The most brilliant American racehorse in years has labored in relative obscurity until now. But when he runs Saturday in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Lone Star Park, Ghostzapper can demonstrate his talent to the world and, quite possibly, win the horse-of-the-year title.
Thoroughbreds who become recognized stars in the United States almost always make their marks in the Triple Crown series, as Funny Cide and Smarty Jones did in the last two years. Late bloomers who miss the 3-year-old classics don't get the television exposure to showcase their talents to a large audience. Ghostzapper was a good 3-year-old, though trainer Bobby Frankel suspected he was a sprinter and never tried him at longer distances. But this year, at 4, the colt has looked magnificent winning all three of his starts. He sped seven furlongs in the Tom Fool Handicap at Belmont Park in a sensational 1 minute 202/5 seconds. He ran away with the Philip Iselin Handicap at Monmouth Park, earning a stratospheric Beyer Speed Figure of 128 -- the best single performance by any horse in the 12 years that these ratings have been published. Then in the11/8-mile Woodward Stakes at Belmont, he engaged in what should have been a suicidal speed duel, running the first half mile in 453/5 seconds, but still held on tenaciously to win. He has guts as well as raw talent.
Ghostzapper will attempt to go 11/4 miles for the first time in the Classic, and he will face plenty of tough challengers. Pleasantly Perfect won this race last year and subsequently captured the $6 million Dubai World Cup. Roses in May has employed his raw speed to win all five of his starts this year. Funny Cide is in the field, too, as is the mare Azeri, 2002's horse of the year.
But speed figures suggest that Ghostzapper is better than all of them. My only reservation about the colt is trainer Bobby Frankel's dismal 2-for-57 record in the Breeders' Cup. Even so, I'll take my chances that the superior horse can overcome the Frankel jinx.
As always, the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships are deep in talent, with abundant challenges for every handicapper. They offer abundant rewards, too. The pick six paid $2.6 million last year and a record $3 million in 1999. Here are my selections:
* DISTAFF: When owner Michael Paulson made the illogical decision to run Azeri against males in the Classic, the Distaff lost a standout favorite and turned into a wide-open scramble. Island Fashion may inherit the favorite's role, but she hasn't delivered a top performance since March. The New York invader Society Selection is my pick.
* JUVENILE FILLIES: The 13 entrants are so closely matched that this is an excellent race to shop for a big price. I am betting on 20-to-1 shot Dance Away Capote, who made a powerful four-wide move on a rail-biased Keeneland track and narrowly lost the Alcibiades Stakes. I'll also play her in an exacta box with Culinary, the underrated Chicago invader, and Sweet Catomine, the Californian who is the probable favorite.
* MILE: In a year when the European contingent appears sub-par, the American 3-year-old Artie Schiller can upset this grass race. He has won five of his six starts on the turf this season, losing only to the superstar Kitten's Joy.
* SPRINT: For much of the year, Speightstown looked like an invincible sprinter, but the 6-year-old gave a poor showing in his final prep race and he may be on the downgrade. Assuming Speightstown doesn't recapture his top form, 12-to-1 Champali looks as good as anybody, based on the evidence of his solid win at Keeneland earlier this month. But Pick Six bettors should use as many horses in this tough field as they can afford.
* FILLY AND MARE TURF: The European invader Ouija Board outclasses the field. She finished a close third against males in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, and none of her rivals has ever delivered a performance of this quality.
* JUVENILE: The Bob Baffert-trained Roman Ruler has earned the best speed figures, but he has been running against four- and five-horse fields and he lost the only race in which he had a tough fight. He must be considered the horse to beat, but Sun King has a chance to spring an upset. He finished third in the Champagne Stakes after his jockey ill-advisedly rushed him from the gate, but patient Edgar Prado will let him employ his natural stretch-running style.
* TURF: This event is usually dominated by European horses, because running 11/2 miles on grass is their game. But the star of the field this year is an American, the 3-year-old Kitten's Joy, who has won eight out of nine starts on turf and defeated high-class older rivals at the Turf Classic at Belmont. If he wins Saturday's Cup -- which he figures to do -- he might become a candidate for horse of the year, depending on what happens in the Classic.