When a championship-defining race has been run 99 times, we expect there to be magical moments. The Jockey Club Gold Cup Stakes (G1), run for the 100th time Sept. 29, might not have looked like a vintage renewal on paper, but the race gave us a run for our money, stirring memories of Gold Cups past.
Despite being purely an “American” race, this year’s Gold Cup included two runners that had starred earlier this year at Meydan in Dubai: Dubai World Cup Sponsored by Emirates Airline (G1) winner Thunder Snow, and Mendelssohn, the 3 million Keeneland September yearling sale-topper in 2016 who won this year’s UAE Derby Sponsored By Saeed & Mohammed Al Naboodah Group (G2) by 18 1/2 lengths.
New York-bred Diversify, the 3-5 choice, figured to be on the pace, as did Mendelssohn. From the flag-fall, Diversify, with Irad Ortiz Jr. up, and Mendelssohn, with Ryan Moore aboard, took it to each other as if it were a Quarter Horse race. The splits they laid down for the 10-furlong race were astounding. The first four quarter-miles went in :22.72, :45.64, 1:09.13, and 1:33.89.
We’ve seen our fair share of Jockey Club Gold Cups at Belmont Park and can only draw one parallel from what we witnessed Saturday afternoon. Back in October 1978, when the Gold Cup was run at 1 1/2 miles, a pair of Triple Crown winners—Seattle Slew and Affirmed—met for the second time. In their first showdown Slew had pulled away to a three-length victory in the nine-furlong Marlboro Cup Handicap (G1). Four weeks later in the Gold Cup, with Life’s Hope joining the fray, the two Hall of Famers put on a similar display of dazzling footwork, zipping through fractions of :22 3/5, :45 1/5, 1:09 2/5, and 1:35 2/5 over a sloppy track. Affirmed gave way as his saddle slipped beneath Steve Cauthen, and Seattle Slew, with Angel Cordero Jr. up, fought gallantly in the stretch before succumbing to Exceller in 2:27 1/5. In defeat, Seattle Slew might have delivered one of the best performances of all time.
We’re not suggesting Diversify and Mendelssohn are the caliber of Seattle Slew and Affirmed, but their early efforts were reminiscent of the ’78 renewal, and the pair showed us what we admire most about Thoroughbreds: speed and heart.
As Diversify gave way while being inside of his sophomore rival, Mendelssohn refused to quit, finishing just two lengths shy of upset winner Discreet Lover, trained and owned by Uriah St. Lewis, who edged Thunder Snow by a neck. While the early splits were astounding, the final clocking was “racehorse” time as well—1:59.99.
Since the Gold Cup was reduced from 12 furlongs to 10 in 1990, only Pleasant Tap, Skip Away, Albert the Great, Evening Attire, and Ron the Greek have run sub two-minute Gold Cups at Belmont Park. That’s pretty good company.
Expect the top three, plus Diversify, to descend on Churchill Downs to take on division leader Accelerate in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
Another nod to Jockey Gold Cups past comes in the form of Discreet Lover’s sire, Repent. The son of Louis Quatorze was one of the best of his generation, running second to champion Johannesburg in the 2001 Bessemer Trust Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1) at Belmont Park for Jerry and Faye Bach’s Select Stable and trainer Kenny McPeek. Winner of the Louisiana Derby (G2) and runner-up, behind eventual dual classic winner War Emblem, in the Illinois Derby (G2), Repent missed the classics due to a tendon injury. Returning for a late run at 3 he ran second behind Medaglia d’Oro in the Travers Stakes (G1) before the tendon injury resurfaced after he had been the beaten favorite in the Gold Cup.
John Sykes of Woodford Thoroughbreds (then Cloverleaf Farms) believed in the horse, standing him at his farm in Florida. While not overly popular, Repent moved on to Trinidad—the native land of St. Lewis—after the 2014 breeding season—he has come up with the Gold Cup winner and as the broodmare sire of last weekend’s Cotillion Stakes (G1) winner Midnight Bisou.