10/28/2015 12:06PM

Crist: Even as first course, Friday’s card still appetizing


Breeders’ Cup Friday remains a work in progress.

The idea of a filly-heavy card was abandoned three years ago, and Breeders’ Cup officials have failed to agree on a different Friday “theme,” such as all juveniles or all sprinters. Races such as the Marathon and Juvenile Sprint have been banished from official Cup status like misfit toys.

Three of the four Friday Cup races preceding Saturday’s nine have no bearing on Eclipse Awards: The Dirt Mile continues to have growing pains and limited appeal, and the two most inconsequential Cup races – the Juvenile Turf and the Juvenile Fillies Turf – compose half the Friday Cup action. Any Cup official or broadcaster who refers to these races as “world championships” should be required to put 50 cents into a liars’ jar. Make that 50 dollars.

None of that, however, should obscure what Friday’s 10 races at Keeneland really are: an excellent card of highly competitive racing. The four Cup races are bookended by a pair of strong Grade 2 races, the Fayette and the Marathon, and there are three guaranteed multirace pools: a $500,000 pick five on races 1-5, a $750,000-guaranteed pick six on races 5-10, and a $1.5 million pick four on the quartet of Cup races.

The first of them, the Juvenile Turf for 2-year-old grass males, drew a full field of 14, and as usual, it’s a fight between European shippers and domestic runners. It’s rarely a fair fight since European 2-year-olds are bred and trained to race on the grass as opposed to dirt. It is the equivalent of racing American dirt sprinters against an international field on foreign soil: The Americans will almost always win, as they do in Dubai most years.

This year’s Euros have their usual strong hand in the Juvenile Turf. It’s hard to look past the imports Cymric, Shogun, and Birchwood. If you’re hunting for a longshot to sneak into the trifecta, you could do worse than Highland Sky, a deeply troubled fourth in his lone stakes try.

The Dirt Mile has perhaps the weekend’s heaviest favorite in Liam’s Map, whose owners surprised and disappointed some fans by entering him here instead of in Saturday’s Classic. He might have been the dominant front-runner in that race with a fighting chance of wiring the field, but his owners decided they would rather be 3-5 in a $1 million race than 6-1 in a $5 million race. Their math might be correct, but their choice seems faint of heart.

In any case, Liam’s Map towers over a Dirt Mile field in which Lea, Tapiture, or Red Vine seem likeliest to complete the exacta. If he replicates either of his last two starts – a narrow defeat to Honor Code in the Whitney and a front-running romp in the Woodward – he’ll be long gone.

The Juvenile Fillies Turf looks even tougher for the stateside crew than the colts’ race. The Irish-bred visitors Alice Springs and Illuminate look best, and Last Waltz must be used if she is even half of her overly generous morning-line odds of 20-1. Harmonize looks the best of the Americans, and her Bill Mott barnmate Gliding By could improve sharply in her first start for the trainer.

The one original Cup race on Friday is the Distaff, which could well settle a championship, though not the one it usually does. Regardless of how she runs against males in the Classic, Beholder is almost certain to be voted the Eclipse for older dirt female. The 3-year-old filly title, however, is very much in play, and a victory or strong second from I’m a Chatterbox, Curalina, or Stellar Wind probably would secure a year-end trophy.

The Distaff is often dominated by a standout, but this year, it is wide open. In addition to the aforementioned 3-year-olds, Grade 1 winners Got Lucky, Sheer Drama, Stopchargingmaria, and Wedding Toast all have good chances and will be decent prices. Wedding Toast might be the fastest of them, and at 4-1, it might be worth testing that hypothesis.

It all adds up to an outstanding day at the races – but just a warm-up for the true championship events on Saturday.