There are few things more exciting in horse racing than rivalries and epic showdowns to decide championships. But when these rivalries or showdowns have an East vs. West storyline, it makes it all the more intriguing.
Of the few that we have had over the years, nothing tops the intensity of the Sunday Silence Silence vs. Easy Goer rivalry and their epic confrontations in the Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Belmont Stakes, and Breeders’ Cup Classic. Although Easy Goer was regarded as racing’s next superstar, it was Sunday Silence who won three of the four races, including one of the most anticipated showdowns of all time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, in which he held off Easy Goer’s late charge by a neck.
Through the first half of the 20th century, no one paid much attention to California racing, except the years during Seabiscuit’s reign. But Seabiscuit is thought of by many as a California horse only because of his memorable exploits in the Santa Anita Handicap and his victories in the Hollywood Gold Cup, San Juan Capistrano, and Bay Meadows Handicap. But the truth is, only 16 of Seabiscuit’s 89 starts were in California, as he toured the country, competing at 17 racetracks from New England to the Midwest. In what was perceived by many as an East vs. West match race in the Pimlico Special, in which Seabiscuit defeated War Admiral, the fact is, Seabiscuit’s three starts prior to the match race were at Laurel and Havre de Grace in Maryland, and Belmont Park in New York. He had also run at Arlington Park and Agua Caliente that year.
The first major East vs. West showdown and rivalry came when California speedster Swaps defeated the mighty Nashua in the Kentucky Derby, and then headed back home, leaving Nashua to mop up the final two legs of the Triple Crown, as well as the Dwyer Stakes and Arlington Classic. Swaps, meanwhile, continued his winning streak, romping in the Will Rogers Stakes, defeating older horses in the Californian Stakes, and coasting to an easy victory in the Westerner Stakes, all at Hollywood Park, and setting a course record winning the American Derby on grass at Washington Park.
Racing fans clamored for a match race between these two great horses. After much discussion, it came to fruition at Washington Park on August 31, 1955. The fanfare leading up to their rematch rivaled the Seabiscuit – War Admiral match race. With Swaps reportedly nursing a bad foot and ducking out badly at the start, it was all Nashua, who cruised to a 6 1/2-length victory.
We have not seen anything of the magnitude of those early showdowns since, although we have had some great rivalries, the most famous and extensive being Affirmed and Alydar. But although Affirmed campaigned in California prior to the Triple Crown and Alydar on the East Coast, this was not considered an East vs. West rivalry, as they both were based in New York as 2-year-olds, when their rivalry began.
The 1958 Kentucky Derby was a showdown between the West’s Silky Sullivan, one of the most popular horses of all time, and Calumet’s Tim Tam, riding a six-race winning streak, and Main Chance Farm’s Jewel’s Reward. Silky, however, was highly overrated based on his spectacular stretch-running feats. As it turned out the true rivalry that winter and spring was between Tim Tam and longshot Lincoln Road, who tested the Calumet colt on several occasions.
A true East vs. West showdown in the Kentucky Derby occurred in 1979 when California sensation Flying Paster, who had romped in every major Derby prep in California, took on the Eastern-based 2-year-old champion Spectacular Bid. That rivalry would continue in earnest the following year in California. Although Flying Paster was virtually unbeatable when he wasn’t facing The Bid, he proved no match for the future Hall of Famer, falling to him every time they met.
Through the years we have seen East vs. West Triple Crown rivalries, such as Arts and Letters and Majestic Prince and Northern Dancer and Hill Rise. We have seen East vs. West Horse of the Year showdowns, such as Sword Dancer and Hillsdale in the 1959 Woodward Stakes that included the great Round Table, who raced pretty much everywhere. We also witnessed the year-end battles between Seattle Slew and Exceller, one of the first East vs. West grass rivalries between Fort Marcy and Fiddle Isle, and several great East vs. West filly rivalries and showdowns, such as Blind Luck and Havre de Grace, Go For Wand and Bayakoa in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and Lite Light and Meadow Star.
Although Songbird was coming off runaway victories in the Coaching Club American Oaks, Alabama, and Cotillion Stakes when she squared off against the great Beholder in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, she had spent the majority of her career in California, so that was not an East vs. West showdown, as epic a battle as it turned out to be.
The most anticipated showdown between two great fillies never happened, as Zenyatta, Queen of the West, and Rachel Alexandra, Queen of the East, never did get to face each other on the racetrack, although their social media rivalry was unparalleled.
So, here we are in 2018 and we have one of those classic East vs. West showdowns in the making, with Diversify, winner of the Whitney, Suburban, and last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup, on a collision course with Accelerate, who swept California’s big three races for older horses, the Santa Anita Handicap, Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic. Both horses were brilliant in their last start, and both have similar running styles, geared toward speed.
Diversify’s strength is front-running speed, with the ability to go fast early, running his opponents off their feet, and then keep going, while Accelerate’s strength is his high cruising speed, laying just off the pace and then blowing his opponents away. His last three victories were by a combined margin of 22 1/4 lengths. Diversify has proven he can beat you by huge margins or by a nose.
Both these horses have a come a long way, with Diversify emerging from New York-bred races and Accelerate having gone off at odds of 42-1 in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile. Now they are the headliners in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, assuming both are in the same form they are now.
Unlike most of the recent Breeders’ Cups, the vast majority run in California, we have the two big horses facing off at a neutral site in Churchill Downs. Diversify has a race over the track, but tired in the Clark Handicap after leading throughout, finishing fourth. It’s still a long way off, and we don’t know yet just where the impressive Travers winner Catholic Boy fits with the older horses, or how good the recent Woodward winner Yoshida really is. Both add a different dimension, making the transition from grass to dirt in a powerful way. But right now, it looks to be all about Accelerate and Diversify.
The last time we had horses of this caliber from the East and West in the Breeders’ Cup Classic was when Lava Man, the undisputed King of California, shipped to Churchill Downs to face the budding 3-year-old superstar Bernardini. Both horses were beaten by future Hall of Famer Invasor.
What is so intriguing about this year’s Breeders’ Cup is that not only do we have a classic East vs. West showdown in the Classic, but an already established rivalry between the West’s Abel Tasman and the East’s Elate in the Distaff, with the 3-year-old sensation Monomoy Girl thrown into the mix.
With the retirement of Triple Crown winner Justify, we need to fill the void with rivalries and showdowns such as these, as well as the recent grass-to-dirt stars Catholic Boy and Yoshida, the imminent return of West Coast, up-and-comers such as Catalina Cruiser and runaway Alabama winner Eskimo Kisses, and a horse like Mind Your Biscuits, who is versatile enough to run in the Sprint or the Classic.
At this point, it is shaping up to be a fascinating Breeders’ Cup. Let the build-up begin.