The 2019 Breeders' Cup returned to Santa Anita for the tenth time. Much of the preamble to the weekend was familiar, then, but this year there was a difference. A near palpable atmosphere of anxiety and introspection pervaded proceedings; and, in spite of forensic levels of veterinary scrutiny, BC36 was not to sail smoothly across its troubled waters. That story, amongst others, is recounted in these five takeways from the meeting.
1 JOSEPH & HIS AMASSING TECHNICOLOR PALMARES
Where were you in your career path when you were 26? For most of us mere mortals, college days were behind us and we were taking our first fledgling steps in a job or career. Joseph Patrick O'Brien, barely past the quarter century, has already summited a career in the saddle which began promisingly but perhaps little more with a piece of a three-way tie for the Irish Champion Apprentice title in 2010.
The following year, he enjoyed Classic success with Roderic O'Connor in the Irish 2000 Guineas, and rode another two UK or Irish Group 1 winners, the last of which was Camelot in the Racing Post Trophy. A fortnight after that Doncaster highlight, O'Brien raised his own bar by scoring aboard St Nicholas Abbey in a Churchill Downs edition of the the Breeders' Cup Turf at the age of 18.
2012 was Joseph's - and Camelot's - year as the pair won the first two legs of the Triple Crown, the 2000 Guineas and Derby, before being cruelly denied victory in the St Leger by a horse trained by the subsequently disgraced Mahmood al Zarooni who admitted charges of using performance enhancing drugs on his horses.
That year, 2012, Joseph proved he could do quantity as well as quality as he won his first Irish Jockeys' Championship, an award he retained with a record score in 2013.
By 2016, still aged just 23 - twenty-three! - he swapped the saddle for the demands of training and, to nobody's surprise, hit the ground running, his first Group 1 win coming in the Moyglare Stud Stakes of the same year with Intricately. [It was rumoured that he had also trained Ivanovich Gorbatov to win the Grade 1 Triumph Hurdle in March that year, but let's stick to published record].
As a trainer, in less than three years and at the age of 26, he already has an Irish Derby, a Melbourne Cup and now a Breeders' Cup win to his name. The game triumph of Iridessa - who bounced out of the stalls from box one and got a great position under Wayne Lordan - in the Filly and Mare Turf on Saturday was Europe's sole victory at the meeting, and made Joseph the youngest trainer to win a Breeders' Cup race.
Naturally, given his prior exploits aboard St Nick, he is also the youngest person to record a Breeders' Cup win as both a jockey and a trainer. The sole other member of that most exclusive of Breeders' Cup clubs is Freddie Head, the French horseman who won two multiple Miles with both Miesque (as a jockey, aged 40 and 41) and Goldikova (as a trainer, aged 61, 62 and 63). Chapeau to Freddie, but Joseph is emerging as an altogether different jus.
2 AIDAN OFER'BRIEN
While O'Brien Jr was further enhancing his CV, father Aidan was enduring what might legitimately be dubbed a minor crisis. To some that may sound preposterous, so allow a little context: this year, Aidan has trained 15 Group or Grade 1 winners, last year the international G1 tally was 14; but in 2017 it was 28, in 2016 it was 22 and in 2015 it was 17.
At such rarefied altitude and on such small sample sizes it is perfectly reasonable to account for the differential as the dreaded variance - statistical slings and arrows if you will. And that's probably right enough.
But, in the microcosm of the Breeders' Cup, Aidan has now gone 35 runners without a victory since Mendelssohn prevailed in the opening race at Del Mar, the Juvenile Turf, in 2017. Again, it's a small sample. And he was dealt the rummest of rum deals at the post position draw with almost all of his nine entries exiting a double digit stall.
But Bricks And Mortar won the Turf, with a troubled trip, from nine when Anthony van Dyck lost from five. In the same race, Mount Everest, presumed the pacemaker (which may be incorrect), fluffed the start and was never nearer than at the line. Uni won the Mile from stall 11 where Circus Maximus was drawn nine; Just Wonderful missed the kick and was never nearer than fifth in the Filly and Mare Turf from stall 11; Tango and Etoile, drawn eight and 14 respectively, finished eighth and tenth having both broken moderately and struggled to get track position; Arizona, drawn 12 in the Juvenile Turf, was slow at the gate and never nearer than his final position of fifth; Fort Myers ran respectably in seventh from 13 in the same race, though he too was no better than tenth as they passed the stands first time; and King Neptune actually broke alertly in the Juvenile Turf Sprint but wasn't persisted with for a position and entered the turn in seventh place before finishing eleventh.
What is the recurring theme? In fairness, there are two, and one of them is the draw, which is out of the hands of the trainer. The other is the number of times Aidan's horses - again, in fairness, most European horses - broke slowly and were simply in a borderline insurmountable position on a tight inner turf track which was riding like lightning. Even when the races were a little more tactical on the turf, a slow start meant as many as a dozen horses in a 4 x 3 or 3 x 4 phalanx ahead: it is very, very difficult to overcome a pedestrian beginning.
