11/01/2012 11:19PM

Breeders' Cup Marathon: Atigun has edge in class and at distance

Barbara D. Livingston
Atigun proved himself at a long distance with a solid third in the 12-furlong Belmont Stakes.

ARCADIA, Calif. -  About the only thing certain about the Marathon has been its uncertainty since it was added to the Breeders’ Cup program in 2008. No favorite has ever won the race and only one has even hit the board in the four-year history of the event, which has been won by horses ranging in price from 6-1 to the 41-1 Afleet Again a year ago at Churchill Downs.

As a result, a full lineup of 14 specialists has been entered for Friday’s fifth renewal of the 1 ¾-mile Marathon at Santa Anita, which again offers a $500,000 purse and carries Grade 2 status. This group looks as inscrutable as the fields for the previous four renewals, offering an equal mix of logical contenders and possible longshots capable of springing yet another upset in perhaps the most unpredictable of the 15 Breeders’ Cup races.

Atigun, the only 3-year-old in the field, could go postward a tepid favorite on the strength of his big effort against Union Rags and Paynter earlier this season in the Belmont Stakes and the fact he’s held his own against Grade 1 competition in three of his last four starts, including fourth-place finishes in both the Travers and when facing older horses for the first time in the Jockey Club Gold Cup.

“I always thought the further the better for him,” said Ken McPeek, who trains Atigun for the Shortleaf Stable Inc. “He showed that going a mile and one-half in the Belmont, so he should relish the distance on Friday. I felt he was maybe a notch behind the best older horses right now, so this would be a good race for him.”

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McPeek said he doesn’t believe being the only 3-year-old in the field will be a disadvantage for Atigun. Man of Iron is the only 3-year-old to have won the Marathon, outgaming Cloudy’s Knight by a nose to capture the event here in 2009.

“I think by this time of the year the 3-year-olds have somewhat caught up with the older horses and I feel we have a big, strong horse we’re bringing over there,” said McPeek. “And one who seems to have gotten stronger as the year’s gone on. The timing of the ride, more than anything else, is usually the deciding factor in long races like this, and we’ve got an experienced rider in Mike Smith and I’ll just leave that all up to him.”

Eldaafer will be competing in the Marathon for the fourth consecutive year. The 7-year-old won the race at Churchill in 2010. He also finished seventh behind Man of Iron in 2009 and far back again last year. He was saddled in each of those Breeders’ Cups by Diana Alvarado, who was reunited with Eldaafer this spring after having him taken from her barn and sent to California following the 2011 Marathon.        

Eldaafer ran poorly after leaving Alvarado’s care but has regained his best form during the second half of the year, having finished second behind Redeemed in the Grade 2, 1 ½-mile Brooklyn in June and third after contesting all the pace in his most recent start, the Grade 2, 1 ¼-mile Hawthorne Gold Cup. 

“We know he can get the distance and he’s really doing well right now,” said Alvarado. “We tried to wake him up a little in his last two starts and get him into the race earlier than usual. He seems more focused when involved early. He really ran well at Hawthorne, he did most of the work, never got a breather and just got beat.”

Eldaafer will meet a familiar rival, Not Abroad, in the Marathon. The pair have already split several decisions over the past 14 months, most recently in an overnight stakes at Delaware that Eldaafer won by three lengths over the even-money Not Abroad, who bounced back four weeks later with an easy victory in the 1 1/8-mile Maryland Million Classic. Not Abroad’s best performance this year may have come in defeat ,when he was beaten a half-length by Redeemed after going 1 ½ miles in Parx’s Grade 3 Greenwood Cup.

A pair of European invaders, Fame And Glory and Sense of Purpose, figure to add to the Marathon puzzle, as both will be making their first start on dirt. Fame and Glory is the classier of the pair, having won the Group 1 Ascot Gold Cup in June of 2011.

Jaycito is also a Grade 1 winner, having captured the Norfolk Stakes as a 2-year-old in 2010, but has never won beyond 1 1/16 miles.

Calidoscopio and fellow South American bred Almudena will make their U.S. debuts in the Marathon, although both have won multiple races at 1 ½ miles and beyond.