By Ed McNamara
For handicappers who like to bet a little to try to win a lot, Breeders’ Cup weekend is the promised land. The action is irresistible, although getting double-digit odds on so many quality horses can be confusing. To solve the pari-mutuel equation, first you must figure out which ones to avoid.
Predictably, in the nine Breeders’ Cups at Santa Anita, this year’s site, there were 40 California-based winners. Staying home keeps a thoroughbred in its comfort zone, although crossing an ocean and a continent didn’t stop 26 Europeans from winning. As California trainer Richard Mandella says, “It’s always nice to be at home, but you’d better always have the best horse.”
Twenty-four winners came from Kentucky, Illinois, Arkansas, the Mid-Atlantic, Florida, Canada and Argentina, a much better showing than those who shipped from New York, traditionally considered America’s most competitive circuit.
Only 15 horses who had trained at Belmont Park, Aqueduct and Saratoga were able to win a seven-figure showdown in Arcadia. Nine victories came on grass, six by trainer Chad Brown.
So, only six New York-based winners on Santa Anita’s main track in nine Breeders’ Cups spanning 33 years. Sounds like a factoid to factor in.
Five New York winners were short-priced superstars – Lady’s Secret, Manila, Lure, Royal Delta and Lady Eli. Only four paid big – trainer Jeremiah Englehart’s Ria Antonia ($66.60, via disqualification, 2013 Juvenile Fillies); Bill Mott’s Tourist ($26.80, 2016 Mile); Kiaran McLaughlin’s Tamarkuz ($25.80, 2016 Dirt Mile) and Scotty Schulhofer’s Smile ($25.60, 1986 Sprint).
Michael Dubb is among the many owners Brown has enriched. “With Chad Brown, all things are possible,” a giddy Dubb said in Keeneland’s winner’s circle at the 2015 Cup. Going against Brown on the grass on championship weekend is dangerous. Besides Mott (two), no other New York trainer has more than one Breeders’ Cup victory at Santa Anita.
Only one of Todd Pletcher’s nine Cup wins came there. Shanghai Bobby took the 2012 Juvenile as the 6-5 favorite a week after Pletcher expressed confidence in his undefeated colt.
“I think over the years that we’ve certainly proven you can ship east to west with some success,” Pletcher said. “But there’s no doubt that it’s an advantage if Santa Anita is your home track and you’re training there on a daily basis.”
That’s what Bob Baffert does, and he’s collected seven Breeders’ Cup trophies there. “I think the only advantage here is that the horse has run well on that surface,” Baffert said.
Pletcher’s Classic candidate Vino Rosso has that edge on his resume. The 4-year-old colt shipped from Belmont to take the 1¼-mile Santa Anita Gold Cup in May, defeating Santa Anita Handicap hero Gift Box.
“We didn’t take lightly shipping the horse across the country to run against the winner of the Big Cap,” Pletcher said, “but Vino Rosso was doing great and he won.”
Of the 15 New York winners, only three had done that at Santa Anita. Brown’s New Money Honey (2016 Juvenile Fillies Turf) won the previous year at Santa Anita, and Tourist ran second there five months before upsetting in the 2016 Mile.
On the plus side for the New Yorkers, they had three wins in each of the last two Cups at Santa Anita, 2016 and 2014. Maybe Baffert had a point five years ago when he said: “I think in the old days being based at Santa Anita might have been an advantage, but not anymore.”
That may be, but nothing breeds confidence like a horse who’s shown a liking for a track’s surface, dirt or grass. “Horses for courses” has been a racing axiom for a very long time. No matter how impressive a shipper looks on paper, you can’t be sure how it will perform at a new venue.
Maybe the takeaway for Nov. 1-2 is to have faith in Brown’s turf runners and be skeptical of New York-based horses on the dirt, especially at low odds. There’s no guarantee that strategy will pay off, but at the racetrack, history often repeats.