Far and away the biggest team of European runners ever assembled for a Breeders' Cup was flown in for the 2018 renewal, the 35th overall. But was it quality or just quantity in Louisville, Kentucky? And how did the betting go? All is revealed in what follows...
A team of nearly fifty Euro entries, almost exclusively in the turf races, but with three notable runners in the biggest race of all, the Breeders' Cup Classic, convened on the sodden Churchill Downs track in the days running up to last weekend. Select horses from the powerhouse stables of Gosden and Stoute were supported by less fashionable yards as well as, of course, a phalanx from Ballydoyle.
The first blow was dealt when Sir Michael Stoute's Crystal Ocean was found to be lame and did not fly; this after the same trainer's well fancied Ulysses was forced to miss last year's event in a late scratching.
The weather was fair when I landed a week ago last Sunday, but the forecast was foul. Indeed, it was predicted to be Marti Pellow territory: Wet Wet Wet. But hope sprang eternal - after all, in Louisville, they have a saying: "If you don't like the weather, just wait five minutes". Changeable doesn't do it justice.
Alas, on this occasion the forecast was spot on. Two full days of torrential teeming incessant, very wet, rain. The turf track had been loose on top on Monday morning when I visited, but you could hear the hooves rattling underneath. That gave early hope to it not being a bog, as did the track superintendent's insistence that the nature of the soil, allied to large pipes embedded within, allow for very fast drainage. I'd say he had to be at least partly correct because, as puddles appeared on the main track, the turf seemed to absorb all that nature could precipitate upon it.
Meanwhile, I was slaving over my laptop on this year's Breeders' Cup Compendium. It may seem like it's all gravy when I head over for these BC jaunts, but the reality is that I spend around six hours a day hunched over a keyboard, with digital and printed Daily Racing Forms to hand alongside multiple other form indicators (Equibase, Timeform US, Racing Post, breederscup.com - an incredible resource, and youtube).
Don't get me wrong, I'm not asking for sympathy: it's one of the rare, largely uninterrupted, weeks in the year when I can get my head down and do some proper form study. And the production of the Compendium keeps me honest as well as recording and ordering my thoughts.
If you haven't seen it before, here is a link to download and take a look at it. As you probably know, I made it available for free to Gold subscribers.
Anyway, all work and no play makes every man a dull boy, so the evenings were reserved for beer and banter with a large Euro crowd, convened in the Galt House Hotel, not quite Louisville's only accommodations, but certainly its largest. No names here, but it was a most enjoyable social week in support of the daytime slog and graft. And, let's face it, even the hardest day with nose touching form sheets is better than many people's better days in their chosen professions: I'm certainly not complaining.
And so to the racing. Although still an uneven distribution to the weekend, the addition of a juvenile sprint to Friday's card made for a five-nine race split across the two days. And that new race, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf Sprint, was the opener, after a beautifully delivered rendition of the Star Spangled Banner.
Plenty of Euro interest, and I'd predicted a burn up on the front end between a couple of very fast US horses, Shang Shang Shang and Bulletin. But the late scratching of Shang3 meant Bulletin would face far less pace contention and, as it turned out, the speed held up. In fairness, Bulletin, having just his second lifetime start, was absolutely electric from the gate, and catapulted to an early lead he never relinquished.
As well as the absent Shang Shang Shang, he was further assisted by the normally rapid-running Soldier's Call (top left, grey silks) fluffing his opening line.
Pletcher's 'bullet' was impressive and came home from his closest early pace pursuant, Chelsea Cloisters, with So Perfect a never nearer third and best of the Europeans.
Word is that Bulletin might head over for Royal Ascot next June; it would be some sight to see him propelled at the head of the King's Stand field taunting his rivals to 'catch me if you can'.
If Bulletin was a sight to behold, there were few sights all weekend as beholdable (is that a word?!) as the winner of the Juvenile Fillies' Turf, Friday's second race. The buzz was all about a Chad Brown filly who'd run in the Miss Grillo last time: Chad runs his best there and then brings them here, a feat he'd reprised with three of his four winners of the race (and it would have been four but for Rushing Fall not being ready for last year's Miss Grillo).
This time, he saddled Newspaperofrecord, and she arrived with the biggest Beyer speed figure of any of the Brown fillies to line up in the JFT. She was a front runner who looked set for an uncontested lead, and she was proven on sodden ground. She did not disappoint.
