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Breeders’ Cup Under the Microscope: How Formidable Are the Juvenile Favorites?

Courtesy of Mike Curry of America's Best Racing

 

The Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile always generates plenty of interest because racing fans are always looking for a potential Kentucky Derby horse, but the race itself can be a difficult puzzle to crack.

Only four favorites have won the Juvenile from 1998-2017 – the last 20 editions of the 1 1/16-mile race – with the average winning odds at nearly 11-1.

There are so many factors that play into handicapping Breeders’ Cup World Championships races, and the 2-year-old races present additional variables such as determining quality of competition coming out of stakes filled with maiden winners, runners shipping for the first time, seeing a massive crowd for the first time, etc. Plus, there is significantly less information in the past performances with which to formulate your opinion.

With that in mind, let’s mine for some interesting pieces of information in the last 20 editions of the Juvenile that could be helpful as you pare down your list of contenders.

First, let’s focus on all 20 races to try to identify historical trends that could prove useful. Since this year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., I’ll then narrow the scope to go in depth on the editions of the Juvenile held under the Twin Spires. Finally, we’ll take a closer look at this year’s entrants to try and identify a few runners that fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner.

The race will be televised on NBC Sports live at 6:05 p.m. ET from Churchill Downs as part of the “Future Stars Friday” card on Nov. 2.

 

What are some of the key takeaways from the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile?

  • From 1998-2017, only four favorites (20 percent) have prevailed in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
  • Three of the four – Shanghai Bobby (2012), Uncle Mo (2010), and War Pass (2007) – were unbeaten and capped perfect championship campaigns in the Juvenile.
  • Eight winners struck at double-digit odds (10-1) or higher, most recently Good Magic at 11.50-1 last year, including four at 26.80-1 or higher: Vale of York (30.60-1 in 2009), Wilko (28.3-1 in 2004), Action This Day (26.80-1 in 2003), and Anees (30.3-1 in 1999).
  • The average odds for the winner over the 20-year stretch has been just a shade under 11-1 (10.835-1) with a median of 6.70-1. The odds range from 13-10 for Shanghai Bobby in 2012 to 30.6-1 for Vale of York in 2009.
  • All but one of the last 20 winners of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile were bred in Kentucky. Irish-bred Vale of York, who in 2009 won on the synthetic main track at Santa Anita, was the lone exception.
  • Twelve of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners won their final prep race. In fact, all 20 finished in the top three and 18 of 20 won or finished within three lengths of the winner in their final pre-Breeders’ Cup start. None lost by more than five lengths.
  • Ten of the 12 who won their final prep did so by open lengths (one length or more).
  • Seven of the 12 last-out winners capped unbeaten seasons in the Juvenile.
  • Eight of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners were Grade 1 winners entering the World Championships and 10 were graded stakes winners. Only two horses were not either stakes winners or graded stakes-placed: Action This Day for Hall of Fame trainer Richard Mandella and New Year’s Day for Hall of Famer Bob Baffert both won the Juvenile off maiden victories.
  • Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners entered the race with a combined 46 wins from 76 starts from 1998-2017 for a 60.5% strike rate.
  • Eighteen of the 20 made their last start with six weeks of rest or less and 16 of the 20 came into the race on five weeks of rest or less. New Year’s Day won the Juvenile in his third start after winning a maiden special weight race at Del Mar nine weeks before the Breeders’ Cup.
  • Twelve of the 20 Juvenile winners had experience in a race going around two turns. Three others completed their final prep in Europe and four came out of the one-turn-mile Champagne Stakes at Belmont Park.
  • The Juvenile historically has been a very fair race for all running styles since its inception, and the last 20 years are no exception. Seven winners profiled as pace or press-the-pace type runners, six profiled as stalkers, four were stalkers/closer, and three profiled as dedicated closers.
  • Three horses have led from start to finish and five rallied from eight lengths back or more after a half-mile.
  • Four winners led after the first half-mile in the Juvenile from 1998-2017 and 13 of 20 were fifth or better.
  • The average winner was sixth/fifth after first quarter-mile and 3.67 lengths back, improving to 3.64 lengths back after the first half-mile. The median position was fourth/third at the first two points of call, two lengths back after the first quarter-mile and 2 ¼ lengths back after a half-mile.
  • Twelve of the 20 winners led in early stretch and 16 were third or better.
  • Macho Uno’s victory by a nose in 2000 was the smallest margin of victory while Street Sense’s 10-length romp in 2006 was the largest margin.
  • Six editions of the Juvenile were decided by a neck or less, while on the other side of the coin five editions were won by 4 ¼ lengths or more.
  • The average margin of victory has been 2.213 (just under 2 ¼ lengths). The median margin of victory is 1 ¼ lengths.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winner is 108.9 with a median of 108.5.
  • Shanghai Bobby earned an 86 Equibase Speed Figure for winning the 2012 Juvenile, which was the slowest in the 20-year stretch, while War Pass (2007) and Uncle Mo (2010) both earned a 123, the highest figure.

 

How does that change when narrowing the focus to Breeders’ Cup Juvenile races held at Churchill Downs?

