Breeders' Cup XXXII, hosted for the first time by Keeneland racecourse, in Lexington, Kentucky, was billed as a homecoming for the franchise. As the birthplace of so many champions - Kentucky can boast to have bred 78% of all US-bred Breeders' Cup winners, and 64% of all winners since inception - this was a venue as fitting as any to host the end of season 'World Thoroughbred Championships'.
Romance and appropriateness aside, questions had been murmured regarding Keeneland's ability to accommodate such a vast jamboree. After all, this is no Churchill Downs, where the Kentucky Derby annually welcomes 170,000 racegoers and revellers; nor is it Santa Anita, host six times since 2008 and nine in all, thus possessing a bombproof blueprint for staging the event.
Moreover, the last time the Cup was hosted outside of those two venues, at Monmouth Park in 2007, it was something of a disaster with rain and logistics making that year memorable for all the wrong reasons. It is surely more than coincidence that it took another eight years for a new venue to be chanced.
The main risks were perceived as the weather - as Bayern was winning the 2014 Classic in sunny Santa Anita, snow was falling in Keeneland - and those pesky logistics: could a track unaccustomed to 50,000+ crowds cope with such a phalanx of fans? As time soon told, there was little about which to fret.
One of the great things about racing, and about Breeders' Cup week in particular, is that horses are largely trained under public scrutiny on the track. What makes Cup week so special is that global equine superstars congregate in a single place, allowing aficionados unprecedented access to their horsey heroes.
So it was that this week, as well as the likes of Golden Horn and Gleneagles, familiar friends of European track dwellers, the best of the rest also strut their thang for all to see. Best of the best is a chap called American Pharoah, a home bred born and raised in the state of Kentucky - where else?
Winner of the Triple Crown in America, the first horse since Affirmed in 1978 (and only the fourth since 1948), this fine fellow has enjoyed a special year, and was already assured Hall of Fame status courtesy of that terrific treble in the early part of the season.
A few moments before AP graced the training track, his main rival, a five-year-old mare called Beholder, also cantered a couple of circuits. Sadly, her interrupted preparation - she spiked a temperature during transit from California - caught up with her and she was withdrawn from the field.
If there were a few initial clouds of doubt regarding the venue for 2015 Breeders' Cup, there were no such reservations about the quality of the participants. The brain fails when trying to recall a deeper entry, as the winners of the Derby, Arc (Golden Horn both), 1000 Guineas (Legatissimo), and English, Irish (Gleneagles both) and French 2000 Guineas (Make Believe) all flew in to represent the European Classic generation.
A robust older, and younger, Euro contingent supplemented the established stars, and they in turn joined the biggest names on the US scene this year: Liam's Map, Private Zone, Runhappy, among many others.
The stage was thus set for what is a slightly lop-sided two day extravaganza, with four races on Friday little more than an amuse bouche ahead of Saturday's vast a la carte selection [personal preference would be for one further race - the Turf Sprint perhaps - to move to Friday making a slightly less unbalanced 5-8 split].
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf
First up, the Juvenile Turf, and the word in McCarthy's, Lexington's obligatory Irish home from home, was that Hit It A Bomb could not get beaten. Strange then, in the face of such confidence, that he was sent off at 7.2/1 against 9/2 in the early running here in Blighty. The reasons for his market uneasiness were threefold: inexperience off just two lifetime starts, lack of Group race form, and a "parking lot" draw.
As it transpired, Hit It A Bomb had three things in his favour: a rapid early pace which strung the field out; Ryan Moore riding a perfect race (again); and his own incredible talent enabling him to surge to the lead in the last few yards having spotted a dozen rivals distance turning in.
1-0 to Europe and, with so many top-notch turfers still to come, hope swelled for a strong European weekend.
Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile
Little Euro interest in race two, the 'Dirty Mile', as the shortest priced favourite of the entire weekend, four-year-old Liam's Map, was 'expected'. And for good reason. Liam's Map had charted a course to five wins in a very light seven race career, including by a wide margin and with a career best Beyer speed figure in Grade 1 company on his most recent start.
Generally a need the lead type, the question here was that if he was taken on early how would he react? Missing the break was an unfortunate beginning, and then when forced to check numerous times on heels behind the pace-pushing pair of Mr. Z and Bradester it looked as though the shallow odds were in deep water.
Shuffled back to a boxed in seventh, albeit only two lengths off the lead, rounding the far turn, Todd Pletcher's grey colt showed all his class when the gap finally came, ceding first run but not first past the post to a game and clear second best, Lea.
In the circumstances, this was an effort that could be marked up and marked up again. Sadly, that will be for academic purposes only, as Liam's Map now travels the ten miles from Keeneland to Lane's End Farm's breeding sheds to begin his new career.
Juvenile Fillies Turf
The second of the two juvenile turf heats, this time for the girls, and with Alice Springs, Nemoralia and Illuminate in the field, Team GB/Ire looked promising. In the event, the raiding party again failed to deliver as it has done in all bar two of the eight renewals. It may be no coincidence that the two victories came in the two 'Lasix off in juvenile races' years (Lasix being an almost ubiquitously applied elixir in American racing to restrict horses' bleeding) of 2012 and 2013.
That was supposed to lead to a wider ban on the drug at Breeders' Cup but, instead - and perhaps partially as a result of Europe sweeping the board in the juvie turf events at those two Santa Anita meetings, the US horsemen revolted and the Breeders' Cup Committee reneged.
Still, before we get too morally pugnacious, it should be noted that most of the European team - including both of its winners - were deploying raceday medication. So was main Euro hope, Alice Springs, here. She ran a great race in second, possibly squeezed a little in the straight, behind by Canadian-based Mark Casse's maiden Breeders' Cup winner, Catch A Glimpse, and in front of Jeremy Noseda's all-too-late runner, Nemoralia. It was to be a great weekend for Casse.
Breeders' Cup Distaff
With Beholder's defection to the Classic, and latterly her defection from the meeting, the Distaff looked wide open and lacking in star quality. Five year old Wedding Toast was favoured, but she ran a lacklustre race having used plenty of petrol trying to secure her preferred front rank berth.
In the end it was a dirt double for Todd Pletcher, as he welcomed Stopchargingmaria into the winners' circle. She'd run a flat fourth last time out and had failed to better a 95 Beyer in 15 career starts. In beating Stellar Wind, a progressive three-year-old but one which had also failed to surpass 95 Beyer, this looked a moderate renewal. Indeed, every previous winner since 2005 had recorded at least 100 on that speed scale.
For the record, here's the tape.
A crowd of 45,000 watched the Friday action and, as one of them, I felt the track handled the numbers well. Queues for wagering, drinks, food and toilets were all shorter than at big UK race days, and there was the usual relaxed Breeders' Cup crowd vibe throughout. The sun even poured a beautiful sunset over Keeneland on Friday evening as a portent of what was to follow during its next arc.
Breeders' Cup Juvenile Fillies
A bigger crowd of just north of 50,000 were in attendance on Saturday, though many of them were yet to arrive as the young ladies prepared for the first of nine Cup races on Saturday, a nonet culminating with American Pharoah's bid for pole position in the pantheon of American racehorses.
Songbird, a winner of three, including two consecutive Grade 1's in dominant fashion, shipped east from California. Her form was in a league of its own, her speed figures were in a league of their own, she looked set to have her own way on the front again, and she traded commensurately short at 3/5.
As the gates opened, she catapulted to the front and never saw a rival, easing off to a near six length verdict over the pick of the East Coast entries, impeccably bred Rachel's Valentina (by Bernardini out of Rachel Alexandra). Songbird is the best winner of this I can remember. So, while Beholder (2012) went on to great things including beating the boys up this year before injury intervened ahead of the Classic, this filly could take on the lads much earlier, perhaps even having a tilt at the Kentucky Derby.