Although a little keen early, Newspaperofrecord sauntered away from a strong field to win by six and three-quarter respectful lengths, eased down. Check this out if you haven't seen it already...
Kevin Ryan's East, unbeaten in two coming into this, ran a remarkable race to finish second. She was fully seventeen lengths behind the winner at the first call before passing just about everyone bar the winner for a most honorable silver medal. But this was all about the daughter of Lope De Vega, bought in Newmarket and potentially heading there for the 1000 Guineas next spring. While that remains a distant prospect at best, she is worth following wherever she goes: this is a very, very special filly.
Two turf races down on 'Future Stars Friday', and still no British or Irish winner. That couldn't change in race three, the Juvenile Fillies' run on the dirt, as this side of the pond was unrepresented. In what was an open heat, Jaywalk became a third wire-to-wire winner extending her record to four out of four since a debut second.
Back on the lawn, it was finally time for a Euro victory, though not without drama. All the chat was about Anthony Van Dyck, with just about every judge I knew trumpeting his claims. I too was in the AvD camp, but none of us had to wait more than a dozen strides to know our fate. Frankly, I'm not sure there was a horse beaten sooner all weekend: he just didn't go a yard. Whether it was the ground or the effect of a huge Dewhurst run and a transatlantic flight or just the sleepy dust that seemed to affect most of the Ballydoyle team over the weekend... it all amounted to the same thing, a very early bath.
Meanwhile, William Buick had Line Of Duty much more handily positioned, his mount appearing significantly more willing, too. As they barreled down the home straight, the Godolphin colt surged into the lead, but not before veering right to left into the less marked left to right swerve of second placed Uncle Benny. Cue protracted stewards' enquiry and objection be the rider of the second. Some time later and the result was confirmed, a relieved Buick - who has had more than his share of tough luck at previous Breeders' Cups - jubilant at the outcome.
A quick line for Arthur Kitt, whose dam, Ceiling Kitty, ran on the 2012 undercard. He finished an excellent fourth having raced on the unfavoured inside down the straight; with a wider course he would have made the frame at least.
In the Friday showpiece, the Breeders' Cup Juvenile, favourite Game Winner was just that, Bob Baffert's Candy Ride colt holding the valiant charge of 40/1 Knicks Go with 66/1 Signalman back in 3rd. A few weeks previously, the second and third had finished in first and second in their prep race, at 70/1 and 10/1 respectively! There they set up a 688/1 exacta, here they rounded out a 965/1 trifecta. Woulda coulda shoulda...
That tasty amuse bouche consumed, it was time for a nine course gourmet feast on Saturday. Commencing with one of the less feted contests, the Filly and Mare Sprint, this was the first - and as it transpired, only - opportunity to catch a bomb, a huge priced unconsidered winner. With what looked almost certain to be a pace meltdown, chiefly courtesy of the unrelentingly fast early Selcourt (John Sadler, going 0-for-42), things appeared set up for a closer.
Favourite Marley's Freedom was one such later runner, but so too were a couple of interesting longshots, Stormy Embrace and Shamrock Rose. Both were progressive and both had a chance to be competitive if the inefficient running of the pacers meant a slow overall time.
In one of those rare moments of clairvoyance, I happened to call this one spot on, with Shamrock Rose just prevailing in a finish of heads, at an on track price of 25.9/1. Chalon, well marked up in the Compendium, completed a 360/1 exacta, unbacked in this quarter, of course. Only a small bet for me, a tenner each way at 33's, but a very satisfactory way to kick off proceedings on the big day. And, if it was to be a slippery slope, at least we started at the top of the hill! Incidentally, Shamrock Rose was the first three-year-old to win this race, and the first of a number of stats-busters through the afternoon.
The Turf Sprint then began an almost unprecedented run of 'chalk' (top of the market) horses to win. It was Peter Miller's 7/1 third choice, Stormy Liberal, last year's winner under very different circumstances, who emerged victorious once more; but only after a duel the length of the home straight with the super game World Of Trouble, nominated as a win play in the Compendium at 6/1. Second for the win play was joined by fourth for one of the each way possibles, 20/1 Ruby Notion (sigh), the other being 7th placed Lost Treasure.