Aidan quite rightly says that he spends all year trying to get horses to settle and relax, and that is the way to win European races. But if a horse doesn't have early tactical toe in order to secure a position, it is almost game over in double-digit US fields. It has been suggested that perhaps he should use American jockeys who are more accustomed to pinging a horse from the gate but, firstly, it's not necessarily something a jockey can influence especially, and secondly, the local lads would generally need to take care not to spurn their bread and butter.
While chatting with one New York punter the somewhat harsh soubriquet Aidan Ofer'Brien was coined, ofer meaning zero for, as in zero for 35 since Mendelssohn in 2017. It is fantastic, and likely extremely important, that Ballydoyle continue to send top division horses to the meeting - it would be an event lighter on entries, far less interesting from a European perspective, and less compelling as a wagering proposition, too, if he didn't - but if they are to be more than making up the numbers, gate speed 101 looks in order. Here's hoping the peerless trainer of his generation reverts to his longer-term type at Keeneland in 2020.
3 THE TRACKS
It doesn't matter where you are in the world, if your horse is unsuited to conditions it is unlikely to win. So let's discuss the tracks, the already mentioned in despatches turf course first.
It was lightning fast. They haven't had meaningful rain in LA for six months, a fact evidenced by the desperately unfortunate wildfires that are raging in the north of the state. Sure they've watered the course and continued to hydrate it. But the temperatures have been 30C+ for much of the past fortnight and before. The water table is non-existent. It was suggested by a Clockers' Corner wag that, when going to inspect the turf track in white shoes, the horseman in question returned with green soles. Well that's one way to make brown turf look green!
Of course that's almost certainly just bluster - as easy on the ear as it is - but the fact remains that if you don't have a horse that can handle Bath firm, you probably don't have a horse for the race when the Cup heads west.
Another point on the turf track, specifically in relation to the Juvenile Turf Sprint. In its inaugural running in 2017 (on the undercard), Declarationofpeace - for Aidan O'Brien, in the opening race on the Saturday - led home a Euro superfecta from 'our' only four entries. The winner had the best Euro form around a turn, and was slowly away in a race run too fast, the pace collapsing.
Last year, when none of the Euro entries had winning form around a turn, we did no better than third. This year, although Europe did even less well, the best finisher - fifth-placed Dr Simpson, a rank outsider on the US tote at close to 60/1 - was two from two on turning tracks, by seven lengths at Chester and then in a Group 3 against the boys. She is also a fast starter. Although she wasn't good enough to win, that's the sort of horse you want for this gig. If Dr Simpson's trainer, Tom Dascombe, had sent lightning breaker and turning track specialist Kachy across, he would have been seriously interesting in the Turf Sprint.
In bigger fields and at longer trips, it is often the 'best trip' - that is, the horse which gets least interference excluding front runners whose record is terrible, that wins. There is so much traffic and misfortune to factor into pricing these races up from a value perspective that they are almost a blanket 'no bet'. The sensible approach to hardier punters is to back an American horse with a British bookmaker and hope for a good trip. Races like the Mile are peppered with big-priced winners through their history, Tourist (US horse, 11/1 US tote, 33/1 UK books), Karakontie (French, 29/1 US tote, 16/1 UK books) and Court Vision (US, 64/1 US tote, 50/1 UK books) being three since only 2011 in that particular event.
The DIRT track had been harrowed very deep, and rode slow. The Classic was a truly run race and it was won in a time of 2:02.80. The previous Santa Anita Classic, in 2016, was won in a time of 2:00.11, and the Santa Anita Classic's before that in 1:59.88, 2:00.72, 2:00.11, 2:00.32 (Zenyatta, Pro-Ride), 1:59.27 (Raven's Pass, Pro-Ride), 1:59.88, 2:00.83, and 2:00.40.
Appreciative that this is labouring the point but, to spell it out, the 2019 Classic was two seconds - something like eight lengths - slower than the next slowest of seven Santa Anita dirt Classics, excluding the slightly quicker Pro-Ride surface which was controversially installed and even more controversially ripped up again in and around 2008/9.
And yet Vino Rosso was given a legit number for his win. Timeform US had him on 133, six spots higher than the next best winner at the meeting; Beyer had him at 111, a point behind Mitole (his closest pursuer on the Timeform numbers). That's by way of reaffirming the slowness of the track.
There were good reasons for that, which we'll get to. But what it meant in racing terms was that it was extremely difficult to win from off the pace. You still needed stamina and no little class to get the job done, but only one horse - Blue Prize - was able to win from some way off the pace across the seven dirt races.
The best parallel for British and Irish bettors is that the surface was something akin to Southwell: deep, with serious kickback, where early speed is sustained more often than not and very little comes from far back. This year's Breeders' Cup was, for a lot of dirt race entries, like coming from a fast track qualifier at Lingfield, Chelmsford or Kempton to Finals Day on the Rolleston beach.
