just a cut below the best of his division. He's a very nice racehorse, no doubt, but at this point it would be tough to see him being competitive in the Breeders' Cup World Championships when he's struggled against the best of his generation in the 3-year-old division.
Seeing a trend here? The romance is over for this year's class of 3-year-olds. Nyquist didn't run a terrible race in the Pennsylvania Derby, but he wasn't the gutsy, powerhouse racehorse who opened his career with eight straight wins, capped by a clear win in the Kentucky Derby Presented by Yum! Brands. He's now lost three straight starts and, even though he hasn't been beaten by more than five lengths in any of his defeats, he doesn't resemble the beast who took Mohaymen's lunch money at the top of the Florida Derby stretch. Nyquist reportedly came out of the Pennsylvania Derby in good order, and trainer Doug O'Neill and owner Paul Reddam will meet to discuss what's next for the 2015 champion 2-year-old male.
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