Will trainer Todd Pletcher cap his record-setting year with a string of Breeders' Cup victories? Pletcher will saddle horses in seven of the eight races, missing only the Mile on the turf. In at least five of them, he has a reasonable chance to win.
Will the fortunes spent on horseflesh by the Maktoum family of Dubai translate into the championships they expect and, arguably, deserve? They have plenty of chances.
How will the emergence of artificial racing surfaces affect the outcome of Saturday's races? Churchill Downs races on real dirt. Many of the horses running in the Breeders' Cup have either raced or trained on Polytrack or similar surfaces at Keeneland, Turfway Park, Woodbine or Hollywood Park. How will their Polytrack form translate? This question is complicated further by the fact that Churchill Downs' main track plays differently than other "regular" surfaces.
Still, the big question of the day is Bernardini -- the superstar 3-year-old who takes on an interesting but possibly outclassed field of 12 rivals in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
Bernardini, owned by the Maktoums' Darley Stable, has won six consecutive races and hasn't really been tested. Although he skipped the Kentucky Derby, he went on to win the Preakness Stakes easily as Barbaro pulled up with an injury. And the bay son of A.P. Indy then went on to sweep the Jim Dandy, Travers and Jockey Club Gold Cup. He has appeared poised, confident and invincible under the careful handling of trainer Tom Albertrani.
But, there's a reason they actually run these races. In this case, Bernardini is facing a couple challengers he hasn't beaten and who have pretty good credentials themselves.
Invasor, an Argentine-bred colt who won the Uruguayan Triple Crown last year, has won three consecutive big races since shipping to the United States and was expected to challenge Bernardini in the Gold Cup. The minor illness that prevented him from running in that race is the major question mark about his readiness for Saturday's still test.
And then there's Lava Man -- claimed for $50,000 in August of 2004 and now the winner of nearly $4 million. He's been invincible on the West Coast this year, winning seven consecutive races. The knock on him? He has never won -- or even raced well -- outside of California. Will he perform in Kentucky? Oddsmaker Mike Battaglia pegging him a 6-1 third choice in the morning line, behind Invasor's 5-1 and Bernardini's even-odds.
Looking for long shots?
Brother Derek, who won the Santa Anita Derby and finished seventh in the Run for the Roses, is on the rebound and finished a respectable second to Lava Man in his last start at Santa Anita.
George Washington is perhaps the most intriguing horse in the race -- making his first start in the United States, his first start on the main track and his first start at a distance greater than 1 mile. But he is a truly classy horse with a distance pedigree and a good record against top competition in England and Ireland.
Another grass-running European, David Junior, comes into the race off a significant victory in the Group 1 Eclipse Stakes at Sandown Park in England. He also won the Dubai Duty Free and finished fourth behind some superstars in the Prince of Wales Stakes at Ascot and has a pedigree that doesn't argue against success on the main track.
Pletcher has been going so well this year that you can't overlook his 20-1 long shot Lawyer Ron. The 3-year-old son of Langfuhr was transferred from trainer Bob Holthus to Pletcher after running second in the Super Derby. The Arkansas Derby winner hasn't yet shown a race that would win this. But he hasn't run for Pletcher before, either.
Perfect Drift doesn't win often but often is in the money in big races. This is his fourth straight try in the Classic. He ran sixth in 2003 at Santa Anita, fourth in 2004 at Lone Star Park and third last year at Belmont. The 7-year-old Dynaformer gelding has never run out of the money is nine races at Churchill Downs.
Sun King also doesn't win much. But he did finish second by a nose to Invasor in the Whitney at Saratoga two races back and finished well to be third in the Woodward in his last start. Trainer Nick Zito is going to get a break one of these years and win this event.
Last year's Kentucky Derby winner, Giacomo, is in this field -- pegged at 30-1 in the morning line. He has but a single win in seven tries since his Derby triumph. But this is his first time back at Churchill Downs, so who knows?
Others who would seem much less likely to figure in the outcome include Flower Alley, last year's runner-up to the now-retired Saint Liam; Suave, winner of the Washington Park Handicap at Arlington Park this summer; and Premium Tap, who upset the Woodward at odds of 31-1.
