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Uncle Mo, Havre de Grace top improbable Breeders' Cup Classic cast
LOUISVILLE, Ky. – One year ago, Larry Jones was not even training, let alone training Havre de Grace. Six months ago, Uncle Mo was so sick he had to miss the Kentucky Derby, and it was far from certain he would ever race again.
One year ago, So You Think was competing in the Melbourne Cup, his 12th start in a career that had been exclusively in Australia. And one year ago, Flat Out was still a month away from returning to the races following a layoff of more than 20 months.
The chances of any of them, let alone all of them, being in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic on Saturday at Churchill Downs was a decided longshot. Yet, remarkably, they are the four top choices in the Classic, the last of 15 Breeders’ Cup races to be contested at Churchill Downs on Friday and Saturday.
This is the 28th Classic, but it would be hard to find one that has as many compelling story lines. Interest in the 1 1/4-mile race is high, centered primarily on Havre de Grace, who is trying to join the great Zenyatta as females to win the Classic, and Uncle Mo, who is attempting a comeback that would make Lazarus envious.
But the contention in this Classic is as deep as the Mariana Trench, owing to questions about whether Havre de Grace and Uncle Mo are up to the task. Havre de Grace did beat the boys once, in the Woodward, but this is a tougher, larger field. Uncle Mo, who owns the fastest Beyer Speed Figure in the Classic, never has raced 1 1/4 miles, and never has won beyond 1 1/16 miles.
So You Think and Flat Out are equally worth embracing, and questioning. So You Think is an international superstar, with five Group 1 wins in Australia, including two runnings of the prestigious Cox Plate, and three more Group 1 wins this year in Ireland and England. But this will be his first race on dirt.
Flat Out comes off a win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and has trained brilliantly all week, but there are questions as to whether he is as effective at Churchill Downs, where he is 0 for 2, as at spacious Belmont Park, where he is 2 for 2.
As a result, nearly every one of the 12 runners in this field is afforded a chance to at least hit the board, if not win. Irrespective of the great story lines and championship implications, it’s simply a terrific betting race.
“Like most Classics, this is an extremely tough race to win,” said Todd Pletcher, who trains both Uncle Mo and Stay Thirsty.
Uncle Mo is making only his third start since returning to action in late August. The distance of the race is among the hurdles facing Uncle Mo.
“He’s done nothing in any of his races to indicate to me that he won’t do it, but, with any horse, until they do, you don’t know,” Pletcher said. “He’s done some exceptional things in the morning, and in the afternoon.”
Compared to Derby time, Uncle Mo “is training much better,” said John Velazquez, the jockey for Uncle Mo.
“He’s stronger, willing to do everything,” Velazquez said. “We have a fresh horse.”
Pletcher and owner Mike Repole will also send out Stay Thirsty, who won Jim Dandy and Travers Stakes before finishing third to Flat Out and Drosselmeyer in the Jockey Club Gold Cup. He has trained sharply all week.
“Beware of the underdog,” Pletcher said. “He seems as good coming into this as he was before the Jim Dandy and the Travers.”
Havre de Grace has won five times in six starts this year, and already has wrapped up the Eclipse Award as champion older female. A win here makes her Horse of the Year.
“She should settle mid-pack,” Jones said. “Game On Dude and Uncle Mo should be up there, and To Honor and Serve. Hopefully we can draft behind them, and then get first run on Flat Out. I think she’ll get a good, clear run.”
Flat Out has been nursed through severe foot issues by his trainer, Scooter Dickey, a likeable former jockey whose biggest win as a rider came in a $25,000 race at Ak-Sar-Ben. He had never won a Grade 1 race until the Jockey Club Gold Cup. Dickey trains just five horses, and said the anticipation of this race has left him excited and anxious.
“I’ve been sleeping an hour less every night,” Dickey said.
So You Think, part of a large contingent of horses brought to the Breeders’ Cup by trainer Aidan O’Brien, is usually prominent early in a race. Nick Luck, the learned European broadcaster, believes So You Think will have a major say in the outcome if he can track the leaders while in the clear.
Game On Dude used his front-running style to capture the Santa Anita Handicap and Goodwood Stakes this year, thus putting him in contention for Horse of the Year and champion older horse should he win.
“He’s been flying under the radar,” said his jockey, Chantal Sutherland, who is attempting to become the first female rider to win the Classic.
Breeders' Cup Classic: Get graded entries, comments by Mike Watchmaker, and more
Bill Mott sends out Drosselmeyer, last year’s Belmont winner, and To Honor and Serve, who comes off a win in the Pennsylvania Derby. To Honor and Serve, like Uncle Mo, was considered a leading Kentucky Derby contender at the beginning of the year before going to the sidelines, in his case for a splint that was pin fired.
Ruler On Ice and Rattlesnake Bridge were second and third behind To Honor and Serve in the Pennsylvania Derby.
Ice Box, last year’s runner-up in the Kentucky Derby, was sixth in the Woodward and seventh in the Jockey Club Gold Cup in his last two starts.
Headache won the Hawthorne Gold Cup in his last start, his third win in his last four races. He is 3 for 7 at Churchill Downs.
“He obviously likes it here,” said his trainer, Mike Maker. “The pace should be fast. And he’s won at a mile and a quarter.”
BREEDERS’ CUP SATURDAY: Streaming video and live chat on DRF.com
|HORSE / TRAINER||JOCKEY||LAST 3 BEYERS||COMMENT||ODDS|
|A. Solis||107, 109, 106||People are thinking he's only a Belmont Park horse; he can run big anywhere||6-1|
So You Think
|R. Moore||n/a, n/a, n/a||Had a terrific season in Europe, and connections feel he will handle the dirt||8-1|
Havre de Grace
|R. Dominguez||105, 111, 106||Filly is having an outstanding campaign, already beat males two starts back||3-1|
|J. Velazquez||118, 106, 92||Brilliant when on his game, but I think this distance might be too far for him||5-2|
To Honor and Serve
|J. Lezcano||104, 102, 84||Always had huge potential, but this is the toughest assignment of his life||12-1|
|J. Castellano||103, 101, 106||I believe this one is better at Saratoga than elsewhere, but he has improved||8-1|
Game On Dude
|C. Sutherland||102, 98, 106||He is game and almost always fires, but he has never been as good as these||12-1|
Ruler On Ice
|G. Gomez||101, 95, 92||Decent effort when second most recently; can be along late for a tiny share||20-1|
|C. Borel||95, 99, 91||Has potential, but if he won this, it would be his first graded stakes victory||20-1|
|M. Smith||104, 82, 91||Should have stuck with the Marathon despite his surprising second last time||15-1|
|P. Lopez||99, 99, 100||Consistent Grade 2-3 type is in way over his head against the best in this spot||30-1|
|C. Nakatani||90, 84, 90||His form since last year's Derby is poor, and he is a rank outsider in this race||30-1|
Prayer for Relief
|R. Bejarano||94, 98, 97||Withdrawn||-|