Al Bernstein

Mott, Pletcher saddle top contenders in Gold Cup

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Change. Sometimes we fear it, and sometimes we embrace it. President Bill Clinton once said that “the price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”

Few major races have had as much change in their history as the Jockey Club Gold Cup. One of those changes began last year with the race moving to the final weekend of the meet at Saratoga. For many years, it was viewed as the centerpiece of the Fall Championship Meeting at Belmont Park. The Gold Cup is a “Win And You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and it will be featured on NBC’s telecast on Saturday, September 3 from 4:30-6:00 p.m. ET. It is one of two qualifying races for the Breeders’ Cup on the telecast, with the other being the Flower Bowl Stakes, whose winner will get into the Filly & Mare Turf.

The Jockey Club Gold Cup has also had significant distance changes over the years. The first two years of the Gold Cup were 1919 and 1920, and it was run at a mile and a half. The 1920 winner was the immortal Man o’ War.  From 1921 to 1975, it was run at the marathon distance of 2 miles. This was a glorious time in the history of the race, highlighted by the years from 1960-1964, when it was won five consecutive times by the mighty gelding Kelso.  Another major highlight was in 1970 and 1971, when the mare Shuvee defeated the boys. Other legendary winners from this time period included Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Nashua, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Damascus and the incredible gelding Forego. In 1974, he had a year that will probably never be duplicated. In that year, in addition to winning the 2-mile Gold Cup, Forego won several major stakes as well as the Carter Handicap and the Vosburgh Handicap, both at 7 furlongs. As a result, he was named Champion Sprinter, Champion Older Male Horse and Horse of the Year for 1974.

Because of the growing influence of speed in American breeding, the distance of the Gold Cup was shortened to a mile and a half in 1976. Significant winners at the shortened distance included Exceller, Affirmed, John Henry, two-time winner Slew o’Gold, two-time winner Crème Fraiche and Easy Goer.

RELATED: Epicenter wins Travers Stakes decisively at Saratoga

In the mid-1980’s, however, change was again in the wind for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The inaugural Breeders’ Cup was run in 1984, and the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic, with its $3 million purse, almost instantly became the most important race at the end of the year for distance horses. The Gold Cup was no longer the most important race for horse of the year and champion older horse, although it was still a prestigious Grade 1 race with a large purse. In 1989, the distance was shortened to a mile and a quarter, which was the same distance as the Classic. In the eyes of many, it made the Gold Cup into a fancy prep race for the Classic, but it was still a vital race with a great history.

What does the Gold Cup tell us ahead of the Breeders’ Cup Classic?

What can we say about the relationship between the Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic? In the years since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup, three horses have won the Gold Cup and the Classic in the same year. They were Cigar (1995), Skip Away (1997) and Curlin (2007). In 2019, Vino Rosso crossed the finish line first in both races, but in the Gold Cup he was disqualified for interference in the stretch and placed 2nd.

Our friends at Equibase have provided greater detail on the relationship between the two races. In total, 29 Jockey Club Gold Cup winners have run in the Classic, producing three wins, four second-place finishers, two third-place finishers, and five fourth-place finishers. The most striking part of this mathematical puzzle is that 15 of 29 Jockey Club Gold Cup winners who ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic have finished 5th or worse in that race. One logical reason for this is that it takes a very special horse to win back-to-back Grade 1 races at the 10-furlong distance. For some, the attempt to win both races could be a reason why they didn’t run so well in the Classic, as they may have fired their best shot in the Gold Cup.

This data led me to look at the results from a reverse perspective. We know about the three horses who won both races in the same year, but what about horses that won the Classic, but did not win the Jockey Club Gold Cup?  There are five Classic winners who did not win the Gold Cup but finished on the board in that race as a precursor to a peak effort in the Classic, and some of them yielded good prices at the windows:

2019 – Vino Rosso finished 1st but was placed 2nd by DQ in the Gold Cup. He came back to win the Classic and pay $11.20 for a $2 win ticket.