It was a necessary step to harrow the course that deep but, in many racing ways, an unsatisfactory one.
Here's why it was necessary. California is a liberal state and a perfect example of the emerging anti-racing sentiment we are seeing in Britain and in other jurisdictions around the world, notably Scandinavia. There is a war raging between traditionalists and revisionists inside of racing. It's a lop-sided skirmish outside of the bubble.
Governor Gavin Newsom in September called racing at Santa Anita "a disgrace". Newsom wasn't pulling any punches in this New York Times article where he was quoted as saying,
“What happened last year was unacceptable, and all of the excuses be damned. We own that going into the next season, and we’re going to have to do something about it. I’ll tell you, talk about a sport whose time is up unless they reform. That’s horse racing. Incredible abuses to these precious animals and the willingness to just to spit these animals out and literally take their lives is a disgrace.”
That was in response to news that more than thirty horses had been put down as a result of injuries sustained either training or racing at the Arcadia track. Despite the trash talk style (notably, emotive language like "precious animals"), there is plenty of substance behind this soundbite, politicians on both sides of the Atlantic now tapping into an animal welfare zeitgeist among their constituents. Indeed, California's senior Senator, Dianne Feinstein, is of the same view and has publicly expressed it.
That's obviously bad news for racing.
What is worse is that some of the reasons for fatalities may have been avoidable. I see three main factors as conspiring: a fashion for breeding precocity and speed at the expense of durability and stamina; over-training young horses whose limbs cannot yet sustain the level of work demanded of them; and the increasingly sophisticated use of medication to patch up injuries and/or supplement punishing training regimes.
Clearly I'm not a vet and I present the above as no more than conjecture - my take, if you like. I'd very much welcome an educated rebuffal of any or all from any reader qualified to do that.
For me there are two bottom lines on the racing welfare debate. Firstly, whilst fatalities are inevitable - a point racing has to defend explicitly and unequivocally - the current levels are very likely unsustainable. And not just in California, or even America as a whole.
Second, this is an extremely complex debate peppered with flexible morality codes. Anyone who feels vehemently one way or the other probably hasn't given the subject enough thought.
5 WHERE NEXT (LITERALLY) FOR BC?
It was in the aftermath of Governor Newsom's comments that extensive vetting was implemented ahead of this year's Breeders' Cup. That led to the high profile scratchings of Imperial Hint, Fleeting and Suedois among others, on veterinary advice. Last year at Churchill Downs, Polydream, favourite for the Mile at the time, was withdrawn under similar circumstances.
Thus, naturally but even more than ever, organisers were praying for an incident- and injury-free Breeders' Cup. They almost got it.
Going into the Classic, the final race of 14 across two absorbing days of pageantry and sport, horsemen and administrators alike would have been justifiably feeling like a job well done. Alas, for racing just now it seems, if it wasn't for bad luck it wouldn't have any luck at all.
In amongst the millionaires and the billionaires and the silent powers of horse racing exist an ownership group called the Mongolian Stable and their trainer, Enebish Ganbat. They love their racing, are passionate about it, and share their passion with anyone who feels similarly. In 2015 at Keeneland, they enjoyed their greatest day as Mongolian Saturday won the Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint. He raced without Lasix, the near ubiquitous diuretic said to restrict the likelihood of a horse bleeding. He was the only horse in the field not to receive it.
These guys don't sit in a box quaffing Veuve; they are out in the cheap seats in full national dress posing for pictures and glad-handing anyone and everyone. They, and people like them, are what the sport needs.
In the Classic, they had sportingly supplemented Mongolian Groom, who had beaten Classic favourite McKinzie over the Santa Anita track in their respective final preps, and who it should be noted did run on Lasix.
Their horse broke well and was second throughout the first mile, a length off pace-setting War Of Will, with last day foe McKinzie right there as well. But disaster struck for Mongolian Groom, Mongolian Stable, Ganbat, the Breeders' Cup and American racing, as the horse suffered an injury to his left hind leg which could not be treated. Very sadly, he was taken into the horse ambulance and euthanized.
It was deeply distressing on so many counts, primarily for connections, whose love of the game and for their animals is more transparent than most top tier ownership collectives; and all the more so that the ramifications of this event, as another inquest will inevitably be held, will overshadow their own feelings of loss.
The next Breeders' Cup is in Keeneland, far from the madding Californian crowd, then nominally at Del Mar in 2021. But Del Mar is in Southern California, and Churchill Downs may again be on standby as it was reported to be earlier this year in case matters at Santa Anita became irreconcilable.
So yes, Keeneland and Del Mar have been officially unveiled for 2020 and 2021, but will the Breeders' Cup return to Santa Anita in 2022, as was widely expected? Indeed, in light of the political firestorm expected to play out in the state, the question may be whether the Breeders' Cup will ever return to Santa Anita.