Kentucky Derby winner War Emblem is the early favorite for Saturday's $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the keystone of an eight-race program at Arlington Park that will decide Horse of the Year and many other annual awards.
Surprisingly, only two of the eight races drew full fields of 14 as the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships visit the Chicago area for the first time. And the Distaff and the John Deere Turf -- each sporting a purse of $2 million -- drew only eight starters each.
However, each of the races is competitive, including the Classic. Although he made War Emblem the morning-line favorite, Arlington oddsmaker Mike Battaglia acknowledged, "Any one of the top three or four horses could go off favorite in this one."
That bunch would include Medaglia d'Oro (7-2 on the morning line), who won the Jim Dandy and the Travers at Saratoga this summer but has been idle since; Came Home (4-1), winner of three straight in California including the Pacific Classic since finishing sixth in the Kentucky Derby; and Hawk Wing (5-1), a Kentucky-bred who has been no worse than second in any of his nine lifetime starts, all in England and Ireland.
Twelve horses were entered in the Classic, a 1 1/4-mile event on the main track for 3-year-olds and up. All of Battaglia's top four picks are 3-year-olds.
"I'm not surprised that War Emblem is the favorite," said his trainer, Bob Baffert. "He's got the best trainer. Seriously, I think he deserves to be the morning-line favorite. He has the best credentials in the field. He is the Kentucky Derby winner and people like that. Then, he won the Preakness and the Haskell."
Medaglia d'Oro's trainer, Bobby Frankel, said he thought his horse might be the early favorite.
"As a handicapper -- I'm not a handicapper -- I would have made him the favorite," Frankel said. "We'll just have to see who the public makes the favorite."
Another 3-year-old who might have been among the favorites in the Classic, Rock of Gibraltar, instead was entered in the $1 million Netjets Mile. That race, to be run over the Arlington Park turf course, drew a full field of 14, including top milers from both Europe and North America. However, Rock of Gibraltar was installed as the even-money favorite. The Irish-bred son of Danehill has won seven straight races -- all Group 1 events. He is 10-for-12 lifetime and 5-for-5 at the one-mile trip.
Mike Dillon, racing manager for Rock of Gibraltar's part-owner, Sir Alex Ferguson, said the No. 10 post position drawn Wednesday morning will be tough.
"It's a very short run to the bend (first turn) and if he gets shuffled wide, he'll be at a disadvantage," Dillon said.
Beat Hollow, winner of the Arlington Million in August, was listed as second favorite at 6-1 odds after finishing third in his last start in the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in Kentucky. Landseer, who shipped in from England to win that race, was made third pick for Saturday's Mile at 8-1.
The eight-horse field for the Turf is headlined by High Chaparral, an Irish-bred 3-year-old who finished a close third in the Arc d'Triomphe in Paris three weeks ago. High Chaparral was posted at 8-5 odds. Golan, another Euro shipper, was listed at 3-1 off a second place in the Juddmonte International at York in England and Denon, winner of the Turf Classic at Belmont in his last outing, was made third choice at 5-1.
Thirteen were entered for the $1 million NAPA Sprint, a 6-furlong event. Orientate, winner of four straight races dating back to June, was made the early favorite at 5-2. Trainer D. Wayne Lukas converted the 4-year-old colt to sprinting after he finished 12th in last year's Classic.
Second choice in the Sprint is the 4-year-old filly Xtra Heat. She is 7-for-9 this year, 24-for-31 lifetime and 14-for-18 at 6 furlongs. Sold for $5,000 as a yearling, the Dixieland Heat filly has won more than $2.2 million and beat male horses for the first time in her last start at Keeneland.
The $1 million Distaff, for fillies and mares at 1 1/8 mile, is dominated by Azeri, a 4-year-old daughter of Jade Hunter who has won six straight and nine of her 10 lifetime starts. Azeri, however, has raced only once outside California, when she won the Apple Blossom at Oaklawn Park in Arkansas this past spring.
Trainer Laura DeSeroux said Azeri will "run her style" in the race -- taking the lead -- despite the presence of another speed horse, Imperial Gesture, on her outside.
"It will be up to Mike," she said, referring to jockey Mike Smith.
Godolphin Racing, the Dubai-based international superpower, has one of its best chances in the Distaff with Imperial Gesture, winner of the Beldame and Gazelle at Belmont Park in her last two starts. Kentucky Oaks winner and runner-up Farda Amiga and Take Charge Lady also are in the eight-horse field.
Golden Apples is the morning-line favorite in the $1 million Filly & Mare Turf. She won the Yellow Ribbon at Santa Anita in her last start and also won the Beverly D. at Arlington in August. Despite a disappointing outing in her last start in the Yellow Ribbon, defending Filly & Mare Turf champion Banks Hill was listed as second choice in Saturday's race.
Sky Mesa was posted as 3-1 favorite in the $1 million Juvenile for 2-year-olds and Storm Flag Flying, a daughter and granddaughter of Breeders' Cup winners, was made the even-money choice in the $1 million Long John Silver's Juvenile Fillies.
The entire eight-race card will be carried live on NBC-TV and televised either live or on a delayed basis through much of the world.