A footnote is that Stormy Liberal's last eight wins have been by a nose, 3/4L, a neck, a head, a nose, a nose, a head and a neck. This lad is some tool in a duel!
Next up, the Dirt Mile, and one of my stronger opinions on the day. City Of Light was hyper consistent and had run well in defeat over an inadequate trip on his prior start, finishing second. I backed him at 12's straight after that race, then forgot I'd done that and backed him again at 8's on 23rd October. After a raft of defections to the Sprint and Classic, the Dirt Mile cut up considerably making City Of Light still just about playable at the 7/2 available. He was a convincing winner, returning just better than 5/2 on track, and easily turning away Catalina Cruiser, John Sadler's latest BC shortie (odds on) which extended that trainer's sorry record to 0-for-43 at the Breeders' Cup.
In the Filly and Mare Turf, I was all over Wild Illusion. The Godolphin filly had had an excellent season and she came here proven at the trip and on the ground (though there remained some debate about what the state of the turf track actually was). At the furlong pole, Buick and Wild Illusion looked to have the race in safe keeping; but then came the thriving Sistercharlie, dismissed in the Compendium as unsuited to the turf state, to run her down in the shadow of the post, scoring a shade cosily.
Sistercharlie, another turf filly from the Chad Brown barn, was winning her fourth Grade 1 of the season, from five starts, hence her second favourite status.
The Sprint came next, and trainer Peter Miller was looking for an unprecedented double double, having won the last two runnings of the Turf Sprint with Stormy Liberal and last year's renewal of this race with his again entered Roy H. The Compendium was in search of value - as always - and landed on 9/1 Whitmore, who looked to have a chance for a ground-saving rail trip akin to that which bagged him the G1 Forego previously, beating a certain City Of Light. It panned out exactly as I thought, except that Roy H was just too good; in fact, he was exceptional, cantering into the stretch run despite a searing opening quarter in 21.35. From there, it was a matter of how far, three-and-a-quarter lengths the official margin.
Miller's remarkable double-double is one of the training feats in Breeders' Cup history, all the more astonishing given his yard was caught up in the California wildfires last December.
Then came the Mile, a race where the French-trained Polydream looked a very solid favourite... until being scratched by the Churchill Downs vet. In what proved a tart episode for Freddy Head, famous for his exploits in the same race with the wonderful Goldikova, the master entraineur was informed by the local horse doctor that his filly was lame. Head was naturally resistant, explaining that she simply has an awkward gait at the trot, and that in a gallop there was no such issue.
Rulez is rulez hereabouts, however, and the ante-post jolly was scratched from the race at the eleventh hour, regardless of impressing work watchers all week with her fluency over the turf oval. As an outsider looking in, it was a bizarre decision; heaven only knows how frustrating and distressing it must have been for connections.
There was some justice in what followed, though not for John Sadler, whose Catapult was run down by Sir Michael Stoute's stat-busting Expert Eye. Finally, gloriously, the 0-for-62 losing run which British- and Irish-trained runners in this race had endured since 1995 was ended. And it was ended by a magnificent, typical, final furlong Frankie flourish, urging the three-year-old Acclamation colt into the lead within the heat and light of the finish line cameras. Compendium followers had a little place joy as Analyze It hung tough for third, with fellow e/w pick, Next Shares, still running... though readers would have been completely put off Expert Eye by my write up which was dismissive for a number of, in the event, unfounded reasons, price excepted.
Poor Sadler will have been wondering what he had to do to get a Breeders' Cup win, rolling 0-for-44 now after this latest heartbreak.
Onto the home straight, and next up was the Breeders' Cup Distaff, once horrendously named "the Ladies' Classic". Favourite Monomoy Girl was a three-year-old who had won the Kentucky Oaks earlier in the season en route to accumulating a perfect six out of six races, in terms of first past the post at least. She was 'taken down' last time for wandering across the track and causing interference there, but showed no such errancy on this occasion as she overcame a wide berth to see it out from yet another Chad Brown filly, Wow Cat.
It was close but no cigar for Compendium backers, 16/1 Blue Prize running very well but getting collared on the line for third. Some firms paid four places on the race, but not the one I used.
