By Bill Finley
When pre-entries for the Breeders' Cup were announced last week it was no surprise that Chad Brown's contingent was dominated by turf horses. He has 11 entered for grass races and just three for dirt races. Since he went out on his own in 2007, Brown has established himself as the sport's best grass trainer and grass racing has always been his focus. Entering Sunday's races, he had won 1,316 turf races for a winning rate of 25% and 63.5% of his career wins had come on the grass. Brown has trained nine grass horses who won Eclipse Awards and has won so many grass stakes that it's hard to keep count. He's won 15 Breeders' Cup races, 13 in grass events.
But his most talented Breeders' Cup starter may not be a turf horse. Jack Christopher (Munnings), pre-entered in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, has looked sensational in his two career starts, including a romp in the GI Champagne S. in which he earned a 102 Beyer figure.
“He was a horse that identified himself as early on as his first work,” Brown said after the Champagne. “I was on the phone with the connections saying, 'This is potentially a really good horse. I can't believe what I just saw.' He's just been brilliant in every work. There was some buzz around him before he ran, and he lived up to it.”
An awful lot can go wrong between now and the first week of May, but should he win Friday he will be a solid early favorite for the 2022 GI Kentucky Derby. This one looks to have the potential to go places where only special horses go, which, for Brown, could mean filling in what is maybe the only hole on his resume.
It's not that Brown can't train a dirt horse. He has 756 career dirt wins and his winning rate of 25% on the main track is identical to his percentage on the turf. He has won the GI Champagne S. three times and the GI Cigar Mile twice. He has also won, among others, the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the GI Haskell S., the GI Cigar Mile H., the GI Acorn S., the GI Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Sprint. In 2017, he snuck into Pimlico with the lightly regarded Cloud Computing (Maclean's Music) and won the GI Preakness S. at 13-1 for his lone win in a Triple Crown race. He had a nice run in 2016 with Connect (Curlin), who won the GII Pennsylvania Derby, the GI Cigar Mile H. and the GIII Westchester S.
But he's been quiet over the years in the Triple Crown preps and the Triple Crown races themselves. He's 0-for-6 in the Derby, 1-for-2 in the Preakness and 0-for-3 in the GI Belmont S.
Brown's best dirt horse to date has been Good Magic. After finishing second in the 2017 Champagne, he won the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and later the GII Blue Grass S. He ran a winning race when second in the Derby, but just happened to run into a buzz saw in eventual Triple Crown winner Justify (Scat Daddy). After running fourth in the Preakness, he won the Haskell and was retired after a ninth-place finish in the GI Runhappy Travers S. Though unable to win a Triple Crown race, he proved that Brown could successfully navigate a good horse through the preps and the Triple Crown races.
He didn't fare quiet as well with his two other top prospects, 2018 Champagne winner Complexity (Maclean's Music) and 2016 winner Practical Joke (Into Mischief). Complexity finished 10th in his Breeders' Cup Juvenile and his biggest win thereafter came in the GII Kelso H. Practical Joke, now a well-regarded stallion standing at Coolmore, finished third in the Juvenile and fifth in the Derby. He later won the GI H. Allen Jerkens S. Brown has had five starters in the Juvenile overall.
Brown doesn't have anything to prove when it comes to dirt horses, but not everyone sees it that way. The Juvenile, next year's preps and the Derby itself will be seen as a test for him. He's just 42 and is arguably one of the best there's ever been. He's going to win the Kentucky Derby. Maybe as soon as next year.
What's Going On With Asmussen, Santana?
Steve Asmussen is not only the top trainer all time in wins, he is remarkably consistent. Since 1997, he's never had a year in which his stable won with less than 18% of its starters. All of which makes what went on at Keeneland so remarkable. Asmussen finished the meet Saturday with a record of 1-for-57. And it wasn't a matter of a lot of near misses. He had just seven seconds and seven thirds. Asmussen did win 14 races at other tracks during the Keeneland meet.
It was an even worse story for his go-to rider, Ricardo Santana, Jr. He was 0-for-81 with seven seconds and eight thirds. Including four races he lost at Belmont earlier in October, Santana entered Sunday's card at Churchill Downs having ridden 85 straight losers. On the year, he's won with 17% of his starters.
The last race Santana won was on Oct. 3 aboard Echo Zulu (Gun Runner) in the GI Frizette S. at Belmont.
Asmussen and Santana figure to bust out of their slumps any day now, but what if they don't? Both will be heavily involved in the Breeders' Cup races, including with Echo Zulu, who will be the solid favorite in the GI Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies. Should handicappers look elsewhere? It's something to consider.
Watch Out For Americanrevolution
Though he was competing in restricted company, in the Empire Classic H. for New York-breds, Americanrevolution (Constitution) served notice Saturday at Belmont that he is going to be a force going forward.
A bit of a late-developer, he ran a creditable race when third against open company in the GI Pennsylvania Derby, earning a career best 101 Beyer figure.
The odds-on favorite Saturday in his next start, he took command on the turn and took off from there to win by 11 3/4 lengths. He got a 108 Beyer for the race, which puts him among the upper echelon of 3-year-old colts. Numbers-wise, he has improved in each of his six career starts.
He'll be back in 2022, and it could be a big year for him.
It was also a big day for his sire, Constitution. Twenty six minutes after the completion of the Empire Classic, Independence Hall (Constitution) won the GII Hagyard Fayette S. at Keeneland in a romp, winning by 7 1/4 lengths. A horse who has had an up-and-down career, it was his first win of 2021 and, perhaps, a sign that he, too, will take his place among the top older dirt horses next year.
The Trend Continues: Record Handle at Keeneland
Total all-sources handle for the Keeneland fall meet was $181,009,626, an all-time record for the Lexington track. Last year's fall meet handled $160,207,916.
The “boutique” meets in racing continue to show no signs of slowing down. This year, Saratoga, Del Mar and Kentucky Downs also set new records for total handle.