ELMONT, N.Y. -- For anyone who enjoys handicapping the horses, the Breeders' Cup is by far the most fascinating and challenging event of the year. A bettor must try to evaluate the merits of horses who have been running in the East and the West. He must somehow find a way to evaluate the form of horses who have spent their entire careers in Europe.
And in its seven-year history, there has never been a tougher Breeders' Cup card than the one at Belmont Park Saturday. With the exception of the race for Juvenile Fillies, where Meadow Star will be an overwhelming favorite, the events have mostly drawn big, evenly matched fields. The main event, the $3 million Classic, is an inscrutable 14-horse scramble. It is with much trepidation that I attempt to pick the seven winners.
The best betting opportunities of the Breeders' Cup may come in the first race of the day. One such opportunity, however, requires finding an Englishman who thinks his country's champion sprinter, Dayjur, can win the six-furlong race. Bet all you want that Dayjur won't finish in the money.
The Brits think Dayjur is the greatest thing since warm beer, and their heavy backing will make the 3-year-old the favorite at Belmont. But after six Breeders' Cups the Europeans haven't grasped the elementary fact that running on grass and running on dirt are totally different games, and a horse's proven ability on one surface usually won't carry over to the other.
Moreover, Dayjur has been winning in Europe by leading all the way, and he has never faced front-running rivals with the quickness of Safely Kept, Prospectors Gamble, Carson City and the rest of the bullets in this lineup.
All of the speed in the field should set up the Sprint for a horse who can muster some late kick, and that horse is Corwyn Bay. He has won twice in California this fall with strong finishes, and his speed figures suggest he may be able to dominate this field. Dancing Spree, last year's Sprint winner, is the only other solid closer in the race, and he may complete the exacta.
Meadow Star, undefeated in six career starts, has been so overhyped ("one of the greatest 2-year-old fillies of all time," said the New York Times) that she will be a ridiculously short price. She is certainly the one to beat, but the California invader Lite Light is capable of giving her a run for the money.
Go for Wand performed brilliantly in her last start, winning the Beldame Stakes by running 1 1/8 miles only two-fifths of a second slower than Secretariat's world record. She would have had a legitimate chance to beat males in the $3 million Classic. Even so, taking odds of 4 to 5 on her is no bargain in a race where she must face such tough, seasoned older rivals as Bayakoa and Gorgeous, the top two finishers in this event last year. No bet.
The Europeans should be able to recoup here after the beating they will suffer with Dayjur. Five invaders -- Royal Academy, Lady Winner, Markofdistinction, Distant Relative and Priolo -- are coming from overseas for this turf event, and one of them should be able to prevail. They have been regularly finishing within narrow margins of each other in England and France, but Priolo may have a slim edge, on the basis of a good post position, a good jockey (U.S.-born Cash Asmussen) and an ability to handle soft turf.
This is an East vs. West confrontation, with Best Pal, winner of four straight stakes in California, going against Fly So Free, who ran away with the recent Champagne Stakes at Belmont. Fly So Free's come-from-behind victory, however, seemingly was aided by a track bias that favored horses who were swooping around the field at Belmont that day. Best Pal hasn't generated a great deal of enthusiasm among Californians who have watched him run, but he appears to be the best in this field.
This has been a weak year for U.S. grass horses. European invaders have won major races such as the Turf Classic at Belmont and the Rothmans International at Woodbine. Now the European first string is arriving in the form of Saumarez and In The Wings, the winner and fourth-place finishers in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe. In The Wings had a tough, wide trip in France's most important race and may be able to turn the tables on Saumarez.
Before the post-position draw, I had mustered a great deal of enthusiasm for Unbridled, whose talent has been obscured by tough luck in most of his races since he won the Kentucky Derby. But when he drew post position 14, he was doomed to more bad luck Saturday. The position of the starting gate for this 1 1/4-mile event puts horses in outside posts at a horrible disadvantage.
Horses are going to have to hustle out of the gate to get a decent position, and there is a great deal of speed in the field, anyway, so the Classic figures to set up for a horse breaking from an inside post who has the ability to come from off the pace. That horse might be Izvestia (Post 1), Opening Verse (4), Flying Continental (6) or Rhythm (7). I am betting that it will be Opening Verse -- at a big price.
Earlier in the year, Opening Verse was running as well as any horse in the country. His form tailed off. He was freshened by trainer Dick Lundy. He was training well for the Meadowlands Cup but caught a sloppy track and ran a dismal race.
This is almost the same form that Lundy's horse Blushing John showed before last year's Classic. After a 20-length loss at the Meadowlands, Blushing John ran the race of his life to finish a close third behind Sunday Silence and Easy Goer. Opening Verse may be ready to come back to life and win the richest race in the world.