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Classic seeks recognition without Triple Crown champ Justify

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The reigning Triple Crown champion is not part of the field for this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. And none of the horses in any of the 14 races that make up the Breeders’ Cup cards this weekend has ever won a Kentucky Derby, or a Preakness, or a Belmont Stakes.

So there’s little argument that the races at Churchill Downs this weekend have lost a little luster.

The same argument could be made that this Breeders’ Cup might still end up as a bettors’ delight.

Justify, the Triple Crown champion who was forced into retirement by an ankle problem, would have given the $6 million Classic an absolute superstar for bettors to back. But his absence creates more of a wide-open race, one that has the Dubai World Cup winner in Thunder Snow, the last two Travers Stakes winners in West Coast and Catholic Boy, and 5-2 early favorite Accelerate – who has won his last four Grade 1 starts.

“Bettors love a large, wide-open field that offers value in their selections,” said trainer Tom Amoss, whose horse Lone Sailor is a 30-1 morning-line longshot in the Classic. “I don’t have any question that that’ll be the case.”

There are plenty of reasons to like most of the horses in the Classic. Combined, the 14 entrants in the field have combined to hit the toteboard in 72 percent of their lifetime starts.

Casual fans might not know all the names. But the sport’s biggest followers are likely seeing some serious Classic value.

“Justify not being part of the Classic, a Triple Crown winner, tends to take a little bit away from the Classic itself as far as the viewer wanting to see the best of the best,” Amoss said. “But don’t sell this group short. These are really, really good, talented horses and whoever emerges the victor is going to probably garner older-horse divisional championships.”

Horse of the Year might even be there for the taking.

Whoever wins the Grade 1 Classic figures to take a big step toward contending for the Eclipse Award given to the year’s best horse. If Justify were here and won the Classic – like American Pharoah did three years ago in his Triple Crown year – it would be huge news, another positive shot in the arm for a sport that is seeking ways to draw in more interest.

“I would’ve loved to have him in there, it would’ve been great,” said trainer Bob Baffert, who conditioned both American Pharoah and Justify. “But I think it’s a good field, a solid field.”

That really can be said about all of the Breeders’ Cup races. The entrants for this weekend have combined to win 794 races, or just over 37 percent of their career starts. It is inevitable that some horses who have never finished lower than third won’t even hit the board this weekend, a testament to the depth of these fields.

The Breeders’ Cup Distaff for fillies and mares features the two most recent Kentucky Oaks winners in Monomoy Girl and Abel Tasman, another Baffert pupil.

The Classic features a mix of American and foreign horses including Yoshida, a 4-year-old from Japan. Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn are returning to Churchill Downs, seeking to shake last-place finishes in the past two Kentucky Derbys – both got eased long before the finish after not being able to endure rocky starts in those respective Runs for the Roses.

No Classic is complete without a Baffert presence and he has two in West Coast and McKinzie, the horse who might have been the Derby favorite if not for a hind leg injury. Justify seized the opening, and the rest is horse racing history.

Accelerate is a 5-year-old making his first Classic start after finishing ninth and third in the Classic Dirt Mile the past two years. He has won five of six starts this year and brings a three-race winning streak into the 1 1/4-mile Classic.

“He’s a year older, and this distance is his best distance now,” trainer John Sadler said of the California-based Accelerate. “He’s had a great year and he looks great, so we’re really looking forward to this weekend.”

And if he wins, odds are a lot more people will know Accelerate’s name.

Santa Anita cancels racing after heavy rain inundates track

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ARCADIA, Calif. — Santa Anita has canceled its eight-race card because of wet weather after 3+ inches of rain dropped on the Southern California racetrack in three days.

Officials at the track in Arcadia say heavy overnight rains and more rain throughout the day Thursday made it necessary to cancel. They say the track will make every effort to reschedule the races in the immediate future.

Track superintendent Andy LaRocco says an additional 2 inches of rain was forecast for Thursday.

Live racing will resume on Friday with eight races.

Kentucky Derby purse up to $3 million

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LOUISVILLE, Ky. — The Kentucky Derby’s purse will be raised to $3 million this May, an increase of $1 million and the first boost in 14 years.

Churchill Downs said Thursday the winner of the 145th running will receive $1.86 million. The runner-up will earn $600,000, with third place worth $300,000, fourth place $150,000 and fifth place $90,000.

The Derby purse had been $2 million since 2005 and $1 million from 1996-2004.

Track President Kevin Flanery attributes the increase to more bettors using historical racing machines – the electronic form of parimutuel betting – at a recently opened facility near the track.

The second and third legs of the Triple Crown offer total purses of $1.5 million in the Preakness and Belmont stakes.

The purse for the Kentucky Oaks for 3-year-old fillies on May 3 was raised by $250,000 to $1.25 million. It had been worth $1 million since 2011 and was worth $500,000 from 1996-2010.

Churchill Downs also increased purses for some races on the Derby Day undercard on May 4.