Where to Begin

How does one even begin to comment on this year’s wild and crazy Breeders’ Cup? Pro-Ride form, the absence of any injuries, the filly phenomena, the European butt-whipping, Santa Anita, Horse of the Year, ESPN’s new camera shots? That’s just for starters.

Before anything, I must say I cannot recall a more enjoyable two days of racing, whether you felt they were formful or not. And never have I encountered friendlier people at a racetrack than I did at Santa Anita, from the security guards to the mutual tellers and everyone in between.

When the Breeders’ Cup announced they were expanding to 14 races, I like many people felt it was diluting the event. I no longer think that way. It was great seeing seven-furlong filly sprinters, juvenile turf horses, turf sprinters, dirt milers, and stayers all have a chance in the spotlight. Why not? They deserve the opportunity and they put on a show. It was great seeing trainers like Dave Donk, Gary Sherlock, Pete Anderson, Greg De Gannes, Bret Calhoun, and Dale Capuano given the opportunity to show off their horses in racing’s biggest event.

I was also against the Ladies Day concept, and I still have reservations about it. The Breeders’ Cup was extremely fortunate to have a buzz horse like Zenyatta to give it a big push. They can’t count on that every year. It’s OK in California where you don’t have to worry about possibly running on a fast track one day and sloppy track the other, which could severely compromise voting for Horse of the Year. And it’s still not fair to those who could only come on Saturday to be deprived of seeing Zenyatta. And you know she was viewed by far less people on TV. With that said, the Breeders’ Cup did have Zenyatta this year, and my initial reaction was: how fantastic to give a magnificent filly like this her own day and not have to share it with the Classic or the Turf. She was queen for the day and received all the attention, accolades, and coverage she deserved. So, at least for now, the concept worked.

As much of a proponent of dirt tracks as I am, I must say in defense of Pro-Ride, we needed a safe Breeders’ Cup, and in that respect, the track delivered big-time. After watching the first day’s races, I never went into any of Saturday’s races with apprehension. Walking on the track, there is so much bounce to it, and the horses’ feet don’t slide on it they way do on the dirt. That is going to help some horses, like those with large frames, long strides, and big kicks, which is why we saw so many explosive moves on the turn by horses similar in physical stature and running style. It also obviously helped the European horses, not so much that it acts more like turf, which is part of it, but that there is so little kickback, something the Euros are not used to when they come here.

As for the form itself, you couldn’t help but marvel at the spectacular performances by Zenyatta, Stardom Bound, Midnight Lute, and Ventura. Favorites, however, won only four of the 14 races. But when you’re dealing with so many top-class horses that statistic is deceiving. Three favorites finished second, including Square Eddie, who was only favored by 10 cents over the winner Midshipman, and two finished third. So nine of the 14 favorites finished in the top three and 12 of the 14 finished in the top four.  Amazingly, five of the beaten favorites were Europeans, which shows what bettors thought of the American horses. The only U.S.-trained favorite to finish up the track was Well Armed in the Dirt Mile.

As for Europe’s top two male milers – Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator – finishing one-two in the Classic, you can analyze it all you want, but the bottom line is that, with the exception of Curlin, the American horses were slow, if you go by the various speed figures. Raven’s Pass and Henry both were brilliant, consistent, classy,and game horses, and Raven’s Pass had more of a dirt pedigree than grass. When he galloped over the track on Thursday he glided over it. And he had worked brilliantly over the all-weather track in England before shipping here.

After watching the monster moves on the far turn by the long-striding horses, it would have seemed a perfect set-up for Curlin. And he did make the dramatic move everyone was expecting. Why he didn’t sustain is the big question. There will be numerous theories. Was he not able to get enough push off the synthetic surface after changing leads? If he hated it, he likely would not have put in the run he did. So, maybe it’s somewhere in between. It actually was reminiscent of the big run on the turn Bernardini made in the 2006 Classic and then couldn’t sustain it over a Churchill Downs surface some horses just don’t get hold of as well as other surfaces. It happens. Or could it be that Curlin simply isn’t as dominant as he was last year? After all, this was by far the toughest field he’s faced all year. This wasn’t beating Wanderin Boy, Past the Point, Einstein, and Barcola. Curlin has had a long year, and he ran as hard and as fast as he could on this day and was beaten only 2 3/4 lengths for all the money, and a neck for third. His time of about 1:59 4/5 was the fastest mile and a quarter he’s ever run. He got beat, period, and it serves little purpose to try to figure out why. Horses lose, even the best ones. Some have suggested that with only one serious five-furlong work in four weeks, he was a short horse, especially for a race over a synthetic surface. Let's just say I am not about to disagree with them.

