Cody’s Wish and Junior Alvadaro win the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, 11.4.23 at Santa Anita Park, Arcadia, CA Photo Mathea Kelley / Racingfotos.com

Breeders’ Cup 2023: The Chalky & Scratchy Show

The 40th renewal of the Breeders' Cup in gorgeous Santa Anita was an intense cauldron of high-class action. It always is. But there were differences between the 2023 version and those that went before, as outlined in my five takeaways below...

Scratch That

There was a swathe of non-runners, or scratches as they're known across the pond, over the two days. In fact, even before the Euro runners were due to board their flights, a number were withdrawn. Once on the ground at Santa Anita, over the course of the week further scratches were announced including Aidan O'Brien's Pearls And Rubies and, more materially, River Tiber and Bolshoi Ballet; Classic intended runners Mage, Geaux Rocket Ride and Arcangelo; Dirt Mile second favourite Practical Move; as well as the Jessica Harrington-trained Givemethebeatboys and Archie Watson-trained Bradsell.

The withdrawal, on veterinary advice, of most of these - and due to injuries sustained training by Mage, Geaux Rocket Ride and Practical Move - were a feature of a very troubled build up to the race days. Disturbingly, both Practical Move (cardiac arrest) and Geaux Rocket Ride (displaced condylar fracture, failed to recover from surgery, euthanised) died.

 

This was fuel to the fire of People for the Ethical Treatment of Animals (PETA), an entity with a strong presence in liberal California and who were making their point outside the racetrack throughout the weekend. A large banner proclaiming "Horses Are Killed Here" greeted racegoers and passing motorists alike and, while "Horses Die Here" might have been more factually accurate, there is no hiding place from this reality when horses are trained on the track.

Here in UK, where most horses are trained at yards not co-located at a racecourse, injuries and fatalities also happen - away from the glare of the general public. Which is to say that we should not assume this is a problem Stateside to which we are immune.

Of course, the racing surface and the medication regime are areas of longstanding concern which are now being addressed, in part at least, as a consequence of HISA, a new entity seeking to unify protocols across America similar to the way BHA oversee here. Even on this, though, HISA has been legally challenged by horsepeople aghast at the fact they might need to change some of their methodologies. Not a strong look, alas.

Back on the track, the vets were omnipresent. Barn inspections, trot ups and trackwork scrutiny were the last acts of a programme of oversight begun in July.

In total there were 16 scratches from Friday's five-race main card, and many more on Saturday. Some were as a consequence of the natural attrition caused by a long season and the general scope for minor mishap in prepping horses for championship races; but many - too many for plenty of observers - were withdrawn at the behest of the on site vets despite protestations from connections. The upshot is certain to be a reluctance to travel next year for some, with costs estimated in the region of $70,000 all told. That's a bitter, and very expensive, pill to swallow for luckless owners and trainers, even those whose pockets are deeper than us mere mortals.

The Chalkfest

In the US, favourites win at a rate close to 40%, a figure nodding to the absence of a meaningful handicap program - instead preferring a large number of (sometimes very high value) claiming-based race conditions - and the erosion in average field size: small fields equal more winning favourites. But, with field sizes holding up fairly well even after the glut of scratches, this Breeders' Cup was the chalkiest* in the forty-year history of the event. [*the 'chalk' is the favourite, a reference to the good old days of boardmen on track - days long gone]

Saturday began with Big Evs winning the Juvenile Turf Sprint at 3.2/1 locally, a fantastic result for the brilliant Mick Appleby and his team. The Juvenile Fillies winner paid 7/1, Juvenile Fillies Turf winner 9.1/1 and the Juvenile winner Fierceness returned just better than 16/1 on track. Then it got top heavy...

The Ryan Moore-ridden and Aidan O'Brien-trained Unquestionable won the Juvenile Turf at 6/4 on the board to close out Friday's quintet of Cup races, and that began an almost unbroken run of success for horses at, or very close to, the top of the wagering lists.

Cody's Wish (more anon), Inspiral, Goodnight Olive, Master Of The Seas, Idiomatic, Auguste Rodin, White Abarrio and Elite Power all paid 3.3/1 or less - indeed, all bar the wide-drawn Master Of The Seas paid 2.6/1 or shorter. The one spot of respite came from 12/1 Turf Sprint winner Nobals so, if you were looking away from the top end and didn't find him, you were in plenty of betting bother. Signing in on that score.

The table below shows that not only was Saturday's card the lowest average mutuel return of any Breeders' Cup for three-year-old-plus races, but also the entire two-day event had the lowest average mutuel return since the meeting was extended to more than seven races (note the gaps in the first six rows of cells).

 

 

It was a year for keeping it simple, all right, and personally I was guilty of over-complication, as were many finer judges on site in Arcadia. It's very frustrating when it happens this way; as you can see from the full table above, it doesn't normally happen this way!

Vive Les Euros!

We Europeans, or British and Irish if you prefer, focus almost exclusively on the turf. And that's because the trainers who send horses across do likewise: we know these horses and the very fact that they're sent all that way - some of them even getting to run! - advertises their prospects.

But they don't typically perform so well. British or Irish-trained horses won two of the three Friday turf races, and ran second in the other; and three of the four Saturday turf races, and finished third and fourth in the other. In the races our local horses won, there were also four 1-2 finishes. That is almost unheard of dominance.

