What Recent History Suggests When Sizing Up the Breeders’ Cup Sprint Horses

The Qatar Racing Breeders’ Cup Sprint is arguably the most prestigious dirt sprint race in the world. It carries a purse of $2 million and has propelled the last seven winners and 10 of the last 11 winners to year-end champion honors as the Eclipse Award winner in the male sprinter division.

Dirt sprints are the bread and butter of U.S. racing from coast to coast, so it’s no surprise that horses bred and based in North America have dominated this three-quarter-mile race to the tune of 37 wins in 38 editions. Only Sheikh Albadou, who was bred in Great Britain and campaigned in Europe, in 1991 was able to ship into the U.S. and win our premier dirt sprint.

Every year, I look through the last 20 editions of this race for historical trends and interesting nuggets that might be helpful when handicapping the Sprint. I then try to build a profile of the winner to compare with this year’s contenders.

The results for the first three years were very strong, but last year Whitmore bucked many of the trends when he rallied for an upset at big odds, so let’s start there with some information on how favorites and longshots have fared in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, which will be held Nov. 6 at Del Mar.

Any Shot for a Big Payday?

In 38 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint the average payout for a $2 win ticket on the victor has been $20.01. Historically, eight of the 14 other races produce better payouts on average, so it’s not the best spot to go searching for a longshot. But upsets do happen in the Sprint and it has been very tough to win as the favorite from 2001 to 2020.

  • Only four times in the last 20 years was the Breeders’ Cup Sprint was won by the favorite.
  • Seven Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners from 2001 through 2020 lit up the toteboard at double-digit odds, and there were eight winners that paid more than $20 on a $2 win bet.
  • The average odds for the winner over the last 20 years has been 8.925-1 with a median of 5.05-1 odds.
  • Dancing in Silks, at 25.30-1 odds, is the biggest longshot during the 20-year span, while Cajun Beat won at 22.80-1 in 2003 and Work All Week prevailed at 19.10-1 for three winners that returned $40 or more for a $2 bet.
  • Four of the seven double-digit winners won their final prep and two others ran second by a length or less, so keep an eye out for an overlooked contender in good form that might not have the name recognition of some of the others.
  • Whitmore was a bit of an outlier last year as he finished fourth in his final prep race on the main track that hosted the Breeders’ Cup but bounced back to run a career race at 18.40-1 odds in the 2020 Sprint. How often do you see a $36.80 winner pull away to win a major race by 3 ¼ lengths?!
  • While there is reason for some optimism as it pertains to longshots in the Sprint, it’s been a bit of an all-or-nothing race as 10 winners were less than 5-1 odds with another (Big Drama in 2010) prevailing at 5.20-1.
  • In fact, before Whitmore pulled off his stunner last year at Keeneland, the previous five Sprint winners were fairly obvious win candidates at odds ranging from 8-5 (Runhappy, 2015) to 4.90-1 (Roy H, 2017).

Damn, They’re Good

Looking at the last 20 editions of this race, the one aspect that seems most significant is that the winners of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint have been exceptionally consistent.

  • Eighteen of the last 20 Sprint winners ran third or better in their final prep race with 17 of them second or better.
  • Thirteen of the last 20 Sprint winners entered off a victory in their final prep race, including seven in a row before Whitmore last year halted that streak.
  • The two Sprint winners who entered the Breeders’ Cup off an unplaced finish both had proven track records: Whitmore, last year, was a six-time graded stakes winner with a Grade 1 victory on his résumé as well as a runner-up finish in the 2018 Breeders’ Cup Sprint; and Midnight Lute, who missed almost all of his 2008 season after winning the Sprint in 2007 and ran 10th in his only start before he scored a repeat victory.
  • Extending back beyond the final prep, the numbers are even more illuminating. From June of their respective year through the Breeders’ Cup (not counting the actual World Championships race), eventual Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners amassed 31 wins from 54 starts with a remarkable 49 top-three finishes.
  • For those counting at home, that’s a 57.4% win percentage from Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners from June through their final prep race and a 91% rate for top-three finishes. Look for a lot of 1s, 2s, and 3s in the past performances.

What’s the Best Running Style for the Sprint?

Tactical speed is extremely valuable in all dirt races and particularly dirt sprints, so it is no surprise that high-cruising speed has been a common trait among the last 20 winners. Horses who prefer to rally from well off the pace have enjoyed far less success.

  • The main trend here is that the Sprint historically has been tough for deep closers, although beloved fan-favorite Whitmore did his best to shake up a bunch of these trends with his upset win at Keeneland last November.
  • Of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners, only Midnight Lute in 2007 and 2008 profiled as a true deep closer entering the race. I labeled Whitmore (who was 7 years old when he won) as a closer/stalker because as he got older he tended to race a bit closer to the pace. But he probably belongs in this closer category as he was 10th after the opening quarter-mile last year and ninth after a half-mile. So … we’ll go with three closers from the last 20 editions.
  • Eleven of the last 20 winners entered the race as pacesetters or press-the-pace types, and if you include two winners who fit a stalker/presser profile, the number rises to 13.
  • Average position after the opening quarter-mile was 4.15 (essentially fourth) with a median position at the first point of call of fourth. The average winner was within 2 ¾ lengths of the lead with the median at 1 ½ lengths back after a quarter-mile.
  • Average running position after a half-mile was 3.3, so on average the winner was between third and fourth with a quarter-mile remaining; the median was third. On average, the winner was a little more than 1 ½ lengths back at this point in the race and the median was 1 ¼ lengths back of the winner at the quarter-pole. Only five of the last 20 Breeders’ Cup Sprint winners were in front at the quarter-pole.
  • However, the winner of this race over the last 20 editions typically did not leave too much to do in the stretch. By both average and median, the winners were a head behind the leader at the eighth pole.
  • Nine of the 20 winners of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint had taken the lead by the eighth pole and none was worse than third.
  • The Sprint itself frequently shapes up a bit differently for the winners, forcing them out of their preferred running style, which makes sense because many sprinters boast high cruising speed. Often horses who raced on or near the lead in prep races were forced to drop back a bit farther than usual in the Sprint.

