Zipse: Tom's d'Etat still the one to beat in the Breeders' Cup Classic

Zipse: Tom's d'Etat still the one to beat in the Breeders' Cup Classic
Photo: Courtesy Churchill Downs

From gate to wire, Saturday’s Grade 1 Whitney was a bit of a strangely run race. The winner, Improbable, turned in a very good performance, but should we now consider the son of City Zip the leader of the division? I believe the start of the big race at Saratoga has plenty to do with the answer.

With the $7 million Breeders’ Cup Classic as the ultimate goal of the top older males in the nation, the division championship almost certainly will come down to who runs the best on Nov. 7 at Keeneland. With a big Whitney win in his back pocket, Improbable proved he is a top contender, but I still see Tom’s d’Etat as the horse to beat three months out from the Classic.

The start of the Whitney was certainly unfortunate for the race favorite. While Improbable acted up in the gate before the race, he regained his composure and broke smoothly, gaining perfect position into the first turn. Tom’s d’Etat was not so lucky. After waiting for Improbable to settle down, the 7-year-old veteran uncharacteristically came out of the gate awkwardly. The stumble quickly left him several lengths behind the field.

It’s a position he may have been able to overcome had the fractions of Whitney not been so ridiculously slow. He was ultimately able to make up some ground and rally for third, but there was no running down the likes of Improbable and By My Standards after fractions of :25.12, :49.74, and 1:13.36.

These are horses he had handled in his last two starts, but after that break, and those slow fractions, a Whitney victory was just not in the cards for Tom’s d’Etat. Whether he gets in one more prep or not, look for the Al Stall Jr. runner to bring his best to Keeneland, a track in which he’s run well before, for the end-of-the-year showdown.

When talking about the best of the older male division, you cannot forget about last season's 3-year-old champion, Maximum Security. Undefeated in two starts as a 4-year-old, the one-time claimer returned from a win in the inaugural Saudi Cup, and subsequent layoff, to earn a hard-fought victory in the recent San Diego Handicap (G2).

He’ll likely need to move forward off that solid return race to beat the very best, but the champion is certainly eligible to do so. Look for him to be a strong favorite when he stretches out back to 1 1/4 miles for Del Mar’s signature race, the Pacific Classic (G1) on Aug. 22. Like Improbable, Maximum Security is now trained by Bob Baffert.

Baffert likely will keep Improbable and Maximum Security apart, meaning the Whitney hero is unlikely for the Pacific Classic. Instead look for Improbable to get one more Breeders’ Cup prep in a race like the Awesome Again at Santa Anita or the Fayette at Keeneland.

Baffert also has the Pegasus World Cup winner Mucho Gusto in the barn, but that one has yet to make it back to the work tab since he tired to fourth in the Saudi Cup.

Vekoma, an impressive winner of the Met Mile (G1) would certainly qualify as one of the top older males in the country, but pointing to Saratoga’s 7 furlong Forego (G1) for his next start, it certainly appears his connections have no thought of running in the 1 1/4-mile Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Among the other top contenders for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Code of Honor likely will be dismissed by many after his disappointing fourth-place finish in the Whitney. I believe that would be a mistake. Already proven at 10 furlongs, the son of Noble Mission also was done in by what happened early in Saturday’s big race.

It wasn’t as immediate as Tom’s d’Etat’s bad stumble, but as soon as the field jogged into that first quarter mile in 25 seconds and change, you knew it wasn’t likely to be the confirmed stretch runner’s afternoon. Look for him to make a run at a second straight win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) before heading on to Keeneland.

As for the runner-up in the Whitney, By My Standards ran his fifth consecutive strong race as an older horse. Unfortunately, in neither the Stephen Foster nor the Whitney did he demonstrate the ability to make any sustainable move against a quality horse in front of him. You have to wonder if the 10 furlongs of the Classic will improve the son of Goldencents’ chances in this regard. He might cut back in distance next time if he runs in the 8 1/2-furlong Alysheba on the Kentucky Derby undercard in his next start.

If you are looking for a horse who might fully appreciate the distance of the Breeders’ Cup Classic, don’t forget about the Suburban winner Tacitus. The three-time graded stakes winner has yet to break through at the highest level, but he’ll get another shot to prove he appreciates the classic distance when he returns to Saratoga for the Sept. 5 Woodward (G1) as his next start.

There’s also the horse who gave Maximum Security all he wanted in that San Diego return. Allowed to run free on the front end, Midcourt turned in a fine performance last time at Del Mar. He’s a bit of an in-and-outer, but perhaps allowed to go from the gate, he can prove a serious horse within the division.

As you can see, there are numerous strong candidates for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and that’s not even mentioning the developing 3-year-olds, such as division leader Tiz the Law. Despite his loss on Saturday, though, I believe Tom’s d’Etat is the horse they all will have to beat on Nov. 7 at Keeneland.

Meet Brian Zipse

Brian has been a passionate fan of horse racing his entire life. Taken to the races at a very young age, he has been lucky enough to see all the greats in person from Secretariat, Forego, and Ruffian through Rachel Alexandra, Zenyatta, American Pharoah and Justify. Before coming to the Nation, Brian displayed his love for the sport through the development of his horse racing website, which quickly became one of the most popular blogs in the game. His new racing partnership venture, Derby Day Racing, invites more fans to experience the thrill of racehorse ownership.

The Editor of Horse Racing Nation from 2010-2017, Brian authored a daily column as Zipse at the Track, created the popular racing show, HorseCenter and added his editorial flare to the overall content of the website. Now a Senior Writer for HRN, Brian continues to contribute his thoughts on racing, as well as hosting HorseCenter. A big supporter of thoroughbred aftercare, he serves as the President of The Exceller Fund.

Brian's work has also been published on several leading industry sites. He has consulted for leading contest site Derby Wars, is both a Hall of Fame and NTRA poll voter, and is a Vox Populi committee member. 

A horse owner and graduate of DePaul University, Brian lives just outside of Louisville with his wife Candice and daughter Kendra.

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