Perhaps the most remarkable thing about the 2011 Breeders' Cup Classic is the highly unusual and near total evenness of the field. There is no headliner quality matchup or dominating horse looking to seal up a horse of the year Eclipse Award. If you are looking for another Zenyatta vs. Blame headline, this is not the year for anything close to that. A case could be made for any one of seven or eight horses in the field. Not a strong case, but a defensible case nonetheless.
If you already like a horse in this year's Classic, don't bother buying a racing form. You will not find any reason in the past performances to feel any better (or worse) about betting on your horse. You might as well just buy your tickets now and hope for the tote board odds to make you feel good about your pick. And whatever you do, do not let someone else talk you off your pick. This is not the year for overanalyzing.
This remarkably unremarkable Breeders Cup Classic was borne out of a disappointing Triple Crown, where each of the three jewels was won by a different horse. None of those winners has won a race since. In fact, the Breeders' Cup Classic field, as a group, has had difficulty stringing together wins. Only the filly, Havre de Grace, comes in on a win streak greater than one race in graded stakes events.
I'm not suggesting that this year's Classic will be a dud. Although even, the field is also large, which makes for a more exciting and interesting race. The evenness of the field also makes for a nice handicapping challenge. Once you decide on a horse, you will not see your horse bet down to disappointingly low odds. I predict the favorite will go off at more than 3 to 1, possibly closer to 4 to 1.
There are a couple of mildly interesting stories in this year's Classic. Of the almost interesting horses, there is Havre de Grace. Although a filly like Zenyatta, she is no Zenyatta. She can be beaten, and has been beaten. But she also has raced against males and won, specifically the Woodward (Grade I) two races back. She absolutely could get up for the win, but will certainly be aided by the fact that the field lacks a star. Seeing a talented filly in the Classic always draws some interest, but even if she wins, she is still no Zenyatta.
The other almost intriguing story is Uncle Mo, who won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile last year in impressive fashion, instantly becoming the favorite in the 2011 Kentucky Derby. Uncle Mo did enough on the Derby prep trail to remain the favorite, but began to not look quite right in the Wood Memorial, and by the time the Derby came around was training very poorly and clearly was not in good health. Uncle Mo was a Saturday morning scratch in the Derby and then took several months off to get healthy. Uncle Mo has been training extremely well in preparation for the Classic.
Uncle Mo's followers would see a Classic victory as a great comeback story and redemption for his lost shot at the run for the roses. Uncle Mo's owner, Mike Repole, deserves a lot of credit for keeping this horse in training rather than just sending him off to stud. Comeback stories are rare at this level of horse racing, and Uncle Mo's story qualifies as a good one if he can pull it off.
That said, Uncle Mo gave up the lead in the stretch of the Kings Bishop (Grade I) going just seven furlongs and thus still has some distance limitation concerns to disprove. He is the morning line favorite at 5 to 2 and very likely will be the post time favorite, but his standing as such is also aided by the lack of a standout in this field.
From a handicapping perspective, this race appears to have enough speed to keep the pace honest. Therefore, the winner is likely to come from off the pace. This scenario will diminish the chances of the favorite, Uncle Mo and other speed horses such as Game On Dude and To Honor And Serve. Two of these have never gone the classic distance of a mile and a quarter. Stay Thirsty also likes to be fairly close up, but will likely lay off a hot pace if one develops. Late running horses such as Flat Out, Ruler On Ice and Havre de Grace will benefit from a fast pace.
In any race where the field is so even, looking past the favorites is a good approach. Flat Out at 6 to 1 appears to be a great value, as does Ruler On Ice at 30 to 1. Havre de Grace should run well but her shorter odds offer less value. The European invader, So You Think, will also get lots of international betting, but has never raced over dirt. If he handles the transition to dirt, his running style should put him in position to make a good late run.
Recommended win bet: Flat Out
Recommended Exacta Box: Flat Out, Havre de Grace and Ruler On Ice
Recommended Trifecta Box: Flat Out, Havre de Grace and Ruler On Ice and So You Think
Liam Durbin is CIO of Newspaper Operations for Block Communications, a parent company of the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette. He is also a horse racing enthusiast and owner/handicapper at E-ponies.com ( www.e-ponies.com ). Liam's computer-based handicapping picks appear daily in the Chicago Tribune and Los Angeles Times. Ldurbin@post-gazette.com .