Bob Baffert’s sustained success as a trainer has earned him the unwanted position of being the sport’s most recognizable ambassador. But if you are looking for lock-it-down predictions, laced with a bit of friendly bombast, you’ve got the wrong guy.
So when he went all effusive to a group of turf writers last week, it raised the idea that maybe next weekend’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita really is something special. Sure, there are the usual ridiculously high numbers of 13 races running for $28 million in purses, but there are some matchups that will tantalize spectators and confound bettors.
“You look over the field and this is probably one of the strongest Breeders’ Cup years I’ve ever seen,” Baffert said.
“We’ve got the Filly and Mare Distaff. You’ve got the Classic, the Sprint, Turf. I’ve never seen so much talent. … This is the year to buy a ticket. I’m telling you to be there. … There is going to be incredible racing.”
Baffert has seven horses entered in five of the races, including a colt, Arrogate, that may be both the most talented and the biggest question mark and another horse that looks to be a can’t-miss winner. The name of that horse is just one of the five storylines to watch at Friday and Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup.
The Classic: California Chrome is the most popular horse in the world, has won more money than any other in North American history, and he’s likely two races from the end of his racing career. What’s not to love?
Baffert’s lightly raced 3-year-old Arrogate dropped more than a few jaws with his record-setting time and 13½-length win in the Travers Stakes at Saratoga.
“I know Bob has been high on time for a long time,” said Jerry Bailey, hall of fame jockey and NBC Sports horse racing analyst. “If he can reproduce that race, there will be no drama.
“The key might be that the middle fractions are a lot faster than the Travers. Who would I ride? I’d pick Chrome.”
The Distaff: This race, Friday’s centerpiece, is probably better than the Classic. There is undefeated 3-year-old Songbird, whose career has been so spectacular she has never been tested. That’s the problem, she’s never been tested.
There’s Beholder, a 6-year-old mare who has won 17 of 25 races and was considered a chief rival to American Pharoah in last year’s Classic until scratching because of illness.
And Stellar Wind, a gritty campaigner as a 4-year-old, she’s won seven of 11 races including some recent wins over Beholder. It’s age versus youth. Anyone can win.
The Juvenile: This is where you get a look at the early favorites for next year’s Kentucky Derby. Last year’s winner was Nyquist. The West Coast has been dominating the Derby lately but this year could signal a change.
Not This Time, for Dale Romans, and Classic Empire, for Mark Casse, seem strong from the East Coast. Gormley, for John Shirreffs, won the recent FrontRunner at Santa Anita over a disappointing performance for Klimt, running for Baffert. But the race is considered suspect for talent. Time will answer that question.
“I’m not being cocky, but I think Classic Empire is the horse to beat,” said Casse.
The Turf: The traditional U.S. versus Europe race is looking to be a tough one to handicap. Flintshire, a British horse that finished second in this race last year, has been racing in the U.S. since June, winning three of four. If he runs his race, he’ll be tough to beat.
But Aiden O’Brien has four Irish horses entered. One has to be good, right?
Ashleyluvssugar, for Peter Eurton, is the top West Coast grass horse.
The Dirt Mile: Looks like a competitive field with horses such as Gun Runner, third in the Kentucky Derby and Accelerate, winner of three of four against lesser competition. And, then there is Dortmund, for Baffert.
“Dortmund looks like he has these horses over a barrel,” Bailey said, revealing what could be the lock of the Breeders’ Cup.
“This is a really nice horse. Last year he spent chasing American Pharoah, and this year he’s been chasing California Chrome. He’s a really good horse that should lay over this field in the mile.”
Follow John Cherwa on Twitter @jcherwa