Her time here compared favourably with the Juvenile winner though, as we'll see, that one didn't have quite such a straightforward trip.
This is one to enjoy, as have all her races been, three of them Grade 1, which she's now won by a combined 22 lengths, for an average 5 1/2 length winning margin. She's a fleet-footed filly. Fact.
Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint
Next up, the Turf Sprint. Run for the eighth time, but the first time at the intermediate distance of five and a half furlongs, that proved to be the key to unlocking a big-priced winner. Mongolian Saturday was his name, and his beautifully swathed connections were a treat for thousands of appreciative spectators, many obliged in their search for selfies.
Running free of Lasix, the son of Any Given Saturday was to kick off a noteworthy 'clean' Sprint double, the only runners in their respective races not on the 'juice'.
He'd been a tremendous servant to connections all season running some competitive speed figures and finishing in the frame in his previous ten races.
But back to that aforementioned distance key. Mongolian Saturday had won his only five and a half furlong turf race; and second placed Lady Shipman had won four of five turf starts at the trip. They were two of only four in the field with a strong record at the precise range which, in races decided by fine margins, may have tilted the scales in their favour.
Specifically in relation to the winner, he's run a sensational race, having been drawn on the wide outside, been gunned to contest a 22 second flat opening quarter, and hung tough in the straight to win by the proverbial fag paper. This was Florent Geroux's second Cup win of the weekend and his third in all after Work All Week's Sprint triumph last year. He's a name to note.
Mongolian Saturday was a 15.9/1 chance on the tote board, having been 25/1 here.
Here's the race: heart-breaking if you backed Lady Shipman, heart-warming if you were a North American racing fan based in Ulaanbataar!
Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Sprint
Now eight years old, the Filly and Mare Sprint has still to welcome its first three-year-old winner, but that didn't stop Cavorting being sent off the warm 3.4/1 favourite. She ran pretty well in truth, eventually finishing fourth having been held up from her outside draw, but she was no match for Wavell Avenue.
That one, giving Chad Brown his first dirt winner at the Breeders' Cup and his sixth Cup win overall, reversed the form with La Verdad from Belmont's Gallant Bloom Handicap. If this race had been the same distance as that one - six and a half furlongs - the result would have been the same. But this was seven furlongs, and the visual impression of Belmont was confirmed at Keeneland, as La Verdad's stamina gave best to Wavell Avenue's late run.
Taris looked the unlucky filly, caught on heels for much of the home straight, and Simon Callaghan's Coolmore four-year-old can be marked up on this effort. This viewer thought Taris's jockey, Gary Stevens, was a tad lily-livered about making something happen and probably should have been at least second if he'd switched to the three path about a furlong and a half out. Uncharitably, Stevens blamed La Verdad for checking his run up the rail, but he was looking for a miracle gap and it was a poor ride, plain and simple.
Anyway, don't take my work for it. Judge for yourself...
Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf
Run for the first time over nine and a half furlongs, the shortest distance in the race's 17 year history, Europe had a very strong hand. Legatissimo has carried all before her on our side of the pond this year, winning the 1000 Guineas, the Nassau and the Matron Stakes, and running close seconds in the Oaks and Pretty Polly, all Group 1's.
Here she was sent off the 9/10 jolly, with a trio of further solid European Group 1 performers in Miss France, Secret Gesture and Queen's Jewel in support. The worry for Legatissimo, long season aside, is that she tends to take a while to hit her stride, something inconducive with the inside turf oval at Keeneland.
Concerns proved well founded, as Moore's firm rousting took a furlong to elicit the desired response, during which time Stephanie's Kitten had kicked in her more instant turbo and burned through a dream split between the fading trailblazers to put the race to bed.
