Last year’s Classic boiled down to a match between California Chrome and Arrogate. This year looks a match once again, this time with Arrogate reprising his role and Gun Runner as his opposition. Gun Runner has emerged as the best older dirt horse in training over the summer while Arrogate is looking to prove that he is still the all-time-great he appeared to be annexing four Grade 1s in a row from last summer through this spring, not the horse who was beaten twice at Del Mar this summer.
Gun Runner’s last loss was handed to him by Arrogate in the Dubai World Cup and it’s notable that the margin there didn’t quite explain the difference between the two that day. Gun Runner enjoyed a perfect trip while California Chrome was away slowly, had to weave through traffic, came wide, and still was taken in hand late to win easily – a race where he appeared to have no chance in the early and even the mid stages. But that was before the subpar races at Del Mar and it’s reasonable to assume Arogate is not the same horse.
Gun Runner meanwhile continues to thrive in Steve Assmussen’s hands. The only main contender for the Classic not trained by Bob Baffert has looked strong in his recent workouts, and has a great running style for this race. He can be on the pace or relax and finish. If there’s a concern about him, it might be that he’s a bit of a flat track bully – in his last four starts he’s beaten a total of 22 runners and the highest price he’s been is 3-5. Still, it’s not up to him and his connections who shows up to oppose him, and he’s won with great panache each time, making every penny over 1-10 look like a gift. Compared to Arrogate who ran won of the worst races by a good horse in recent memory when missing the frame in the San Diego at 1-20 to win (had there been decimal odds place betting he might have been 1-100 to finish top three).
It’s interesting to note that each of the top two have skipped the traditional prep races for the BC, opting instead to come to this straight from summer races, Arrogate at Del Mar and Gun Runner at Saratoga. This route has been used with great success in the past two seasons, with American Pharoah and then Arrogate himself, both three-year-olds coming to this from the Travers stakes.
This time around, Arrogate’s last race was the Pacific Classic and the figure, which was strong, did not match the visual impression. He appeared to run in snatches, looking nothing like the horse he was earlier in the year. The Pacific Classic itself hasn’t been a very good prep for the Breeders’ Cup Classic overall, with none of the last ten winners running in it depsite it being a major stop on the road to the BC in theory.
While on the subject of the Pac Classic, it’s worth noting that the winner of this year’s running, Collected, brings a four race win streak to this for Baffert. His previous wins were in minor affairs but his win in the Precisionist stakes was impressive visually and on the clock. It still seems unlikely that he’ll have enough to handle the closers, including his stablemates after a tussle turning for home with Gun Runner.
Gun Runner’s most recent race was the Woodward at Saratoga. The Woodward hasn’t been a key stepping stone for the BC but Mucho Macho Man did run in it when he was second in the Classic and was scratched the following year in the Woodward when the track came up sloppy. The Whitney, the premier east coast race for older horses, has fared better as a prep, producing Mucho Macho Man and Fort Larned in the last five years. The next three winners, all-three-year-olds, while technically eligible to run in the Whitney, had no reason to with the prestigious Travers stakes, restricted to their age group, just a few weeks away.
Speaking of three-year-olds, West Coast looks the best of his generation and thre may be a champion award for his division should he run well enough to hit the board in the Classic. His most recent race was the Pennsylvania Derby, where he beat up a solid looking field but earned a figure below what Gun Runner would be expected to run. Bayern used the Pennsylvania Derby as his final prep when he won the Classic in ’14. West Coast’s previous race was the Travers – which the last three Classic winners all competed in – and he was given a great ride by Mike Smith, going to the front and taking advantage of a favorable inside position to score.
One could surmise, just looking at the last few winners, that three-year-olds have some sort of advantage in this race, but that hasn’t been the case historically. It seems more likely that the last two winners – Arrogate and Pharoah – were just extraordinary horses and West Coast will have too much to find to land in the winner’s circle. It’s notable, though not surprising, that Mike Smith chose to stick with Arrogate rather than keeping the call on West Coast.
The other three year old to mention is Gunnevera, who ran a blinder in the Travers in finishing behind West Coast. Unlike that one, who had the run of the race, he was far back and wide and kept finishing, looking like the winner for a second before flattening out. It remains to be seen if he’s really as good as that race looked or if he’s up for tackling the best of these, but on paper, he’s not crazy at all as a potential improver coming off a huge race with time to recover. Adding to his appeal is the fact that he’s really the only closer in the field after the annoucement of Keen Ice’s retirement.
One unintended effect of the rise in prominence of the Pennsylvania Derby is that the Jockey Club Gold Cup, once an important prep race for this, has lost its lustre. Recently retired Keen Ice was second in the Gold Cup, unable to run down Diversify who prevailed under a brilliant, aggressive ride from Irad Ortiz, Jr. But Keen Ice would have been the one to take from the race as a strong closer. Diversify will likely be part of the pace mix, but he lacks the credentials of Gun Runner. If Gun Runner loses, it will most likely be from a horse in behind him. Diversify looks overmatched.
The traditional west coast prep for the Classic is the Awesome Again, but as with the Pac Classic, it’s been a long time since it was really that relevant. This year’s winner, Mubtaahij, is yet another Bob Baffert trainee (though the five-year-old has been the charge of several trainers and racked up countless frequent flyer miles in his years of competition). He faced the top two in the market in Dubai and that result, a fourth beaten nine, feels about right for him in this spot. He could certainly fill out the lower rungs of USA exotics.
Ballydoyle have cross entered both Churchill and War Decree at this year’s Breeders’ Cup. War Decree has a USA-pedigree but nothing that cries out for dirt. This is obviously a really difficult spot to try dirt for the first time. Churchill also might be overmatched, but bad luck in his recent races and his overall talent level do make him just a little interesting – he is a dual Guineas winner after all. He has the type of grinding running style that can be effective on dirt. He could be one to take a flyer on but a very large price (25-1 plus) would be required.
Verdict: At first glance, it looks a match between Arrogate and Gun Runner, with preference for the latter who is just more reliable at this stage of his career. Odds of 2-1 look fair. But for those willing to chase a high risk, high reward proposition, consider Gunnevara, the lone closer signed up in this spot. His current odds range from 33-1 out to 66-1 and he’d be a good bet each-way at those prices.