2012 – Fort Larned was 3rd in the Gold Cup. He won the Classic and delivered a $20.80 win price.

2011 – Drosselmeyer followed up a 2nd in the Gold Cup with a Classic score that paid $31.60 to win. How did a Bill Mott-trained horse get let go at such a big number?

2010 – Blame was the best older male horse that year, but sentiment in the Classic pointed in the direction of a repeat win by the beloved mare Zenyatta. Blame defeated Zenyatta and paid $12.40 to win.

1992 – After stumbling at the start, A.P. Indy finished 3rd to Pleasant Tap in the Gold Cup. He turned the tables in the Classic, finishing 1st as Pleasant Tap was 2nd. A.P. Indy returned $6.20.

So, do we view the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a prestigious Grade 1 race at a classic distance, or, at least to some extent, is it equally important as a prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic? There is no definitive answer to that question, as history has shown that it is a race that can actually be both of those things.

Road to 2022 Breeders’ Cup: Classic preps at Del Mar, Saratoga highlight holiday weekend

Storylines to watch in 2022 Jockey Club Gold Cup

The long-range significance of this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup depends greatly on two horses who will not be in the race. Life is Good and Flightline are, respectively, No. 1 and No. 2 in the NTRA’s Top Thoroughbred Poll at this point. Both horses, however, present question marks at the mile and a quarter distance. Life is Good, while proven at a mile and an eighth, had the weakest performance of his career when he tried 10 furlongs in the Dubai World Cup and finished 4th. The undefeated Flightline has never gone beyond a mile. Both horses are scheduled to test their distance limitations prior to the Classic. Life is Good is probable for the mile and an eighth Woodward at Aqueduct on October 1. Flightline will be tested for distance in the mile and a quarter Pacific Classic at Del Mar, which will be run a few hours after the Gold Cup.

But what about the horses who will actually be in this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup? The headliner is Olympiad, from the barn of Bill Mott. He had won four in a row, including the Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs, when he entered the July 2nd Whitney Stakes. The aforementioned Life Is Good was sent off as the favorite in the Whitney, but Olympiad was the 2nd choice at just under 2-1 odds. It was not his day, however, as Olympiad couldn’t work out his usual stalking trip, and he finished 4th, beaten by over nine lengths. This race is his chance for redemption and to prove that he belongs in the upper echelon of horses for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.

The Gold Cup occupies an unusual place in the career of trainer Todd Pletcher. His only win in the race came in 2020 with Happy Saver. From his 25 lifetime starters in the race, however, he has also finished 2nd a remarkable eight times, and he’s been 3rd three times.

WATCH: Knicks Go wire-to-wires 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic

This year, he could have as many as four starters, headlined by Americanrevolution and Dynamic One. Americanrevolution was 2nd to Olympiad in the Stephen Foster, and he won the Grade 1 Cigar Mile in early December at Aqueduct. Performances of that type prove that he definitely can be a factor in this race. Dynamic One scored in the Suburban Stakes at Belmont in his last start, which proved his ability at the Gold Cup distance of 1 ¼ miles. He’s won his last two starts, and he could be rounding into his best form approaching the Gold Cup. The other Pletcher possibles are Untreated, who was 3rd in the Suburban Stakes and Pimlico Special, and Keepmeinmind, who was 2nd in last year’s Jim Dandy Stakes and posted an Allowance win at Saratoga in his only start this year.

The other major contender to look at is the Shug McGaughey trainee First Captain. He won the Pimlico Special and was 2nd by a nose to Dynamic One in the Suburban Stakes. He has posted some eye-catching workouts since that race, and he could be peaking at just the right time.

Despite the dominance of Life Is Good and Flightline in the Thoroughbred poll, neither is a certainty to either run in or win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. For the time being, the trainers of horses in the Gold Cup would be best off to forget about those two and focus on the mile and a quarter Grade 1 race that will be contested at Saratoga on Saturday. A win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as always, will be a major achievement on a horse’s resume and could set him up perfectly for the Classic.

