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Updated on 09/17/2011 11:38PM
Only some like it soft: Let condition of course be your guide to Europeans
The state of the ground has been the talking point all week around Belmont Park. The rain that fell Monday night and all day Tuesday left the turf courses soft and the main track sloppy. Even though clear skies are predicted for race day, it is imperative to take the going, especially on the turf, under serious consideration.
Do not make the conventional mistake in thinking that all European-trained horses love soft turf. Most European trainers send horses to America in the hope of finding firm ground. As it is unlikely that they will have it on Saturday, be aware of the soft ground specialists: Bago and Shirocco in the Turf, Valixir and Whipper in the Mile. In the Filly and Mare Turf, the Godolphin Racing-owned Sundrop is one who moves up on soft.
Sadly, many of the best Europeans have failed to make it to the Cup, which will have 19 European-based horses this year. The Mile has been especially hard hit, with Group 1 winners Dubawi, Shamardal, Divine Proportions, and Footstepsinthesand all having been retired prematurely. Add to that list Proclamation, put away until next year; the setback to Arc winner Hurricane Run that forced him out of the Turf; the recent retirement of Epsom Derby winner Motivator; plus the loss of American stars Ghostzapper, Afleet Alex, and Roses in May, and you may be forgiven for wondering why this event is subtitled the World Thoroughbred Championships.
Starcraft's defection to the Classic, a race in which he has nothing to lose save a larger supplementary fee, smacks of fear of a loss to Leroidesanimaux in the Mile, a prospect that would puncture any pretensions Starcraft's connections might have of maintaining his perceived status as the world's best miler.
What with the missing Europeans and their second-string replacements, the Mile could prove to be the coronation of Leroidesanimaux, not merely as the world's best miler, but as the best horse in America. The Brazilian-bred Leroidesanimaux would have to run well below his ultra-consistent form to lose the Mile to horses such as Ad Valorem or Majors Cast, capable sorts who have failed to win in Europe this year, or French invaders Valixir and Whipper, who appear to be going in the wrong direction since their Group 1 victories this summer. There is a question about Leroidesanimaux's ability to handle truly soft ground, and he would be suited by anything good or better.
Although he finished behind Whipper in both the Jacques le Marois and the Prix du Moulin, Valixir, whose dam is a half-sister to 2001 Belmont BC Mile winner Val Royal, may be the biggest European threat. Trained by Andre Fabre, Valixir acts on both firm and soft, relishes a fast pace, and shouldn't be too far away at the finish.
My money is still on Leroidesanimaux, more of it on good to firm ground, less of it on soft.
Filly and Mare Turf
Defending titleholder Ouija Board made it here just under the conditioning deadline with a handy score vs. males in a 1 1/2-mile, Group 3 race on Sept. 24, which should in theory set her up perfectly for a successful defense. Plagued by a springtime splint injury to her left foreleg and a midsummer quarter crack to her right fore followed by a stress fracture to her left fore, the 4-year-old Ouija Board has a class edge on her opponents if she is truly back to her best. Close observation of her works at Belmont will reveal much concerning her chances. She would not, however, be as prominent a factor on soft ground.
If Ouija Board is not back to her best, the Filly and Mare Turf is a toss-up. Favourable Terms, who has had to overcome a pelvis injury and a tibia splint this year, is an inconsistent sort, while neither Karen's Caper nor Luas Line has ever been as far as 10 furlongs. Luas Line will appreciate her return to Belmont and a fast pace, which helped her win the Garden City Handicap on Sept. 10, but she would prefer hard ground to soft.
Unlucky when blocked in midstretch in the Beverly D., Mona Lisa must come under consideration off her Prix de l'Opera second, although the form of that Longchamp Group 1 looks quirky, especially since its winner, Kinnaird, was only fifth in the Group 1 Premio Lydia Tesio in Milan last Sunday. Moreover, Mona Lisa does not care for soft ground.
In Ivan Denisovich, Aidan O'Brien, engineer of Johannesburg's 2001 Juvenile victory, has a Group 2 winner who should take to dirt like a duck to water. But Ivan Denisovich is no Johannesburg. Out of Distaff winner Hollywood Wildcat and a half-brother to Mile champ War Chant, he has failed as the favorite in his last two tries, both at the Group 1 level, and has never been farther than six furlongs.
If a Euro invader is to upset First Samurai, it could be Set Alight. By 1995 BC Juvenile runner-up Hennessy, the Criquette Head-trained Set Alight improved steadily this fall to win the one-mile Group 3 Prix Thomas Bryon on Oct. 8. His front-running tactics have helped him into the winner's circle in his last two in France, but that translates into tracking speed at best in America.
Leo, just 2 1/2 lengths second to Horatio Nelson in a Group 3 in July, won a subpar Group 2 Royal Lodge Stakes last time. He should stay the Juvenile distance but others offer more appeal.
Only Shakespeare stands in the way of an anticipated European victory here, but which invader will it be?
Very appealing is Azamour, whose King George win was the best in the world at 1 1/2 miles until Hurricane Run's Arc. He twitched a muscle when fifth in the Irish Champion last time, a setback that forced him out of the Arc. Azamour loves a fast pace and firm ground, and is preferred to Ace, who always finds two or three better than himself.
But Azamour is not preferred to Bago. The 2004 Arc winner, Bago was in need of a race when third at Longchamp on Oct. 2 and looks ready for a big effort. He must, however, lay closer to the pace, more like he did when winning the Arc last year. Like Bago, Shirocco moves way up on soft ground. A confirmed 1 1/2-mile horse, Shirocco has had just two races for new trainer Andre Fabre this season and looks dangerous at a price.
Starcraft and Oratorio make a strong challenge for honors in a year that has seen most of the best American contenders go by the boards. Both are experienced at 1 1/4 miles while Classic favorite Saint Liam is a question at that distance. Starcraft is all class, but there are grave reservations about his ability to run on dirt. Oratorio will be running with just two weeks' rest off a subpar fourth in the Champion Stakes. Yet he may be the one to upset the American horses, especially as the Champion might be discounted as it was run on drying out ground that was nearly sticky. O'Brien just missed in the 2000 Classic with Giant's Causeway and wouldn't have brought Oratorio here if he didn't have a big chance against what amounts to the American second string.
Jack Sullivan has proven dirt form at Lingfield and Nad al Sheba, but he was five lengths behind Choctaw Nation in the Dubai World Cup and that is just not good enough to crack the first three here.