An update on the contenders for the Breeders' Cup Classic:
The reigning Breeders' Cup Classic champion left Barn 41 at 9:15 a.m. and was followed by hundreds of adoring fans, including owners Jerry and Ann Moss and trainer John Shirreffs.
With regular exercise rider Steve Willard aboard, the 6yo mare was led with a pony to the back of Churchill Downs' 1m chute where she stood for approximately 10 minutes before making her way to the main track for a 1 ½ m gallop.
“She galloped beautifully,” Shirreffs said. “She's very happy. On the second day of taking her to the track, you might think she'd be a little flat but she was full of energy. Steve said he could have gone around another time, and as the trainer, that's what you look for – the enthusiasm and good energy.”
Asked about what the experience of training Zenyatta has meant to him, Shirreffs said, “This is a great celebration. She's the love of our lives. She's the fantasy. She's everything we ever could have wanted and to share her with everybody is just incredible.
“I don't know how to describe the feeling when you bring her over for a race, you can feel the anticipation and energy,” he added. “So many people adore her so you feel a lot of love, too. Your chest swells with pride and you're so proud to be with them at that moment.”
The Al Stall Jr. trainee jogged one circuit of the Churchill Downs oval and galloped the same on Thursday morning before the break. Everything was in order for an upcoming start in Saturday's Classic.
“The way he's been for the past couple days is the way he's been for the past couple years,” said Stall. “He's the same every day, which is a good thing. He's his normal self – laid back, quiet, eating. He trains very kind.”
The barn where Blame is stabled, number 47, runs parallel to the main track chute. It proved to be a fine vantage point for Stall on Wednesday, when the unbeaten Zenyatta made her way to the track for the first time.
“I stood back here and watched her and avoided all the crowds at the gap; I had an exclusive,” the trainer said. “She looked awesome. I couldn't imagine how big she is and how much she weighs because it's hard to grasp, but she's in fine flesh. It seemed like she took up the whole chute.”
The 3yo son of Smart Strike went to the track along with Juvenile Fillies morning-line favorite A Z Warrior immediately after the renovation break on Thursday, jogging a circuit and galloping 1m under exercise rider Jorge Alvarez.
“He looks good, so far so good,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bob Baffert. “He'll run his race. We're all going to find out how tough we are; it's a great race, really good top horses in there. I think he's up to it. He's still a young horse so I don't know how he fits in right now going a mile-and-a-quarter. He's tough, though, 2-year-old champion and going to be 3-year-old champion. He keeps going and going.”
Baffert said there are no plans to retire Lookin At Lucky at the end of the season, although offers have been made to buy the colt for stud duty.
“So far we haven't made any plans,” he said. “There's people that have been trying to buy him for a stallion, but these owners just enjoy racing. You get a good horse like that, you want to watch him run.”
Reporters asked Baffert for his thoughts on Zenyatta's likelihood of receiving Horse of the Year honors after the Breeders' Cup.
“She has to win,” he said. “Only because they sort of stayed in California with her and didn't really venture out. She has to win here on the dirt – she did it last year, she was phenomenal, but she did it on a synthetic track so there's always going to be that question mark. If she does it here on dirt, on these grounds, that's what it's all about. But she's supposed to win, so I don't think they're worried about it, they're pretty confident. It's going to be a great race. There's always, ‘Well, maybe this time,' and eventually they all get beat, but she's just amazing. Win, lose, or draw, she's a great mare that's been so good for the business. We have a lot of respect for her.”
His rivals might have gotten a bit of a break in last year's Classic when the Todd Pletcher-trained 3yo became frazzled at the Santa Anita starting gate and ultimately was scratched, but there are no signs of a repeat of that kind of incident in this year's big race.
“It was the ultimate letdown,” Pletcher said Thursday after the son of Elusive Quality returned from a morning gallop. “He's been perfect ever since.”
