"The best is yet to come...", warbled the glamorous songstress Kristin Chenoweth as the horses jogged out for the Breeders Cup Classic. And indeed it was.
After two days, and thirteen absorbing - and often thrilling - races, it came down to this: the $5,000,000 Breeders Cup Classic. And boy, do the Americans know how to set the scene.
Pomp - no, scratch that... hooplah was the order of the hour, as the track action lived up to its climactic billing, and some. But... this story should start at the beginning. Rewind.
Sitting in the auxiliary press area on Thursday, Breeders Cup eve (by the way, the grammatically pedantic among you will correctly identify my stubborn resistance to the apostrophe after Breeders, which is wrong, I concede), I had to catch myself at my good fortune.
Already having savoured something almost extinct in the UK - horses training on the track - that morning down at Clockers' Corner, I was in a sporting wonderland that was to last for 60 glorious hours (sleep, beer and food notwithstanding).
A bit of an unknown, and to some degree perhaps an 'unwelcome', amongst the traditional UK media fraternity, whose familiarity with each other doesn't readily lend itself to interlopers or newcomers, I was on best behaviour as I tried to ingratiate with that fine body of writers, who - to a man (and they were all men) - I have come to respect through decades of reading their work.
But I had my desk in the press box too, and I had my laptop. And I had a view. I had a view like no other office on the planet, directly across the track in front of me, and away to the San Gabriel mountains beyond. My fortune doesn't extend to visits at all of the incredible racetracks of the world, but I can say this: as glorious as Goodwood is on a sunny day, it is no Santa Anita.
The comparison is certainly harsh on Goodwood, but it's harsher still on all of the rest of the courses which largely don't stack up against the amphitheatre streaked atop the Sussex Downs.
Here I was, a no name "from the land of the blogs and the virtual people", as Seamus from Reggie Perrin might have said, perching with the cream of the world's racing journalists. Interloper indeed.
Let's get to the sport. Breeders Cup Friday is a more subdued affair, and one that has yet to establish its theme, or its rhythm. Last year, it was Ladies' Day (apostrophe included this time). But, while the Distaff remained the pinnacle of Friday's card, the supporting acts consisted of juvenile turf events, for both boys and girls; the friendless Marathon (friendless, that is, unless you live in the same corner of Lambourn as winning connections of London Bridge do); and the Dirty Old Mile, or the Dirt Mile if you insist.
A gathering of misfits, but a welcome one for the British raiding party, who helped themselves to 60% of the available goodies, in 'races won' terms if not 'prize money won'.
It started with the Marathon, far less appetizing than its chocolate counterpart now renamed the Snickers. Perhaps it would work better as the Breeders Cup Snickers, Probably not, although it couldn't be any nuttier.
The Marathon truly is the misfit race: non-stayers, horses that have never run on dirt, old horses, young horses, horses lacking in class. This is the hole for them. In a race where none of the ten had anything like a strong profile fit, London Bridge made it three out of five for Europe, and was the first of three out of five for Europe on the day too.
Fair play to connections - Jo Hughes, Paul Blockley and Mikael Magnusson (the mucho mattress man) - for having the lateral acuity to bring their improving sophomore Stateside to outstay the Ant Hill Mob in this most Wacky of Races. $275,000 worth of lateral acuity. Or £172,662 if you prefer.
While that victory was a first for a European horse on a dirt surface Marathon - the previous two having been on synthetic Pro-Ride - what was to come next was a far more familiar story, albeit with a twist. The Juvenile Turf has been virtually monopolized by Europe, with John Gosden and Aidan O'Brien netting consecutive winners apiece either side of Pluck's 2010 notch for the home team.
This year, America had a really smart two-year-old turfer in the shape of Bobby's Kitten. Named after the late Bobby Frankel, , Bobby's Kitten was very heavily bet and in fact was sent off the 5/4 favourite to the surprise of most non-Americans in the crowd.
Giovanni Boldini was the next most popular choice, especially among the press brigade, and - after the normally excellent Javier Castellano had set early fractions that would have given that other horse named in honour of the departed trainer a run for his hay - it looked set fair for Gio Boldini to scoot by down the stretch. In fact, the Kitten hung very tough, and it was only in the last hundred yards that GB finally nostrilled ahead.
