While the Kentucky Derby and its Triple Crown counterparts, the Preakness and the Belmont, give thoroughbred racing a six-week window where the sport is exposed to casual sports bettors and fans alike, it’s the Breeders’ Cup World Championships that hardcore horseplayers really relish.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Del Mar on Friday and Saturday. It’s the second time the picturesque San Diego-area track — “where the surf meets the turf,” and that’s no exaggeration — has hosted the event, which pits the best horses of all ages, genders, surfaces, and distances against each other throughout a spectacular two-day card.
What makes Breeders’ Cup races so difficult to handicap — the depth and quality of each field — is also why they present a unique moneymaking opportunity, as horses that would be favored in regional stakes races are apt to draw the longest odds of their careers here.
To that end, I like to bet classy horses in the 8-1 range and hope more than two of them score an upset, while US Bets Senior Analyst Matt Rybaltowski is more of an exotics man. Here, we break down some of the Breeders’ Cup’s marquee races, discussing the favorites along with our favorite value plays.
– Mike Seely
BC Juvenile Fillies, 1-1/16 Miles, Dirt, Race 7, Friday
With only six 2-year-olds entered, this is one of the smaller fields in this year’s Breeders’ Cup. And for good reason: Echo Zulu, the 4-5 morning line favorite, has the looks of a bona fide sensation.
The Steve Asmussen-trained filly has yet to lose a race in three tries at Saratoga and Belmont, winning the Grade 1 Spinaway and Grade 1 Frizette in dominant fashion. She may not be the best favorite to try and beat, especially given the similarly unattractive 5-2 ML odds her top rivals, Hidden Connection and Juju’s Map, are saddled with.
Those two are the only ones to have covered the distance required here, which helps their case, but if it’s value you’re seeking, give Tarabi (12-1 on the morning line) a long look. The Cherie DeVaux trainee overcame a bad bump at the break to come within four lengths of Echo Zulu in the 7-furlong Spinaway — the latter horse’s closest race to date — and hung tough in the stretch, indicating that she may welcome the added distance after a longer layoff than most of her rivals.
BC Juvenile Fillies Turf, 1 Mile, Turf, Race 8, Friday
As you handicap the two-day world championships, keep in mind that several high-priced longshots triumphed when Del Mar last hosted the Breeders’ Cup in 2017. For instance, when Bar of Gold captured the BC Filly & Mare Sprint at 66-1, the $1 superfecta paid an astounding $176,369.50, while a buck exacta paid a shade over $1,030.
Consequently, it makes sense to roll the dice in several races that lack a clear favorite. One such race is Friday’s Juvenile Fillies Turf, which will be contested at 1 mile. California Angel, a daughter of 2014 Kentucky Derby winner California Chrome, emerged from the clouds at last month’s Grade 2 Jessamine to defeat Diamond Wow by a head. Ridden by Rafael Bejarano, California Angel finished first in the 1-1/16 miles race, despite going eight-wide on the turn. At a shorter distance on Friday, California Angel must be closer to the lead on the backstretch.
Helens Well, a filly out of French dam Ever Evolving, will likely receive less backing than Cairo Memories, the winner of last month’s Surfer Girl Stakes at Santa Anita. But Helens Well encountered a considerable amount of traffic in the mile-long race before finishing second to Cairo Memories by 2-1/4 lengths. Trained by Philip D’Amato, Helens Well is 30-1 on the morning line, while California Angel is 8-1. Pizza Bianca is the morning line favorite at 5-1.
– Matt Rybaltowski
BC Juvenile, 1-1/16 Miles, Dirt, Race 9, Friday
The Juvenile features an East-West showdown, as Corniche takes on Jack Christopher in a battle of undefeated 2-year-olds.
Corniche, the second choice at 5-2, has experience out west, with both of his two career starts taking place in Southern California. At last month’s Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes at Santa Anita, Corniche was pressed on the backstretch before easily pulling away for a decisive 3-1/4 length win. The race was contested at 1-1/16 miles, the same distance for Friday’s Juvenile. Trained by Bob Baffert, Corniche could give the polarizing Hall of Fame trainer his 18th career Breeders’ Cup victory on Friday.