Pletcher turned to former NYRA starter Bob Duncan after the incident and asked him to work with the colt.
“We schooled him at Belmont right after the Breeders' Cup,” Duncan said. “Basically, before we even started schooling him at the gate, Todd and I spent a little time with him around the barn, the paddock and the backside and just put him through a few exercises to kind of get connected to him – just moving him around and trying to get some leadership issues settled. Within 15 minutes he was following us around. Todd and I looked at each other and said ‘Geez, where's the problem?' He was that good.”
He has since won all but one race in five 2010 starts, a head loss to Blame in Saratoga's Whitney. He's been “a perfect gentleman” in the gate all year, according to Pletcher.
“We took him over to the gate the next day and we took our time because it was his first time after the Breeders' Cup,” Duncan recalled. “We didn't know what to expect. He walks right into the starting gate. We added things each time. Will he go in the gate with the open door? Will he go with it closed? Next time around, will he go in next to another horse? He just did everything by the book. Eventually we did the dress rehearsal over at Aqueduct, which went very well, and he's been good all year.”
Pletcher said he believes Quality Road is still in line for a shot at Horse of the Year, and now he isn't worrying too much about what happens before Saturday's Breeders' Cup finale.
“The one thing we learned is it wasn't about the starting gate,” Duncan said. “Like a lot of good horses, he's an ‘Alpha horse.' He wants to lead. He wakes up in the morning and says I want to see if I moved up in the pecking order today. If you can just do a little to something every day to re-establish your leadership, then he's perfectly happy. He's the kindest, gentlest horse to be around. He couldn't be any nicer.”
The 5yo Japanese horse was hand-walked in the quarantine barn Thursday, the morning after he breezed 4f in 49 3/5 under jockey Tetsuzo Sato.
Trainer Akio Adachi said Espoir City came out of his work in good order. The horse is likely to jog Friday morning.
There have been three previous runners from Japan before this year – Agnes World (eighth in the 2000 Sprint); Personal Rush (sixth in the 2004 Classic); and Casino Drive (12th in the 2008 Classic). Red Desire is scheduled to run in the Friday's Filly & Mare Turf making Espoir City the fifth Breeders' Cup starter from Japan. He has won two Group 1 races in the last 12 months, the Japan Cup Dirt, a 9f race, and the 1m February Stakes. He has been on course toward the Breeders' Cup since late spring. Adachi said that he and the owners feel the horse is a contender.
“We wouldn't have come this far, with all the expenses, if we weren't thinking that we have a good chance,” Adachi said through interpreter Mikki Tsuge, West Coast Representative for the Japan Racing Association, who has been serving as the connections' liaison at Churchill Downs.
The 5yo son of Forestry made his first appearance on the Churchill Downs track Thursday morning, galloping 1 ½ m under exercise rider Pat Correa. The Kiaran McLaughlin-trained Classic hopeful walked on Wednesday morning when he arrived following the long van ride from Saratoga Springs.
“He can be a little difficult at times. We went out before the break. It was nice and quiet. He threw a couple of bucks and kicks starting off and got into his gallop,” assistant trainer Neil McLaughlin said. “He's a bit of a character, so we were trying to get a quiet track for him and things worked out well.”
His connections have no worries about Etched's behavior on race day.
“No problem. He's really good at the races. It's more in the morning that he gets a little testy at times and has a mind of his own,” McLaughlin said.
Regular rider Alan Garcia will be returned to the saddle aboard Etched, who was ridden by Eddie Castro in his Monmouth Cup victory last time out.
Both of trainer Dale Romans starters in the Classic galloped 1 ½ m Thursday morning and the conditioner said they're continuing to do great and they're ready for their Saturday engagement.
First Dude, a 3yo Stephen Got Even colt, is looking for his first win since breaking his maiden in January at Gulfstream Park. The runner-up in the Pennsylvania Derby in his last start will break from post 4 in the Classic and will be ridden by Robby Albarado.
