Winning isn't everything on the road to BC

September, 1, 2013
09/01/13
11:47
PM ET
There's a road that carries horses to victory in races like the Kentucky Derby and Breeders' Cup, but it's not always paved with success.

Considering how the last three winners of the Breeders' Cup Classic all lost their final races before the $5 million race, there are times when the search for a winner on racing's biggest day might start with a late summer loss.

Last week at Saratoga, Palace Malice finished fourth in the Travers but may have been the best horse in the race and could easily turn out to be the 3-year-old to fear in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

On Saturday, the $750,000 Woodward was another race in which one of the horses that had to settle for a minor share of the purse might be the one who shines brightest in the year's richest race.

The Woodward came with a virtual mine field of excuses. It was contested on a sloppy track at Saratoga, a composition that some horses simply abhor. There were only five starters, putting closers at a disadvantage.

Beyond that, the winner, Alpha, is Superman at Saratoga and Clark Kent outside the borders of New York State. The Woodward was Alpha's fourth win in five starts at the Spa, and a year ago, when he ran in the Breeders' Cup Classic at Santa Anita -- the same venue as this year's race -- he was beaten by 44 ¾ lengths.

Flat Out, the runner-up by a head in the Woodward, would be the natural one to watch as he owns a pair of wins in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at the same mile-and-a-quarter distance as the BC Classic. Despite drifting out in the stretch, he was also gaining on Alpha in the final yards of the mile-and-an-eighth Woodward in a manner that indicated he might appreciate an extra furlong.

"[Flat Out] made his run at the horse on the lead [Alpha], and he did everything but catch him. I can't complain. The horse gave a big effort," trainer Bill Mott said.

The problem, though, is that Flat Out has the same passion for Belmont Park as Alpha does for the Spa. A year ago, after winning the JCGC at Belmont, he was third in the BC Classic, some seven lengths behind the victorious Fort Larned, and improving on that finish in a return trip to Santa Anita might be a challenge for him.

Instead, Successful Dan, who was third, might be the one who rebounds best from the Woodward.

Though 7 years-old, the gelding had never raced on a wet track. His pedigree indicated he should have handled the slop, but breeding is hardly an exact science and he finished seven lengths behind Alpha.

The mile-and-a-quarter distance might be beyond his scope, but the likelihood of a dry track at Santa Anita -- as we learned decades ago from Albert Hammond, it never rains in southern California -- could make him much more competitive in the Breeders' Cup. Whether it works out that way remains to be seen, but on the road to the Breeders' Cup Classic, a loss along the way isn't necessarily a bad thing.

• Bob Ehalt grew up a few furlongs from Belmont Park and has followed horse racing as a fan, turf writer or owner since 1971.
• Has won three Associated Press Sports Editors awards and was the recipient of the '09 Breeders' Cup media award for outstanding social media.

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