Racing to be highly contested in stacked Pepsi North America Cup eliminations

With only the top two finishers in each elimination guaranteed to advance, horses will have to try hard to qualify. That should make the eliminations decent wagering events.

by Brett Sturman

In a complete but welcomed turnaround from last year and years past, four separate elimination races will be needed to sort out the 33 sophomore pacers that dropped in the box for the 40th edition of the Pepsi North America Cup.

The high number of entrants comes somewhat out of the blue, considering that just last year when Pebble Beach won the North America Cup, only 17 horses had entered. The most obvious dynamic is that last year the majority of the horses from the two elimination races sailed into the final, whereas now horses must finish either in first or second in order to guarantee a spot in next week’s $1 million final.

With eight of the 10 spots for the North America Cup final coming from the 1-2 finishers in the four eliminations, the final two spots will be drawn by lot from the four third-place finishers. In similar situations, other tracks have used third-place finishers with the fastest times to qualify for the final, but I like the approach of a random draw being used by Woodbine Mohawk in the North America Cup. This isn’t quarter horse time trials at Ruidoso where the object is to go as fast as possible; the objective here is only to finish in the top two regardless of time.

In most other years, even in years where three eliminations were needed, elimination races were widely unplayable from a wagering standpoint. Where horses only need to make the top five or top three, the incentive is to accomplish just that and perhaps not much more. As has been shown time and time again, betting on horses to win under those circumstances is suboptimal.

But now, it’s completely different. The shape that these elimination races take will mirror the competitiveness often only seen in the finals. Horses will have to try if they intend to make the final, and the elimination races become far more reliable to bet on. On top of that, these four races in particular are ultra-competitive. There are very few if any walkovers, and the overall competitiveness of this 3-year-old crop is likely at least one reason for the large number of entries to start with.

It’s all due to the luck (or unluck) of the draw, but horses that have drawn into race 5 on Saturday (the second of the four eliminations), have it the toughest by far. For one, it’s the only elimination with nine horses (all others have eight), and it’s a loaded field to boot. It includes, among others, Annapolis Hanover, Combustion, Ammo, Fulton, El Rey and Redwood Hanover. Any of these six horses would be considered legitimate contenders to win the entire thing and following their elimination race only two and at best, maybe three will be going forward to next week’s final.

Redwood Hanover comes into the brutal elimination as the fastest Somebeachsomewhere split winner last week, and arguably as the most impressive. After leaving into a :25.4 opening quarter and yielding to a horse expected to carry him further, Fulton got first run at that tiring leader and appeared clear. Redwood Hanover was able to pop out near the top of the stretch though still down a couple lengths at that point and rallied willingly to collar Fulton with some room to spare. Annapolis Hanover was another multiple-move winner in the Somebeachsomewhere last week. Similarly, he left, sat the 2-hole, and parlayed that trip into a win over Bamboozler in a race where those two were clear of the others. Last year’s Breeders Crown winner Ammo returns to Woodbine Mohawk on the heels of a second-place finish to another top North America Cup contender, It’s My Show in their recent PASS race at Harrah’s Philadelphia. Combustion won as expected in his return race last week and last year’s 1:49.3 winner and Governor’s Cup runner-up figures to make noise for Pelling and McCarthy. El Rey finished last year as the sharpest 2-year-old and we’ll see what he can offer against this group. He was stuck behind a 47-1 longshot for much of his mile last week in the Somebeachsomewhere, he seemed only mild once free though the race had been put to bed by then anyway.

Prediction for top two: Ammo, Redwood Hanover.

Onto the other hotly contested though somewhat calmer eliminations, the first elimination of the night takes place in race 3. There, unbeaten in 2023 Voukefalas races outside of the U.S. for the first time and outside of New Jersey for just the third time. I know he’s all the rage right now and deservedly so, but there’s a couple in here that he hasn’t yet seen the likes of. He enters off that resounding NJSS Final win and we’ll get an even better read on him from this race. Erwin Hanover impressed last out in his PASS at Chester when tussling for the lead early and then being able to push past late from the pocket against a well-backed Bamboozler; he’s heading in the right direction through three starts this year for Burke. Those two will throw down again as Bamboozler is in this field as well, and as mentioned above he exits off a solid second place try here last week to Annapolis Hanover. Amazingly he’s only 2-for-16 in his career; finishes underneath quite often. Christchurch is a bit of a wild card coming from Takter. The qualifiers all look impressive enough on paper and he did beat another Cup starter in Dupree Hanover in May at The Meadowlands; looks like he’s moved up from age 2 to 3.

Prediction for top two: Erwin Hanover, Voukefalas.

In the third elimination of the night going in race 7, the top contenders seem well consolidated towards the inside posts. It’s My Show lands the rail and could probably be considered the horse to beat across all the eliminations. He’s been brilliant while unbeaten in his four starts this year (after being winless in eight starts last year at 2), and he was convincing last out when beating Ammo and the same the week prior when doing the same to Bamboozler. Last year’s 2-year-old champion Stockade Seelster bounced back in the Somebeachsomewhere after maybe being caught a little off guard in his first start of the year in the Ontario SBOA. Save America had been a question mark to start off the year but then came through with an amazing track record performance in a PA Stallion Series race on a day where the Harrah’s Philadelphia track had never played faster. That same day, Seven Colors benefitted from a ridiculous pace in a PASS division to sweep on by late in an identical 1:48.1 clocking to Save America.

Prediction for top two: It’s My Show, Stockade Seelster.

The final elimination of the night in race 9 centers squarely around Confederate. Last year’s Breeders Crown runner-up returned last week to win against older at The Meadowlands with a :25.4 final quarter sprint while racing wide and seems well positioned to stamp his way to the final for Pelling and Tetrick. Lyon’s Surfing had to go first-over against the 1-5 favored It’s My Show last out and held together fairly well until the very end. Stormalong set an unsustainable pace in his most recent and could be a sneaky longshot for Alagna. Ants Marching had to race uncovered for much of his mile last week and did well to hold third while never threatening the top pair; will look to close once again. Write Me A Rose left but wasn’t in a strong position last week as a follow-up to his surprising win over Stockade Seelster two back; figures to be closer throughout now. Loubet is still finding his way early in the 3-year-old season.

Prediction for top two: Confederate, Lyon’s Surfing.