2014 Homecoming Classic and Jefferson Cup Preview

Picks and Ponderings is taking three separate road trips this week.  Our journeys to Belmont Park and Santa Anita Park for the big weekend of Breeders’ Cup preps will both be figurative in nature.

In a deviation from normal, though, the road trip to Churchill Downs will be quite literal.  This half of Picks and Ponderings will be in Louisville this weekend, and attending the races on Saturday.  In light of that we kick off the week with the two stakes on Saturday’s Churchill card.  These include the Homecoming Classic for the handicap division, as well as the Jefferson Cup Stakes (GIII) for three-year-old turf milers.

Odds were not available at original publish time. Updated on September 25 to include morning lines.

Race 9: Homecoming Classic Stakes, three-year-olds and up, 1 1/8 miles on the dirt, post time 4:49pm EDT

Churchill Downs inaugurated its September meet last year, and with that inaugurated the Homecoming Classic.  Last year’s edition was won by the then-defending Breeders’ Cup Classic winner, Fort Larned, who took the lead early and held off a late run from Windswept.  This year’s race will again be held at nine furlongs on the main track, though for a $125,000 purse (compared to the inaugural edition’s $175,000).  Six older horses will see the starter for Saturday’s renewal of the race.

There is only one truly credible speed in this bunch, and that’s Cigar Street.  He comes in here second off of a seventeen-month lay, running second behind Pick of the Litter in an allowance at Saratoga over the slop.  He will have to improve upon that performance if he hopes to win this race, but he should be a bit tighter and fitter this time out.  His trainer, Bill Mott, wins at 19% second off the lay.  That race was also Cigar Street‘s first run on the slop; at this point, the weather does not suggest there will be rain Saturday.  If he can go to the front and tick off reasonable fractions, it may be game over.  Even if long shot Call Me George sends and tries to make it a fight on the front, Cigar Street showed in the 2013 Skip Away that he can rate early.  Carve has come into his own this year at age four.  He has been on the board six times in seven starts, including four wins.  He is a solid enough nine furlong horse, boasting a 4-1-0-3 record at the distance.  He has a win over the Churchill dirt this year, in an allowance, over rival Pick of the Litter.  His speed compares well with the field, and trainer Brad Cox could hardly be sharper in either route races (29% wins/63% in the money) or dirt races (27% wins/61% in the money).  Pacewise, he has run well from either stalking or closing shapes.  Most of his races have had him fairly close to the early pace: helpful, since it would not behoove him to let Cigar Street get too loose early.  Departing gets some much-needed class relief after trying Grade I company in his last two starts.  A mile and an eighth is his best distance: he has a 7-3-0-2 record at the distance, and he has racked up the lion’s share of his career earnings going nine panels.  He has also shown some success at Churchill Downs: He won a nice allowance optional claiming event at the suboptimal (for him) distance of a mile, and then next out finished third behind Moonshine Mullin in the Stephen Foster (GI) at this distance.  He has been on the shelf since a disappointing Whitney on August 2, but has a sequence of regular, nice works going into this race.  Also, trainer Albert Stall wins at 25% with runners coming in off of similar-length lays.  Departing is not a Grade I horse, but if the pace up front gets a little hotter than expected, this one is plenty classy to pick up the pieces at this level.

Selections:

#5 CIGAR STREET (5/2)

#3 CARVE (9/5)

#4 DEPARTING (2/1)

Longshot:  #6 PICK OF THE LITTER (9/2) comes into this race from a classy nine-furlong allowance at Saratoga on the Personal Ensign undercard, a race in which he nailed Cigar Street in the final sixteenth of a mile.  He stalked a length or less off the pace through the entire race, just on his outside, and had just a bit more in the final stages.  That foe should be a tougher customer than he was that day, though — that allowance was Cigar Street‘s first race in seventeen months.  Still, Pick of the Litter puts up speeds that stack up decently with the strong ones in this field, and showed last out that he can patiently stalk quite close to the early pace and still run well: something that may mitigate Cigar Street‘s threat of being lone speed without causing the sort of meltdown that would hand the race right to either Departing or Carve.  Most of his better efforts before last out were from a mid-pack place early, but seeing this newfound versatility makes him a danger.

