11/03/2010 1:13PM

Breeders' Cup: Something to get upset about

Benoit & Associates
J P's Gusto and Patrick Valenzuela dominate the Del Mar Futurity.

No matter how varied the participants, how unusual the weather, or how long the lines for the ladies’ facilities, the Breeders’ Cup Championship promises one thing for certain. There will be, at some point, a jaw-dropping surprise.

Churchill Downs has been the stage for some of the Cup’s greatest shockers, beginning in 1988, when Is It True upset Easy Goer in the Juvenile. At 9-1, Is It True’s price hardly represented the magnitude of the result – blame that on Wayne Lukas and Laffit Pincay in the winner’s corner – but that took nothing away from the dazed look on the faces of the folks who showed up for a coronation and went home empty-handed.

The second time the Cup came to Louisville, in 1991, all heck broke loose. Sheikh Albadou, an English sprinter (roughly equivalent to a Norwegian shooting guard), won the Sprint at 26-1. Opening Verse, who telegraphed his fondness for the course and distance earlier in the year, took the Mile at 26-1. And then Miss Alleged, a filly of modest European accomplishment, knocked out two Derby winners (Epsom, Hollywood) as part of the 42-1 parimutuel field in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

It goes on. One Dreamer, at 47-1, was not the longest price in the field when she won the Distaff at Churchill in 1994. That would have been Miss Dominique, who finished third at 77-1. The 11-1 players got on Da Hoss winning the Mile in Churchill in 1998 did not nearly reflect the miracle of his coming off a two-year layoff and just one race.

At Churchill Downs in 2000, the old-school, top-of-the-program daily double of Spain in the Distaff (55-1) to Caressing in the Juvenile Fillies (47-1) paid $3,935.80 for two dollars. And in 2006, the last time the circus came to town, it was Miesque’s Approval, at 24-1 in the Mile, who provided the biggest bomb.

Anyone searching for this year’s Churchill Downs surprise package could do worse casting at least a suspicious glance toward Dave Hofmans, who slipped quietly into town with 2-year-old J P’s Gusto on Tuesday under the cover provided by Zenyatta.

Hofmans has trained three Breeders’ Cup winners, a number matched to this point by Rick Dutrow, Todd Pletcher, and Saeed bin Suroor, from considerably fewer resources. The Hofmans winners, however, have been of the loud, raucous variety, just the kind that fits well with the history of the Cup at Churchill Downs.

In 1996, Hofmans beat Cigar and Preakness winner Louis Quatorze with Alphabet Soup, at 19-1. In 2003, Adoration led the Distaff field on a frustrating chase at 40-1. And in 2008, as long as they were offering it, Hofmans won the first running of the Turf Sprint at 36-1 with Desert Code.

This time around, Hofmans cut it close, waiting until the last possible moment to make sure he would be flying under the radar. J P’s Gusto went into the Oct. 2 Norfolk Stakes as the most accomplished 2-year-old in California. He had won the only four stakes worth winning to that point, including the Del Mar Futurity, and a victory in the Norfolk would have sent him soaring to Kentucky for Saturday’s $2 million Breeders’ Cup Juvenile as the consensus pride of the West.

Then he broke raggedly and suffered a pretty good bump, a circumstance that apparently set his young teeth on edge. Preoccupied with rationing his speed, Pat Valenzuela had J P’s Gusto under lock and key through an opening half three full seconds slower than their corresponding split in the seven-furlong Del Mar Futurity. Whether or not such restraint took a psychological toll can be argued. In the end, J P’s Gusto was not able to hold off the fast-closing Jaycito and lost by a length.

The BC Juvenile was intended as a showcase for the classic colts of the following year. It hasn’t quite worked out that way – in 26 runnings there have been only two Juvenile winners go on to take a Triple Crown event – but the race remains one of the most coveted prizes of the series, and a good performance is usually enough to earn a championship.

J P’s Gusto races for the Gem Stable of Dr. John Waken, whose grandson is named John Paul. The colt is a son of the Valid Appeal stallion Successful Appeal, out of a mare by Caller I.D., a pedigree that does not exactly scream the mile and one-sixteenth of the Juvenile.

“We did have the idea that the distance might be a limitation for him, so I think in the Norfolk Pat was a little extra cautious to save as much as he could for the stretch,” Hofmans said. “He might have been just a little overly zealous about taking that much hold of him. But I think we have a different scenario in the Juvenile, though, with horses like Uncle Mo and Boys at Tosconova who are both very quick. I think Pat can come out of there and not grab this horse so much. He just has to be cautious of the long stretch.”

Like so many old-school California trainers who have adjusted to synthetic tracks, Hofmans has no doubts about J P’s Gusto handling the dirt at Churchill Downs. Of more concern might be the crowds around his Barn 41, where Zenyatta is stabled, four stalls down.

“He’s a pretty cool customer, though,” Hofmans said.

The three Hofmans BC winners provide a vivid illustration of how unusual Breeders’ Cup races truly are, offering a depth of quality that is impossible to reflect accurately in a parimutuel context. According to the tote, very good horses always end up being ignored.

“Good horses beat each other all the time,” Hofmans said. “So you have to go in with an open mind. If you’re in the Breeders’ Cup, you know your horse is good enough to take you there, because you’re not going to put up all that money to run if he’s not. And with the right circumstances, with horses peaking at the right time, or not, things happen – like Alphabet Soup running against a lesser version of Cigar, at the end of his career.”

The morning line for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile pegged J P’s Gusto at 10-1, fifth choice to Champagne winner Uncle Mo and Hopeful winner Boys at Tosconova.

“Right now he’s not a long enough shot,” Hofmans complained. “I’m counting on the guys at TVG to help, though. They won’t be able to talk about anyone else but Uncle Mo going into that race.”

And as Hofmans can testify, it’s only afterwards that counts.