LEXINGTON, Ky. -- Sunshine and Keeneland have been estranged. The rain continues to fall. After days of this, I looked out my hotel window, saw through the dimness a rippling body of water and thought, "It's rained even more than I thought," before realizing I was looking at a nearby pond and not the parking lot. At least I think it was a pond, but in these conditions everything changes quickly. That huge topiary tree in the shape of a rhinoceros was just a chia pet when I arrived.
The weather this week has been so foul it has obscured the charm of one of the most beautiful sporting venues in North America, so foul, too, that it kept American Pharoah and Beholder in their barns Wednesday morning. It seems they're also the two smartest horses here. On the other hand, without all the rain I wouldn't be able to start a conversation.
The main concern, of course, is how all this weather will affect the Breeders' Cup races. The rain, according to the meteorological handicappers, is supposed to clear out late Wednesday or early Thursday, and so the main track should be fast for the Breeders' Cup. The turf, however, is a concern. Even the Europeans, who are accustomed to racing through quagmires, are concerned. The course, no matter what it's officially called, can't possibly be as firm as most would like it.
The championship event begins Friday, of course, with four Breeders' Cup races. In truth, though, only one of the four has any bearing on a championship, the $2 million Distaff. It's unfortunate this race has been subordinated in the two-day, 13-race Breeders' Cup to being an opening act because it usually features a sensational standout performer.
This year, however, the standout mare, Beholder, will go instead in Saturday's $5 million Classic. Still, the Distaff will probably determine who's the champion 3-year-old filly, with Curalina, I'm A Chatterbox and Stellar Wind all capable of seizing the honor.
A crucial factor in all the two-turn races could be the short run to the first turn. In the Distaff, the fillies and mares will run a little less than three-sixteenths of a mile to the turn. That means Sheer Drama, the 9-2 second choice who'll start from post position No. 13, won't have much time to get closer to the inside rail to avoid a wide trip. The draw probably compromised her.
Wedding Toast, the 4-1 favorite, is at her best when she can control and slow the pace. She won both the Beldame and the Ogden Phipps at Belmont Park after getting clear with an easy, early lead in slow fractions. But she'll have use her natural speed here if she's to be close to the leaders because Yahilwa, Calamity Kate and My Sweet Addiction all have natural speed and all like to grab an early lead. And so the pace could compromise Wedding Toast.
Circumstances could open the door for an upset. And from here, a 3-year-old looks most likely to do it. Stellar Wind appears to have the talent and skill set to take advantage of the situation. She possesses sufficient speed to sit just behind the early leaders, as she showed in the Torry Pines Stakes at Del Mar, where she stalked a 46.83 half-mile before moving strongly to the lead and winning in hand. If not for a nightmarish trip in the Kentucky Oaks, she could be unbeaten this year.
Another 3-year-old, I'm A Chatterbox, gave a sparkling performance when beating a strong field in the Cotillion that included champion Take Charge Brandi and Alabama winner Embellish The Lace. On a surface that was especially kind to early speed, she swung five wide in the second turn and won with authority. Got Lucky, an improving 4-year-old, has won here, and Stopchargingmaria has trained sensationally over the Keeneland surface this week.
Selections: Stellar Wind, I'm A Chatterbox, Got Lucky, Stopchargingmaria.
The first of the Breeders' Cup races Friday is one of the most uncertain. This race was created for the Europeans, and they've come here with a strong contingent. But the two most highly rated Europeans in the race have drawn far outside. If Cymric and jockey William Buick can work out a good trip from No. 13, or Hit It A Bomb and Ryan Moore from No. 14, one of them will probably win. But Shogun, who finished about a length behind Cymric in the Grand Criterium, will begin from No. 4, and that could be the difference. He'll also again wear blinkers, which had come off for his last race.
Birchwood, another invader, just finished third behind Air Force Blue, the top-rated juvenile in Europe. Birchwood will be ridden by James Doyle, whose sister, Sophie Doyle, will ride Fioretti in Saturday's Filly and Mare Sprint. They'll become the first brother-sister team to compete in the Breeders' Cup. Airoforce, who won the Bourbon Stakes here on a yielding course, might have the best chance among the American youngsters, but at 30-1 Highland Sky is an intriguing long shot. He was checked sharply at the top of the stretch in the Pilgrim Stakes and then lacked racing room but still finished fourth.
Selections: Shogun, Cymric, Airoforce, Highland Sky.
The Keeneland oval affects this race more than any other. The Dirt Mile will start at the finish line and end at the alternative finish line, at the sixteenth pole. The horses will have less than an eighth of a mile to run to the first turn, and the stretch run to the finish will be a little more than three-sixteenths of a mile. In other words, the configuration of the oval strongly favors speed, and post position is crucial, all of which makes Liam's Map look the most probable winner in the Breeders' Cup.
He's unbeaten in three races at a mile, which is why his connections decided on this race rather than the Classic. And so, after winning the 1-1/8-mile Woodward in hand, Liam's Map will turn back to his best distance. He doesn't insist on getting to the front or require an early for his best effort, but he possesses high speed and could scoot clear in the first turn. Either way, he'll control the pace, which is to say anybody else who wants the lead will have to outrun him to the turn. From his No. 3 post position, and with the short stretch, Liam's Map should be hard to beat even if challenged and pressed early.
Lea, who was entered here because of the possibility of soft ground on the turf course, also is unbeaten in three races at a mile. He has trained well here and could challenge in the stretch. Red Vine and Tapiture also have looked good in the mornings here at Keeneland.
Selections: Liam's Map, Lea, Red Vine, Tapiture.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
The Europeans again look formidable. But Catch A Glimpse has made a positive impression, and her trainer, Mark Casse, said he doesn't know how good the filly could be, but she could be very good indeed. She's unbeaten on turf, and when she won the Natalma Stakes at Woodbine she ran the final quarter-mile in 23.84 seconds over a course rated "good," a course, in other words, that could be very much like the one she'll find here Friday. The big question is how she'll handle a different pace scenario. She was able to control the pace in the Natalma, and that probably won't happen Friday.
Harmonize, a winner of consecutive races for Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, has also has made a positive impression. She won the Jessamine Stakes here at Keeneland despite racing wide and should benefit from a lively pace. Alice Springs and Illuminate appear to be the best of the European runners in here, but Last Waltz looked especially eager and energetic when she went to the track Wednesday morning.
Selections: Catch A Glimpse, Alice Springs, Harmonize, Last Waltz.