ARCADIA, Calif. -- You know how weather is a default topic of conversation for most? For horse people, "Who do you like in the big race?" takes over as a top gambit on major weekends. What makes the upcoming Breeders' Cup so fun is that it isn't just one big race, it is 14, and in theory, every horse running has the talent to win.
Since I arrived in California, I have been asked who I like this weekend not only by my colleagues but by a lot of interested parties who are not part of the industry. The valet at the hotel wants to have a chat over the entries tomorrow, the taxi driver has asked for a friendly tip, and the list goes on.
The amount of local interest is a good thing, but explaining why I find the Breeders' Cup races so tricky to handicap is far more information than most of them want. In a nutshell, though, in most normal races you have horses that meet the qualifications to run but no one really thinks have a chance. You can toss them from your picks. With the Breeders' Cup, almost every horse entered has proved its worth some way or another.
In a game in which only a very small percentage of horses -- we are talking fewer than 5 percent -- become any type of stakes winner, most of the horses running in the Breeders' Cup are graded stakes winners, which makes them the top of the top.
This doesn't mean people aren't still passionate about which horse they think will win or lose, it just means that rarely is anyone truly stunned by a victor in a Breeders' Cup race, even if that horse is technically a long shot. For instance, when Drosselmeyer won the Classic in 2011, he did so at odds of 14-1. The year before, he had won the Belmont Stakes, the final leg of the Triple Crown. Even though no one really expected him to win the Classic, he had previously shown he could win a major race.
So how do I pick horses for this event? It is a mix of traditional handicapping, betting on those I want to win even if I am not confident they will win, and flat-out hunches. The most scientific method it is not, but I do pretty well at the windows.
This year's Distaff may be the most anticipated contest of the weekend, even though it has the shortest field of all the races. I have an emotional attachment to two of the runners (Close Hatches and Beholder), deep respect for one of the best racing stories of the year (Princess of Sylmar) and knowledge that the two-time defending champion (Royal Delta) is nearly impossible to beat if she runs to the best of her ability, which doesn't always seem to happen with her.
Since a four-horse photo finish seems a bit too much to hope for, I am placing my faith in Beholder to spring a mild upset based on her love of Santa Anita. However, if you asked me to stake my life on it, or even dinner, I would pass. It is just that tough of a race.
The Turf is always a fun race to predict because it has an us-versus-them mentality since it features America's best grass runners against shippers who come over from Europe. Because Europe's turf racing is superior to ours, it is fun when an American actually wins the race.
Little Mike did just that last year and he is back, but he will have to face a formidable opponent in The Fugue, one of the best fillies racing in the world. The Fugue, owned by Lord Andrew Lloyd Webber, was very unlucky not to win the Filly & Mare Turf last year (finishing third), and it is hard to wish for her to lose here. Also, remember how I mentioned hunches? Well, upon arriving at Santa Anita, the very first horse I saw this week was The Fugue. Omen, coincidence or both?
In recent years, the Mile has become the biggest grass race as far as interest goes, and it has displaced the Turf as the race held before the Classic. This was due to the exploits of wonder filly Goldikova, who came over from Europe to beat the boys for a record three consecutive years (2008-10).
Interest in the Mile this year is still quite high because America's reigning Horse of the Year, Wise Dan, will be lining up to take on all comers while defending his crown in the race. You have to respect that Olympic Glory, who won the British Champions Mile in mid-October, has crossed an ocean to face him, but it seems like Wise Dan's race to lose. He's such a game runner, and his connections have been pointing to this race all year. His loss last time out came with plenty of weather-related excuses that I am willing to believe are true.
Then there is the Classic. Every morning I have roamed Santa Anita, I have felt a different horse would win it. If Game On Dude runs the way he has been running, every other horse might as well go home. However, he sometimes has issues showing up on major race days. Two of the worst performances of his career came last year in the Dubai World Cup (where he ran 12th) and the Breeders' Cup Classic (7th). Of course, he has since posted six victories in a row.
Thursday morning as Game on Dude waited to go onto the track, he was checking out the lines of interested members of the media. His nose was twitching in their direction, and his exercise rider explained he was looking for candy. It seemed only appropriate on Halloween, and she obliged her mount with a treat. Clearly, the horse is taking what can be a stressful week in stride.
For all that, I have to admit all season I have had a soft spot for Palace Malice. He just seems like such a game horse, and since he won the Belmont, we know he has no issue with distance. His father, Curlin, won the Classic in 2007 at Monmouth in New Jersey, and I would love to see his son do the same in California six years later.
Below are my selections for all 14 races. I can't swear they won't change between now and post time, though. Some are based strictly on racing ability, some are sentimental, some are based on slightly sillier reasons and some are because someone has to win.
No matter what, it will be an enjoyable two days of racing. It is almost a certainty that long shots and favorites will find their way to the winner's circle, so have some fun if you are wagering this weekend.
Classic: Palace Malice
Mile: No Jet Lag
Sprint: Justin Phillip
Turf: The Fugue
Juvenile: Tap It Rich
Turf Sprint: Mizdirection
Filly & Mare Sprint: Groupie Doll
Filly & Mare Turf: Kitten's Dumplings
Juvenile Fillies: She's a Tiger
Juvenile Fillies Turf: Al Thakhira
Dirt Mile: Verrazano
Juvenile Turf: Giovanni Boldini
Amanda Duckworth is a freelance journalist who lives in Lexington, Ky. Among her other duties, she is an editor for Gallop Magazine. Write to her at firstname.lastname@example.org.