A four-horse trifecta box that might be worthwhile, especially if Bernardini doesn't get home on top: Bernardini, Brother Derek, George Washington and Lawyer Ron.
Every race on the Breeders' Cup program has the potential to identify an Eclipse Award champion. In fact, it's a rarity that a winner on this one-day card does not go on to a year-end title.
This year is no exception, with many of the Thoroughbred divisions up in the air, some of the best horses meeting for the first time this year and some top Europeans challenging the "home team" to provide some added interest. A look at the seven Championship races supporting the Classic on Saturday's card at Churchill Downs:
$3 million John Deere Turf
A race often dominated by Europeans, isn't this year. Two of the "big three" here have been running in the United States, although the favorite, Hurricane Run, invades from France. Hurricane Run, winner of last year's Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, finished fourth in this year's running, casting his current form into some doubt. And the 4-year-old Monjeau colt compounded those doubts with a third-place finish in the Champion Stakes at Newmarket last time out. The top U.S. prospects here are English Channel and Cacique. English Channel, a 4-year-old son of Smart Strike, has won four of six starts this year, all in top company, and is trained by the red-hot Todd Pletcher. Cacique, a 5-year-old, Irish-bred son of Danehill, raced last year in France and has two wins and three seconds from six U.S. starts this year for trainer Bobby Frankel. A 4-year-old Montjeu colt, Scorpion, has but one start this year, that in a minor stake in Ireland, but is dangerous. Go Deputy was second in the Canadian International at Woodbine in his last start. Better Talk Now, upset winner of this race two years ago, doesn't seem in form to repeat.
A four-horse trifecta box: Hurricane Run, English Channel, Cacique and, as a long shot to boost the payoff, Scorpion.
$2 million Emirates Airline Distaff
A lot of bettors will be singling Fleet Indian in this race. The 5-year-old daughter of Indian Charlie has won eight consecutive races, most recently holding on gamely to beat Balletto by a head in the Beldame at Belmont Park. During that streak, the Pletcher trainee has climbed the ladder from the allowance ranks to the top of the heap and is a deserving favorite. Balletto -- another from the Maktoum family's powerhouse stable -- twice in a row has finished second to Fleet Indian and seems poised for another credible challenge. Pine Island, a daughter of Arch, has been developing well as a 3-year-old and won the Gazelle in her last start. Pool Land may be a long price despite winning the Ruffian Handicap at Belmont Park last time out. Some questions arise from the Spinster at Keenland -- the last start for several horses in this race. Run over the Polytrack artificial surface, the race went to Asi Siempre but others returning to this race from the Spinster, including Spun Sugar, may have been compromised by the different surface.
A four-horse trifecta box: Fleet Indian, Balletto, Pine Island and Pool Land.
$2 million NetJets Mile (turf)
This usually is one of the toughest races to figure out and this year is no exception. The morning line favorite, at 4-1, is Gorella, winner in four of her last five starts. The 4-year-old, French-bred filly was last seen making a dominating move between horses to win the First Lady at Keeneland by a nose. Before that, she won the Beverly D. at Arlington Park. Best of the Euro invaders is Araafa, second to George Washington in his last start -- the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes at Ascot. Since George Washington likely would have been the favorite had he gone here, Araafa must be respected. Aragorn, a 4-year-old son of Giant's Causeway, has won four straight in California. The Maktoums send in Librettist, whose form seems to be declining from a pretty decent peak. Rob Roy comes from England, where he defeated Hurricane Run in his last start -- albeit going longer. Aussie Rules, trained by the masterful Aidan O'Brien, shipped in from Europe to win the Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland in his last start and is in dangerous form.
In a wide-open race, a potentially profitable four-horse tri box: Gorella, Araafa, Aragorn and Rob Roy.
