09/27/2017 2:46PM

Trend toward fresh horses changing the face of Breeders' Cup preps

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Emily Shields
Trainer Bob Baffert plans to send Pacific Classic 1-2 finishers Collected and Arrogate into the Breeders' Cup Classic off two-month layoffs.

ARCADIA, Calif. – As with laundry, produce, and princes of Bel Air, the two trainers of this year’s top three contenders for the Breeders’ Cup Classic have decided that fresh is best.

Arrogate, Collected, and Gun Runner all will come into the $6 million Classic on Nov. 4 at Del Mar off layoffs of at least two months. If any of those three win, it will mark the third straight year the Classic will have been won by a horse trained in that fashion.

This is a wholesale change in approach from when the Breeders’ Cup first started in 1984, and it is not limited to the Classic. Based on the ante-post lines of Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free and Mike Watchmaker for this year’s Breeders’ Cup, the current favorites in six of the nine races for older runners will be coming into their races off layoffs of at least two months.

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Those six – Gun Runner in the Classic, Lady Eli in the Filly and Mare Turf, Drefong in the Sprint, Lady Aurelia in the Turf Sprint, Stellar Wind in the Distaff, and Accelerate in the Dirt Mile – had their last starts anywhere from Sept. 2 (Gun Runner) to July 30 (Stellar Wind). So, in the case of Stellar Wind, she will not have raced for more than three months prior to the Distaff on Nov. 3.

This has had a significant impact on the final round of preps for the Breeders’ Cup. This week’s major prep for the Classic is the Grade 1, $300,000 Awesome Again at Santa Anita on Saturday, and while it is an important race in its own right – with a Grade 1 on the line plus an automatic berth to the Classic through the Win and You’re In program – the only entrant currently in the top 10 of Daily Racing Form’s Classic contenders is Cupid, who is currently 20-1 on Watchmaker’s line.

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This has become the new normal.

In 2015 with American Pharoah and 2016 with Arrogate, trainer Bob Baffert won the Classic with a 3-year-old who did not race between the Travers and the Classic. Baffert trains both Collected and Arrogate, who finished one-two, in that order, in the Pacific Classic on Aug. 19 at Del Mar in what will be their final start prior to this year’s Classic.

The longest layoff for a Classic winner is nearly three months. Invasor won the race in 2006 on Nov. 4 in his first start since Aug. 5.

But until the last two years, Invasor was an outlier. In the nine Classics between 1995 and 2003, eight of the winners were coming back on three weeks’ rest. The early days of the Breeders’ Cup saw Classic winners coming back on two weeks’ rest (Wild Again in the inaugural in 1984, Ferdinand in 1987) and, in the case of Proud Truth in 1985, he was wheeled back in a week.

Over the decades, though, the trend has been for more time between starts, with the Classic reflecting what is happening writ large in the sport. Three weeks was the norm in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and anywhere from four to five weeks was the trend in the late 2000s and first years of this decade.

If Arrogate, Collected, or Gun Runner win the Classic, that horse will be both Horse of the Year and champion older dirt male. Their trainers have decided that their best shot to claim those prizes is to train up to the race.

Arrogate and Collected are currently training at Santa Anita, and that is where Gun Runner now is located, having arrived Monday after a brief stay at Churchill Downs following his successful summer at Saratoga, where he won the Whitney and Woodward. All three will train at Santa Anita for the next month before relocating to Del Mar, whose track opens anew for training Oct. 23.

Gun Runner worked twice at Churchill Downs, on Sept. 17 and then last Sunday, following his win in the Woodward.

Collected had one work at Del Mar following the Pacific Classic and has worked twice since relocating to Santa Anita. He drilled Sept. 19 and then again Monday, when he went five furlongs in 1:00 under Mike Smith.

“He runs his best races fresh,” Baffert said of why he kept Collected out of the Awesome Again this week to await the Classic. “I want to make sure.”

Arrogate, in contrast to Collected, waited until Sept. 18 for his first work following the Pacific Classic, then worked a second time Tuesday, when he went five furlongs in 59.40 seconds under jockey Rafael Bejarano, the time equaling the best of the 44 horses who worked that distance that morning.

You can see them between now and the Breeders’ Cup, just not in the afternoon, instead at Clocker’s Corner, where, like the coffee, they’re fresh.

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