Watch the 2022 Jockey Club Gold Cup, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race for the Classic, on Saturday, September 3 from 4:30 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

Life Is Good and Olympiad go head-to-head in the Whitney Stakes

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The Whitney Stakes, Saturday, Aug. 6 on NBC and Peacock, is a race that is held in the highest regard in thoroughbred racing, but why? What factors make this race so important on the racing calendar?

I’ve looked at the last 25 runnings of the Whitney, and here are a few of the key factors that emerged:

  1. Purse: Each year since 2000, the purse of the Whitney has ranged between $750,000 and $1.5 million.
  2. The Whitney/Breeders’ Cup Classic connection: In the past 25 years, six horses have won the Whitney and the Classic in the same year, and they are an impressive group. They include Awesome Again (1998), Invasor (2006), Blame (2010), Fort Larned (2012), Gun Runner (2017) and Knicks Go (2021).
  3. The Whitney/Older Male Eclipse Award connection: In this 25-year span, nine Whitney winners have won the Older Male Eclipse Award in the same year. They are: Victory Gallop (1999), Lemon Drop Kid (2000), Invasor (2006), Lawyer Ron (2007), Blame (2010), Honor Code (2015), Gun Runner (2017), Improbable (2020) and Knicks Go (2021).
  4. The sweep of Horse of the Year, the Older Male Eclipse Award and winning the Whitney and the Breeders’ Cup Classic: Three horses in the past 25 years have accomplished this feat. They are: Invasor (2006), Gun Runner (2017) and Knicks Go (2021).
  5. Location, location, location: While some older horses opt for Del Mar’s Pacific Classic at this time of year, the attraction of Saratoga and the prestige of winning the premier race for older horses at the meet is undeniable. Almost invariably, the Whitney attracts the top older horses in training on the East Coast and the Midwest, at the very least.
  6. Timing: The Whitney is run in early August, which is perfect to start a fall campaign that will culminate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

RELATED: Breeders’ Cup returns to Santa Anita for record 11th time

This year, there is a highlighted matchup in the Whitney between two outstanding horses who have never faced each other. In addition, there are three other contenders who would not surprise anyone if they defeated the top two, as they are Grade 1 winners in their own right with a solid record of accomplishments.

Anticipated matchup between Life Is Good and Olympiad

The top two contenders in the race are Life Is Good and Olympiad, who are ranked No. 2 and No. 3 in the Aug. 1 edition of the NTRA Top Thoroughbred Poll. The only horse ahead of them in the poll is the seemingly unbeatable Flightline, who is prepping for the Sept. 3 Pacific Classic at Del Mar. His trainer, John Sadler, has chosen to keep him close to home, knowing that he will have to go east for the Breeders’ Cup in November.

Life Is Good, from the barn of Todd Pletcher, has wins in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the Pegasus World Cup and most recently, the John A. Nerud Stakes to his credit. The only significant blemish on his record was a fourth place finish in the Dubai World Cup, when he couldn’t get the final furlong on a racing surface that many horses have trouble adapting to. Unlike many horses who endure the trip to Dubai, Life Is Good came back like gangbusters in the John A. Nerud Stakes at Belmont, winning by five lengths in outstanding time. He is likely to be on the lead and try to carry the field the whole way in the Whitney.

Life Is Good is a horse who won six of his first seven starts, with his only defeat in that span coming by a neck to the great Jackie’s Warrior in last year’s H. Allen Jerkens Stakes at Saratoga. A neck defeat to the top sprinter in the country is nothing to be upset about. In the Whitney, the stretch out to nine furlongs could work in favor of Life Is Good, in addition to the fact that it is his second start since returning from Dubai.

