Breeders Cup

by jason

The Breeders’ Cup World Championship, commonly just referred to as the Breeders’ Cup, is billed as the culmination of a season’s long series of high class horse racing. Running since 1984 as a one day showpiece, it was  extended to its current format in 2006 of 15 races split over two days and is held in November.

All but the new Juvenile Sprint are graded races, with the majority Grade One contests. Graded races showcase the highest equine talents with Grade One races being the pinnacle of the pyramid and landing a Grade One massively increases a horses value as a stallion or as broodmare. The Juvenile Sprint was only introduced in 2011 and as such cannot be awarded graded status until the third running.

The two-day event is the second most lavishly endowed racing carnival in the world with a purse on the second day worth just shy of $17 million, only trumped by the prize-money on Dubai World Cup night. It has always attempted to attract the best horses from across the world to compete against each other and many winners of Breeders’ Cup races have earned immortal status in the history of the sport.

The 1996 renewal was the only time the championships have been held outside the US, when Woodbine in Canada was the host. Churchill Downs has hosted the most meetings but the likes of Gulfstream Park, Belmont Park and Hollywood Park have all hosted the event multiple times. The 2008 and 2009 events were the first time a venue had hosted consecutive happenings and it was also the first time races were run on an artificial racing surface which was controversial. Santa Anita has been chosen again to host both this years and next years Breeders’ Cup.

To ensure that only the best horses can take part, a strict selection process is in place. With the exception of the Dirt Mile, which has a maximum field of 12 runners, all other races have a field of 14 participants. Pre-entry and entry fees are typically 1-2% of the total prize purse, which, for a race like the Classic, would equate to $50,00 and $100,000.

Breeders’ Cup organizers also have a list of ‘Challenge Races’ whereby the winner of certain nominated top-level races across the world are guaranteed a place in the corresponding Breeders’ Cup race. These Challenge Races include premier European races like the King George VI  and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, the Irish Champion Stakes, the Prix Niel and Australasian contests like the Doncaster Mile and the T.J Smith Stakes.

As an added incentive to encourage winning connections of these races to take up their place in the Breeders’ Cup, a new 2012 package will pay both entry fees as well as give a generous travel allowance to the trainer and owner. It is hoped this will ensure more European heavyweights make the long trip across the Atlantic. Other ranking factors come into play should a race be oversubscribed.

Bigger prize-money appearing in European and Asian races combined with certain issues and controversies surrounding North American racing has meant the lure of Breeders’ Cup glory is not as strong as it has been in times gone by. Traditionally American racecourses are much tighter than British and Irish tracks in particular, and many raiders aren’t suited to the nature of tight turns which don’t always allow horses to reach their peak speed. Furthermore the draw also becomes very important and there has been no shortage of horses being the victim of bad lucks stories, either getting boxed in against the rail or using up too much energy to gain a good position from unfavorable starting berths.

In addition, outside of the Americas and Japan, dirt racing is not widespread and makes limited appeal to connections of top horses who have little to gain by winning on the surface. But the biggest issue for challengers outside the US is the debate over drugs. Lasix is a loop diuretic used in the treatment of congestive heart failure and edema but it’s also used to prevent horses bleeding through the nose during races. Many horses suffer from exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage which causes them to bleed in their lungs during races, severely affects performance.

Racing rules in most US states banned a horse from racing permanently if it had been found to bleed on three different occasions. Lasix was approved for use in most states and that remains the case but its use is banned in most other racing jurisdictions and, unlike the US, there is little, if any, demand for its introduction. However, many trainers believe their American counterparts have an unfair advantage by running their animals on it and, even though leading Irish trainer, Aidan O’Brien, is known to use it with his animals running in the US, it remains a source of conflict and controversy. High-profile doping stories have also tarnished the image of American racing in many minds.

The highlight of the Breeders’ Cup is the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic which is generally the last race of the meeting. The ten furlong (2000 metres) contest on dirt is one of the most prestigious and richest races in the world and is open to three-year-olds and older. There has only ever been one multiple winner of the Classic, Tiznow, in 2000 and 2001, and, because of the exceptional quality of the line-up, trying to find the winner is more than difficult. All-time greats like Curlin and Cigar enhanced their reputation with brilliant wins in this race.

Arcangues pulled off the biggest upset in Breeders’ Cup history when he stormed to Classic victory under Jerry Bailey in 1993. His $269.20 payoff for a $2 wager equates to odds of nearly 135/1. The great mare Zenyatta, who won in 2009, remains the only female to have won the race and her defeat in the 2010 renewal is one of the most iconic moments in the sport’s history.

Arriving at Churchill Downs as, not only the defending Classic champion, but also protecting a 19-race unbeaten record, Zenyatta was a hot favourite to complete her career with a perfect 20/20 record. She got off to her customary slow start and trailed the field by over ten lengths at one stage, a massive distance for any horse who had aspirations of actually winning the race. Her jockey, Mike Smith, had ridden the daughter of Street Cry in her last 16 starts and didn’t seem overly concerned with the gap as Zenyatta was renowned for cutting down her rivals in the home straight. However, Smith seemed to delay his challenge a moment too long and, even though Zenyatta flew down the straight, absolutely mowing down her rivals, Blame had got first run and held on by a rapidly diminishing head.

Mike Smith broke down in the press conference afterwards and many fans have never forgiven him for tarnishing the career of one of the all-time greats and the only horse so far to have won eight consecutive Grade/Group One races. Zenyatta also holds the record for Breeders’ Cup earnings with a total of $4.68 million and is the only horse to have ever won two different Breeders’ Cup races having won the Ladies’ Classic in 2008.

Another female Breeders’ Cup legend is the now retired French superstar Goldikova, who is the only horse to have ever won three Breeders’ Cup races. The Freddy Head-trained mare took the Mile successively between 2008-10. She fell just short last year when bidding for her fourth crown on her last race, finishing third, the same position she occupies on the all-time Breeders’ Cup earning list with $3.5 million.

Despite a huge number of top class horses trained outside America competing in the Classic, perhaps largely due to the unfamiliar surface, only Arcangues and Raven’s Pass in 2008 have their names on the winner’s rostrum.

Back on grass, European-trained horses in the Breeders’ Cup turf have an exceptional record with eight winners from the last ten runnings (including a dead-heat). High Chaparral, trained by Aidan O’Brien and Sir Michael Stoute’s Conduit have both taken the prize twice. Stoute is the leading handler in the race’s history with four wins.

Another European horse who made a mark on the Breeders’ Cup was the British-trained sprinter, Dayjur. Labelled ‘the world’s fastest horse’, he went to the 1990 Belmont Park championship for the Sprint, having won four of the biggest sprints in Europe. The son of Danzig negotiated a difficult draw and was set for a brilliant victory over Safely Kept, before jumping a shadow on the track and another just before the line, allowing the filly to snatch victory by a neck.

Both US legends Jerry Bailey and Mike Smith have 15 Breeders’ Cup races on their CV, the most among the riding ranks. Darrell Wayne Lucas trained the winner of 18 Breeders’ Cup races, a record that doesn’t look likely to be broken anytime soon as Claude McGaughey III trails in second place with nine wins.