Two races to go, and for many the penultimate event, the Turf, was the meeting highlight. Queen Enable was laying her long unbeaten record on the line, bidding not just to add to her Oaks, Yorkshire Oaks and dual Arcs but also to overcome the 0-from-8 reigning Arc winner hoodoo in this race. Given another masterful race by Frankie, she was made to work all the way to the line by the progressive and high class O'Brien filly, Magical, eventually eking out a three-quarter length verdict. The story of these classy fillies is better illustrated by the 'different parish' nine length gap back to the third placed horse, the clear play being to mark up the second's effort rather than to mark down that of the winner. You can watch the race again below.
A nice 12/1 exacta was flagged for Compendium followers. Schweet.
It was super stuff and, along with Newspaperofrecord, one of the clear highlights of the weekend for me.
Enable really is a tremendous race mare, John Gosden a masterful trainer, and Frankie Dettori a peerless turf rider. Whether she comes back again next year remains to be seen but, regardless, she has given us some terrific memories already.
Finally it was time for the Classic, the ninth of nine Championship races, and the most valuable of them all. Britain and Ireland had three entries - Roaring Lion, Thunder Snow and Mendelssohn - and, one way or another, a case could be made for each (though I struggled to make one for the first named).
In what was a fasinating wagering puzzle, pitting three-year-olds against older, turf horses against dirt horses, sprinters against milers against ten furlong horses, west coast against east coast against Europe, I was clear on only one thing: I wanted to be against the John Sadler-trained favourite, Accelerate.
As with last year's winner, Gun Runner, he came into the race with an impressive string of 1's but also with a raft of questions to answer. As with last year's winner, Gun Runner, I wanted to be against him. And, as with last year's winner, Gun Runner, he proved my reservations wrong with a highly impressive performance.
In truth, he was a terrible price: drawn 14 of 14, beaten on his only race outside California, beaten in both starts in double-figure fields, a slow starter in his prior two races, and having his saddle adjusted by a man who was now 0-for-44 at this event.
Well, fair play to John Sadler, and fair play to Accelerate, because this fellow put up some effort to get it done from 'out there' on the track and, presumably, to save Sadler from the men in white coats and the funny farm. He's now 1-from-45 which will doubtless read a million times better than 0-from-45.
In behind, Roaring Lion hated the kickback and was a long last, beaten after half a mile; Mendelssohn did the Mendelssohn thing and ran hard from the front before fading - he'll be more interesting in the nine furlong Pegasus in January where they'll surely adopt the same tactic; and Thunder Snow ran a gallant race in third, rewarding each way support for Compendium followers. Yoshida, the other each way play, was fourth and might have won with a slightly less exaggerated waiting ride - judge for yourself, he's in the white colours from stall 10.
In what was another absorbing and exciting Breeders' Cup episode on its return to Churchill Downs for the first time since 2011, a couple of grass fillies stood out for me: the first an emergent champion, the second an undisputed queen of her domain, the turf track.
Newpaperofrecord, purchased from Newmarket's Book 1 sale last October for a realtively reasonable 200,000 guineas, is by Lope De Vega, and she might be the best filly seen in America since... well, since the same trainer's Lady Eli at least. But, unlike that mare, she has a European pedigree which offers the faint prospect that she could campaign on the Guineas trail here in the spring. While that remains unlikely, she is one worth following whether you're a regular spectator of US racing or not. Class is class.
And what more is there to say about Enable? She did most of her work establishing herself as the star filly she undoubtedly is last year. This term, an interrupted campaign meant she'd had little more than a jog around Kempton (albeit brushing aside Crystal Ocean in receipt of weight) prior to her second Arc. But here she became the first Arc-BC Turf winner in the same season, and she did it by demonstrating both grit and class. Special mention to Magical, who was very well fancied by connections and who ran her best race yet to make a spectacle of things.
This was a trends-busting renewal:
- 3yo's were 0 from 31 in the Filly and Mare Sprint. They are now 1 from 34!
- British- and Irish-trained Mile runners were 0 from 62 since 1995. They are now 1 from 70!
- Reigning Arc winners were 0 from 8 in the Turf. They are now 1 from 9.
- And John Sadler was 0 from 41 at Breeders' Cups. He's now 1 from 45!
Well done to all, and here's looking forward to next year and a return to the Sunshine State: Breeders' Cup 36 will be hosted by Santa Anita Park in California. Be there if you can get there!