Long lay­offs now the norm for Breed­ers’ Cup con­tenders

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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.”

BAR­BARA D. LIV­INGSTON

Ar­ro­gate comes into the BC Clas­sic off an 11-week lay­off.

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