Long layoffs now the norm for Breeders’ Cup contenders
By Marty Mcgee
DEL MAR, Calif. – A single race supposedly promotes greater fitness than a handful of morning workouts, but there are plenty of trainers who will be looking to buck that conventional wisdom when they send out horses off substantial layoffs in the Breeders’ Cup.
Twenty-two horses who did not race in September or October are scattered among the 13 BC races this weekend at Del Mar, including major contenders Arrogate (Classic), Mor Spirit (Dirt Mile), Drefong (Sprint), Stellar Wind (Distaff ), and Forever Unbridled (Distaff ). And although worldclass trainers such as Bob Baffert and John Sadler readily acknowledge the advantages of recency, they have conceded priority to the circumstances that led to allowing so much time between starts – while also tacitly deferring to their own skills in priming a horse for its best effort without benefit of a recent race.
“A race is always better,” said Baffert, the Hall of Fame conditioner who captured his third straight BC Classic last year when Arrogate won off a 10-week layoff. “But when you know your horse really well, and if they’re good work horses like Arrogate or Drefong, then sometimes you can get away with doing it this way. I can accomplish a lot of things in the morning if they’re as willing as these horses are.”
Baffert said Arrogate’s two straight surprising defeats this summer at Del Mar made him want to return to his Santa Anita base and regroup, meaning a race in the 11 weeks between the Aug. 19 Pacific Classic and the BC Classic was out of the question.
“I came back here and a lot of things were going through my mind,” he said. “What happened? Was it the track? Maybe the trip to Dubai took more out of him than I thought. So I thought, let’s just freshen him up like I’ve done for a lot of these races. It’s worked well for him every time, except for the San Diego.”
Mor Spirit has not raced since he earned a 117 Beyer Speed Figure romping in the Metropolitan Handicap on the June 10 Belmont Stakes undercard. Wary of a bounce if he ran him back anytime soon, Baffert then gave him a normal break – but when it was time to resume serious training, Mor Spirit was not his usual self.
“He ran tremendous figures, just ran off the charts,” he said. “We backed off him a little bit, and he got a little heavy on me. We got going with him again, and he just didn’t respond. Physically, he was fine, but the energy wasn’t there. If I’d tried to squeeze a race into him, he wouldn’t have run well. I didn’t want to take that chance. One bad race can really mess up their head. Thankfully, he really seems like he’s come back around the last few weeks.”
With the defection last weekend of Imperative, who had not raced since April 22, the longest time since a last start among all 2017 Breeders’ Cup runners now belongs to Mor Spirit and Stormy Liberal (Turf Sprint), who also was last seen by the racing public June 10.
Stellar Wind won the July 30 Clement Hirsch in her most recent race and therefore will enter the 2017 Distaff off a 97-day layoff. Sadler, her trainer, said her prep race against Beholder in the Zenyatta last year “may have softened her up a little bit” prior to the 2016 Distaff.
“It was a really hard race,” said Sadler, referring to the career-high 110 Beyer she earned in victory. “So this year after she won [the Hirsch] I just decided, ‘I think I’m going to skip the Zenyatta.’ This is a little longer [layoff ] than she’d like, ideally, but she’s a horse who does run well fresh. This is the third year I’ve had her, so I feel like I can have her ready off of training.”
Dallas Stewart, Forever Unbridled’s trainer, said shortly after the mare upset Songbird in the Aug. 26 Personal Ensign at Saratoga that she would not race again until the Distaff.
“She gets so much out of her training every day,” Stewart said. “She’s run big off the layoff plenty of times. We’ll go in there confident that we did the right thing again.”
Arrogate comes into the BC Classic off an 11-week layoff.