This year’s Las Vegas Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (GI) marks the 11th running of the $1 million main track event. And while it doesn’t carry the star-making power — or rich $6 million purse — of its chief rival, the 1 ¼-mile Classic, that’s not to say the Dirt Mile has suffered from not being able to draw some exceptional racehorses in its time.
The well-bred Corinthian won the first Dirt Mile at Monmouth Park in 2007 and, since then, some of the most recognizable names to have worn the blanket of purple and gold include two-time winner Goldencents, Liam’s Map, Tapizar and Tamarkuz a year ago.
This year, ten will head to the gate to race once around Del Mar’s main track, including two from leading trainer Bob Baffert’s barn, both attempting to provide their Hall of Fame conditioner with a first winner in this race, and another who is perhaps best known as the runner to have dethroned racing’s reigning king, Arrogate, at Del Mar back over the summer.
Baffert’s Grade 1-winning duo of Cupid and Mor Spirit represent the best of the conditioner’s bench. To be fair, without the presence of runners like Arrogate, West Coast and Mubtaahij in the older handicap division this year, they’d certainly be first-stringers, but with some distance question marks and, perhaps, even some overall ability issues hanging over both of their heads, this one-mile races makes more sense all things considered.
Mor Spirit hasn’t raced since his 6 ½-length romp in the Met Mile (GI) back on Belmont Stakes Day in June, but has been training strongly and steadily after receiving a nice break over the summer. His last-race Beyer figure of 117 is highest for this field and he’s got a somewhat versatile running style, capable of setting a quick early pace or sit just off it if necessary. Baffert’s go-to rider Mike Smith is back aboard and all they may need is a clean break from post six to be effective.
Cupid could be one of the more talented runners whose true potential we have yet to see. The son of leading sire Tapit was on the Triple Crown trail a year ago before a breathing issue sidelined him. He then spent another several months on the sidelines after last year’s Pennsylvania Derby (GII), where he finished eighth, before winning this year’s Santa Anita Gold Cup (GI) in May. With two starts since, including one win, the gray colt is back for the Breeders’ Cup and trying for his biggest career win. The confirmed pace stalker will carry regular rider Rafael Bejarano and the pair will break from post seven. If he can repeat his Gold Cup-winning performance and earn the kind of speed and class numbers he did that day, he’s a solid choice for the win here.
Practical Joke has tried practically every distance. He broke his maiden at six furlongs, placed at nine furlongs and has solid graded wins at seven furlongs and also a mile. His connections searched a while for the best fit for this son of Into Mischief, distance-wise, and it appears that they may have landed on the main track mile. The Chad Brown trainee’s last-to-first, 1 ¼-length score in the seven-furling H. A. Jerkens Stakes (GI) at Saratoga was a tremendous effort and, while it was more than eight weeks ago, he’s run well fresh before (won the Dwyer in the summer off a similar layoff) and should be OK heading into this event, judging by his recent works. The two-turn mile may be a bit of a concern especially with Del Mar’s tight-ish turns, but he’s in capable hands with jockey Joel Rosario.
Accelerate got the blinkers from trainer John Sadler this past summer and posted one of the biggest upsets in recent racing history, defeating North America’s richest racehorse Arrogate in the San Diego Handicap (GII) (Arrogate was fourth) and coming back to earn a career-high speed figure and post a lifetime-best performance when third in the Pacific Classic (GI) in a race that was probably at least a furlong too far. More a miler and now at his best with the hood, this Hronis Racing colorbearer will attempt to improve on his third in here last year. Regular jockey Victor Espinoza rides and the pair will break from post eight, likely heading to the lead as soon as possible.
Grade 3 winner Battle of Midway has been a useful horse, but has kind of been an underachiever. He’s never really faced anyone of the caliber of the top choices here and will certainly be getting the acid test. His speed and pace figures, overall, have been fairly good, but ordinary compared to Grade 1 company, and he will most certainly need his best under regular jockey Flavien Prat from his mid-pack trip early.
Iron Fist has won five of seven starts at this one-mile distance and enters his first Breeders’ Cup having won three of his last four starts. He’s been effective at smaller tracks against softer competition, but a clean trip from mid-pack here may be good enough for another on-the-board finish for trainer Steve Asmussen and jockey Ricardo Santana Jr. His inside post at a mile on this track isn’t ideal, but if things go well from the break, he looks to be a legit exotics-type horse.
Sharp Azteca is a talented graded stakes winner at the distance who can put up some amazingly good speed figures, like the 112 he earned for winning the Kelso Stakes (GII) at Belmont Park in September. Unfortunately, his talent is clouded by some controversy surrounding his trainer, but if he can withstand the pressure from the outside and inside the race itself as a need-the-lead pacesetter, he’s dangerous. He won’t get away with soft early fractions in this field and the two turns is a bit of a concern, but, at his best, he is dangerous.
Giant Expectations is a Grade 2 winner over this track and has also won at this distance, but he has never faced the likes of the top runners here successfully. He’s kind of in limbo between sprinter and miler, as this distance may be a little too far for his liking but the Sprint would be too short.
Awesome Slew is a winner from three starts at this distance and looked good doing it in the one-turn Ack Ack Handicap (GIII) at Churchill Downs five weeks ago. The Mark Casse-trained son of Awesome Again is a solid Grade 2/Grade 3 horse who will need his absolute best effort to hit the board here under John Velazquez.
Gato Del Oro is a good allowance horse who is probably in a bit over his head here.