$2 million TVG Sprint
How about 14 relatively evenly matched horses charging 6 furlongs around one turn and down the long Churchill Downs stretch to the wire? That's this race, which features only three of the steeds at single-digit odds in the morning line. Henny Hughes, another of the Maktoum herd, is the 2-1 favorite, thanks to victories in all three of his starts this year, including the Vosburgh against older horses in his last start. Henny Hughes, a son of Hennessey, was second to Stevie Wonderboy in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Posted at 3-1 is Bordonaro, who has won five of his last six starts, all in California. The 5-year-old son of Memo has never raced outside the Golden State. Pomeroy, posted at 8-1, has started only twice this year, finishing second and then first. The race is wide open, though, as many of the other contenders have finished close to the top three in recent races. Trainer Bob Baffert brings an interesting outsider in Too Much Bling, a still-developing 3-year-old who could come from off the pace to figure in the outcome. War Front finished second to Henny Hughes last time out and Pomeroy the time before that. And if trainer Todd Pletcher is going to have a career day, maybe his Friendly Island will, too.
A half-guesswork four-horse tri box: Bordonaro, Henny Hughes, War Front and Too Much Bling.
$2 million Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf
It doesn't get much better than Ouija Board. The 5-year-old Cape Cross mare, owned by Lord Derby, won this race two years ago and was a hard-luck second to Intercontinental last year. But that only scratches the surface of her accomplishments. Racing all over the globe, she also has won graded stakes in England, Ireland and Hong Kong and has been close in top male company in the best races in Japan, France and Dubai. She probably will race once more after this -- likely in the Hong Kong International Races on Dec. 10. She is not, of course, the only horse in this race. Film Maker, Wait a While and Honey
Ryder all have compiled impressive campaigns this year in the United States. Mauralakana came from France to run a close second and third in two U.S. starts. And Dancing Edie, a rapidly improving West Coast invader, could provide a big ROI with another step up the class ladder. Pletcher saddles three in here -- Honey Ryder, Wait a While and Quiet Royal.
Three horses to put in your tri box with Ouija Board: Film Maker, Honey Ryder and Dancing Edie.
$2 million Bessemer Trust Juvenile
Tough to figure this one out? The morning-line favorite, Circular Quay at 5-2, lost his last start to Great Hunter, who is 9-2 on the morning line. Scat Daddy, whose only loss in four starts was to Circular Quay, is second choice at 4-1. Principle Secret, who beat both Great Hunter and Stormello two starts back, is 5-1. Stormello, coming out of California, is posted at 6-1 and has lost to Great Hunter. Meanwhile, King of the Roxy, winner of the Futurity at Belmont Park in his last start, is offered at 12-1. Then there's that pesky Polytrack issue. Great Hunter's ran well in California but posted his best result in the Breeders' Futurity on Keeneland's artificial surface. For some esoteric reasons, you can make a case that Polytrack wouldn't help Great Hunter, in which case he moves up. But that's totally unproven. And if you want a bomber for this race, you can make the same argument for U D Ghetto, which won the Kentucky Cup Juvenile on Turfway Park's Polytrack. He also might not have been totally at home on the Poly and with a good trip could hit the board at huge odds. Several others also could make themselves known with only a little improvement over their last effort.
A four-horse trifecta box? It doesn't pay to take short odds here. So consider plunging on Great Hunter, King of the Roxy, Scat Daddy and U D Ghetto. If you can't bring yourself to include U D Ghetto, consider C P West, who was closing fast in the Futurity and will like the added distance.
$2 million Emirates Airline Juvenile Fillies
Here we have a deserving favorite in Cash Included. The daughter of Include is undefeated in three tries and won the Oak Leaf by 4 1/2 lengths in her last start. But she has never run outside California and will be making her first start for trainer Craig Dollase. Dreaming of Anna is second choice on the morning line even though her last two starts came on the grass -- at Colonial Downs and Woodbine. She's a daughter of noted turf sire Rahy. Octave was second to the absent Meadow Breeze in the Matron at Belmont and also won at Saratoga. Bel Air Beauty took a huge step up in winning the Alcibiades at Keeneland but may have received a huge boost from the Polytrack. The reverse may be true for She's Included, who ran very well in California and then poorly on the Poly. A rebound gives her a chance. Again, many others could be a factor with just a little improvement.
And the trifecta box goes to ... Cash Included, Dreaming of Anna, Octave and She's Included.
Good luck and enjoy the races.