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Breeders’ Cup Under the Microscope: Looking for Upset in Mile

Courtesy of Mike Curry of America's Best Racing

 

When it comes to pure excitement, few races deliver as consistently as the Breeders’ Cup Mile. Year after year it produces fantastic finishes – 13 of the last 20 editions were decided by a length or less – and it is a race that has produced a pair of stunning upsets this decade.

The Mile has always been one of my favorite races on the World Championships card and it typically lures a deep field of contenders that includes top U.S.-based turf runners mixed with standout European milers.

Let’s take a closer look at the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile to try to identify some historical trends that could provide key handicapping trends to consider. Then, we’ll narrow the scope to go in depth on the five editions held at Churchill Downs over the last two decades. Finally, we’ll explore some of the expected participants for this year’s event to try and identify a couple of runners that fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Mile winner.

 

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

  • The Mile is not kind to front-runners. In the last 20 years there has not been a winner in the Mile who led after the opening quarter-mile or half-mile.
  • In fact, last year's winner World Approval is the only press-the-pace type horse to win in last 20 years, and he settled a little farther back than usual in fifth after the first quarter-mile.
  • There were three winners who profiled as press the pace/stalkers from 1998-2017, but the other 16 were stalkers or closers and six winners were 10th or worse at the midpoint of the race
  • Over the last 20 years, Breeders’ Cup Mile winners have been on average 5.66 lengths behind the leader after the first half-mile and 4.66 lengths back at the midway point of the race, with an average position of about seventh after the first half-mile.
  • Looking at the median, winners have been seventh or eighth and between 5 ½ and 5 ¾ lengths back after the first quarter-mile. After a half-mile, median places the winner sixth/seventh and four lengths back.
  • Elite milers usually have explosive acceleration, and that appears to hold true in this race as winners are on average within 1.14 lengths in early stretch, which shaved about 4 ½ lengths off the average after a half-mile.
  • Class really matters! The last 11 Breeders’ Cup Mile winners were Grade/Group 1 winners entering the race and, during this 20-year time frame, the Mile has been won exclusively by horses who had at least one Grade or Group 2 victory or better to their credit entering the race.
  • Eleven of the 20 winners won their final prep race and only three finished outside of the top three – Karakontie, 11th by 7 ¾ lengths in in a French Group 1 in 2014; Court Vision, seventh by three lengths in the Woodbine Mile in 2011; and Miesque’s Approval, fourth in the Shadwell Turf Mile Stakes at Keeneland in 2006.
  • Favorites have won seven of the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Mile with 11 horses prevailing at 5.60-1 odds or less since 1998.
  • The average odds of the Mile winner were 11.76-1 with a median of 5.45-1.
  • There have been seven winners at 11.6-1 odds or higher and four winners at 24.30-1 or higher: Karakontie at 30-1 in 2014, Domedriver at 26-1 in 2002, Miesque’s Approval at 24.30-1 in 2006, and Court Vision was the biggest longshot in the race’s history, winning at 64.80-1 odds in 2011.
  • What do the longshots have in common? All were deep closers (seeing a thread here?) positioned ninth or worse after the first quarter-mile. Karakontie was a French classic winner, Court Vision was a Grade 1 winner who had competed in two previous editions of the Mile (finishing fifth in 2010 and fourth in 2009), Miesque’s Approval was a leading miler earlier in the season, and Domedriver entered the race off a Group 2 win in France.
  • This is a race usually won by true milers rather than sprinters attempting to stretch out or horses cutting back in distance from longer races. The average distance raced (pre-Breeders’ Cup) by Mile winners in the year of their victory was 8.29 furlongs (there are eight furlongs in a mile) with a median of 8.25.
  • The average age of the Breeders’ Cup Mile winner is 4.5 with a median of 4. Four 3-year-olds have won the race – three were elite European invaders who either won or placed in classic races, and the other was a U.S. Kentucky Derby runner who shifted to grass.
  • Six of the last 20 Mile winners completed their final prep race in France, including Goldikova before each of her three wins from 2008-10. Five winners prepped at Keeneland and four at Santa Anita Park.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure of the winner is 120.05 with a median of 120.

 

What changes when narrowing the focus to Breeders’ Cup Mile races held at Churchill Downs?

  • I’ve always handicapped the Churchill Downs turf course as very fair and perhaps even moving speed horses up a little bit, but as is the case with the overview above, closers have fared well in the Mile at Churchill.
  • Each of the five winners was sixth or worse after the opening quarter-mile and half-mile and three winners were 12th or worse at the midpoint of the race. The average distance off the pace after a half-mile is 5.9 lengths with the median 7 ¼ lengths.
  • The winners made up significant ground between the midpoint of the race and early stretch (about an eighth of a mile to the finish line), cutting the average distance behind the winner from 5.9 to 1.65 lengths and the median from 7 ¼ lengths to 1 ½ lengths.
  • Favorites have won two of the five editions of the Mile at Churchill from 1998-2017, Goldikova at 1.30-1 in 2010 and War Chant at 7-2 in 2000. The other three were all double-digit odds, including two longshots winners in Court Vision (64.80-1 in 2011) and Miesque’s Approval (24.30-1 in 2006).
  • The average winning odds for these five editions of the Mile at Churchill were 21.10-1 with a median of 11.60-1.
  • Three of the five races were decided by a neck or less with Court Vision nipping Turallure by a nose in the 2011 Mile and Da Hoss edging Hawksley Hill by a head in 1998 in thrillers.
  • Four of the five winners made their final prep in North America as Goldikova is the lone European invader to win the Mile at Churchill from 1998-2017.
  • The average Equibase Speed Figure of the winner has been a bit slower than normal at Churchill with an average of 115.8 and a median of 116.