RELATED: Epicenter wins the Grade 2 Jim Dandy at Saratoga

Olympiad is a different story altogether, as he has blossomed in his 4-year-old season, winning five in a row. His win in his last start, the Stephen Foster Stakes, was a dominant performance, and he seems to get better with each new start. His stalking or mid-pack running style will allow him to use Life Is Good as a target to catch in the final furlong. Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott has handled him beautifully, and this race should set up very nicely for him. While he has beaten some of the horses he will face in the Whitney, he has never faced one as talented as Life Is Good.

Other contenders to watch in the Whitney Stakes

Those two are the headliners, but there are three Grade 1 winners in the field that have clearly shown that they are capable of an upset at this level. The most well-known of this group is Hot Rod Charlie, who posted his Grade 1 win in last year’s Pennsylvania Derby. He crossed the finish line first in last year’s Haskell Stakes, but was disqualified for interference in the stretch. He has a consistent record of finishing in the top three in some of the most highly regarded races in the country, and he always gives a solid effort.

Another Grade 1 winner in the field is Americanrevolution, who posted his Grade 1 score in last November’s Cigar Mile at Aqueduct. He was second in the Stephen Foster Stakes to Olympiad in his last start, and his stalking style could work in his favor here. Americanrevolution is yet another in the field who seems to always give a strong effort.

Finally, there is Happy Saver, who is the Rodney Dangerfield of the older male stakes horses in the U.S.

He’s a 5-year-old who posted a Grade 1 score in the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a 3-year-old. His last four starts, however, reveal what a high-quality horse he truly is. He placed second in the 2021 Jockey Club Gold Cup, the 2021 Clark Stakes, and this year’s Alysheba Stakes and Met Mile. Three of these races are Grade 1 events, and the Alysheba Stakes is a Grade 2. The reason I call him a Rodney Dangerfield-type is that his average odds over his last four starts is 6-1. No respect…no respect at all!

The Whitney often achieves a status that is far beyond a stakes race. It is an event in the sense that matchups of this type are only likely to happen in a race with the prestige of the Whitney and in a setting like legendary Saratoga. Without a doubt, it is the key race to take place this year in the lead-up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, with a matchup that is worthy of a race with the history of the Whitney.

Watch the 2022 Whitney Stakes on Saturday, Aug. 6 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on NBC, NBCSports.com, the NBC Sports app and Peacock.

Jack Christopher highlights 2022 Haskell Stakes

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When we discuss major stakes races for 3-year-olds, the name of Bob Baffert is inescapable. After all, the just-off-suspension trainer has won an incredible 16 Triple Crown races. However, when you look for the major 3-year-old race that he has been most dominant over in his career, it is without question the Haskell Stakes at Monmouth Park, which will be shown this Saturday on CNBC from 5 to 6 p.m. ET.

RELATED: Why isn’t Bob Baffert at the 2022 Kentucky Derby?

Baffert has won the Haskell in nine of its last 21 runnings. In his career, Baffert has started 15 horses in the race and produced nine wins, five seconds and one third. That’s right: he’s 15-for-15 “in the money.” His dominance has led to his horses being backed heavily at the windows. In fact, the average odds of his nine winners is $1.38-1, meaning they have averaged a win payoff of just under $4.80 for a $2 ticket.

To be sure, there are bettors who will run to the windows to support Baffert in the Haskell this year, given his record in the race. However, this might be a good year to steer away from his horse Taiba in the Haskell, as he might have some major factors working against him.

Keep in mind that Taiba was second choice in the Kentucky Derby and finished 12th in the race. I felt that his Santa Anita Derby win was as a result of a golden trip sitting behind a speed duel in a six-horse field. He was far from good enough to win going 10 furlongs in his 3rd career start in the 148th Kentucky Derby. As is the case with most Baffert horses, he has posted outstanding workouts leading to his first start since the Derby, but I’ve yet to see this $1.7 million 2-year-old purchase perform at the level that he would have to in order to win the Haskell.

