Los Angeles (AFP) - Don't let the absence of Triple Crown hero Justify fool you -- there's plenty of talent in Saturday's $6 million Breeders' Cup Classic at Churchill Downs.
"These horses, the field, they've made over $36 million -- that's remarkable," said US trainer Bob Baffert -- who saddled Classic winners in 2014, '15 and '16 but has never won the biggest Breeders' Cup prize when the two-day, 14-race festival has been held beneath Churchill's twin spires in Louisville, Kentucky.
California-based Accelerate was installed as the early 5-2 favorite despite drawing the far outside No. 14 post.
The five-year-old trained by John Sadler arrives at Churchill Downs having won three straight races by a combined margin of 19 lengths.
Accelerate finished ninth and third in the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile the past two years, but Sadler says the 1 1/4-mile Classic distance should suit him now.
"He's a year older and this distance is his best distance now," he said. "He's had a great year and he looks great, so we're really looking forward to this weekend."
Accelerate's challengers include a strong foreign contingent that features Japanese-bred Yoshida, trained by two-time Classic winner Bill Mott and owned by WinStar Farm and China Horse Club International -- who teamed up to take Justify to the Triple Crown.
The European raiding party features Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien's Mendelssohn and the John Gosden-trained Roaring Lion.
O'Brien, who has won 12 Breeders' Cup races but never a Classic, said Mendelssohn has "toughened up" since he broke poorly and was pulled up to finish last out of 20 in the Kentucky Derby in May.
"He's had more experience and he knows what's expected," said O'Brien, who has shipped Mendelssohn back and forth from Ireland to the United States for three more races since the Kentucky Derby.
"His last two big bits of work, we're very happy and we felt he's come forward again," O'Brien said. "We've taught him to race hard and race forward and we feel he's in a better place now than he was going to the Kentucky Derby."
- 'Tough field' -
Roaring Lion enters having won four straight races but will be tested for the first time on dirt.
"They either take it or they don't. That’s my view on things,” jockey Oisin Murphy said. "He moves perfectly fine, in my opinion, and John certainly thinks his action will be fine for dirt. He's going to have to jump and race a lot faster than he (usually) does the first two furlongs."
Like Mendelssohn, Thunder Snow has moments to live down at Churchill Downs, where he broke out of the gate in the 2017 Kentucky Derby like a rodeo bucking horse and finished last -- the description on the official race chart of his performance: "rank, bucked, pulled up".
A year and a half later he seeks redemption on the heels of a victory in the Dubai World Cup.
"I think this race, it's a tough field," said Baffert, who saddles Collected, West Coast and McKinzie -- the horse he originally tipped for the 2018 Kentucky Derby before a hock injury disrupted his season.
"The Classic is a tall order for him because he's only had one prep coming off a layoff, but McKinzie will move up off that race," Baffert said.
"It's a lot of good horses," Baffert added. "Accelerate I think is still the horse to beat. You still have to have racing luck, you've got to get around."