There are fans of the sport of Thoroughbred racing, and there are fans of Thoroughbred racing because of the intellectual challenge of handicapping and betting. There is some cross over between these two spheres. For example, my love for the game is fueled by both the wagering component, and by my huge respect for the history of the sport. But by and large, Thoroughbred racing is a dichotomous entity.
This comes to mind because of Saturday's stakes activity. The road to the Breeders' Cup takes a serious turn Saturday with five Grade 1 stakes at Santa Anita, each of them "Win and You're In" events for the Breeders' Cup on Nov. 4 and 5 that Santa Anita will host. There are also five graded stakes at Belmont Park, three of them Grade 1 contests, two of which are also Breeders' Cup "WAYI" races. And there are stakes-heavy cards at Churchill Downs and Gulfstream Park, although those cards carry less of a significant Breeders' Cup impact.
Many of these stakes on Saturday are very important from a sporting perspective. A few are even critical, and I will explain why in a moment. But from a wagering standpoint, many of these stakes are, frankly, duds.
As prep races for the Breeders' Cup go, the stakes at Santa Anita would be important even if you didn't know a single horse entered in any of them. All five of these stakes will be run on the same main track or turf course that their corresponding Breeders' Cup races in November will be run on. It is for this reason that these preps take on an added degree of significance. And Saturday's Rodeo Drive, Chandelier, and FrontRunner Stakes will not only be run on the same surface as their corresponding Breeders' Cup races, they will also be run at the same distance as the Filly & Mare Turf, Juvenile Fillies, and Juvenile, respectively.
Santa Anita's Awesome Again Stakes, the local prep for the Breeders' Cup Classic, boasts California Chrome, the best horse in the world (right now, at least), and the future book favorite for the Classic. If California Chrome wins Saturday, he'll become an even stronger favorite for the Classic. If he loses, it will turn the Classic on its head.
Klimt is in a similar position in the FrontRunner. I have Klimt as the future book favorite for the Juvenile in DRF, and whatever race the favorite for any Breeders' Cup event has his or her final prep in, it makes that race a key prep.
The Zenyatta, the other big stakes at Santa Anita on Saturday, lured Beholder and Stellar Wind, currently the two best older dirt females in the country, leading candidates for the Breeders' Cup Distaff, and two horses the likes of which Songbird has not yet met.
At Belmont, Flintshire, America's dominant male turf horse and the favorite for the Breeders' Cup Turf, gets his final tune up in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.
Also at Belmont, A. P. Indian, winner of two Grade 1 events during the Saratoga meet, and X Y Jet, freakish in Florida early this year and who was a narrowly beaten second in the Dubai Golden Shaheen despite chipping a knee, meet in the Vosburgh. By any measure, A. P. Indian and X Y Jet are top contenders for the Breeders' Cup Sprint.
And at Churchill Downs, Runhappy, last year's champion male sprinter, makes his belated 4-year-old debut in the Ack Ack Stakes, a return that could have significant implications for a couple of Breeders' Cup events, and beyond.
Clearly, there is big stuff going on Saturday. It doesn't take F. Lee Bailey to make that case.
But if you're a bettor who is not a chalk-eating weasel (a term of endearment, sort of, for people who like to wager on short-priced horses), how many of these races are you eager to bet on?
Runhappy will be a prohibitive favorite and, in my view, there aren't any appealing wagering alternatives in his race.
California Chrome will also be a prohibitive favorite. Dortmund looks like the only imaginable alternative to him in the Awesome Again, and even though Dortmund just doesn't seem as good as California Chrome, he won't be much of a price, either.
Klimt looks very imposing, and so do A. P. Indian and X Y Jet. But all three will be short prices.
Flintshire, who might be the tiniest price of the day, faces only three opponents. And only three others lined up to face Beholder and Stellar Wind, who were going to be heavily bet no matter how many showed up to oppose them.
Look, I know declining foal crops have resulted in a shallower pool of available stakes horses. That said, short fields and competitive racing are not necessarily mutually exclusive. You still can have six or seven horse races that are competitive, and thus reasonably attractive, betting-wise.
And that's the rub. As important as many of Saturday's stakes might be, satisfying the sport's purists, many are also decidedly uncompetitive, frustrating bettors.