As we head down the road to the Breeders' Cup I'll be following along with a series of top 10 contenders for many of the major races. These lists just represent my best guess of the most likely winners in November. Because of the overwhelming number of races I'll be rotating through them every 4 or 5 weeks. This week we'll do the Classic and Ladies Classic.
Classic Top 10 - June 16
4. Sea The Stars
5. It's a Bird
6. Quality Road
7. Mine That Bird
8. Rail Trip
9. Well Armed
The Classic is 4 1/2 months away so this is the equivalent of trying to identify the top 10 Derby horses in mid-January. The Classic contenders have a bit more form to go on but things will likely change quite a bit over the next few months.
The lessons of last year cannot be too quickly forgotten, although I have a European at the head of my list I don't think it's a forgone conclusion that a European will win this race. American's will have every chance but I will be preferring horses with either Synthetic or Turf experience. In fact Quality Road is the only horse on my list that has not run on Synthetic or Turf.
I have made Mastercraftsman my #1 Classic horse, partly because the American older horses look distinctly ordinary this year. Another factor is that Ballydoyle has been trying to capture the classic for nearly a decade but now that it's on a synthetic track that have the chance to improve their fortunes. Mastercraftsman will be their Classic horse. Mastercraftsman is a miler at present but so were Giants Causeway and Henrythenavigator at this stage in their careers. He has captured the Irish 2000 Guineas and the St. James's Palace Stakes both in fine style but both under very different circumstances. In the Irish Guineas he was explosive. The field was a touch weak and he fully exposed them. In the St James's Palace Stakes he tracked a very fast pace and made an early move to try and slip away from the pack. He got caught by the second favorite who seemed to be going better but he displayed tenacity and a good bit of stamina to come back and claim the win. It was a very high class effort over what is a stiff mile at Ascot. On that form alone he's good enough to win the Classic. If I could criticize his trainer Aiden O'Brien at all I would say that sometimes he has sent horses to the Breeders' Cup that have had long and hard seasons. I would hope to see this horse get some kind of a break over the summer although that's not a prerequisite.
Einstein is the main American hope. He has never lost on synthetics and he's a very classy individual. My worry with him is that he's a tad ordinary. He always runs his race but is not a horse that runs massive figures or blows away his rivals. I loved his win over the course and distance in the Big Cap and he is the benchmark for the Classic. I will confess though that I would predict seeing him slip down this list as the year goes on.
The most exciting newly emerged talent of this season is Parading. Under Shug McGaughey's care he has come to life this year. He once was an average allowance type horse but now as a 6 year old he has suddenly become a major force. His win in the Ben Ali at Keeneland was the most impressive synthetic route race I've ever seen. If he can bring that type of form to Santa Anita he will be very very tough.
Sea The Stars is the once beaten dual English Classic winner who seems to have the world at his feet at the moment. Unlike many of the other horses he is one that will fully appreciate the 10f. His trainer John Oxx has mentioned the Classic as a possibility although one would assume that the Arc is the ultimate goal. He could actually still win the English Triple Crown but connections seem wary of sending him 14f. He gives every indication of being a high class horse that would likely prefer the synthetic Classic to the hard baked Turf. Oxx has sent 3 horses to the Breeders' Cup and he has a first and third (Ridgewood Pearl & Azamour) to show for it.
Remember the magical season of Miesque's Approval in 2006? He went from being an average horse in Bill Mott's barn to a consistent G-1 level horse for Marty Wolfson. At first it seemed like he was just a flash in the pan that would fade by late summer but he kept his form all the way through the Breeders' Cup and took home first prize in the Mile at a big price. Wolfson has the next version of Miesque's Approval in It's a Bird. This would seem to be the year of the Bird with Summer Bird and Mine That Bird taking Classic's. It's a Bird has already won a Classic of his own, the Sunshine Millions Classic. He is 5-3-0-1 this year and has earned three Beyer Speed figures of 107. Only one older horse has earned a higher number in a route race this year (Solar Flare 111) I know horses that are hot early in the year are rarely good later in the year but this horse definitely can be.
Quality Road is the only horse on my list without synthetic or turf experience but he made the list because he's too good to leave off. This horse has some scary ability and even though he will have to battle questions of the surface, the distance and his troublesome feet he is brilliant enough to overcome all of that. Moving to Pletcher's barn won't make a real difference in his ability but it may actually increase the odds that he shows up in the Classic.
Mine That Bird took us all on a great ride through the spring and I'm not going to be shocked if he did it again in the fall. I'm not all that concerned about his form over the summer. The reality is that with a one run closer they're going to lose more than they win. As long as he is fit for the Classic he has a chance. A strict regimen of unsuccessful races served him well going into the Derby, the same could be true for the Classic. He likes synthetics and has no problem with the distance.
Rail Trip is a bit of a confusing horse that has yet to prove that he can handle the distance. He looked like a monster in the making in his first few races but then connections got cautious with him and he didn't even try Graded Stakes company until his 6th career start. He's now had two starts in Graded Stakes company and has lost them both but he's never been worse than second. I actually think that he'll be a better horse on dirt than synthetics but I like him a bit for the Classic because it's not hard to see him as one of the few pace factors. Not many real Classic hopes have a ton of early speed. Horses like Ball Four and Finallymadeit are unlikely to be in the Classic. Quality Road may be the only other significant speed. Rail Trip is a dangerous little horse despite the appearance of stamina issues.
At last year's Breeders' Cup I thought Well Armed was the banker of the meet. I could hardly envision a scenario that resulted in him losing but he lost and lost badly. That started a little run of races where he seemed to be out of form. He got decent results but he was running slowly against horses he ought to beat. The Dubai World Cup saw his old form produced once again and I have to believe that he is capable of winning a race like the Classic. He was probably the best synthetic horse in America based on his form last year (BC Mile excluded) He could hit those heights again even if it's just for one day. Because of the trip to Dubai we'll likely just see two or three prep races for him before the Classic. Watch for him at Del Mar in the San Diego, Pacific Classic and then in the Goodwood at Santa Anita.
The last horse on my list is a bit of an oddball selection. It's possible that some people have never even heard of Sterwins but he's everything you would look for in a longshot. He has good form obscured by other races. Volponi was a similar case, he had good dirt form but most people had a hard time seeing beyond his turf races. Sterwins has run 3 times on synthetics and has twice earned a triple digit Beyer Speed Figure. They were earned in the days before the Beyer synthetic upgrade so it's possible that they're still a bit low. This hard charging son of Runaway Groom is capable of big efforts as long as he gets some pace to run into and is allowed to come with one late run. When rushed into an early move he is not nearly as good. That's what happened in his most recent synthetic try against Parading in the Ben Ali. Sterwins will spend much of his year in Canada alternating between the Turf and Main Track. Hopefully he convinces his connections to take a shot at the Classic. He could shock a few people.