The Juvenile Turf Sprint was a trifecta for the raiders, which if you happened to select the right three of the six Euro participants (or all of them in combination) paid $1,378.40 for a dollar. Or £1,378.40 for a pound 😉

Aidan O'Brien had a meeting to remember even in the absence of River Tiber and Bolshoi Ballet. He still won both races that pair were engaged in (Juvenile Turf and Turf). As I wrote in the Breeders' Cup Compendium report - showing expert hindsight but little foresight - "Aidan’s record in Santa Anita Breeders’ Cups is also (relatively) pedestrian: five wins from 51, and just 3 from 39 since 2012. 2019 was a washout, as was 2014, and there was a single win apiece in 2016, 2013 and 2012. Put another way, Aidan has had just one winner from the last three Santa Anita Breeders’ Cups combined."

Fortunately, I was prudent enough to add a caveat: "Is that a quirk of a small sample size or something more material? In truth, more likely the former than the latter, but it is cause for pause."

That caveat was needed as the Big Guy from Ballydoyle, a nickname absolutely certain not to catch on, saddled two winners, two seconds, a third and a fourth from just eight runners. That, clearly, was a phenomenal performance, with Ryan steering the brace of gold medallists, notably Auguste Rodin in the Turf. It was a ride suggested by many as a genius effort, but it is rare to ride the rail in a US turf race and get the smooth transit he and his horse did; perhaps tellingly, it was French-based Italian Cristian Demuro, riding the Japanese horse Shahryar in America (!), who drifted away from the inside allowing Moore to save all the ground without losing any of the momentum. You make your own luck, as they say, and this was both good and a bit lucky.

Looking at the two-year-old division, it's clear that the North American cohort is a step behind their British and Irish counterparts in 2023, and that largely extends to the seniors, too. It will be interesting to see how the form converges a year from now.

White Abarrio a very grey look

The Breeders' Cup Classic, normally the ninth and final race on the Saturday Cup card, was run seventh in the batting order to accommodate TV schedules; and it delivered a result that, in truth, very few would have hoped for. The sport in the States is desperate to wriggle free of welfare and doping claims and has been unlucky a fair few times recently; but sometimes, as with Ryan in the Turf, you make your own luck.

So it was that Richard Dutrow Jr, warned off for ten years for a litany of medication violations, returned to training in February this year and saddled the Breeders' Cup Classic winner seven months later. To put that into context, Mahmood al Zarooni, the disgraced former Godolphin trainer (remember him?), was banned for eight years by the BHA in 2013: he returned to a more low key conditioner role in the United Arab Emirates in 2021, saddling just nine runners since.

Bizarrely, Dutrow Jr. inherited White Abarrio from Saffie Joseph, another controversial figure. In May this year, shortly before the Kentucky Derby, he was banned from making stakes entries in Kentucky and New York as a result of two of his horses dropping dead within 48 hours of each other; and, though subsequently reinstated, the constraint led to White Abarrio moving barns. Joseph had previously been suspended for 15 days (15 days?!) for another banned substance found in one of his horses in March of this year.

Frankly, the problem here is not with Dutrow Jr. especially, or with Joseph; nor is it with Bob Baffert or any other high profile trainer receiving doping/ medication suspensions. Rather, it is with the authorities which allow such violations to pass with derisory punishments like the one referenced above that scream, "crack on, we don't really care". It is to be hoped HISA will be able to introduce measures that significantly improve the reputation of US racing in this regard.

The Classic itself was an absorbing race, with two fancied speed horses duking it out on the front end until wilting, before the smooth travelling White Abarrio fended off a spirited effort from the Japanese runner Derma Sotogake, who might have won the Kentucky Derby had he not broken poorly and then had a bad trip. This was a massive effort on his first run since, six months later.

Joy and crushing despair for Cody's connections

On Saturday afternoon, the highlight for many at the Breeders' Cup was the tear-jerking heart-warming win of Cody's Wish, who got up in a protracted stretch duel with National Treasure to win the opening Dirt Mile. Cody's Wish is owned by Godolphin but he's named for Cody Dorman, a young man born with Wolf-Hirschhorn Syndrome, a debilitating condition that affects both physical and mental functions.

Cody's Wish was a reason for Cody to look forward, something to enjoy in what must have been an unimaginably difficult life for him and his family. Last year in Keeneland, Cody's Wish won the Dirt Mile and the outpouring of joy was immense; on Saturday, as Cody's horse gutsed it out to best his rival, the emotion surpassed even that of twelve months ago. It was a brilliantly bright day in a life of struggle.

And then, almost unbelievably, on Monday we learned that Cody had suffered a medical incident just a day after Santa Anita which claimed his young life a few weeks shy of his 18th birthday. What a dreadfully awful turn of events. Like everyone else, we send our sympathies and best wishes to Cody's family.

*

The 40th running of the Breeders' Cup was a celebration of the sport of horseracing that encompassed an impossible gamut of emotions. They say life begins at 40; we were reminded that it sometimes doesn't make it that far, and that, at the end of the day, racing is just racing no matter how much joy or pain it brings us.

- Matt

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