The question now is: how many Europeans are going to come out of the woodwork next year trying to earn big bucks on the Pro-Ride surface?

I don’t buy the premise that the Pro-Ride surface gave the Europeans an advantage. Sure, it leveled the playing field, but what’s wrong with that? It’s still our surface, in our country, in our hot weather, and we still couldn’t beat them. I think it’s great that the Euros did so well in the Classic, and in the Marathon. But they didn’t win the Juvenile or the Juvenile Fillies or the Dirt Mile. Sixties Icon could only finish fifth as the 7-5 favorite in the Marathon. Duke of Marmalade was ninth in the Classic. Bushranger was 11th in the Juvenile at 5-1.Pursuit of Glory finished 11th in the Juvenile Fillies at 7-1. Let’s just face the fact that Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator are two gifted horses who simply were better than our horses on this day when the playing field was level.

What is disturbing is that yet another European horse with only one start in this country (Turf winner Conduit) likely will win the Eclipse Award for male grass horse, just as Daylami, Kalanisi, Fantastic Light, and High Chaparral (twice) did from 1999 to 2003. The American grass horses have had too many lean years in the past decade for it to be a coincidence. Only the head of Dancing Forever prevented a European 1-2-3 sweep of the Turf, which at least isn’t as bad the 1-2-3-4 Euro sweep in the 2005 Turf.

As I’m writing this, I have only watched several of the races on videotape. There is no one more opposed to numerous camera cuts and weird angles than I am. So, when I heard about ESPN’s many cuts on the first day I watched when I returned home with anticipated dread. And I have to say, I was shocked at how much I enjoyed the coverage. While I’m sure there will be detractors, I actually loved it, and can’t believe I’m saying that. There were some great angles that gave the race a sense of action and provided different perspectives without the audience missing much. This is the way they do it in Europe and Dubai, and it worked here. The ground-level shot, while not as revealing as the conventional shot in two-turn races, gave the start of the race an exciting look to it, and you could still see well enough which horses broke poorly and who broke quickly.

The switch to the overhead on the first turn was revealing and gave the viewer a good look at who was where. The backstretch camera following the horses was my favorite, giving the race a European/Dubai look, and for the most part you could see the entire field and where each horse was and how far off the rail. The return to the overhead on the far turn was just long enough to see who was making their move and who was in trouble. Fortunately, the timing was dead-on in the return to the conventional shot, where you could pick up the action. The quarter pole and stretch shots were close enough to see the action and far enough away to see all the horses making their moves. And the close-up gallop-out shots gave it all a good finishing touch. How about the shot of Midnight Lute galloping out?  I assume the rest of the races were as good as the Classic, Ladies Classic, Sprint, Turf, and Juvenile Fillies; the races I have watched so far. The Sprint in particular and the iso replays were breathtaking to watch. So, kudos to ESPN for a fantastic presentation.

One final note about Midnight Lute. Taking nothing away from the other spectacular winners, but watching the Sprint after getting home, I was blown away. That was one of the most awe-inspiring performances I have ever witnessed. He proved he is indeed a freak to do what he did. I don’t think I’ve ever seen a stride like that in 40 years. For him to go that wide and run down Fatal Bullet as quickly as he did was simply amazing. Fatal Bullet’s trainer, Reade Baker, summed it up best. After the race he went on the track with a dazed look on his face and said to no one in particular, “I can’t believe my horse just ran six furlongs in 1:07 2/5 and got beat.”

And what a training job by Bob Baffert. I normally would never vote for a horse with only one win and a 10th-place finish for an Eclipse Award, but not only would Midnight Lute be a deserving champion sprinter (with a case to be made for Benny the Bull), he is one of the most exciting sprinters we’ve seen. He’s won stakes on Pro-Ride (Santa Anita), Polytrack (Keeneland), a sloppy dirt track (Monmouth), and a fast dirt track (Saratoga). And he won on the old Del Mar dirt track.

That’s plenty for now. The next blog will get into the Horse of Year ramifications and other Breeders' Cup tidbits.

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