More than 61,000 were in attendance at Santa Anita Park for the 31st edition of the Breeder’s Cup, and though Saturday was a day for upsets and longshots, there was one race that stood out for the nation to debate and discuss likely until the 2015 edition at Keeneland.
The Classic is always the signature race of the two day 13 race event and this year was no different. For the first time in recent memory, the batch of three year olds seemed to better on paper than the older horses, and this year’s edition featured undefeated Shared Belief, the front running Bayern, the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner California Chrome, the Belmont winner, Tonalist, and the Travers winner, VE Day. And, the race not only lived up to expectations, it created controversy as well.
By now, you’ve seen the replay at least 25 times. You saw the start where the front running Bayern broke and went left and basically took out Shared Belief and Moreno. That “move” enabled Bayern to get on an uncontested lead, a lead he never relinquished en route to a win in an stunningly good time of 1:59.88 for 1 ¼ miles. When Bayern gets on the lead, he doesn’t like to give it up. We saw that at the Haskell and we saw that in the Woody Stephens, the seven furlong race on Belmont Stakes day. When other horses look Bayern in the eye, he responds; when Bayern is staring at other horses’ behinds, like the Travers, he doesn’t respond.
Once Moreno was impeded, the only horse that would have run with Bayern was gone. Moreno limped home last in the 14 horse field. Shared Belief, the undefeated colt co-owned by sports talk radio host Jim Rome did well to get fourth, but the start definitely altered everything in the Classic. Lost in the controversy were the solid performances of California Chrome and Toast of New York. The Kentucky Derby and Preakness champ ran very well. He stayed out of trouble and looked more like the stalking horse that we saw back in May. Jockey Victor Espinoza seemed more relaxed and allowed the colt to run his race and though he finished third, he was charging hard and remember, the winning time was under two minutes.
The good news is that the owners of Chrome say that they plan to bring him back for a four year old campaign. Of course, a lot could happen between now and 2015, but if you like the sport, that is good news. There was talk of sending Chrome to Japan for a big money race, but trainer Art Sherman convinced owners Steve Coburn and Perry Martin to keep him stateside to prepare for 2015. At least in this case, it was good to hear owner Steve Coburn take the advice of his trainer.
Toast of New York also ran a great race. It certainly looked like he was poised to pass Bayern in the stretch, but as mentioned; Bayern is very tough on the lead. Toast has done a lot of traveling this year, over 36,000 miles to be exact, and his second place finish in the Pacific Classic (Shared Belief) went unnoticed mainly because of the astonishing performance of the winner and the fact that the race was run on synthetic. For some reason, I thought he was sitting on a big one, and for the most part I was right. And, if the stewards would have disqualified Bayern, my longshot would have paid a big price.
Speaking of the stewards, did they make the right decision by not disqualifying Bayern? As most contend, stewards are reluctant to disqualify horses for gate infractions for many reasons. One is that coming out of the gate can be messy and the second is that there is plenty of time for things to sort themselves out as the race continues. I can see both sides. Certainly, Moreno was compromised. When a front running horse can’t get on or near the lead, they lose interest and that was definitely the case here. Shared Belief was also compromised and was never able to get his stride until it was much too late.
The other side says that’s horse racing. The stewards decided to not to throw the penalty flag; in other words, they let them play. They reviewed the infraction for several minutes afterwards, so to say that they didn’t think about disqualifying Bayern is erroneous. The other thing that might have factored in the decision is the stigma of placing a horse that didn’t cross the line first in the winner’s circle. That might have been the right thing to do, but it would have left a bad taste in everybody’s mouth had that occurred.
In the end, I agreed with the stewards’ decision, and I think I’m being objective because I picked Toast of New York to win the race. Bayern’s move to the left was drastic and yes, it did affect the race, but we can’t make assumptions for everything that we think would have happened. We can’t assume that Moreno would have gone to the lead and challenged Bayern. We think he would have, but because horses can’t tell you how they feel, we’ll never know. We also can’t assume that Shared Belief would have gotten into position to dominate like he had in his previous seven starts. It is an unpredictable sport and this race proved that once again. I am also guilty of not wanting to see a horse being declared the winner. No matter your opinion, you would have to admit that from the six furlong mark to the finish, it was a stirring race and the stretch run was nothing short of scintillating.
The best thing to happen would be for Bayern, Chrome, Shared Belief, Tonalist and Toast of New York to meet again in the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs on Saturday, November 29 but that’s not going to happen. As much as it should, these horses are delicate machines and they have to follow the plans laid out by their owners and trainers.
In the end, it was a memorable two days for the Breeder’s Cup and next year, the event heads to Keeneland for the first time. Despite the picturesque setting of Santa Anita, the Cup was designed to move around the country, so it will be nice to see it head east next year.
Lastly, you know I’m a big fan of Finger Lakes Racetrack in Farmington, NY. On Wednesday, Crackerjack Jones, the four year old son of Smarty Jones, broke a 27 year old track record by running 2:05.10 for 1 ¼ miles at the venerable “Thumb.” That’s far from blazing, but if you watched the race, he did it with ease and the gelding seems to have a found a home at the track that is 20 miles east of Rochester, NY. He’s not the only horse that has settled in nicely there. That’s one of the charms of the track that opened in 1962. Most owners and trainers don’t have Finger Lakes as their goal, but once their horse gets there, and does well, they become part of the lore with the locals who support the product there. The win was his third in a row at Finger Lakes. Another Finger Lakes favorite, six year old mare Clean Jean also has three wins in a row at the track; meaning that Finger Lakes Horse of the Year is still up in the air. The “Clean One,” probably has the advantage because of her stakes wins, but it could be an interesting vote.
Until next time.