With the announcement by trainer Derek Ryan that Musket Man will run in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic Nov. 6 at Churchill Downs, it may cause some to wonder exactly what the conditioner is attempting to accomplish.
After all, the 1-1/4 Classic is expected to feature the undefeated mare Zenyatta; Quality Road, who out finished Musket Man to win the grade 1 Metropolitan Handicap in July and again in August while running second to Musket Man’s third in the Whitney Handicap at Saratoga. And don’t forget that Blame, the winner of the Whitney and second in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is also headed to Churchill Downs for the Classic as is Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Haynesfield. Representing the best of the 3-year-old crop this year, Preakness, Haskell, and Indiana Derby winner Lookin at Lucky also appears headed to the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
So why would Ryan put Musket Man against this caliber of competition, which appears to be just above Musket Man’s abilities? It is true that Musket Man has not won since taking the $52,000 Super Stakes at Tampa Bay Downs in February. It is true that Musket Man has run against many likely Classic starters and has failed to defeat them. It is true that there are other, less intimidating, options for Musket Man on Breeders' Cup Day - notably the $1 million Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile where he would be among the favorites.
But it is also true that in 14 career starts, Musket Man has never finished worse than third and the furthest he has been off of the winner was 6-3/4 lengths behind Mine That Bird last year in the Kentucky Derby presented by Yum! Brands. Five of his last eight races have been against grade 1 competition with two additional starts against grade 2 company. His only start in an ungraded race since January of last year, was in his Super Stakes win.
And there are some very interesting Breeders’ Cup Classic trends that say the that Ryan and owners Eric Fein and Vic Carlson would be remiss for not allowing Musket Man the chance at an upset in the Classic.
According to this year’s edition of Crushing The Cup, the favorite has done very well in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, winning eight of the 26 Classics, for a respectable 31% win rate. But only three of the last 12 favorites, including Zenyatta last year, have made it to the winners’ circle. Ghostzapper won the 2005 Classic paying $7.00 as the favorite and St. Liam won the Classic the following year and returned $6.80. During that 12-year span, the average winning payout was $23.73 with the longest payout being Volponi, who paid $89.0 after winning the 2002 Classic.
Don’t forget that Musket Man has plenty of high quality credentials on his racing resume as well. The four-year-old son of Yonaguska and the Fortunate Prospect mare Fortuesque has earned more than $1.2 million in his 14-race career against some of the top competition of his class. He was third in both the Derby and Preakness last year after winning the grade 3 Tampa Bay Derby and grade 2 Illinois Derby at Hawthorne before shipping to Kentucky.
In two of Musket Man’s few races this year with less than triple digit Beyer Speed figures, he ran a 99 in the Super Stakes and a 95 assigned to him after a troubled trip over the slop in the grade2 Churchill Downs in May.
In his most recent race, the Monmouth Cup Oct. 9, Musket Man’s stalking running style got compromised by a lumbering slow pace by eventual winner and defending champion Etched. Musket Man was also forced four or five-wide turning for home and still managed to muster a challenge but not pass the fast moving Etched. Musket Man was the odds-favorite to win the Monmouth Cup and that may not speak well for his Classic chances. But this less than grueling stroll of a $300,000 Monmouth Cup might just be exactly what the trainer ordered to set the team on course of the much richer Classic.
Financial backers of Musket Man in the Classic may get better than what they ordered as well. Zenyatta should again be the favorite and will likely be over bet because of her popularity. It is not likely that Musket Man will become more popular than Lookin at Lucky, Quality Road or Blame; and possibly Japanese invader Espoir City, winner of the prestigious Japan Cup Dirt in December, will garner his share of the Classic wagering. That leaves little chance that Musket Man will fall below 12-to-1 and will likely be closer to 20-to-1. That could result in some solid profit.
There is a lot of time between now and the Nov. 6 Breeders’ Cup and many things can happen and likely will happen as the race looms closer. But when looking for that last race longshot, don’t overlook Musket man – the horse that has lost his last five races but still may have his best shot at Churchill Downs.