Paddy O'Prado, a 3yo son of El Prado, will be making his second start against older rivals in Saturday's Classic after finishing second to Turf hopeful Winchester in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park in his last start. Regular rider Kent Desormeaux has the mount aboard Paddy O'Prado who starts from post 2.
The Nick Zito-trained 3yo colt galloped 1 ½ m under Carlos Correa Thursday morning at Churchill Downs over the track that he proved to his liking last fall. Fly Down broke his maiden at Churchill last November, scoring a half-length decision over Classic hopeful First Dude in his second lifetime start.
The Hall of Fame trainer is hopeful that conditions will once again be suited to son of Mineshaft.
“I'm hoping Fly Down gets a great chance to run his race. I'm hoping there are legitimate fractions,” Zito said. “As long as that happens, I think he'll have a legitimate chance to run.”
Of course, legitimate fractions should also benefit Zenyatta, the undefeated 8-5 morning-line favorite for the Classic.
“You have to say she's the horse to beat, because you are what your record is, and that's what it says. Whether it's the colts, the dirt, she's still the horse to beat. You have to give her that distinction. You have to,” said Zito, acknowledging that this year's Classic will be Zenyatta's biggest challenge.
Julien Leparoux will ride Fly Down for the first time Saturday.
Looking purely at the pedigree of Turtle Bird Stable's Haynesfield, one might assume that he would be best suited to the Sprint, but of the nine wins Steve Asmussen's Classic contender has on his resume, eight have come at distances of 1m or greater.
“It's funny, he's by Speightstown, who is a Breeders' Cup Sprint winner (2004), so you'd think he might want to stay short,” Asmussen said. “But Haynesfield is a big tall, long jumping horse who obviously has ability over longer distances. Over time, you let them tell you. It's about finding what they're capable of doing and where they can have success.”
In his only previous start over the Classic's 1 ¼ m distance, which came in his most recent start, Haynesfield wired the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont.
The 4yo son of Yonaguska galloped 1 ¾ m on the main track Thursday morning, and trainer Derek Ryan said the colt is good to go Saturday.
“He's doing great,” Ryan said. “He's never been better. I expect him to be right there.”
Musket Man has a history on the Churchill Downs main track. He ran third after being bumped hard in deep stretch in the 2009 Kentucky Derby, and this year on Derby Day, he ran into severe traffic problems and finished third in the Churchill Downs Stakes.
The Classic will be Musket Man's sixth start of the year, which was the plan all along, Ryan said.
“It looks like he has gaps in his past performances, but that's by design,” the trainer said. “I wanted to get him to the Met Mile in the spring (finished second to Quality Road), and then give him most of the summer off.
“He hates the heat, so we sent him back to the farm for three weeks during the summer, and then brought him back for the Whitney (third behind Blame and Quality Road). I used the Whitney and the Monmouth Cup (second to Etched) as his Breeders' Cup preps.
“He's coming into the race in great shape. Now if there's a legitimate pace, and if the rider (Rajiv Maragh) reads the pace right, and if he fires, I expect him to be right there at the finish.”
Musket Man, owned by Eric Fein and Vic Carlson, won the Tampa Bay Derby and Illinois Derby on his way to the Kentucky Derby last year. This season, he's won just once in five starts, taking his seasonal debut in an overnight stakes at Tampa Bay.
With a Saturday date with Zenyatta in the offing, Pleasant Prince tuned up again with a 1 ½ m gallop over the main, continuing his progress toward the Classic.
“He's as good as I can get him,” trainer Wesley Ward said Thursday morning. “I'm expecting a good effort from him. He's been eating the bottom out of his feed tub and sleeping all night.”
Where does Ward see Pleasant Prince going down the backstretch of the 1 ¼ m race?
“He'll probably be teamed up with Zenyatta at the back of the pack,” said the trainer. “He usually drops back right after the start.”
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