The Europeans’ success in the Breeders’ Cup typically has outrun their participation. And at Del Mar in 2017, when the annual influx became an invasion, Europeans won four of the seven turf races. With the championship series returning to San Diego next month and with America’s turf contingent appearing to be unusually ordinary, even by domestic standards, nobody will be surprised if the Europeans do even better and win five or perhaps six of the turf events. But at least one American turf horse figures to be favored by attentive bettors on Nov. 6, and although she could face a large and talented European cohort, War Like Goddess will be the one to beat in the Filly & Mare Turf (G1).
She has strung together, beginning somewhat quietly, a remarkable string of races, improving incrementally at every juncture, from her seasonal debut in February at Gulfstream Park, to Keeneland in April, and to her recent victory at Saratoga. Each performance she gave was better than the last; in each race, she met more accomplished competitors but accepted the challenge by taking a developmental step forward. After finishing fifth in The Very One (G3), she won the Orchid (G3) and the Bewitch (G3) and the Glens Falls (G2). And she was nothing less than sensational last month in winning the Flower Bowl (G1), where she appeared to be very eager early, but settled behind the leaders, and then, angling out for the drive, ran the final three-eighths of a mile in :35.07 to complete the 1 3/8 miles in 2:13.07.
Pause a moment to think about that. Many, maybe most, horses can’t even run three-eights in :35. But she did so after having run a mile. With a punch like that, as her Hall of Fame trainer, Bill Mott, pointed out, if she get’s a clear run, “that’s all you need.”
Aidan O’Brien, who’s second all-time among Breeders’ Cup trainers with his horses having earned more than $26 million, could bring two for the Filly & Mare Turf, Mother Earth (IRE), a Group 1 winner at Deauville in August, and Love (IRE), who skipped last week’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) because of a fever. The first two finishers from the Prix de l’Opera (G1), Roguir (FR) and Grand Glory (GB), are possible, along with Audarya (FR), who won the race last year. But if War Like Goddess extends the vector she’s on, if she takes the trend yet another step forward, she could put on a show and, to borrow a phrase from the great Tom Durkin, win it for America.
“She’s done nothing wrong,” Mott said, but rather she has “done everything asked of her.”
And in that, War Like Goddess is a testament to Mott’s extraordinary horsemanship. Three qualities all great trainers possess are an ability to: 1) develop a horse’s full potential; 2) maintain a horse at a high level of performance for an extended period; and 3) aim for and then squarely hit the big moment. The big moment for War Like Goddess arrives in four weeks.
Galloping strongly and eagerly, looking like a keg of dynamite with a fuse poised to be lit, Drosselmeyer sparkled at Churchill Downs each and every morning leading up to the 2011 Breeders’ Cup, and then he won the Classic (G1) at 14-1, beating Game On Dude, Havre de Grace, Flat Out and Uncle Mo. Similarly, Tourist lit up Santa Anita in the mornings leading up to the 2016 Breeders’ Cup, looking like the epitome of a racehorse, as if he had jumped out of one of those Sir Alfred Munnings paintings, and then he ran the race of his life to win the Mile (G1) at 12-1, beating Tepin and a strong field that included six Europeans.
Mott won his first Breeders’ Cup race in 1987 with the great Theatrical (IRE), whose Turf (G1) victory culminated a campaign that included seven graded stakes victories, including six Grace 1s. With his horses earning $19,936,900 in championship races and his 10 victories, Mott is sixth all-time among Breeders’ Cup trainers. Yes, the guy who began training horses as a teenager and won the South Dakota Futurity when he was still in high school knows how to aim for and squarely hit the big moment.
“You have to have things mapped out,” Mott said about hitting the big moment squarely. “You have to see the big picture and have an idea where you’re going. And then you have to be fortunate not to have any setbacks. You can’t make any mistakes.”
This is going to be a busy and significant weekend for the Hall of Fame trainer. Saturday at Keeneland, he’ll send out Frank’s Rockette in the Thoroughbred Club of America (G2) Stakes and Harvey’s Lil Goil in the First Lady (G1). They could earn their way into the Breeders’ Cup with big efforts, Mott said.
Another who could earn a ticket to the Breeders’ Cup with a big effort is Channel Maker, who’ll take on Gufo, Japan (GB) and Arklow on Saturday at Belmont Park in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1). Channel Maker won this race a year ago and then finished third in Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1). But the 7-year-old has finished sixth and seventh in his two races since returning from a sojourn to Dubai.
“He seems to be training as well as ever,” Mott said about Channel Maker, “but he’s been involved in some pace situations that were difficult for him.”
Rather diminutive, Channel Maker runs proudly, with his head held high, which just goes to show, Mott said, that good ones can come in all shapes and sizes and styles. Channel Maker, he joked, looks “like a periscope” when he’s out there rolling on the front end. But the veteran has earned $3.2 million in his career, and he’ll add to that Saturday if the pace is comfortable for him. The following day at Belmont, Mott will saddle Horologist in the Beldame (G2), and she also could earn her ticket to San Diego with a winning performance. And then there’s Baby Yoda, who’s not nominated to the Breeders’ Cup, but has become something of a rock star. He could be favored Saturday when he makes his stakes debut in the Vosburgh (G2) in New York.
When Baby Yoda joined the Mott stable around the first of July, he had raced twice, winning his debut at Pimlico and finishing third for a claiming price of $62,500. Mott was just getting to know the 3-year-old gelding when he entered Baby Yoda in a starter allowance affair at Saratoga. He won. A few weeks later, on Sept. 4, in a conditioned allowance race, Baby Yoda won again, pressing a hot pace, :44.08 for the opening half-mile, and then drawing clear by more than four lengths, as the collective jaw of the Saratoga observers plopped down on their collective chest. Baby Yoda ran the 6 1/2 furlongs in 1:14.33, about three lengths off the track record set by Quality Road in 2009. There was a moment of skepticism, followed by a fillip of realization, followed by wide-eyed astonishment. Baby Yoda, a horse named for a Star Wars character of indeterminate origin who in a more formal setting, such as The Reading Room on Union Avenue, might be better known as Grogu, if he got in The
Reading Room — that horse was three lengths off the track record? At Saratoga? Baby Yoda?
“It was a fast race, and he wowed everybody,” Mott said about the “pleasant surprise.” But Hall of Fame trainers aren’t so easily impressed. “He still has to prove it. He ran fast, but he dropped his company off at the quarter pole and didn’t have to look anybody in the eye coming home. He has to pass the next test. . . . This (the Vosburgh) is a big step. I just hope we’re not overmatching him.”
Mott doesn’t have such concerns about the horses he’s taking to the Breeders’ Cup. He’s very aware of the Europeans who are likely to travel to San Diego for the Filly & Mare Turf, and he said he’s aware they’ll bring with them very serious intentions, as always. And he knows the pace could be lively for the Classic at Del Mar, where he’ll saddle Art Collector, the front-running winner of the recent Woodward (G1). But Mott’s also aware, keenly so, that the Breeders’ Cup is horse racing’s big moment. It’s a moment he aims for and hits squarely.
Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.