This was a second Breeders' Cup success for six-year-old Stephanie's Kitten, who won the Juvenile Fillies Turf back in 2011; and she'd also run a game second in this race last year. Her 2015 victory took place just six miles from where young Stephanie was born and raised as a kitten, and it is to there that she will now be retired to the paddocks. This was a seventh BC triumph for Chad Brown, hard on the heels of his sixth in the previous race.
Queen's Jewel, with Lasix aiding her constitution for the first time, was hampered in the initial furlongs and ran home best of all in third. But it would be ambitious to suggest the early impediment was the difference between victory and defeat. It was not.
Irad Ortiz, Jr., architect of Secret Gesture's "taking down" in the Beverley D. had a dream trip through a packing field here to prove the scourge of Europe once again. He's surely used up two of his nine Kitten's lives in recent weeks.
Breeders' Cup Sprint
This looked a great race in prospect, and it was the fairy story of the weekend, though with a Roald Dahl (or Edgar Allan Poe if you prefer) ending. Trainer Maria Borell had been successfully tilting at windmills all season with her gorgeous three-year-old Super Saver colt, Runhappy. This young chap, and his young trainer, are very hard not to love. Both go about their business with passion and talent, and both wear their hearts on their sleeve.
Here, Runhappy was up against a much more battle-hardened foe in the shape of Private Zone, a six-year-old veteran of 30 races, against Runhappy's six prior outings. Private Zone had been invincible this season at seven furlongs, but was dropping back an eighth here, against a progressive long-striding six furlong specialist.
The fractions were ridiculous, Private Zone dashing out from stall 13 to share the lead through the first quarter in 22.05, and the half mile in 44.31. What a huge race he ran in defeat eventually yielding to Runhappy late in the last furlong in a finishing time of 68.58 seconds. That's an average seconds per furlong of 11.43. Whoosh! Track record.
Runhappy had a wide trip in the three path around the turn so he too can be marked up on what is already a phenomenal run. Moreover, this was the first time he'd sat off the lead, rating in third. It caused him little or no inconvenience as he bounded up the home stretch to win going away. He'll get seven easily, and may stretch out to a mile if that rating style can be harnessed.
There was to be the ultimate sting in the tail, however, as Borell learned the morning after "the best day of my life" that she would no longer be training the horse. This staggering bombshell was delivered as it emerged that there was a conflict of opinion between the trainer and the owner's racing manager about Runhappy shipping west to continue his racing career.
For a young trainer who has done nothing wrong - and a heck of a lot right, regardless of the raw ability of her horse - that must be so hard to take. Horse racing is a cruel sport at the best of times, but decisions like this beggar belief, and I trust the owner, a mattress salesman, continues to sleep soundly at night. I'm confident I wouldn't be able to.
Here's the unbridled majesty of Runhappy gunning down a gladiator...
Breeders' Cup Mile
The Mile has been about France and America since Ridgewood Pearl last claimed the prize for Britain or Ireland in 1995. That was 20 years and 50 runners ago, and that sequence extended to 52 runners here.
In truth, before the race it looked like one for the French, who had a fearsome line up of G1 scorers in Make Believe, Impassable, Esoterique and Karakontie. But, for whatever reason, they all misfired and misfired badly, running no better than fifth between them.
The winner, Tepin, had been clear pick of the domestic squad coming in to the Mile, having blitzed a massive seven length Grade 1 victory over course and distance (soft turf) four weeks earlier. She proved that career best to be no fluke, stalking obvious pace angle, Obviously (!), before finding herself five clear with a sixteenth to go.
As is often the case in the Mile, regardless of the host track, there was scrimmaging on the inside rail, the Gallics clambering all over each other. Mondialiste, held up as usual, saw daylight too late but flew home for a clear second for Danny Tudhope and trainer David O'Meara. Clearly my Friday night pep talk with the cuprous conjuror had worked its magic!