  • Favorites have won two of the five editions of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Churchill Downs between 1998 and 2017: Answer Lively won at 2.70-1 in 1998 and Uncle Mo rolled to a dominant win at 7-5 odds in 2010.
  • The other three races paid at least $14.60 for a $2 win bet with Street Sense at 15.20-1 the highest odds among the five races over the two decades.
  • The average win odds for the five winners at Churchill from 1998-2017 was 6.54-1 with a median of 6.30-1.
  • Tactical speed has been more effective at Churchill with four of the five runners fourth or better at the first point of call and three profiling as pace or press-the-pace type runners entering the race.
  • Four of the five winners led in early stretch (about an eighth of a mile remaining) and all five were second or better with only Macho Uno in 2000 needing to pass a rival in his nose win in 2000.
  • The lone closer was the aforementioned Street Sense, who had an absolutely dazzling turn of foot that allowed him to go from 11 ½ lengths back after a half-mile to four lengths clear in early stretch.
  • Three editions of the Juvenile at Churchill from 1998-2017 were decided by a head or less. The other two were runaway wins by Uncle Mo (4 ¼ lengths) in 2010 and Street Sense (10 lengths) in 2006.
  • Three of the five winners entered off of a victory, one ran second by a neck, and the other was future Kentucky Derby winner Street Sense coming off a third-place finish by 1 ¼ lengths on the synthetic surface at Keeneland in the Grade 1 Breeders’ Futurity.
  • All five had either won a stakes race or was at least Grade 1-placed and the five winners combined for 10 victories in 17 starts combined (58.8 percent).
  • Four of the five winners had experience running in a two-turn race.
  • All five were bred in Kentucky.
  • The average winning Equibase Speed Figure of these five editions of the Juvenile at Churchill is 113 with a median of 112.

 

Which of this year’s contenders fit the typical profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner?

Let’s start with the two probable favorites for the Juvenile: Grade 1 American Pharoah Stakes winner Game Winner and Grade 1 Champagne Stakes victor Complexity.

Game Winner improved to 3-for-3 with a 4 ½-length domination of four challengers in the American Pharoah on Sept. 29 at Santa Anita Park. Seven of the last 20 Juvenile winners came out of prep races in Southern California, including five who made their final Breeders’ Cup prep at Santa Anita. On paper, he looks like the fastest horse in the race with a 107 Equibase Speed Figure and a 97 Beyer Speed Figure for his American Pharoah Stakes win, and he’s shown tactical speed, dropping back a little farther in his first two starts when the pace was fast in sprint races and then pressing a softer pace in the American Pharoah when stretching out to 1 1/16 miles. He checks a lot of the boxes as a Grade 1 winner with tactical speed and two-turn experience looking to cap an unbeaten season for a Hall of Fame trainer who has won this race three times since 2002. I’d be surprised if he does not run well.

Complexity improved to 2-for-2 when winning the Champagne by three lengths. Four out of the last 11 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile winners came out of the Champagne and the speed figures indicate he is fast enough to win. As a pacesetter with some distance concerns based upon pedigree, I am worried about his chances going around two turns for the first time in a race that has four or five other very talented speed horses. Trainer Chad Brown and jockey Jose Ortiz teamed to win this race a year ago with Good Magic and Complexity probably will slot into that 5-2 to 5-1 range that has produced six winners in the last 20 years. I prefer others, but there are quite a few compelling reasons to be attracted to Complexity.

After an unplaced finish in the Grade 3 Sanford Stakes and a third-place finish in the Arlington-Washington Futurity, Knicks Go led from start to finish in a 70-1 upset in the Grade 1 Claiborne Breeders’ Futurity. Three of the last 20 winners of the Juvenile came out of the Breeders’ Futurity, including two of the five at Churchill Downs. Maryland-bred Knicks Go was allowed to set an uncontested pace in the Breeders’ Futurity, a scenario that almost certainly will not happen in the Juvenile, and his speed figures indicate he’d need to take another major step forward to compete for the win. He’s a talented horse but I’m looking elsewhere.

My pick for the Juvenile is Code of Honor, who overcame a disastrous start in the Champagne when he stumbled leaving the starting gate and dropped more than 10 lengths off the pace. For a colt who led from start to finish in his debut, that should have ended his chances, but Code of Honor rallied past eight horses to finish second to Complexity. Hall of Fame trainer Shug McGaughey is notoriously conservative with his 2-year-olds, so when Code of Honor won his debut and was entered in a Grade 1, it was a sign to me that he might be special. He, too, ticks a lot of boxes here as a Grade 1-placed Kentucky-bred coming off a top-three finish in which he was beaten by three lengths or less. While he closed from way back in the Champagne, that was not by design and he showed good speed in his debut. I think his Champagne was probably five lengths better than it looks on paper and I’m hoping that boosts his price just a bit.

American Pharoah runner-up Gunmetal Gray, Grade 1 Hopeful Stakes winner Mind Control, and stakes winner Well Defined also warrant consideration. Game Winner handled Gunmetal Gray fairly easily in the American Pharoah, but I like him the best of this bunch. Mind Control is coming off a layoff of almost nine weeks, something only two runners have done in the last 20 years, and he’s never competed in a race longer than seven-eighths of a mile. Well Defined is one of several runners who prefer to race on or near the lead. The Florida-bred gelding was pressed early in the Florida Sire In Reality Stakes but powered clear to a 7 ½-length romp. He’s never been out of the top three in four starts and I’ll use him in my exacta and trifecta bets.

 

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