A hundred yards can seem a very long way in horse racing. Just ask Javier Castellano. Or Ryan Moore. Because, with just ten yards to go, Moore and Giovanni Boldini were outstripped by, erm, Outstrip under the galvanizing influence of Mike Smith. Smith was bagging his brace, as was Team Great Britain and Ireland, and the Americans were still waiting for something to cheer.
It was one of those races that, if run again, would almost certainly conclude differently. The Kitten would be rated rather than stoked in the early furlongs; Moore would have tried to pounce even later; and, Outstrip would most likely not have had the collapsing pace up front to favour his finishing spurt. Not for the last time over the weekend there was a distinct impression that the best horse had not won. Still, $10 of an exacta which paid $23.10 for each one did much to render that impression indistinct, in the ledger at least.
The Dirt Mile - a race that has historically thrown up plenty of surprises - was an exclusively domestic affair and, on a dirt track where the speed bias was making horse races more akin to speedway - the leader at the first corner wins - Goldencents shot off like a scolded cat. The first half of the race was run in 44.75 seconds, a record for the Dirt Mile, and the front pair (completed by Broadway Empire) surely had to come back to their field.
But they had four clear lengths of daylight on scrubbed along rivals. With a furlong and a half to go, Rafael Bejarano on Goldencents was pushing and shoving for dear life trying to squeeze every last drop from his equine lemon. Golden Ticket emerged from the chasing pack with a menacing looking run and the game seemed up for the trailblazing second favourite.
It very well might have been up were it not for that conveyor belt of speed aiding and abetting his smash and grab raid on the pot. The second half of the race was run in 50.37 seconds, fully 5.62 seconds slower than the first half, telling you all you need to know about how this panned out.
Huge credit to Goldencents who was able to achieve this impressive win from stall twelve, meaning he had expended still more energy in the first part of the race to get across from such a wide berthing.
Having hit the 'ALL' key on my Pick 4, I was looking for some of that historical upset 'magic' in the race. What I got was a 3.8/1 second choice and an almost certain losing return even if I landed the third leg, the Juvenile Fillies Turf, and the last leg, the Distaff.
There was a strong European entry in the race, as there should be for such a tailor-made contest. It was headed by the French filly Vorda, a Group 1 winner at six furlongs but stretching out a good bit further here. Her class was matched - and bettered - by the Group 1 Fillies' Mile winner, Chriselliam, for whom there were no such stamina questions to answer. And Al Thakira was a second string to the Qatari-owned bow, and a third to that of the European challenge.
Bizarrely, despite the race being five years old, Europe had only celebrated its maiden win in 2012. That coincided with the restriction on the use of Lasix for entries, and it was a case of deja-vu as the Prix de nags au naturel again went to Europe, and for the second time in about two hours, specifically to Lambourn.
Richard Hughes suffered traffic problems last year on Dundonnell, but he had no such issues this time, Chriselliam surging past the game but knackered My Conquestadory and manifesting two and a half lengths of fresh air between herself and the late-running Testa Rossi, who had been second last turning in and found trouble in the stretch drive.
She wouldn't have won, but she might have been within a length of Willie's wonder. Carson was on hand to do the tomfoolery honours, and why not? After all, this went some way to exorcising the demons of that night in 1990 when Dayjur jumped a shadow in sight of the finish line and snatched defeat from the jaws of victory. That was as close as wee Willie got to riding a winner at the Breeders Cup.
Five bucks of the exacta - each buck worth $79.20 - was an extremely satisfactory result, and ensured that Friday would finish in front irrespective of the outcome of the Distaff, a cracking race in prospect, and also the last leg of the Pick 4, where I was 'alive' to Royal Delta, the hat-trick-seeking favourite, and Beholder.
The form book said that Beholder would sear along in the early part of the race, and Royal Delta would track her ready to pounce, with Princess Of Sylmar, the third prong of this talented trident of equine totty, expected to come late and fast in her bid to gun down the pair of them.