Odds and Ends

Before we get to this year’s runners and how they fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner, there are a few other useful and/or interesting nuggets I plucked from the last 20 years of Breeders’ Cup Sprint data.

  • Don’t rule out the 3-year-olds taking on older horses in the Sprint. Six times in the last 20 years, a 3-year-old won the race and there was value there with average winning odds of 10.60-1 and a median of 10.75-1. Four of the six entered off a win in a graded stakes and the other two ran second in their final prep.
  • If you are looking for a baseline speed figure, the average winning Equibase Speed Figure for the Breeders’ Cup Sprint over the last 20 years has been 118.2 with a median of 118.5, so you want to be sure you’ve landed on a contender who is within striking range of that type of number.
  • The average margin of victory has been slightly less than 1 ½ lengths (1.45) with a median of 1.125 (between a length and 1 ¼ lengths). Seven editions were decided by a half-length or less with four ending with a winning margin of a neck or less.
  • The average number of lifetime starts before the Breeders’ Cup for Sprint winners over the last 20 years is 14.2 with a median of 13. For the year of their Sprint win, winners averaged 5.05 races with 2.7 wins while the median was also five starts but with three wins.
  • Fifteen of the 20 winners were bred in Kentucky. Three others were California-breds with one Florida-bred (Big Drama, 2010) and one Illinois-bred (Work All Week, 2014).

Who Are the Leading Candidates for the 2021 Sprint?

This year, it looks like two of the three probable favorites will come from the 3-year-old division: Jackie’s Warrior and Dr. Schivel. Three-year-olds have won six of the last 20 editions of the Breeders’ Cup Sprint, so that’s an obvious place to start.

I expect Jackie’s Warrior to be a fairly heavy favorite having won three straight graded stakes following a runner-up finish by a neck June 5 at Belmont Park in the Grade 1 Woody Stephens Stakes Presented by Nassau County Development Agency. He’s a Grade 1 winner in absolute peak form who has won from on the pace and just off the pace, so he really couldn’t fit the profile of a Breeders’ Cup Sprint winner any better. Of course, the talent in the race will be significantly tougher than the weak four-horse field he faced when winning the Grade 2 Gallant Bob Stakes Sept. 25 at Parx Racing and favorites have only won at a 20% clip over the last 20 years. Jackie’s Warrior will be tough, but I don’t view him as a lock by any stretch.

In fact, I think I might lean toward Dr. Schivel, who also is in great form with three wins in as many starts since June and figures to carry much more appealing odds. The 3-year-old Violence colt won the Grade 1 Bing Crosby Stakes at this track and distance in July when rallying from sixth and led from start to finish most recently in winning the Grade 2 Santa Anita Sprint Championship Stakes. He’s won five straight races and is 3-for-3 lifetime at Del Mar, plus he’s versatile enough to set the pace, press the pace, or stalk the pace.

Another 3-year-old who could outrun his odds in the Sprint is Following Sea. He’s got a win, one second, and one third in three starts since June, which includes a second via disqualification in the Grade 1, 1 1/8-mile TVG.com Haskell Stakes. He reminds me a little bit of 2003 Sprint winner Cajun Beat, who has tried longer distances and then showed improvement when cutting back in distance and really came on in the second half of the year. Following Sea returned to sprinting for the Grade 1 H. Allen Jerkens Memorial Stakes in August at Saratoga and was a well-beaten third behind Jackie’s Warrior and Life Is Good, but he took a significant step forward in the Grade 2 Vosburgh Stakes when he led from start to finish in a 4 ¾-length runaway. I think he’s better prepared in this rematch with Jackie’s Warrior and the price will be right.

Stoll Keenon Ogden Phoenix Stakes winner Special Reserve very likely will vie with Dr. Schivel for the second betting choice behind Jackie’s Warrior and for good reason. He won five of seven starts on the year with a pair of seconds. The 5-year-old Midshipman gelding has two stakes wins and a runner-up finish by a half-length in the Grade 1 Alfred G. Vanderbilt Handicap in three starts since July. He also boasts tactical speed as a sprinter who does his best work pressing the pace. He’s really good right now – his last four races are the fastest of his career.

Another upset contender to consider based on historical indicators is Aloha West, who most recently was second by a next to Special Reserve in the Phoenix Stakes. While he does usually prefer to come from off the pace, he’s also won using a stalking trip and he could benefit from what figures to be a swift pace. He’s posted two wins and a second in his last three races, but he’s also never won a stakes race so I’m leaning toward using him to spice up my exacta and trifecta tickets rather than on top as a win contender.