Horses

Breeders' Cup Distaff pits Untapable against tough lineup of veterans

Untapable, with Rosie Napravnik up, got clear in the stretch en route to winning the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in May. She added wins against fellow 3-year-olds in the Grade I Mother Goose and Cotillion, but the Distaff is a sizable step up in class.
Untapable, with Rosie Napravnik up, got clear in the stretch en route to winning the Kentucky Oaks at Churchill Downs in May. She added wins against fellow 3-year-olds in the Grade I Mother Goose and Cotillion, but the Distaff is a sizable step up in class. Herald-Leader

ARCADIA, Calif. — The Santa Anita Park track has resembled the nearby Interstate-210 in the morning with more than 170 Breeders' Cup contenders jostling to get their fine-tuning in among the regular equine population.

Like that sports car that keeps revving its engine even if it's only moving a few feet at a time, Winchell Thoroughbreds' homebred filly Untapable has stood out among the horseflesh.

The multiple Grade I winner is already atop one pedestal from which she cannot be knocked as the clear leader of the 3-year-old filly division. The only frontier left for Untapable in an almost certain championship season is testing herself against older females, a challenge that will come with a vengeance in Friday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Distaff at Santa Anita Park.

The 11⁄8-mile Distaff is one of four Breeders' Cup races Friday with the event's other nine races — headlined by the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic — taking place Saturday.

Even with champion and defending race winner Beholder sidelined after spiking a fever a couple weeks ago, the 2014 Distaff ranks in quality near the top of the Breeders' Cup lineup with six Grade I winners in its expected field of 11.

Having beaten up every sophomore filly in her path and taken a swing against males with a fifth-place finish in the Grade I Haskell Invitational, a real read on Untapable's impressive form in the mornings here will be determined Friday. This year's Kentucky Oaks winner stands as the 5-2 morning-line favorite facing the likes of multiple Grade I winner Close Hatches and late-blooming veteran Don't Tell Sophia.

"I don't think she could be doing any better. She's training like she was before the Oaks," said David Fiske, manager for Winchell Thoroughbreds. "It's probably a combination of things but she's doing awfully well. She's been out there for weeks, she has done well, she seems to be coming up to the race in the right way."

Untapable has had her way with the would-be challengers in her division, racking up Grade I victories in the Oaks, Mother Goose and Cotillion while earning her five wins by a combined 32 lengths.

However, the quality the Steve Asmussen trainee has beaten is not in the same zone as what the Distaff will throw at her.

Prior to her dull fourth-place finish in the Grade I Juddmonte Spinster at Keeneland on Oct. 5, Judd-monte homebred Close Hatches was clearly cemented as the best older female in the country on the back of four straight victories including wins in the Grade I Apple Blossom, Ogden Phipps and Personal Ensign.

The only time Close Hatches had a day like the Spinster came when she was seventh in the 2013 Kentucky Oaks. The daughter of First Defence rebounded to score two Grade I wins last year and finish second in the Distaff.

Considering her connections could find nothing amiss after her Spinster effort, the hope is that the competitive Close Hatches was merely taking a one-race hiatus.

"At her best she'd be a deserving favorite, and that is the one question everyone has," said Juddmonte general manager Garrett O'Rourke. "All I can say are the signs that we're seeing are that she's in good form.

"If Bill (trainer Mott) is saying she seems fine, you give them the opportunity. When given the opportunity, some mares ... just seem to decide I'm healthy, I'm sound but I don't have the competitive spirit anymore."

The absence of Beholder is a favorable one for Close Hatches and her early speed, but she will have to go hard to get to the front out of the outside post position No. 11.

"I didn't like the draw that much, but at least she has some tactical speed to get herself out of trouble," O'Rourke said.

Don't Tell Sophia overwhelmed Close Hatches and four others with her late kick last time out to take the Spinster, her first career Grade I triumph. At age 6, the daughter of Congaree has never been more right physically.

Though she closed off pedestrian fractions to win the Locust Grove at Churchill Downs on Sept. 6, how effective her turn of foot will be over what can be a speed-favoring Santa Anita surface is a concern.

"I'd love to see four or five of them hustle out to the lead," trainer and co-owner Phil Sims said. "She will find her own position at the back of the field."

A wild card to the pace scenario could be Ria Antonia, winner of last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies at Santa Anita via disqualification. Fitted with blinkers in the Spinster, Ria Antonia pressed Close Hatches on the front and still held for second.

"I don't know what has happened, but she looks better than she did last year," owner Ron Paolucci said of Ria Antonia. "Before the Spinster, her color was back and her weight was back and I knew she was going to run a big race."

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