 

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

This looks like a weaker group of U.S. milers than usual. I do like A Raving Beauty (her first preference is the Filly and Mare Turf) and Oscar Performance, but the former was unable to win a group stakes in Europe in 17 starts over there and the last 20 years tells us that it’s unlikely that Oscar Performance will be able to lead from start to finish, although he can get pretty damn brave when allowed an uncontested lead.

Of the U.S.-based runners, I’m most optimistic about Catapult. He hasn’t raced since winning the Grade 2 Del Mar Mile Handicap on Aug. 19 at Del Mar. He is not a Grade 1 winner and the layoff is a significant concern, but he’s been training well and he’s a closer with the ability to unleash a devastating final quarter-mile. I wouldn’t be surprised if he rallies for a top three finish, but I prefer others to win.

The European invader I keep coming back to is Lightning Spear. He enters off a disappointing seventh-place finish in the Group 1 Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on Oct. 20 at Ascot, but that race came on soft turf and his best races have come on good-to-firm ground. He was terrific in his first three starts of the year, including an eye-catching win in the Grade 1 Qatar Sussex Stakes in August in which he showed off a nice turn of foot. Lightning Spear has made 22 straight starts in Group 1 or Group 2 races and all but two came at one mile, so he’s battle-tested against the best milers in Europe. Trainer David Simcock finished third with Trade Storm in the 2014 Mile and I think he has a very live horse this year with a big shot to win at a nice price.

I’m also very intrigued by Expert Eye. I view him and Lightning Spear as having a similar win chance, but I don’t think he’ll be nearly as appealing of a price with two wins, a second, and a third in his last four starts. He’s coming out of a prep race in France, he’s a true miler, he comes from off the pace, and he’s been very consistent with TimeForm Ratings between 118 and 120 in four races since June. A 3-year-old Group 2 winner who has twice placed in Group 1 races, he looks like he loves firm turf and has been pointing to this race for legendary trainer Sir Michael Stoute. Stoute has won seven Breeders’ Cup races, but he’s winless with 11 starters in the Mile with a pair of thirds his best result. Expert Eye has a strong chance to give him a winner.

With the defection of Sharp Samurai on Oct. 26, Mustashry moved into a guaranteed starting spot in the field for Stoute. An improving 5-year-old, he’s won three of four starts this season with his lone defeat a runner-up finish by a half-length. Mustashry races nearer to the pace than some of the other Europeans, but he showed he’s a real fighter in back-to-back Group 2 wins in September. He might be a cut below the best milers in Europe, especially on softer turf, but I think he fits really well in the Mile.

Another who has shown tremendous improvement this year is One Master, who posted a 47-1 upset win over males in the Group 1 Qatar Prix de la Foret on Oct. 7 at Longchamp thanks to a powerful and visually impressive late rally. I think the firm ground typically found in the U.S. would be ideal, but the 4-year-old filly has never tried a mile. She is a homebred of Lael Stables, which bred and raced 2006 Kentucky Derby winner Barbaro.

Trainer Aidan O’Brien has won 12 Breeders’ Cup races and is one of the best (if not the best) trainers on the planet, but he is winless with 19 starters in the Mile with four runner-up finishes. O’Brien has three starters shipping in for this race with one more that could draw in if there are multiple defections. All three of those who made the field are 3-year-old – two fillies and one colt – who have shown nice improvement of late. Of the three, I prefer the filly I Can Fly who came up just a neck short to Roaring Lion in a terrific second in the aforementioned Queen Elizabeth II Stakes. She navigated some traffic to get clear and finished really well, and I view her as a true miler. Happily is winless in six races this year after running last of 14 in the 2017 Juvenile Fillies Turf, but she’s raced exclusively in Group 1 races and placed in a pair of classics. She’s also coming into the race off arguably her best race of the year when second by a neck to the highly regarded Laurens in the Grade 1 Kingdom of Bahrain Sun Chariot Stakes. She, too, looks like a true miler and it doesn’t feel like the Breeders’ Cup was an afterthought but a target, which is often a big indicator. Gustav Klimt is the colt from O’Brien’s trio, but he’s winless in five tries at this distance and was outfinished by fellow Mile contender One Master in the Prix de la Foret.

This race looks wide open to me, and I think there is a good chance we see an upset from Lightning Spear.

 

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