Jack Christopher comes into the Juvenile with a 102 Beyer speed figure in October’s Grade 1 Champagne at Belmont, the top figure in the field. A speed duel could ensue, as both have shown a proclivity for being forwardly placed. Jack Christopher, the 9-5 morning line favorite, has yet to race at two turns or beyond 8 furlongs early in his career.
Both stars figure to go off at low odds on Friday afternoon. As a result, consider another entry or two in multi-race exotics to bolster your payout. One possibility is Commandperformance (5-1). Although he lost to Jack Christopher by 2-3/4 lengths in the Champagne, he still recorded a 97 Beyer.
Meanwhile, a Japanese shipper, Jasper Great, cannot be ignored. Sired by 2016 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Arrogate, Jasper Great (15-1) scored a 10-length win in his debut at Hanshin Racecourse last month. The victory came at a distance of 1-1/8 miles, illustrating that Jasper Great can handle the distance.
BC Filly & Mare Sprint, 7 Furlongs, Dirt, Race 4, Saturday
Another small field, another heavy favorite. The horse to beat is the Baffert-trained Gamine, who has won all nine of her sprints and finished third in her only route before being disqualified (of course) for drugs. The 4-year-old won this race last year when it was run at Keeneland, tying a career-best 110 Beyer in the process. At morning line odds of 3-5, she is the most formidable favorite in any race.
But you should 100% try to beat her with one of her five rivals, for two reasons. First off, it’s no fun to wager on a horse trained by the sport’s biggest villain. Money earned on the back of one of Beelzebob’s horses is inherently dirty. Second, his entries tend to get overbet at California tracks, especially, so the ML odds on Gamine’s rivals are likely to fatten a bit.
Exactly zero of Gamine’s rivals from last year’s F&M Sprint are giving it a second try, which is telling. But of those that are here, the East Coast shipper Bella Sofia (5-2 on the ML) seems to have the best shot of pulling off a massive upset. The Rudy Rodriguez-trained filly is the only 3-year-old in the field, making it unlikely that she’s reached her ceiling, and a pair of impressive late summer stakes wins in New York seem to indicate that she’s up to the test.
BC Sprint, 6 Furlongs, Dirt, Race 8, Saturday
If you’re looking for a single in Saturday’s Pick 6, Jackie’s Warrior is expected to be a chic choice among horseplayers in the BC Sprint.
Ineffective around two turns, Jackie’s Warrior (6-5 on the morning line) cut back in distance at May’s Pat Day Mile, a race where he defeated Dream Shake in an exhilarating photo finish. He enters the Sprint with three straight triple-digit Beyers, including a career-best 110 in September’s Gallant Bob at Parx. Perhaps Jackie’s Warrior’s top effort came in the Grade 1 Allen Jerkens, when he held off Life Is Good by a neck at Saratoga. That performance indicates that Jackie’s Warrior can rate when facing a challenging pace against the top sprinters in the world. Life Is Good, the favorite in the BC Dirt Mile, set blazing fractions of 21.97 for the opening quarter-mile and 44.16 for the half in the 7-furlong race.
Another 3-year-old, Dr. Schivel, is considered a worthy second choice at 4-1. A dominant winner in last month’s Santa Anita Sprint Championship, Dr. Schivel is coming off a career-high 103 Beyer. Trained by Mark Glatt, Dr. Schivel is 3-for-3 in his career at Del Mar.
Also, consider a potential speed bias on Saturday at Del Mar before making your pick. A speed-favoring track last fall at Keeneland paid dividends for BC winners Knicks Go and Authentic in the Dirt Mile and the Classic, respectively. A horse with an inside post such as Following Sea (6-1) may also capitalize from a ground-saving trip along the rail.
Finally, take a look at Lexitonian, a veritable longshot at 20-1. The inconsistent Lexitonian defeated a deep field to capture the Grade 1 A.G. Vanderbilt Handicap in July, a race that included defending BC Sprint champ Whitmore. He also came in second by a head to Flagstaff in the Grade 1 Churchill Downs Stakes. On the other hand, Lexitonian finished 45-1/4 lengths behind winner Silver State in the Metropolitan Handicap and 31-3/4 lengths from victor Yaupon in the Forego. If Lexitonian runs his A race on Saturday, there’s a strong chance he’ll be well worth a cheap Win-Place-Show ticket.
