When the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships were founded in 1984, they were a well-funded racing curiosity. The sport had always decided its major championships exclusively on paper, in often-contentious votes by members of the racing community that sought to imagine the outcomes of races that would never take place (or which had taken place, but had not produced a definitive result). The Breeders' Cup would bring the best together in the fall of the year, both a showcase and a showdown. Votes would still be taken to decide championships, but in theory, the Breeders' Cup races would weigh more heavily on the outcomes than anything previously contested. Voters would be more informed.
Arguments persist. (See 2009, Horse of the Year, Rachel Alexandra over Zenyatta). Spirited debate is ingrained in the racing game, but the Breeders' Cup has given the sport the closest thing to a Super Bowl or a World Series: A season-ending gathering place where the best race against the best. The 34th renewal will unfold Friday and Saturday at Del Mar, the idyllic race track on the Pacific Ocean a few miles north of San Diego.
A few story lines to watch, among the 13 races:
Will the real Arrogate please stand up?
The climactic race of the Breeders' Cup is the $6 million Classic, the aspirational name that had long been reserved for the Triple Crown races, but also the 10-furlong distance that separates the great from the merely good.
One year ago, Arrogate missed the Triple Crown races, but tore through the late summer, fall and winter with such authority that racing experts were comparing him to some of the best horses in history. He won Saratoga’s Travers in track-record time and then ran down California Chrome in the homestretch of the Classic before adding to his bankroll with impressive victories in the Pegasus and the Dubai World Cup. It seemed likely that the dark grey colt would roll through his four-year-old season in similar fashion. He has not. Instead, he has lost twice in a row, and shown little of the form that made him so dominant a year ago. Both of those defeats came at Del Mar, so it’s possible that he just doesn’t like the surface. It happens. But they’re not moving the Breeders' Cup for him. On Saturday evening, he’s Peyton Manning playing in the snow in Foxborough.
In the Classic, he faces the hottest older horse in America, four-year-old Gun Runner. It was Gun Runner who Arrogate toyed with, after a terrible break, in winning the Dubai World Cup last March. The two horses have gone in opposite directions since: Arrogate is winless and Gun Runner is undefeated, including victories in the storied Whitney and Woodward, both at Saratoga. Gun Runner was made the 9-5 morning line favorite, while Arrogate is 2-1.
They are not the only horses in the race. Which brings us to:
The Baffert Invitational
Trainer Bob Baffert, the most recognizable human in the sport, has won the last three Classics (for three different owners)_in 2014 with Bayern, in 2015 with Triple Crown winner American Pharoah and in 2016 with Arrogate. It is an unprecedented achievement. But Baffert is not nearly done. He will have four starters in the Classic, including Arrogate. Collected, also a four-year-old, defeated Arrogate in the August Pacific Classic and, unlike Arrogate, seems to have no issues with the track. West Coast, a three-year-old May foal who wasn’t ready for the Triple Crown races, has emerged as the dominant three-year-old in America with victories in five consecutive races, including the Travers and Pennsylvania Derby. Baffert’s fourth starter is Mubtaahij, who battled American Pharoah two years ago for a different trainer, but recently won the Awesome Again Stakes at Santa Anita. He’s the longest of Baffert’s starters at 12-1; none of four would be a shocking winner, an embarrassment of riches.
'Where the Turf Meets the Surf’
For the second time in three years, the Breeders' Cup will take place at a new venue. Two years it was contested at Keeneland, the boutique racetrack in Lexington, Kentucky; that was a huge success. Del Mar is one of the most storied venues in racing, a track created by Hollywood stars from an earlier time. Like Saratoga in the East, Del Mar has been a summer-only getaway for the racing business, attracting stellar fields and superstar trainers and jockeys. The track is a breathtaking locale, with views of the mountains and the ocean. This will be its introduction to a broader audience. (Now, the Breeders' Cup needs to find a way to somehow get to Saratoga as well).
Two years ago, three-year-old Lady Eli was the best filly or mare in training. She had won the Breeders' Cup filly and mare turf race as a two-year-old and then all three of her starts at three, before developing laminitis, the dangerous hoof condition that led to the death of the sainted Barbaro in 2006.
Remarkably, Lady Eli not only survived, but flourished. She returned in the spring of 2016 and finished that year with a first and two seconds and this year, as a five-year-old, comes into the Breeders' Cup filly and mare turf race on a three-race winning streak. She will go off as the 5-2 favorite—and the sentimental favorite—in what will likely be a hyper-competitive race.
A Look at the Future
It is an annual temptation to view the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (for two-year-olds) as a sneak peek at the Derby prep races and Triple Crown races that follow next spring. That temptation has rarely proved useful. Only two winners of the Juvenile—Street Sense in 2006 and Nyquist in 2015—have gone on to win the Derby the following year, yet racing fans are reliably drawn to the first look at a potential Derby winner, even if the Juvenile has proven a poor predictor of three-year-old success. (Three years ago American Pharoah was slated to go off as a heavy favorite in the Juvenile, but was scratched with a minor injury during race week).
This year’s buzzy two-year-old is the unbeaten (three-for-three), California-based Bolt d’Oro. After breaking his maiden in early August at Del Mar, he overcame a slow start to win the Del Mar Futurity (American Pharoah won that one, too) and the galloped away to an explosive, seven-length victory in the Front Runner Stakes on Sept. 30 at Santa Anita. Bolt d’Oro looks the part of a champion, but he’s not faced any of the best young horses from outside California. If he wins, he’ll be at the top of all the Kentucky Derby future betting books and fans will stubbornly whisper about the next Triple Crown winner.
The 1 1/8-mile distaff, for fillies and mares, looms as the most intriguing, storyline-laden race on the card. (It will, however, be almost impossible to top last year’s breathtaking Distaff, in which Beholder prevailed over Songbird at the wire, in battle of two of the best horses of the last decade).
The 5-2 morning line favorite this year is Stellar Wind, the five-year-old who twice defeated Beholder last year, but could do no better than fourth at the Breeders' Cup in 2016. Stellar Wind is unbeaten in three races in 2017, but has not run since winning the Clement L. Hirsch Stakes at Del Mar on July 30. An additional point: Stellar Wind’s trainer is John Sadler, one of the most respected trainers in the business. Sadler has started 39 horses in the Breeders' Cup and has yet to win a race, a befuddling statistical anomaly.
Sadler will not have an easy path to his first win. Among the challengers are the Baffert-trained three-year-old, Abel Tasman, who followed a sloppy victory in the Kentucky Oaks with wins in two Grade I races in New York and a second in the Cotilion at Parx Racing on Pennsylvania Derby day. She hasn’t been worse than second since the summer of 2016. There is also the five-year-old Forever Unbridled, who is two-for-two in 2017, including a victory in the Personal Ensign Stakes at Saratoga on Travers Day.