Breeders’ Cup Juvenile: Contenders Switching to the Dirt

The Dirt at Churchill Downs

Anytime there is a horse on the Kentucky Derby trail that is enjoying success on the synthetics or turf prior to May it will eventually lead to questions surrounding their ability to handle the dirt at Churchill Downs.  Since Louisville, KY is where we will be again for this years’ Juvenile, those same questions are in play right now for a few of our potential contenders.

The field for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile consists of a wide variety of sophomore colts that are all lightly raced but showing signs of a promising future.  What’s most important surrounding how little each contender has raced coming into this event (Average 3 -5 lifetime starts) is that the majority are only accustomed to racing near their trainers home base.  For this reason, unless the Breeders’ Cup is being held at a major track near you, you’re likely going to be making your first trip across country.

Wonderful, our youngsters’ are growing up fast and maybe taking their first airplane ride.  That is exciting but with travel comes challenges.  For many of our West Coast runners that will be making their Churchill Downs debut, the challenge could be the Dirt.  On the California Racing Circuit only Santa Anita has a dirt surface.  The other major tracks, Del Mar and Hollywood, are staying true to the synthetics.  Why that’s noteworthy is because most California based 2-yr-olds don’t begin their racing career until Mid-Summer or Early Fall and Santa Anita didn’t begin its fall meet until late September.  So if your Cali connections keep you at bay, you’re only option for where to begin your career is on the synthetic surface.

Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes.  Though there is limited opportunity to race at Santa Anita before the Juvenile, this is the one race that a lot of trainers have their eye on before the Santa Anita Fall Meet officially opens.  On October 1 a field of 6 horses that had yet to race on dirt entered the starting gate for this Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Automatic Qualifier.  The winner, Creative Cause, is probable for the Juvenile but so are the horses that finished 2nd thru 4th: Drill, Ruler of Dubai, and Basmati.  All are legit contenders but the Juvenile will be only their second lifetime start on dirt and their first race outside of California.  Santa Anita surely got them prepared but the synthetic surface is still their most familiar racing surface.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile status: Creative Cause, Drill, Ruler of Dubai: Probable      Basmati: Questionable

As for those that will making their debut on dirt, there are 5 horses that fit this profile.  First is Majestic City, the only California colt that skipped the Norfolk and opted instead for the Breeders’ Futurity at Keeneland on 10/8.  Trained by Peter Miller, this young colt is already collecting frequent flyer miles.  After finishing 2nd in the Breeders’ Futurity, the California based trainer elected to send him back to “The Golden State” before Breeders’ Cup weekend.  While back in Southern California Majestic City has stayed off the dirt training only over the synthetic at Hollywood and the turf at Santa Anita.  Reports have begun to surface that Majestic City may steer clear of the Juvenile and instead opt for the Juvenile Turf.  What once looked like a certain Juvenile starter may end up being a serious Juvenile Turf contender.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile status: Questionable

Up next is Optimizer trained by D Wayne Lukas.  Optimizer got started on the Turf at Saratoga this summer by breaking his maiden in August before coming back to run 2nd in the G2 With Anticipation Stakes.  From there it was off to Kentucky for the Breeders’ Futurity where he finished 3rd.  What’s different about Optimizer is that once he arrived in Kentucky, he stayed in Kentucky.  Since his first work over the main track (dirt) on Sept 9th, Optimizer has remained on the dirt at Churchill Downs breezing an additional 4 times, his most recent a 5f work in 1:01 flat on 10/24.   Though he is a likely starter, D Wayne Lukas has yet to officially declare him a go.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile status: Questionable

Prospective and Hansen.  Prospective began on the turf and finished 2nd at Woodbine before switching to the tracks main surface to prep for the G3 Grey Stakes.   The switch worked as he went on to win both starts on the synthetic track.   Hansen comes in undefeated after 2 lifetime starts at Turfway Park.  Following his maiden win there, Hansen returned to the main synthetic track at Turfway to take the Kentucky Cup Juvenile on 9/24.   Both horses made the move to Churchill Downs and have begun breezing over the dirt.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile status: Hansen: Probable – Prospective: Questionable

Rounding out our five that have yet to hit the dirt is Take Charge Indy, by A.P. Indy the famed Belmont Stakes and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner in 1992.  Kicking off his racing career on the Illinois Racing Circuit at Arlington Park this summer, Take Charge Indy won his MSW debut, a 6 Furlong sprint on the synthetic track.  Trainer Patrick Byrne wasted little time moving him onto Graded Stakes competition beginning with the Washington Futurity at Arlington Park.  After a gamely 2nd place finish Byrne moved his prized sophomore south to Keeneland for the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity where he finished 4th.

After his arrival and first work on the dirt at Churchill is when Take Charge Indy increased his chances of racing in the Juvenile.  On 10/21 a 5f breeze turned into a bullet work after he clocked in at 1:00.60 thru 5 over a muddy track.  This contender showed little doubt that he can transition to the dirt, a surface closely connected to his blood lines and breeding.  With blinkers on and regular jockey James Graham up, the fractions were officially posted at :12 1/5. :24, :35 3/5, and :47 3/5.  Although it’s still too early to tell, this colt looks probable for the Juvenile.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile status: Probable

At 2-yrs-old anything can happen.  These colts can develop quicker than expected, lag behind or take their time deciding which racing surface they prefer.  It will be interesting to see so many Juveniles entering the starting gate at Churchill Downs with little to no racing experience on dirt.  But at the same time, it probably won’t pan out to be a serious factor when it comes to handicapping this field either.  Like almost every year the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is wide open and unlike the majority of Breeders’ Cup dirt races, these rising stars should be judged strictly on their past performances.

It’s simply too premature to make to a sound judgment on if they can win on dirt.  Plus it’s hard to think that top trainers are just taking a flyer on their chances.  Instead, they have a sound instinct that their colts can changeover to the dirt without a problem.  Win or lose, the ones that perform willingly will stay on the dirt for the majority of their races at age 3 in preparations for the ultimate goal, the 138th Kentucky Derby.

If you’re still on the fence on which horse you’ll be playing, there will be plenty to look at in the program before you place your bets.  For anyone looking to get a head start before next weekend…….stay tuned; the entry deadline nears and the Morning Line odds will soon be released.

Written by: Little Brink


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