Alas, as is so often the case, the race was something of anti-climax, in terms of the script at least. In fact, it was a fine performance from the winner, Beholder, who rated behind horses for almost the first time in her career. In a role reversal, it was Royal Delta who tried to make the pace, but she was harried and hectored on her inside by Authenticity, something of a local 'wise guy' upset choice.
By the end of the back straight, Royal Delta was backing out, and by the top of the lane, it was clear that Princess Of Sylmar was going to be a no-show today. Close Hatches was a distant four-and-a-bit lengths second, but the story was that 50-year-old Gary Stevens, who had been in retirement for seven years and only returned earlier this term, had won the Breeders Cup Distaff.
It was Stevens' third Distaff win, after Escena and the longshot One Dreamer, and his first for fifteen years. As the tannoy reminded us via the Breeders Cup anthem, for Stevens the best was yet to come...
I'd closed out with a score in the Pick 4, which was worth $403.90, and despite plenty of losing efforts along the way ended Friday buoyant but braced for the lengthy betting battle ahead.
When your luck's in, your luck's in. And, upon arriving at the track at 7.45am Saturday morning, I discovered that my $10 throwaway bet on one of the mules in the Arab race that closed the Friday card - I'd left while those were being saddled - had won at 11/1. Excellent, I thought, but after last year's punting disaster, caution was my wagering watchword.
The Pick 5 - Americans can pick anything from one to six consecutive races to bet at many tracks for their jackpot equivalent - kicked off the day, and there was a chunky $900,000 carry over after it wasn't won on Friday. I like a challenge, so I invested $162 in that bet.
Spread across six tickets, I'd got a nice bit of coverage, and managed to get the 'right' horse to win in the first. It was one of my A selections, and it was a 13/2 shot. In the second leg, there was a 1/5 favourite that hadn't raced since June. He was the class horse and was my sole A pick, but I chucked a couple of others on C, just in case.
As it turned out, that was a smart move, the greater resilience of #3 overcoming a tired odds-on jolly. The trouble with C picks is that they only exist on one ticket, which meant that I needed A selections to win the last three legs.
Next up was a downhill sprint, and I'd got two high drawn horses, and #1 as well. #13, Pontchatrain, won as the 9/4 favourite, and that was just fine for me. The final two legs were the Breeders Cup Juvenile Fillies and the Filly and Mare Turf. I had three of the juvies, and the Euros Dank and Romantica in leg five.
As the field turned in, She's A Tiger, who had set a searching cadence on the front, still looked to be travelling well, while closest pursuer, the rag Ria Antonia, was all out and two lengths behind.
By the wire, She's A Tiger was less a nose and more a nasal hair ahead. But she had won, and the Pick 5 was 'alive' to Europe in the last. But wait, what's this? There's a stewards' enquiry. Ah, ok, they're looking into the nasty fall of Johnny Velasquez around the home turn. I hope he's all right. It can't be anything to do with She's A Tiger: she's been in front all the way round.
Oh no, wait, hang on. She got close to the second. Oh sh*t, she's bumped the second. Oh. My. God.
It took the local beaks a while to reach their majority verdict, but the right call was made and the second horse, Ria Antonia, was promoted to the win spot. If I was gutted, then spare a thought for Johnny V who, subsequent reports revealed, had been almost literally gutted, that fall being so nasty he had to have his spleen removed. Ouch. Suddenly, I didn't feel quite so bad. But, selfishly, I did still feel pretty bad.
Onwards, for there's no time for soul-searching on such a tip top day of sport. Europe were up next and bidding for win number four of what was already a hugely successful late season sally. Dank was the favourite, and she looked to have every chance, though there was quiet confidence in the prospects of the French entry, Romantica. It was worth noting that France had won at least one race at each of the previous Santa Anita Breeders Cups, and they were running out of bullets.
Statistical happenstance as that undoubtedly was, Romantica was the closest of the poursuivants in the finish, but no closer than a half length at the only place that mattered, the finishing line. No joy for France, but deep joy for Britain and Ireland, scoring for the fourth time out of four races in which we'd had runners. Nice going, Team GB/Ire.
