Talking Horses: Essential Quality can thwart Medina Spirit at Breeders Cup | Horse racing

An American magazine cover some years ago carried a picture of the unmistakeable, white-haired figure of Bob Baffert, surrounded by dozens of reporters and photographers above the simple headline: “BOBZILLA!” For the organisers of this year’s Breeders’ Cup meeting at Del Mar racecourse, which concludes on Saturday, the parallel with a fearsome behemoth, looming over the proceedings and wreaking havoc with their carefully constructed PR, may be a little too close for comfort.

Baffert was banned from saddling runners at Churchill Downs, the home of the Kentucky Derby, for two years earlier in the season, after his colt, Medina Spirit, tested positive for betamethasone, a banned corticosteroid, after winning the US’s most famous race.

But the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission’s investigation into the race is still ongoing, the Breeders’ Cup cleared Baffert to enter runners at the meeting last month and Medina Spirit himself, no less, is in the field for the biggest race of all, Saturday’s $6m Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Baffert has trained 17 Breeders’ Cup winners to date and may well have added at least one more by the time the shadows start to lengthen in southern California and the field heads to post for the Classic. Gamine (19.05), for one, is a hot favourite for the Filly & Mare Sprint.

Medina Spirit, though, is the one name that will register instantly with the wider sporting public in the US, as the fallout from his failed dope test in May inevitably continues to follow him around. Baffert’s three-year-old was beaten on his next start in the Preakness Stakes but returned to winning form at Del Mar in August and then added another Grade One to his record – or a first, if he is eventually disqualified from his Derby success – at Santa Anita last month.

On the plus side for the Breeders’ Cup organisation, it has several runners on its side if it is to avoid the nightmare result, the most obvious being Essential Quality (00.40), who had no luck in the run when finishing just over a length behind Medina Spirit in the Kentucky Derby. Brad Cox’s colt is the sort of battler you need in a Classic and his latest win in the Travers at Saratoga should have him spot on for Saturday.

Gamine is a firm favourite for the Filly & Mare Sprint
Gamine, pictured winning the Lady M Stakes in July, is a firm favourite for the Filly & Mare Sprint. Photograph: AP

The European challenge at this year’s meeting is typically strong for a Californian Breeders’ Cup, but the home team has real depth in most of the turf events too and Tarnawa (23.40) in the Turf looks like the only real banker.

Golden Pal (19.40) will be a tough opponent for the visitors to crack in the Turf Sprint, while Loves Only You (20.59) could well be a first ever winner for Japan at the meeting.

Jessica Harrington’s Real Appeal (22.20) is a big price for Mile and will start from the outside stall after sneaking into the field following a scratch, but the race should suit his running style, while Dr Schivel (21.38) and Letruska (23.00) have strong claims in the Sprint and Distaff respectively.

Saturday’s TV races

Aintree will welcome an unrestricted crowd to watch a race over the Grand National fences for the first time since December 2019 on Saturday, when 14 runners are due to go to post for the Grand Sefton Chase in its new early-November slot in the calendar.

Time To Get Up, last season’s Midlands National winner, is already prominent in the betting for the National itself next April and should still have plenty of improvement to come after just four starts over fences.

This is a significant drop in trip, however, and Time To Get Up’s first start since March so Alan King’s Senior Citizen (2.15) could be a better bet at around 6-1. He finished third over track and trip in the Topham in April and returned to action in winning form at Market Rasen last month.

Aintree 1.08: A fiercely-competitive qualifier for the Pertemps Hurdle at Cheltenham in March, with South Terrace perhaps the pick of the prices at around 5-1 to follow up a battling success at Uttoxeter in June.

Doncaster 1.25: Fresh has not added to his win at Ascot in May in four subsequent starts but he has run with credit every time, including an eye-catching run on his first start over seven furlongs last month, and remains on a workable mark.

Wincanton 1.50: The late scratching of both Bravemansgame and Faivoir due to going concerns leaves this looking straightforward for Mick Pastor, who has reeled off four wins in weak fields already this season.

Doncaster 2.05: William Haggas has steered several three-year-olds through the ranks already this season and Tarhib, whose seasonal debut was delayed until October, could be another. He still has a gap to bridge, though, and Magical Spirit, a 12-1 shot in the early betting, looks overpriced to follow up a recent career-best over course and distance.

Quick Guide

Greg Wood’s Saturday tips


Doncaster: 11.50 He’s A Gentleman, 12.20 Star Zinc, 12.55 Via Sistina, 1.25 Fresh (nb), 2.05 Magical Spirit, 2.40 Farhan (nap), 3.10 Hebrides, 3.45 Gifted Ruler.

Kelso: 12.25 Mister Whitaker, 1.00 Trooper Turnbull, 1.35 Doyen Breed, 2.10 Up Helly Aa King, 2.45 Kalaharry, 3.15 Golan Cloud, 3.50 Star Vantage.

Aintree: 12.33 Hillcrest, 1.08 South Terrace, 1.40 Beakstown, 2.15 Senior Citizen, 2.50 Gunsight Ridge, 3.20 Summerville Boy, 3.55 Bo Kaap.

Wincanton: 12.40 Kauto The King, 1.15 Knappers Hill, 1.50 Faivoir, 2.25 Kissesforkatie, 3.00 Irish Prophecy, 3.35 Christopher Wood, 4.05 Thelasthighking.

Chelmsford City: 2.55 Kennet, 3.28 Nations Pride, 4.00 Doolily, 4.30 Pettinger, 5.00 Barrington, 5.30 Tell’Em Nowt, 6.00 Lilkian, 6.30 Engrave.

(all times GMT)

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Wincanton 2.25: Her fitness needs to be taken on trust, but Kissesforkatie goes very well at this track and remains well handicapped, having been raised only 2lb for an unlucky third here last November.

Doncaster 2.40: Farhan has managed to find one to beat him in four of his five starts this year but is still on a fair mark and can round off his campaign with a win for the second year running.

Wincanton 3.00: A strong renewal of the Badger Beer Chase but the recent course winner Irish Prophecy might be a little overpriced at around 8-1.

Wincanton 3.35: Christopher Wood looks a big price at around 12-1, getting 6lb from both Sceau Royal and Goshen. He was competitive off marks in the high 140s last season and any further improvement after a wind op would put him right in the mix.