Tepin, 4.9/1 at the off but available at 14's just a few days ago in Britain, had the perfect position off a steady pace, and gave her trainer, Mark Casse, his second win of the meeting, and jockey Julien Leparoux his sixth Breeders' Cup win overall.
Here's the race again:
Breeders' Cup Juvenile
The antepenultimate Cup race of 2015, the Juvenile, looked a touch sub-standard on paper, and so it proved. Nyquist, one of only two unbeaten colts in the race, and one of only two unbeaten on dirt, had a tough post in 13 to overcome.
Things looked insurmountable as jockey Mario Gutierrez was forced six wide around the first turn. But that was down to three wide into the second turn, and Nyquist's stamina kicked in to forge the pairing into a three length lead in the straight. By the line, he was all out to hold another wide-drawn wide-tripper, Swipe, but hold him he did to reward backers at odds of 4.7/1.
The pair pulled more than two lengths clear of their field and, though it was probably a moderate field, this duo can be rated slightly higher than the finishing time for their efforts.
In what looks a wide open Durrrby year in 2016, both deserve their places near the head of the market, albeit at prices (20/1 Nyquist, 33/1 Swipe) that reflect the openness of the heat. Brody's Cause also had a shocker of a run, finishing caked in filth for a staying on third, and his 33/1 quote is moderately attractive too, this first loss on dirt perhaps down to inexperience as much as anything.
Songbird is the 16/1 favourite with British books, and there are surely worse 16/1 shots than her, notwithstanding that she may not take in the Kentucky Derby, and that it is very, very hard to win that race with her run style (only War Emblem, 2002, has led gate to wire since 1988).
A lot will change between now and the 'run for the roses' in the first weekend in May but, for now at least, this may be the best trial there has been so far.
Breeders' Cup Turf
The last of the six grass races is the immaculately-named Turf, a mile and a half contest. It has been an awful race for favourites down the years with highly-touted 'obvious' Europeans routinely beaten. Against that backdrop, Golden Horn - winner of the Arc and Derby this season, as well as the Coral-Eclipse and Irish Champion Stakes - attempted to buck the trend.
In opposition was a solitary further Euro, Found, a filly who has a propensity for close up defeat and who ran an unlucky five lengths ninth in the Arc in her only try at the distance. It was her general malady of snatching defeat from the jaws of victory rather than that Arc run which put this scribe off the 'wrong' Euro in a race I traditionally call wrong, and from which I am now considering self-exclusion.
Suffice it to say that, in the face of an ordinary enough challenge from Team USA and the presence of an only remotely interesting South American challenger, Ordak Dan, I wagered heftily on Golden Horn at what turned out to be a too good to be true local quote of 4/5. Way to return significant profits from whence they came!
In the race itself, Goldie Hawn looked to have few problems with his trip, likewise Found. Indeed, likewise all, so the result has to be seen as fair if not necessarily representative. After all, whilst Found over Golden Horn is credible, that the pair were no more than a length or so in front of Big Blue Kitten and, more notably, Slumber, implies one or both of the shippers ran some way below their best.
Maybe it was their long seasons, maybe the travel, more likely a combination of both. But the differential between Derby/Arc-winning form has to be more than a length superior to the pick of the local crowd, doesn't it? What is worth taking away is that both third and fourth were trained by Chad Brown, comfortably the best American trainer of Breeders' Cup turf runners, and a man to keep well onside going forwards.
For those who didn't back Golden Horn - especially if you did take some of the incredibly-generous-and-not too-good-to-be-true 6.4/1 on Found (exacta paid a whopping 20/1) - here is the re-run.
Breeders' Cup Classic
Despite a dozen races having been confined to the record, those Breeders' Cup propagandists had it bang on the money: "The Best Is Yet To Come".
The best was yet to come. Not the best race, you understand. That was probably Runhappy's cold-blooded assassination of the ageing warrior, Private Zone. But the best racehorse. A fellow by the name of American Pharoah.