Not so nice going to confirm that I had indeed been denied a winning Pick 5 ticket by a steward's intervention, and even less nice going when the dividend - $23,665.90 to a 50c stake - was declared. No doubt it would have paid much less if 7/2 She's A Tiger had won rather than 32/1 Ria Antonia. Probably about a twelfth as much, which would still have caused me wallet-closing issues and a trip to the IRS window to collect $1,972 or thereabouts. Botheration.
At least my new-found discipline had stopped me from piling into the Euro good thing, Dank. Oh wait, dank-nation.
Whilst the sport was high octane, and awash with thrills and spills, the wagering was in danger of becoming unhinged. With a pair of tricky-looking sprints up next, there seemed little lee in the speculating storm. [Sally? Lee? Who knew these names were words as well?!]
There were strong similarities in the next two races. They were both sprints. Both contained a defending champion sent off as favourite this time. And both of those favourites were coming off a less convincing preparation than in 2012.
Groupie Doll, perhaps the most impressive winner of the 2012 BC jamboree, was first, and her assignment - seven fast dirty furlongs on the dirt fast track - was one that she proved up to. Last year's four and a half length margin had been whittled back to just a half length from the closing Judy The Beauty this time around, but the material information was the same: Groupie Doll had won, as the 3/1 favourite.
After thirteen straight losses for favourites across two days, we'd now had three in four races. And Mizdirection - last year's Turf Sprint winner - was top of the market to make it four out of five. It was a great race - it always is - and Mizdirection was a cosy and comprehensive half length victor, with last year's third, Reneesgotzip, finishing second this time; and last year's second finishing fourth this time.
Those repeat placings reinforce the notion that this is a specialists race, and so ex-James Fanshawe runner Dimension's performance can be marked up, especially as he was squeezed between horses early in the contest, costing him around two lengths. He was beaten three lengths at the line.
Meanwhile, up in the press box - some half a furlong beyond the winning line, but with a full view of the home straight - a Pick 6 syndicate had formed to enter a 'caveman ticket' as it's known here: a single ticket with all entries given equal prominence. [That's as different from the sort of weighted effort I alluded to earlier with my Pick 5 ABC job].
I took a fifteenth share in the $1,500 perm up, and we discharged five arrows in the opener, including the repeat winner as favourite, naturally enough. The good news then was that we were still rolling. The bad news was that so was everyone else, and it had cost us five lines for the privilege.
The Breeders Cup Juvenile came next, and Michael Tabor had one of his US horses entered here, a very nice colt called Havana. Havana had the profile to win but, unfortunately, he didn't really have the draw. A pace-pressing type, trap thirteen was unlucky for some (those who backed him), and unlucky for him as he was uncharitably nobbled close home by the first time dirt starter, New Year's Day. No such speed bias today then.
That gave Havana backers an early New Year's hangover as he plodded by the jelly-legged jolly. I think it's fair to say that the best horse in the race was second. I would also go so far as to venture that, had the Juvenile been run on Friday's speed-favouring surface, Havana might have managed to get home ahead. That's so much conjecture on my part but it's fair to say that Havana remains a colt of great promise, and he lost little in defeat here. Little, that is, aside from boatloads of dollars hurled in the direction of the market leader.
The good news was that some clairvoyant - perhaps Simon Clare-voyant - soul in the selection committee had nominated a horse I couldn't have, and thus we were alive in leg three with a 10.5/1 poke bashing up a lot of tickets.
Leg three was the Breeders Cup Turf, and the first of two 'singled' (i.e. banker) legs in the Pick 6 ticket. We'd gone all in on The Fugue, and William Buick - bidding to atone for a rather botched waiting ride last year, when the splits in the peloton failed to arrive in time for him to extricate the mare and send her on - was frothing at the mouth at the prospect of re-writing - and re-righting - the record books.
History will show that he was almost certainly at fault again: the Racing Post analysis referred to The Fugue getting 'mugged', and said, "The Fugue would surely have won had she been ridden with more patience". I am afraid that is probably true. Insult was added to injury by the fact that the horse who mowed her down about eight yards from the line was Aidan O'Brien's Magician, ridden by Ryan Moore.