This year’s Haskell will have outstanding quality in the field, and that is indicative of how top-level 3-year-olds are trained these days. Consider the fact that in 2021 and 2022, no horse competed in all three legs of the Triple Crown, as it is a grind that most trainers don’t see as worth putting their horses through unless they have a shot at immortality. Typical of this trend, this year’s Haskell has attracted an undefeated horse with seemingly limitless talent who did not run in any of the legs of the Triple Crown. His name is Jack Christopher, and he is trained by Chad Brown.

Jack Christopher has won his four starts by an average margin of over six lengths. While he has never gone nine furlongs or around two turns as he will have to in the Haskell, he has won twice going a one-turn mile. In both of those races, he had plenty to spare in the end, and I would be surprised if the extra furlong caused a problem for him. As his trainer, Brown has to determine if he will evolve to the point where he is suited to the mile-and-a-quarter of the Breeders’ Cup Classic. His start in the Haskell is the first step of that process, as Chad Brown determines whether he is on a path to the Dirt Mile or the Classic in November.

The 1-2 finishers in the June 12th Matt Winn Stakes at Churchill Downs are likely for the Haskell, and they are both legitimate contenders. The Brad Cox-trained Cyberknife won the Arkansas Derby this spring but had a wide trip throughout in the Kentucky Derby, finishing a wrapped-up 18th. He bounced back from that defeat with a nose victory in the Matt Winn. The horse he defeated by a mere nose in the Matt Winn was the Dale Romans trainee Howling Time, who has the mark of an improving horse. He had an impressive win in the Street Sense Stakes at Churchill Downs last fall but then posted three consecutive disappointing performances in stakes races. His last two starts, however, indicate that he could be on an upward cycle in terms of his form. He posted a five-length win in an allowance race at Churchill on May 21st prior to his nose defeat in the Winn. In the allowance win, he handily defeated the highly regarded Rattle N Roll, who went on after that race to win the American Derby at Churchill. Howling Time has the look of a solid value bet to at least hit the board in the Haskell.

Another Haskell runner who should always be respected is White Abarrio, from the barn of Saffie Joseph, Jr. He had an impossibly wide trip in the Kentucky Derby, resulting in his finishing 16th. Outside of that race, he has posted two wins: a second and a third in four graded stakes starts in his career. The wins were in the Holy Bull Stakes and the Florida Derby, both at Gulfstream. His stalking style and his ability to finish should work in his favor at Monmouth.

The other probable horse in the field is Benevengo, a New Jersey-based horse who has won 3 of 4 lifetime starts but will be making his first start in a graded stakes race.

The bottom line of this running of the Haskell is that it will be a test of the legitimacy of Jack Christopher. Given the dominance he has shown in his races, if he shows the ability to handle extra distance and two turns, the sky is the limit for the rest of his year. If not, he will probably be on a path to be one of the favorites in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in November at Keeneland. In either case, the Haskell will be a showcase for a horse who is undefeated and has not yet faced a solid challenge in his four career races.

One additional note: Most of us know that Rich Strike was the longest shot on the board at $80.80-1 when he won the Kentucky Derby. But what about the 2nd and 3rd longest horses in the odds for the Kentucky Derby? Tawny Port went off at $80.50-1, and he followed up his 7th place finish in the Derby with a win in the Ohio Derby. The 3rd longest horse on the board in the Derby was Classic Causeway, who went off at $78.90-1. He followed his 11th place finish in Louisville with a 3rd in the Ohio Derby. In his next start, however, trainer Ken McPeek put him on the grass for the first time in his career in the $1 million Belmont Derby. In a field that featured several top horses from Europe, Classic Causeway posted an upset at 26-1 odds. These performances by the three longest prices on the board in Louisville are some form of proof that there is a good reason why a race like the Derby is considered a Classic.

Watch the 2022 Haskell Stakes, a Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series race for the Classic, on Saturday, July 23 from 5 to 6 p.m. ET on CNBC, NBCSports.com and the NBC Sports app.