10/30/2013 8:11AM

Steven Crist: Friday's Breeders' Cup card for players and purists alike

Barbara D. Livingston
Hymn Book (left) has the potential to blow up the tote board in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile.

The Friday portion of this year’s Breeders’ Cup lacks any unifying theme and consists of five disparate races, four of which have no championship implications, much less the “world championship” label the event hangs on them. Those four races, however, are a horseplayer’s delight of wide-open betting propositions, and the fifth and final Friday Cup race, the Distaff, is a true clash of champions that should satisfy the purest of purists.

The day starts with the much-maligned but utterly harmless Marathon. The race was a noble idea that has failed to spark a renaissance of interest or participation in long-distance American racing, and which this year also has failed to attract any proven long-winded European types. I picked the race Cease, Pool Play, Blueskiesnrainbows, and London Bridge, and have roughly the same confidence as if I had picked any four names out of a hat.

The Juvenile Turf has been won by a European making his American debut in four of its six runnings, and I see no reason that trend should not continue. European grass horses are a notch above ours, just as our horses always have the edge on dirt. Outstrip and Giovanni Boldini look like the best of the Euros, so I picked them one-two in that order, followed by another Euro, Wilshire Boulevard, and the top American, Bobby’s Kitten. Other possibilities are the least-accomplished Euro, Shamshon, and the possibly underrated American colt Poker Player.

The Dirt Mile, an iffy proposition with a small field in some years, came up a strong race this year with seven Grade 1 winners including Verrazano and Goldencents, this year’s Wood Memorial and Santa Anita Derby winners. They both failed going the classic distances but are perfectly suited to a one-mile race around two turns, the configuration for the Dirt Mile when it is run at Santa Anita. It’s useful to think of the race as a shortened route rather than an extended sprint.

If Verrazano repeats his Haskell performance, he’ll win by daylight. The pricey horse I’ll try to get into the mix with those 3-year-olds is the 7-year-old Hymn Book at 15-1 on the morning line. He makes his second start off a layoff and finished well to be third in the slow-paced Kelso last time out.

The Juvenile Fillies Turf is another invitation to European dominance, and I’m going with the Group 1 winners Chriselliam (Fillies’ Mile) and Vorda (Cheveley Park). Unbeaten Al Thakhira has yet to face top company but might be just as good. Among the Americans, Testa Rossi turned in the best performance winning the Miss Grillo. My Conquestadory will be an underlay off her synthetic-track Alcibiades, but deserves respect off a victory over males in the Grade 2 Summer in her racing debut.

And then it’s time to sit back and enjoy the race that has appropriately had its name restored to the original Distaff after an unfortunate spell of being called the Ladies’ Classic. It’s only a six-horse field, but what a trio of favorites: Royal Delta, already a dual Eclipse winner, trying for her third straight victory in the race; Princess of Sylmar, who upset Royal Delta in the Beldame after sweeping the Kentucky Oaks, CCA Oaks, and Alabama; and Beholder, last year’s champion 2-year-old filly, who will enjoy a home-court advantage.

Princess of Sylmar’s mere presence in the race may be the most sporting gesture of the racing season – she could have called it a year after the Beldame and been assured of a divisional title instead of crossing the country. It’s hard not to root for her off that alone and she’s my pick in the Distaff. The race is filled with strategic intrigue that may well determine the winner. Beholder and Royal Delta have repeatedly run brilliantly when loose on the lead, but they can’t both be there, while Princess of Sylmar may need them to hook up early to run them both down late.

The Breeders’ Cup could do a better job with defining the Friday card, perhaps by age or distance. (The “filly Friday” idea was wisely abandoned because you can’t have a filly Friday when the best fillies in the world sometimes run against males on Saturday, a la Zenyatta and Goldikova.) That said, it’s a grand betting card, and horse racing just doesn’t get much better than the showdown that awaits in the Distaff.