DEL MAR, Calif. — The Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, like real estate, comes down to location, location, location.
This year’s race will be run at Del Mar, where the race is one lap around the oval. Next year, for example, the race will be at Churchill Downs, where it is around one turn. The dynamics of the race make a difference, and no horse may be impacted by the scenario more than Practical Joke, the top-class 3-year-old who is unbeaten in five starts around one turn and winless in five starts around two.
“I’d be much more confident if the race was around one turn,” said Chad Brown, who trains Practical Joke. “He’s undefeated.”
In addition, Mor Spirit — the morning-line favorite of both Daily Racing Form’s Brad Free and Del Mar’s Russell Hudak — ran the best race of his career in the Met Mile, which also is a one-turn mile.
By contrast, Accelerate returns to the scene of his greatest victory, a runaway in the 1 1/16-mile San Diego in which he left Arrogate well behind.
“I feel good about that,” John Sadler, who trains Accelerate, said of the race being here, where Accelerate has won three times in four starts. “But some East Coast horses could love it. These top horses, it’s hard to say it’s a huge advantage, but he’s run well there — three wins and a third going a mile and a quarter against monsters.”
Accelerate, Mor Spirit, and Practical Joke are among the leading contenders in a Dirt Mile that is one of the most competitive races of the weekend. A field of 10 is entered in the $1 million race, which goes as race 7 on Friday’s 10-race card and is the second of four Breeders’ Cup races Friday.
Accelerate is 2 for 2 at a mile here. His lone loss was a third-place finish behind Collected and Arrogate when stretched out to 1 1/4 miles in the Pacific Classic. That was his last start, and it was by design. Sadler wanted a fresh horse for the Dirt Mile, and he likes where he drew, outside of speed horses like Sharp Azteca and Mor Spirit.
“My horse should be forwardly placed,” said Sadler, who has seen improved speed from Accelerate since blinkers were added two starts back.
“They’ve helped quite a bit. He had a tendency to drop too far back, and at this track that doesn’t work,” Sadler said.
Practical Joke also was pre-entered in the Sprint, which is on Saturday, but on Monday at entry time the decision was made to go in the Dirt Mile and not even enter the Sprint, which would have resulted in payment of a second entry fee to contemplate running in a six-furlong race for the first time since his debut in August 2016.
“It’s quite a bit of money just to take a look, and we thought the only way we’d even think about running in the Sprint is if he draws the outside in the Dirt Mile, so we decided not to do it, plus six furlongs isn’t ideal,” Brown said. “Sure enough, he gets the outside post.”
Even though Practical Joke hasn’t won going two turns, he has run well. He was a close third in the Haskell, second in the Blue Grass and Fountain of Youth, and fifth of 20 in the Kentucky Derby from post 19.
“Hopefully, he can work out a trip,” Brown said.
Mor Spirit is making his first start since the Met Mile. He has never raced at Del Mar, and was freshened during the summer meet when he trained lethargically here. He’s a notoriously indifferent work horse, but his recent drills convinced trainer Bob Baffert he’s ready to return to action.
Baffert also sends out Cupid, who was a disappointing fourth in the Awesome Again but won the Brubaker at a flat mile here during the summer.
Sharp Azteca may be the horse to catch. After finishing a distant second to Mor Spirit in the Met Mile, he has scored runaway victories in the Monmouth Cup — significantly around two turns — and Kelso in his last two starts.
Battle of Midway ran the best race of his career here two starts back in the Shared Belief, which was his first with blinkers.
“I thought he made a big move forward with the blinkers on,” said his trainer, Jerry Hollendorfer. “He likes the track, which is an important consideration.”
Battle of Midway, like Practical Joke, is a 3-year-old facing elders for the first time.
“My opinion is if they’re going to make that transition they can do it now,” Hollendorfer said.
Giant Expectations won the seven-furlong Pat O’Brien here during the summer. He was second, behind Dirt Mile longshot Gato Del Oro, in a one-mile allowance one start earlier.
“He can sit just behind the speed,” said Pete Eurton, who trains Giant Expectations. “I do think he’s going to be better as a two-turn horse.”
Awesome Slew and Iron Fist complete the field.