Championship chase

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The string of Breeders’ Cup Classic winners that did not win Horse of the Year amazingly stretched to six last year when Mucho Macho Man held off late runs from Will Take Charge and Declaration of War as gloaming neared at Santa Anita Park.

Even more amazing is the fact that less than half of the winners of North America’s richest race were awarded the gold statuette that goes to Horse of the Year; in fact only 11 of the 30 winners, or 37 percent, of them took home racing’s top honor.

Certainly the 2014 edition of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic Saturday at Santa Anita Park will go against those trends, right? Conventional wisdom – which arguably rarely applies in the world of Thoroughbred racing – says it’s likely considering legitimate cases could be made for more than half of the 14-horse field if they can hit the wire first in the 1 1/4-mile Classic.

That group is led by undefeated morning-line favorite Shared Belief, last year’s champion 2-year-old male who missed the spring classics and comes into the Breeders’ Cup with back-to-back wins over older rivals in Grade 1 stakes on the West Coast. The Candy Ride gelding is 7-for-7 and won the Grade 1 Awesome Again last time out at Santa Anita.

Shared Belief is 9/5 on the morning line for the Classic, perhaps a bit short, but since he’s the clubhouse leader in the Horse of the Year chase the favoritism is deserved. Hall of Fame trainer Jerry Hollendorfer, who co-owns Shared Belief in a partnership that includes Jim Rome, isn’t about to get ahead of himself and start thinking about year-end honors.

“I’d like to leave that to the people that vote on that,” Hollendorfer said last week. “We’ll see what happens in the race and then let those folks that vote on Horse of the Year and all the other awards look at all the evidence and they’ll make their decision, so that’s how it will go.”

Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes winner California Chrome, who also has a Grade 1 and Grade 2 on his 2014 resume, was the leader before consecutive off-the-board defeats in the Belmont Stakes and Pennsylvania Derby.

The son of Lucky Pulpit captured America’s attention during his run in the Triple Crown this spring and with a 3-for-4 mark at Santa Anita and the benefit of a prep race he looks to get back in the hunt Saturday. California Chrome’s losses haven’t been without an excuse.

The Belmont came at the end of a grueling winter and spring that started in state-bred stakes before progressing to victories in the Grade 2 San Felipe and Grade 1 Santa Anita Derby before his classic victories. He also suffered a foot injury at the start of the Belmont, where he raced uncomfortably on the inside as Tonalist registered a 9-1 upset. California Chrome raced on the inside again in the Grade 2 Pennsylvania Derby last time as Bayern led gate-to-wire. Tonalist and Bayern are back for the Classic.

“The race at Parx was fairly disappointing to me,” California Chrome’s trainer Art Sherman said. “I would have liked to get a little stronger race out of that. He had quite a bit of problems in the race. I was a little upset the way the race was run. After that he came back sound and he’s had some great works.

“I’m trying, like everybody else, to have a fresh horse for this race and I’m so satisfied with the way he’s been working. Victor (Espinoza) said he’s as good as he’s ever was, so I’m all pumped up about that.”

Sherman said Shared Belief is a deserving favorite and went so far to say the unbeaten gelding would be 6/5 at post time. He puts his own colt at 5-1, slightly higher than his 4-1 price on the early line and just ahead of the 5-1 Tonalist and 6-1 Bayern.

“Every time your horse throws a little bit of a clunker you get a little concerned,” but after viewing the pictures of that race … it wasn’t his style of running,” Sherman said. “I haven’t got a chance to see him in his last two races. He hasn’t gotten the trip at all. I hate to cry wolf but you haven’t seen the Chrome that I know.”

Victories by Shared Belief or California Chrome would only add to their credentials for their Horse of the Year resumes.

The same can be said for Tonalist, who won the Belmont and the Grade 1 Jockey Club Gold Cup last time out, and for Bayern, winner of the Pennsylvania Derby and Grade 1 Haskell Invitational at 9 furlongs and the Grade 2 Woody Stephens in spectacular fashion at 7 furlongs.

So who are the others?

Moreno, winner of the Whitney Invitational and second in the Woodward, and V. E. Day, winner of the Grade 1 Travers, could add a second Grade 1 to their big victories at Saratoga this summer and make a mild case.

Zivo won the Grade 2 Suburban, which had a field as good as any Grade 1 for older horses the second half of the season, and was second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup with a troubled trip, and he could also merit consideration. Same for Majestic Harbor, who took the Grade 1 Gold Cup at Santa Anita (the former Hollywood Gold Cup), the Grade 3 Tokyo City and placed in two other graded stakes.

The rest would be a stretch and would put voters in a familiar predicament they were in when the likes of Drosselmeyer, Fort Volponi, Cat Thief, Alphabet Soup, Arcangues and Wild Again put them in with victories.

“The Classic, it’s the greatest race we’re going to have on our program in quite a few years,” Sherman said. “There are like a half dozen horses that could easily win it. It’s going to be a great betting race.”

The Classic is the final of the nine Breeders’ Cup races Saturday and it goes off 8:35 p.m. ET. The race will be broadcast in prime time on NBC, which takes over from its cable counterpart NBC Sports Network with a one-hour broadcast from 8-9 p.m. ET. The NBC Sports Network’s coverage of the Breeders’ Cup is from 3:30 to 8 p.m. ET Saturday.

The first Breeders’ Cup, the 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, goes off at 3:05 p.m. and is not part of the telecast.

 

The complete Breeders’ Cup Saturday schedule (all times ET):

– 14 Hands Winery Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, 3:05 p.m.

– Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, 3:43 p.m.

– DraftKings Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint, 4:21 p.m.

– Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint, 5:05 p.m.

– Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Juvenile, 5:43 p.m.

– Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, 6:22 p.m.

– Xpressbet Breeders’ Cup Sprint, 7:01 p.m.

– Breeders’ Cup Mile, 7:40 p.m.

– Breeders’ Cup Classic, 8:35 p.m.

 

Full television schedule.

Equibase entries for Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita.

BRIS past performances for the Breeders’ Cup Classic.