McKinzie BC Classic favorite, but has question marks

Field for $6 million headliner at Santa Anita also includes Travers winner Code of Honor
Code of Honor and John Velazquez roll home to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 24.
Code of Honor and John Velazquez roll home to win the Travers Stakes at Saratoga on Aug. 24.

There are clear favorites in many of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races this weekend at Santa Anita Park, but the main event, the $6 million Classic, is not one of them.

McKinzie is 3-1 on the morning-line and a logical favorite on his hometown track, but even he has some question marks hanging over him, which promises to  make for a pretty wide-open Classic on Saturday.

Most notably, trainer Bob Baffert has decided to replace Hall of Fame jockey Mike Smith, who has ridden all 13 of McKinzie’s career races, with Joel Rosario, one of the best riders in the world, but not a regular on Baffert’s big stakes horses.

“There’s a lot about this horse. I’m going to sit down with Joel,” Baffert told the BC notes team this week. “He’s ridden against him. He’s beaten him. He knows him. These guys are so good. They see the videos. They know the horses.

“I’ve taken some jockeys off before. I was very frustrated and I said, ‘Well, maybe you’ve got to make a change.’ Just like a manager has to take the ball away from of the star pitchers if something’s not going right.”

Smith, meanwhile, has landed on Yoshida for trainer Bill Mott, who will also saddle the 5-year-old mare Elate in trying to become the first female to win the Classic since Zenyatta in 2009.

Post time for the Classic is scheduled for 8:44 p.m. ET on Saturday. There will be live coverage Friday and Saturday on NBCSN and NBC.

For the second year in a row, Friday’s BC races will be designated as a showcase for the 2-year-olds, with five races devoted to juveniles.

Saturday’s nine races will offer an intriguing mix of sprints, turf races and longer dirt routes. The Classic will be contested at a mile and a quarter, which is why Mott has chosen to enter Elate in that race as opposed to the mile-and-an-eighth Distaff restricted to females. Elate is 3-for-3 at a mile and a quarter, including the Alabama at Saratoga Race Course two years ago.

“We’re throwing her in deep water,” Mott said. “We seldom run the fillies against the colts unless we think we’ve got a top-class horse and one that will fit the race. I think she fits the conditions of the race very well and she’s proven it. Of course, we’re running against good competition, so she still have to  run her best race to compete.”

McKinzie is coming off a second-place finish to 25-1 Mongolian Groom in the Grade I Awesome Again at Santa Anita, on the heels of an impressive win by a length and three-quarters over Yoshida in the Whitney at Saratoga.

“He needs to get away from the gate and get into the race early,” Baffert said. “That’s the way he wants to run and he gets stronger as he goes. But he’s got to show up that day. I’ve seen great fields put together, but a lot of horses don’t show up.”

Two prominent 3-year-olds in the Classic are Travers winner Code of Honor and Preakness winner War of Will. A race-within-the-race will be the rematch between Code of Honor and Vino Rosso, who finished first in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but was taken down in a controversial disqualification that gave Code of the Honor the win in his first race against older horses.

“I think we’ve got a very, very good horse, and he matches up with any of them in the race,” trainer Shug McGaughey said of Code of Honor. “I love having Johnny Velazquez on him. He’s coming off two mile-and-a-quarter races. Johnny worked him last Monday [at] 5f 1:00 1/5, so I think we’ve got him in a very good spot that way.

“I’ve seen McKinzie run some great races. If he runs his Whitney back or something, he’ll be tough. It’s a mile and a quarter. We’ve had to ship out here to Baffert’s backyard. That’s OK, too. When he takes him over there he’s going to be ready. We better be ready, too.”

Trainer Chad Brown, the Eclipse Award winner the last two years, has another strong hand in the turf races, especially with Bricks and Mortar in the Turf and Sistercharlie trying to win the Filly & Mare Turf for the second year in a row.

Bricks and Mortar has won all five starts this season, including four Grade I’s, and is in the rare position for a turf horse contending for Horse of the Year in North America.

Wise Dan won that two years in a row, in 2012 and 2013.

“Yes, I think that’s fair. I think he’s earned that right to be in that conversation,” Brown said during a national teleconference on Monday. “He’s had a really remarkable campaign, one of the best I can remember in recent years for male turf horses, and I think he deserves to be there.”

Brown has dominated the BC Filly & Mare Turf, winning it four times since 2012.

Sistercharlie is 3-for-3 this year, including the Diana at Saratoga.

“She’s as good as any we’ve brought for the race,” Brown said.

He also has one of two females in the Mile, Uni. The other is Got Stormy, who won the De La Rose and Grade I Fourstardave at Saratoga.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup promises to garner extra media scrutiny after a rash of horse deaths from training and racing at Santa Anita in December through May.

“No, I don’t think any of our owners had any reluctance to go, and from what I gather, they’ve done everything they can to make sure that they’ve got a safe racetrack,” Mott said. “I know the majority of the problems was early in the year when they had had torrential rain for two or three weeks.”

“It’s been concerning, for sure, watching from afar, from the East Coast,” Brown said. “I’ve been keeping a close eye on it and reaching out to different people I trust out on the West Coast. Ultimately, I didn’t avoid running any horses in the Breeders’ Cup due to this issue. I did have a lot of questions from clients throughout the summer and right into the fall about our plans. But, ultimately, we feel confident in Santa Anita’s management that the track will be safe, and I support everything they’ve been doing to try to improve the situation.”

“I think we’ve changed some things here for the better,” Baffert said. “The surface, they’re working on that. I think it was like a wake-up moment for racing. We need to do a better job.”

Reach Gazette Sportswriter Mike MacAdam at 518-395-3146 or [email protected]. Follow on Twitter @Mike_MacAdam.

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