BC Mile, 1 Mile, Turf, Race 9, Saturday
There are some intriguing American horses in this race, with Mo Forza and Smooth Like Strait (George, we assume) renewing a SoCal rivalry that has seen the former best the latter by a head and half-a-length, respectively, in a pair of Grade 2 duels. But grass is still the primary dominion of European horses, and there are some good ones crossing the pond, including the favored Space Blues (3-1 ML) and Pearls Galore (12-1), the first- and second-place finishers in France’s Grade 1 Qatar Prix de la Foret on Oct. 3.
However, it’s an Irish 3-year-old, Mother Earth (8-1 ML), that we’ll be putting money down on in the Mile. She’s held her own against older Grade 1 competition abroad while taking a giant leap forward from her juvenile campaign, and her legendary trainer, Aidan O’Brien, knows a thing or two about winning Breeders’ Cup turf races, having triumphed 14 times in toto. This record of success includes a victory in last year’s BC Mile with 73-1 shot Order of Australia, who was also just 3 at the time.
BC Turf, 1-1/2 Miles, Turf, Race 11, Saturday
At first glance, the Breeders’ Cup Turf is shaping up to be one of the most intensely competitive races of the weekend.
Tarnawa, a heavy morning line favorite at 9-5, is one of several defending champions at Del Mar who have returned for another shot at glory. The Irish mare is coming off a hard-luck second to Torquator Tasso in last month’s prestigious $6.1 million Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp. Previously, the Dermot Weld-trained Tarnawa had her five-race winning streak snapped in September, when she lost by three-quarters of a length to St. Mark’s Basilica in the Grade I Irish Championship Stakes.
Befitting of the preferred European running style on grass, expect Tarnawa to again do most of her running late, with a strong kick down the stretch. In last year’s BC Turf, Tarnawa closed like an express train in sprinting past Magical and Channel Maker for a decisive one-length victory.
Tarnawa received something of a reprieve when two potential foes, Love and Loves Only You, opted to race in the BC Filly & Mare Turf instead. Still, there will be a litany of challengers for the defending champ. On the American side, Domestic Spending and Gufo have both notched Grade 1 victories this year (Note — Domestic Spending and United were scratched on Thursday). Both Tarnawa and Gufo should benefit from a hot early pace to close into.
Without Love in the mix, it’s unlikely that a contender will wire the field. Two candidates that could bolt to the lead, however, are Godolphin’s Walton Street (8-1) and Tribhuvan (20-1), the winner of July’s G1 United Nations Stakes at Monmouth. Three others — Rockemperor (15-1), Sisfahan (12-1), and Teona (6-1) — have also captured G1 victories in their respective careers, underscoring the depth of the field. For exotic players, a trifecta key with Tarnawa on top and several double-digit longshots underneath could provide a nice payout.
BC Classic, 1-1/4 Miles, Dirt, Race 12, Saturday
The Kentucky Derby is child’s play, quite literally, compared to this, the most prestigious horse race in the land. That’s because while only 3-year-olds are permitted to run at Churchill on the first Saturday in May, the Classic is open to horses of all ages.
But older isn’t always better. Indeed, plenty of 3-year-olds have beaten their older foes, and this nine-horse field features three of the most talented young colts in the land in Essential Quality (3-1 on the morning line), Hot Rod Charlie (4-1), and the Baffert-trained Medina Spirit (4-1). The latter horse is still technically the reigning Kentucky Derby champion pending some sort of binding ruling on whether he had too much of a banned substance in his system at the time of the race.
The class of this field, though, is the Brad Cox-trained Knicks Go (5-2), who’s looked unbeatable this year at 1-1/8 miles while posting a best-of-the-bunch Beyer of 113. But 1-1/8 miles is the farthest the defending Dirt Mile champ has ever run, and this race will require the 5-year-old to go an additional eighth of a mile.
However, the savvy play here is the 4-year-old Art Collector, who looked so formidable in the 2020 Derby preps before hitting a bit of a rough patch. Flying somewhat under the radar, the horse has gone undefeated in three races since shifting to Bill Mott’s barn, posting a career-best 107 Beyer in the Grade 1 Woodward on Oct. 2 at Belmont. Art Collector picks up Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, winner of four Classics, for this race, and if he goes off at anywhere near his 8-1 ML odds, he may provide the card’s best value.
Photo: Jamie Rhodes/USA TODAY