Race 10: Jefferson Cup Stakes (GIII), three-year-olds, one mile on the turf, post time 5:20pm EDT

This year marks the 38th running of the Jefferson Cup Stakes.  It has gone through several different incarnations through its history, though it has always been restricted to sophomores.  It was originally a five and a half furlong dirt sprint, a 1 1/16 mile for just one year (1982), and then stretched out to 1 1/8 miles the next year.  It moved from dirt to grass in 1988, and first achieved Grade III status in 2001.  From 2006-2009 it was a Grade II; in 2010 it returned to a Grade III, and cut back to 1 1/16 miles.  Last year it was moved from the summer meet to the new September meet, and became a $100,000 affair run at a flat mile.  Its first edition at its current mile distance was General Election, whose other career graded stakes win occurred in the Chicago area: the 2013 Arlington Classic.

If speeds holds good in this race, it will be Heart to Heart who has the best chance to take it on the front end.  Although first-time turfer Almost Famous and Canadian shipper Speightsland also like to be up on the front, Heart to Heart consistently shows more early.  He has also really found his niche as a turf miler: he has won both of his starts at a mile on the grass.  Jockey Julien Leparoux has the call; he has only ridden Heart to Heart once before, but that was a 6 1/4 length allowance romp at a mile over the grass at Keeneland.  Captain Dixie takes both a class drop and a distance cut here; he finished fifth in the Dueling Grounds Derby at 1 5/16 miles at Kentucky Downs last out.  Here he cuts back to a mile, a distance at which he was second behind General Jack in the Centaur back in July.  His speeds are trending well, and he has put up a sharp work since his last effort.  He switches to jockey Ricardo Santana, who has won ten of his 37 starts at Churchill so far this meet.  Even though his one win was a wire job, he only missed by half a length to the red-hot Super Soldier two starts back.  That shows he can persist if he does not get the early lead.  Hesinfront comes here second off the lay for trainer Dale Romans.  After faltering in the American Derby (GIII) two starts back, he went on the shelf for two months, and returned in a 1 mile 70 yard allowance against older at Kentucky Downs.  He finished a gaining third.  He will need to be sharper than that to win here, but Romans wins at 19% second off the lay — suggesting he should have his horse a bit more tightened up.  Hesinfront also returns to his favourite track; his career record at Churchill is 5-2-1-1.  Even that one off-the-board finish left him only 1 3/4 lengths behind the winner, in his first race facing older.  He cuts back to a mile here for the first time since he was a juvenile.  This seems a wise thing for Romans to try again, given that his breeding (by War Front out of  Sky Classic mare) virtually screams turf miler.

One worth taking a stand against here is Almost Famous.  He is trying turf for the first time here.  That is not in itself a problem, as both of his half-siblings to race have won on turf, and sire Unbridled’s Song is 12% with first-time turf starters.  However, it is a question of pace.  He has shown himself so far to be a one-way speed type, and Heart to Heart means trouble for his chances to get the trip he needs.  It is not worth taking a likely short price to hope he has more explosive early speed on turf than he is on dirt.

Selections:

#3 HEART TO HEART (5/2)

#2 CAPTAIN DIXIE (10/1)

#8 HESINFRONT (9/2)

Longshot:  #6 STORMY PACIFIC (10/1) tries the grass for the first time, but his breeding suggests it will be right up his alley.  His sire, Stormy Atlantic, is 13% with first-time turf runners.  His full brother Conquest Tsunami has won on grass.  Stormy Pacific has been a consistent sort so far, hitting the board in six of his seven starts.  Pacewise, he tends to be mid-pack or further back early.  If Almost Famous, Speightsland, or even Captain Dixie gets a little too frisky with Heart to Heart early in this mile-long race?  He could pick up the pieces late for a big price.

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