Saturday’s Stakes Provided Preview of Breeders’ Cup

This week’s LET IT RIDE.COM HOT TOPIC comes from Gary West of ESPN.com…take a read and VOICE AN OPINION!

What did we learn?

To get here, he took the long way around. He missed the Triple Crown because of a foot issue and didn’t make his first start of the season until May 26. And he was forced to take the Lewis-and-Clark route again Saturday to win the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. But Shared Belief has arrived. He’s the early favorite for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the top 3-year-old in the country and the leading candidate for Horse of the Year.

Although the victory confirmed Shared Belief’s status, the journey was more troublesome and demanding than anybody could have expected, and so, ironically, it might have created some doubt about the unbeaten gelding. He won, yes, but he won by only a neck, and he had to work so hard to get there, had to pour so much of his energy into the effort, that he came out of the Awesome Again looking vulnerable.

Tonalist, on the other hand, came out of the Jockey Club Gold Cup looking like an improving colt who, having shed his blinkers, has seen his future. He has figured out what he really wants to do. He doesn’t want to stalk the pace, an unsuccessful tactic best left in the Travers backwash; no, he wants to settle into that long stride of his and then rally.

At Belmont Park, he, too, had trouble Saturday. Tenth early, he had to check and alter course approaching the second turn. That was where Moreno angled into the path of Wicked Strong, who appeared to clip heels, which unseated his rider, Rajiv Maragh. (Maragh reportedly has a broken arm.) Tonalist then waited behind horses, advanced through traffic and ran the final quarter-mile in 24.71 seconds to complete the 1-1/4 miles in 2:02.12 and win by nearly two lengths over Zivo.

Shared Belief’s trouble was arguably more costly. He entered he first turn at Santa Anita three-wide, but Sky Kingdom and jockey Victor Espinoza floated the 1-5 favorite out into the six path, and conspiracy theories were blooming before the field straightened for the run down the backstretch.

“They tried some tactics on him,” Shared Belief’s jockey, Mike Smith, said after the race. But, Smith said, Shared Belief was superior to any tactic devised to beat him. As it turned, though, he was just barely superior.

Sky Kingdom’s stablemate, Fed Biz, led the field into the second turn, where Shared Belief, still forced to race wide, began to rally. Just as he needed months to overcome his foot problems, and just as the champion took all summer to redefine himself and rise within his division, he needed the length of the stretch to overcome the wide trip, but he got there.

The new Santa Anita surface was quick but not speed-favoring, and Shared Belief’s winning time of 1:48.58 didn’t sparkle. The speed figures and quantifiers won’t dazzle. But the victory, his seventh in as many starts, will shine brightly as evidence of his determination.

And so, Shared Belief has arrived. But Tonalist is threatening. Yes, with a victory in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Tonalist could possibly sweep away all the chips. Wicked Strong, who looked as if he were going to run well before his mishap Saturday, deserves a shot at the Classic, too. And of course, California Chrome, whose conspicuous talent was muffled by a compromising and uncomfortable inside trip in the Pennsylvania Derby, could refurbish his reputation and return to the head of the class with a win in what’s shaping up to be an outstandingly compelling Classic.

Super Saturday featured six major stakes in New York and five more in California, all with Breeders’ Cup implications. And so here are some more thoughts and observations:

Granted, the championship races sit more than a month down the road, and on that road more preps remain, but at this point, American Pharoah, who’ll be favored in the Juvenile, looks like the most likely Breeders’ Cup winner. He set the pace and drew clear with instant acceleration when asked in Saturday’s FrontRunner Stakes and won by more than three lengths. It was a stylish, jaw-dropping victory, but in the context of the day’s races it looked even more impressive. American Pharoah ran the 1-1/16 miles in 1:41.95. A race earlier at Santa Anita, Beholder won the Zenyatta Stakes over the same 1-1/16 miles in 1:42.19. And so, a 2-year-old making just the third start of his career ran about a length faster than a two-time champion.

Private Zone became the first horse in 24 years — and only the fourth ever — to win the Vosburgh Stakes back-to-back, and in doing so, he became one of the favorites for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint. A tough-as-woodpecker-lips veteran, to borrow a phrase from Chargin’ Charlie Beckwith, Private Zone put away the speedy Happy My Way, momentarily lost the lead and then fought back to win by a neck and complete the six furlongs in 1:08.95, a strong clocking for the day at Belmont. If he can take that effort to Santa Anita, he’ll be hard to beat Nov. 1. But after winning last year’s Vosburgh, also by a neck, Private Zone finished 10th as the 3-1 second-choice in the Sprint.

Reunited with jockey Rosie Napravnik and racing in blinkers for the first time in her career, Emollient seemingly returned to top form, and just in time for the Filly & Mare Turf, where she finished fourth a year ago. Ninth in each of her two prior races, Emollient won Saturday’s Rodeo Drive Stakes at Santa Anita by a half-length over Parranda. Still, Stephanie’s Kitten could be the best American hope for the Filly & Mare Turf. Showing a tactical dimension that had been absent from her recent efforts, Stephanie’s Kitten raced in fourth early and rallied three-wide at Belmont to win the Flower Bowl Stakes by more than a length over Abaco.

Vyjack looked like a contender for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile with his performance in the Kelso Stakes. But his trainer, Rudy Rodriguez, indicated the veteran could remain in New York instead and wait for the Cigar Mile on Nov. 29 at Aqueduct. Vyjack rallied on the turn and wore down River Rocks in the stretch to win by a length and complete the mile in a lively 1:34.05. Itsmyluckyday, the odds-on favorite, finished third and left his trainer, Eddie Plesa, pondering the options, which include the Breeders’ Cup Classic and Dirt Mile. Not originally nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, Itsmyluckyday would have to be supplemented.

Since arriving in this country, Main Sequence has won three major stakes, all in a photo finish, the latest being the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont. His trainer, Graham Motion, said Main Sequence, who has a history of sluggish starts and gate problems, gave his most “professional” performance Saturday despite ducking in and bumping the runner-up, Twilight Eclipse, at the finish. Main Sequence should be a player in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Angela Renee put herself in the Juvenile Fillies with her victory in Saturday’s Chandelier Stakes. She finished strongly, but the final time, 1:43.45, wasn’t going to frighten any rivals. After the wire, the runner-up, Conquest Eclipse, galloped out beyond the winner. The favorite for the Juvenile Fillies will probably emerge from the Alcibiades at Keeneland or the Frizette at Belmont.

WHAT’S YOUR TAKE?

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