The 'Pharoah' was a champion coming into the race, having won the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, and Belmont Stakes - the Triple Crown. He was the first since 1978 to achieve this mythical feat and he did it at a time when American racing was pleading for a shot in the arm of his ilk.
Since the Belmont in early June, AP had raced twice: first he confirmed superiority over his age group in the Haskell, but then... he... was... beaten. Gasp.
Just as tactics got the better of Golden Horn in mid-season, so the Pharoah was tactically mastered in the Travers. Not by a single horse, but rather a 'double teaming' whereby Frosted - a rival here - buttered him up on the speed before Keen Ice - another rival here - ran by in the lane. Not. In. The. Script.
But if gamblers love a golden child, they love a story of loss and redemption more. In truth, there was little to redeem, AP losing nothing in defeat due to his valiant efforts in the face of tough breaks. He was akin to a Tour de France champion being mastered by team tactics on an Alpine stage, but with General Classement victory assured.
Here, his task was simplified considerably by the late defection of Beholder. The clear main danger had not been herself since travelling to Kentucky, and she succumbed to the almost inevitable in scratching. Her absence made Pharoah's task easier than merely having one less horse to beat.
No, Beholder was a key facet of the tactical shape of the race, having been expected to ride on the shoulder of AP from half a mile and more out. In her, and also the bulky hard-to-keep-sound Smooth Roller's absence, there looked to be no pace contention for Bob Baffert's world beater, whose metier is to turn the screw from the front. To use the cycling analogy once more, AP is happiest when in solo time trial mode.
Here, off a steady first quarter mile, he led all the way, gradually increasing his cadence as his rivals wilted in behind, eventually running away from them by six and a half lengths in a time of 2:00:07. Two minutes and seven hundredths of a second. But for some supreme saddle posturing by jockey Victor Espinoza in the shadow of the post, American Pharoah would surely have ducked under the two minute barrier.
Still, as you can see, it was a GREAT photo opportunity, very well taken, and an image which looks sure to endure for generations to come.
The race itself was without other incident, and it was without the need for other incident too, this being a glorious equine monologue, the final procession of a Pharoah: the American Pharoah.
The crowd had come to watch him strut his stuff and, in the face of no adversity, he did just that. His welcome was rapturous and, over the course of the season, wholly deserved.
Once the dust had settled, I snuck away from the madding throng to wave cheerio to, as NBC's fantastic race caller put it, "the horse of a lifetime", as he was led away from a race track for the final time.
Keeneland 2015 was one of the great Breeders' Cups. Perhaps the greatest of all Breeders' Cups. Certainly the best of the thirteen Breeders' Cups since 2001 that I've been lucky enough to attend.
Fears about the ability of Keeneland, and Lexington in general, to cope with the legion of racegoers were unfounded. The track and the town handled the influx comfortably. The weather was cool - sure, it's November, right? - and, for the most part over Cup weekend, dry. On another weekend it could have rained, and on another one still it might have snowed. But racing isn't always in sunshine, and not all horses train under nature's lights, so I say fair enough.
More importantly, for the Breeders' Cup itself, it basked in its own sunshine by bringing the American Pharoah out for one last glorious hoorah. From a selfish perspective, I hope this signals the start of a new confidence in pushing the boundaries of Breeders' Cup locations.
Keeneland, in Lexington, in Kentucky, is more than just a spiritual home for US racing. It is the epicentre of the breeding business, itself the lifeblood of the sport. After a Breeders' Cup where eleven of thirteen winners - 85% - were bred in the state of Kentucky, this truly was a homecoming for the ages.
p.s. the Breeders' Cup Compendium, which can be downloaded here, made a clear profit of over 21 points on stakes of just 16 points. It flagged winners at 25/1, 14/1 and 12/1 as well as a number of others at shorter prices; and it made for a very fun evening for subscribers 🙂