It was another 1-2 for Europe, and a twelfth BC Turf win out of the last fifteen. But the wrong Euro won it. My Pick 4 ticket was down. My $200 win bet was sunk. And the syndicate Pick 6 had fallen at the first singled entry. Whilst others were quite keen on his chance, I simply couldn't have Magician. He'd been off since June with an injury, and was racing further than he'd ever raced before.
True, it was only a furlong further than his easy Dee Stakes success. And true, O'Brien would surely not have brought him over if he wasn't ready to run. But still, he was not not not for me. As I'd also backed Big Blue Kitten - a mile out of his ground with less than that to go - it was the worst race of the meeting for me personally.
The Fugue will be five next year, and that's not too old to finally win this at the third attempt. Apparently, she'll be kept in training, so it's a possibility.
There were still three more races to come on this monster twelve race card, and I was flagging. Frustrated at Buick's 'bottle job' on The Fugue, it was easy for me to sit the Sprint out. All the more so, given the surprisingly short price - 5/2 - of Secret Circle, a horse that had had just one run this year, and that a mere 18 days ago in optional allowance company (equivalent of a conditions race here).
Yes, easy for me to sit the race out. But I didn't. I backed Justin Phillip, who was exactly upsides the eventual neck second when the two chose differing courses a furlong out. At the same moment Laughing Track, a 16/1 shot, elected to go wide into daylight, Gary Stevens, normally so reliable, took the 'brave man's route' through horses. Of course, he got stopped and finished a never nearer fifth, beaten less than two and a half lengths, and still full of run at the wire.
He might not have won, but given his late-running compadre was within a neck of stealing the prize, he just might have done. Academic, as I'd done another fifty quid, alternating as I was between Betfair and the local tote. Secret Circle won, at 5/2.
No matter, for the best was yet to come...
We were left with the Mile and the Classic, two great races in prospect, and first up it was Wise Dan, bidding to be the third 2012 winner to double up in 2013, and the fourth previous Breeders Cup winner to win at the meeting (Secret Circle won the Juvenile Sprint in 2011).
Wise Dan has been a brilliant turf miler. In fact, in the last two seasons his turf form reads 1111-11111 - nine straight turf wins. Still, there were whispers that he wasn't the horse he'd been. They may have been true but, like Groupie Doll earlier in the day, such was his 2012 dominance over his peers that he could afford to spot them a 'step' of 'slow'ness and still beat them.
And that's precisely what he did. Reined back off a ferocious early gallop set by first Silver Max and then Obviously, he made up his ground into a challenging position by the turn in. But he seemed to take a fair old time to hit top stride and wear down the gallant Za Approval, with Silentio back in third.
Wise Dan was the best horse in the race, and he won it. He may well have been a step slow, and he could be opposable next year as a seven-year-old if he returns. But this time, when it mattered, he was man enough for the task. Cometh the hour, cometh the Dan.
He was the second single in our defunct Pick 6 play, and we'd have still been rolling with six in the Classic, including all of the main fancies. Ho hum. Better news on the personal punting front was that I'd decided to go for a guts or glory £130 double on the last two races, with Wise Dan and then Mucho Macho Man.
I'd taken even money on Betfair about Wise Dan, so I now had £260, or £253.63 after commission, running on to Mucho Macho Man at 4.1/1. Or 1039.89/253.63. I actually felt quite bullish about this race, and had two strong views as follows:
1. Game On Dude was opposable for all sorts of reasons, not least of which was that he was a crazily prohibitive 8/5 favourite
2. I felt that one or both of MMM and Declaration of War had to go very close to winning
Here's what I wrote in the Geegeez Syndicate guide where, alas, not all summaries were as accurate as this one:
I don’t like Game On Dude. I just don’t like him. He’s too old. He wants to lead, and won’t get his own way there. He’s drawn wide. And he was beaten fifteen lengths as the 13/10 favourite last year.
Nope, not for me at 8/5 or whatever skinny price he’ll be.
Against him, the rock solid option is Mucho Macho Man. Second, beaten half a length last year, he’s in the same form this time around, and should have plenty of pace to gun down in the stretch. He was devastating in dispatching Paynter in the Grade 1 Awesome Again last time, and he’s had a nice rest since.
