Breeders’ Cup Distaff a Race for the Ages

Songbird

Songbird

I said it the day I was asked to cover the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Distaff: this is going to be one for the ages, an epic race that will likely be one of the most remembered and competitive ever.

I called the first article I did on it for US Racing “Anticipation” and absolutely nothing has changed or diminished the level of anticipation I have for this showdown.

The preps are over; the major workouts are over; all that’s left now is to keep your horse healthy, sound and happy for the big dance on Friday. I’ve watched all the replays, studied the past performances, watched the workouts, but deliberately avoided listening to any other opinions on the race — and that includes those of the connections of each horse.

I could have spoken to several riders and trainers — and some owners — but I didn’t. I could have listened to all the opinions and hype… again, I didn’t.

In the end, the only opinion that matters from a wagering standpoint is mine. True, this is a race that one could watch as a fan of the Sport of Kings, lover of the breed, fan of sports or extremely competitive athletic competition, without wagering and still enjoy it, but why?

Being right is fun; and getting paid for it is sweet. Like Fast Eddie said: “Money won is sweeter than money eared.”

The reason I avoided all other opinions, hype and whatever else people had to say, was for a combination of reasons. First, when did you ever hear a trainer or owner publicly state how poorly their horse was training into the Breeders’ Cup? Has any jockey ever said, “I really don’t think my horse has a chance to win?”

As for the writers and analysts, well, they score less often than race favorites and most are usually in the obvious camp, which, this year, is the camp of Songbird, so why pay attention?

Past performances, history, and their training up to the race will tell us most, if not all, we need to know.

I have often said one of the best advantages a handicapper can have is “KNOWING WHEN THE SHORT PRICED FAVORITE WON’T WIN.”

While that is not exactly a guarantee this year and my opinion will be in the minority, there are a lot of reasons to wager against the likely favorite — the undefeated and largely untested Songbird. I’ll detail my reasons and, again, they will not be the popular ones, even among those who agree she may suffer her first defeat.

Songbird will put her perfect 11-for-11 record on the line facing not only older horses for the first time, but also much more seasoned and faster horses than she has ever lined up against. She’s pretty much dominated the same group of two- and three-year-old fillies the past two years, with none of them really being in her league.

Mike Tyson Quote

(Photo via Scoopnest.com)

She races on or near the lead and she will face some early heat up there in this contest. She’s been able to outrun and dispose of any previous challenges in the past, but the sternest one was from another three-year-old, Carina Mia. While talented, Carina Mia is not (at least at this point) the caliber of horse Songbird will have to deal with come Friday afternoon.

Basically you have a short-priced horse being asked to do something she has yet to prove she can do, against the best horses she has faced to date. If Songbird is up to the task, then she has to go into the conversation with a list of very special fillies and even mares, but there is a mile and an eighth of racetrack she has to get around faster than her competition first.

Besides her obvious talent, speed and breeding, Songbird will have some help on Friday. That comes from her trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who is as good as it gets with any kind of horse, and her jockey, Mike Smith, who isn’t called “Money Mike” with a spot in the Hall of Fame and a Breeders’ Cup record for wins, for nothing.

Hollendorfer will have his filly right as can be and Mike will do all he can to put her in a position to win — and help her get it done. I suspect Smith will put the three-year-old on the lead and dare anyone to run with her. Speed is always dangerous and how long Songbird is left alone, and how much Mike can lull everyone else to sleep, will go a long way in determining Songbird’s success.

Regardless, she has had a long campaign, danced a lot of dances and, while she made them all look easy, this is no walk in the park. I’ll take the position: if you’re all that, prove it Friday. She may, but, then again, she may not and there is just as good a chance of that happening. I’d gamble someone comes up better—at least on Nov. 4, 2016.

A lot of people think Beholder is done or, at best, has lost a step. I’m not so sure. I’ll admit I’m not as confidant in that as I was a month or so ago, but I’m still pretty sure she still has one top race left in her. Her second-place finish to California Chrome in the Pacific Classic was a very good race and may have taken a lot out of her. She ran hard and never stopped trying — and that was as good a race by Chrome as he’s ever run and one of the best races run this year.

