Horse Racing

Classic seeks recognition without Triple Crown champ Justify

FILE - In this March 10, 2018, file photo, provided by Benoit Photo, Accelerate, with Victor Espinoza aboard, wins the Santa Anita Handicap horse race at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif. Accelerate leads the 14-horse field for the Breeders' Cup Classic, which will offer the 5-year-old a rematch against West Coast in a marquee race that's missing unbeaten Triple Crown winner Justify (Benoit Photo via AP, File)

By GARY B. GRAVES

AP Sports Writer

LOUISVILLE, Ky. (AP) The reigning Triple Crown champion is not part of the field for this weekend's Breeders' Cup Classic. And none of the horses in any of the 14 races that make up the Breeders' Cup cards this weekend has ever won a Kentucky Derby, or a Preakness, or a Belmont Stakes.

So there's little argument that the races at Churchill Downs this weekend have lost a little luster.

The same argument could be made that this Breeders' Cup might still end up as a bettors' delight.

Justify, the Triple Crown champion who was forced into retirement by an ankle problem, would have given the $6 million Classic an absolute superstar for bettors to back. But his absence creates more of a wide-open race, one that has the Dubai World Cup winner in Thunder Snow, the last two Travers Stakes winners in West Coast and Catholic Boy, and 5-2 early favorite Accelerate - who has won his last four Grade 1 starts.

"Bettors love a large, wide-open field that offers value in their selections," said trainer Tom Amoss, whose horse Lone Sailor is a 30-1 morning-line longshot in the Classic. "I don't have any question that that'll be the case."

There are plenty of reasons to like most of the horses in the Classic. Combined, the 14 entrants in the field have combined to hit the toteboard in 72 percent of their lifetime starts.

Casual fans might not know all the names. But the sport's biggest followers are likely seeing some serious Classic value.

"Justify not being part of the Classic, a Triple Crown winner, tends to take a little bit away from the Classic itself as far as the viewer wanting to see the best of the best," Amoss said. "But don't sell this group short. These are really, really good, talented horses and whoever emerges the victor is going to probably garner older-horse divisional championships."

Horse of the Year might even be there for the taking.

Whoever wins the Grade 1 Classic figures to take a big step toward contending for the Eclipse Award given to the year's best horse. If Justify were here and won the Classic - like American Pharoah did three years ago in his Triple Crown year - it would be huge news, another positive shot in the arm for a sport that is seeking ways to draw in more interest.

"I would've loved to have him in there, it would've been great," said trainer Bob Baffert, who conditioned both American Pharoah and Justify. "But I think it's a good field, a solid field."

That really can be said about all of the Breeders' Cup races. The entrants for this weekend have combined to win 794 races, or just over 37 percent of their career starts. It is inevitable that some horses who have never finished lower than third won't even hit the board this weekend, a testament to the depth of these fields.

The Breeders' Cup Distaff for fillies and mares features the two most recent Kentucky Oaks winners in Monomoy Girl and Abel Tasman, another Baffert pupil.

The Classic features a mix of American and foreign horses including Yoshida, a 4-year-old from Japan. Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn are returning to Churchill Downs, seeking to shake last-place finishes in the past two Kentucky Derbys - both got eased long before the finish after not being able to endure rocky starts in those respective Runs for the Roses.

No Classic is complete without a Baffert presence and he has two in West Coast and McKinzie, the horse who might have been the Derby favorite if not for a hind leg injury. Justify seized the opening, and the rest is horse racing history.

Accelerate is a 5-year-old making his first Classic start after finishing ninth and third in the Classic Dirt Mile the past two years. He has won five of six starts this year and brings a three-race winning streak into the 1 1/4-mile Classic.

"He's a year older, and this distance is his best distance now," trainer John Sadler said of the California-based Accelerate. "He's had a great year and he looks great, so we're really looking forward to this weekend."

And if he wins, odds are a lot more people will know Accelerate's name.

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Updated October 30, 2018