Declaration Of War is good enough to win this IF he can go on the dirt. That’s a big ‘if’, given connections multiple previous failed attempts. On the bright side, he’s bred for dirt to some degree, and he trained very well on it at Southwell before shipping, and has done well since arriving here too.
He would be well worth staying up past midnight for if he can put it all together. The trainer did sound a note of caution about the kickback, but he didn’t mention being worried about any of the other horses in the race!
Fort Larned won this well last year, having beaten Game On Dude for the early lead. His repeater efforts stand or fall on again getting the lead, and at the price he’s too short with that big imponderable very much in play.
Paynter was well beaten by MMM last time, but could come on for that and, though there’s no obvious reason for a form turnaround, at 14/1 he could still chase the Macho Man (or the Declaration Of War) home.
I’m thinking of laying Game On Dude for a place. Could be a cheap bet, and there has to be a strong chance he sulks and finishes nowhere like he did last year.
As it transpired, there was a fierce contest for the early lead, and Game On Dude - who I was told could sit back off that if necessary - was gunned up three wide to challenge for superiority. The speed duel cut the throat of the prominent pugilists, with Game On Dude (9th) faring better than Moreno (10th) but not as well as Fort Larned (4th). Game On Dude? Same Old Dud, more like.
It was a performance of merit from Fort Larned, who wasn't as well suited by how things panned out this year as he was when winning the Classic last year.
But that still leaves a mystery about the top three. Well, the warbling damsel was bang on the money: the best was yet to come. In as good a finish as I can remember, Declaration Of War came to challenge the marginally in front Mucho Macho Man at the top of the lane, and it looked as though the pair had it between them with Fort Larned fading.
But wait. Around the outside - five wide, no less! - here's Will Take Charge. Inside the furlong and Declaration Of War is within a length and a half of Mucho Macho Man, but seems to have no more to give. Will Take Charge, meanwhile, is in full cry... And Mucho Macho Man is treading water!
Aaaargh! Come on Mucho! Insider the last hundred yards, and the leader is on a ventilator, with quinquagenarian Gary Stevens trying desperately to win his first Breeders Cup Classic. He looks like he needs a ventilator too, as he appears to ease off on the Macho Man and try to nurse him those last fifty yards. In fairness, the suspicion is that MMM doesn't respond to the whip.
No such tactics from Joseph O'Brien and Luis Saez on Declaration and Take Charge respectively, however. No, they're hell for leather all the way to the wire. They flash past together, and it's clear that Declaration Of War has finished third, albeit really close up.
What's not clear is whether Mucho Macho Man has held on, or if Will Take Charge has nutted him right on the line. Or even, surely not, could it be a dead heat? The replays are inconclusive. At first glance it looks as though Triple M has held on. But a close up shows that WTC is bobbing his head down at what might be the optimal moment.
I can't print what I was thinking then. After the stewards decision cost the Pick 5 dividend; after Buick had dropped one on The Fugue; surely it couldn't go the other way a third time. Surely...
And then, to mucho mucho relief, the announcer calls it. Mucho Macho Man is the winner! Lots of people seem to have backed him, including a fair few in the British press pack. And, including me. In reckless fashion, I'd managed to smash my way well in front with the Wise/Macho double, two attributes with which I've never readily identified. In the finish, it turned out to be both.
It was a glorious moment for Stevens too: after a smart ride on Beholder to win Friday's Distaff, this was another tactical master class from the old man of the weighing room to claim his maiden Classic victory.
The Classic was a classic, and more than matched up to its strapline. The best had just been.
If you've not watched the race, or even if you have, enjoy this once more. It is simply a brilliant horse race, and one that is certain to stand the test of time.
The Pick 6 paid $47,516.20, and Magician was the one horse we missed. Of course, if The Fugue had held on, it may only have paid $10,000 or so. 'Only $10,000'. Hmm...
Maybe next year. After all, the best is yet to come...
After giving away a few goodies to October's Tipping League winner, as well as the obligatory betting vouchers, I've got some awesomeness from Santa Anita for November's table-topper. If you win this month's comp, as well as the free bets, you'll also get Breeders Cup programmes from both Friday and Saturday. Whoop!
To enter, you need to be registered on geegeez, and have a valid BetVictor account (for they're our generous sponsors).