Beholder

Beholder

She was against the boys and going further than she’d prefer. If she runs back to her 2015 Pacific Classic, the race is for second, but that is a big “if.”

Still, I believe that her two losses to Stellar Wind were not as negative as they are being made out to be and that her trainer Richard Mandela will have her ready to go out with a bang. I think she will not go to the lead, but very well may the first to go after Songbird and set the stage for one heck of a last half-mile of a race.

Stellar Wind gets to go back to her preferred running style, as she does not have to worry about dogging Beholder like she did the last two times they met and Stellar Wind beat her both times.

While that may seem to give Stellar Wind an advantage, it may not. If Beholder and Songbird get each other’s juices flowing, they may not come back to anyone, especially if the track is playing kind or even carrying speed as we all know Santa Anita can do. That’s something we will know by race time, so we can be intelligently guided accordingly. Stellar Wind is a top-class filly and she figures to get a great trip over a track she loves, but I think her last two races were very hard on her and that may just take a toll come crunch time.

Bill Mott is as good as it gets,and he thinks Carina Mia belongs in this spot. He thinks that despite two drubbings by Songbird. In one he sat off the pace and went after her only to be rebuffed. In the other, he took it to her early and, again, was gobbled up in the stretch. You have to wonder two things: 1) Why is he back for more? 2) What tactic or factor does he think can enable Carina Mia to turn the tables?

Curalina is rock-solid, but looks a cut below the best in here. Nonetheless, she is trained by Todd Pletcher, who knows his way to the winner’s circle. She’s got a good stalking style, but would be a surprise to me.

Land Over Sea looks in over her head.

Forever Unbridled would need things to really unfold favorably pace-wise and that is always a possibility. She’s the true deep closer in the race and is better than most people think. I don’t think Santa Anita will really play to her liking, but that is really speculation.

I’m a Chatterbox is coming into this race as good as she has ever been, if not better. She should get a “catbird” kind of trip and can actually be behind Beholder or even ahead of her, depending on how Florent Geroux plays his cards. He is making all the right moves lately and this race will be chess-like in my opinion, with Mike Smith, Gary Stevens and Geroux all making decisions that will play big in the outcome.

If Corona Del Inca goes, which, as of this writing, I do not know, she just looks outclassed. She’d be an epic upset and one of the biggest in Breeders’ Cup history.

The Breeders’ Cup Distaff should leave us hungry for Saturday. If Songbird exalts herself into greatness, we’ll all be anticipating who will match that come Saturday. If she’s upset, we’ll all be salivating at the next favorite we can beat and get paid.

Regardless of what happens, if Songbird is collared and challenged, it will be a defining and historic moment in racing. What the filly does will be remembered forever and can possibly define an all-time great right then and there. That’s going to be exciting to see. If she gets an easy lead and waltzes around, yes, we’ll still have to acknowledge her greatness, but it will be a lot more exciting to see her have to dig down and earn it. If she’s the winner, I think the former is more likely. I tend to want to see you win a fight before I assume you can.

Like Mike Tyson said, “everyone has a plan until they get punched in the face.”

Jonathan Stettin
Jonathan has always had a deep love and respect for the Sport of Kings, as he practically grew up at the racetrack. His mother, affectionately known as “Ginger,” was in the stands at Belmont Park the day before he was born as his father, Joe, worked behind the windows as a pari-mutuel clerk.

As a toddler, Jonathan cheered for and followed horses and jockeys, knowing many of the names and bloodlines by the time he was in first grade. Morning coffee in his household was always accompanied by the Daily Racing Form or Morning Telegraph.

At the age of 16, Jonathan dropped out of school and has pretty much been at the races full-time ever since. Of course, he had some of the usual childhood racetrack jobs growing up — mucking stalls, walking hots and rubbing horses. He even enjoyed brief stints as a jockey agent and a mutuel clerk (like his dad).

His best day at the track came on August 10, 1994 at Saratoga, when he hit the pick-6 paying $540,367.

Jonathan continues to be an active and successful player. You can follow him on Twitter @jonathanstettin or visit his Web site at www.pastthewire.com.