Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 6, 2011

At Churchill Downs, Upsets And Stories Galore

For a few hours this weekend horse racing moved from its usual position deep in the recesses of the sports section back to page one above the fold. Over two days at Churchill Downs more than 170 horses went to the gate for the fifteen races of the 2011 Breeders’ Cup. All in all, it was a bad weekend to be a favorite.

The first six races, five of which were limited to fillies and mares, were run Friday afternoon and evening, and three resulted in significant upsets. But the fun really got started once Saturday’s main event rolled around. The very first race on the Breeders’ Cup card at the historic old track in Louisville was the 1 ¾ mile Marathon. While common in Europe, it’s a distance almost never run in the U.S. Betting favorite A. U. Miner was never a factor and was eventually pulled up with more than a quarter-mile to go. First under the wire was Afleet Again, at 41-1 the longest shot in the field. A bit more than five hours later one 14-1 shot, 2010 Belmont Stakes winner Drosselmeyer, ran down another 14-1 pick Game On Dude in the deep stretch to win the $5 million Classic. The two horses who didn’t find much favor with the punters outran the betting favorites Flat Out, Havre De Grace, and Uncle Mo in the richest race run on American soil.

Of the seven races between the Marathon and the Classic only the Turf Sprint, at five furlongs the shortest race on the card, produced a winning favorite, the 5-1 pick Regally Ready. But in the other races, in addition to the beaten favorites already mentioned, it was a bad day for the likes of Preakness winner Shackleford, unbeaten 2-year old Union Rags, magnificent European mares Sarafina and Goldikova, and 6-year old American turf specialist Gio Ponti.

But it isn’t only favorites who have stories to tell. So this Breeders’ Cup weekend produced the 5-year old gelding Amazombie, winner of the ¾ mile Sprint with regular rider Mike Smith aboard. The horse is co-owned and trained by 72-year old Bill Spawr, who regularly checks out horses recovering from injuries. On one such visit in California two years ago, he looked at two horses on the mend from leg fractures. Asked by the owner how much he would pay while standing next to the other horse, Spawr offered $5,000 “for him.” The owner thought Spawr had said “for them,” agreed to the deal, and shortly thereafter delivered both a long since forgotten runner and the horse that is now a Breeders’ Cup champion.

It also produced Count Vision, winner of the Mile on the turf course. Count Vision beat both Goldikova and Gio Ponti in the day’s penultimate race, and prevailed over Turallure by about a nostril in a riveting photo finish. Sent off at 69-1, Count Vision produced the second highest payout in the history of the Breeders’ Cup. Those lucky few holding win tickets inscribed with Count Vision’s number nine won $131.60 for a $2 wager. In the final race of his career, the 6-year old also won $1,080,000 for owner Spendthrift Farm, located just 90 minutes east of Churchill Downs in Lexington, Kentucky.

Both the Mile and the Classic were billed as battles of the sexes, with Goldikova trying to beat the boys for the fourth straight year and Havre De Grace carrying the banner for fillies and mares in the Classic. In the end there was a girl versus boy contest; just not the one expected. When Mike Smith and Drosselmeyer came barreling down the center of the track in the closing yards of the Classic, the horse they were trying to catch was being ridden by Chantal Sutherland. The Canadian Sutherland was attempting to become the first woman jockey to bring home a winner in the Classic. But her hopes of making history aboard Game On Dude were dashed in the final strides by Smith and Drosselmeyer. Adding to the irony of the moment was the fact that Sutherland and Smith were an on-again, off-again couple for more than six years, and were at one point even engaged. Sutherland’s good-natured reaction after the race was “You got to be kidding me – Mike Smith, aaaaaah.”

In winning this battle of the exes and denying Sutherland a place in horse racing’s history books, Smith added to his own hall of fame record. The victory was his 15th in a Breeders’ Cup race, tying him with the legendary Jerry Bailey for the most wins in the series. It also no doubt helped ease the pain of the 2010 Classic, when a tearful Smith took responsibility for his mount Zenyatta’s narrow defeat in the final race of her storied career.

Three races prior to the Classic there was another story of a relationship, this one between father and son. Trainer Aidan O’Brien had already saddled long-shot winner Wrote in the Juvenile Turf earlier in the day. In the 1 ½ mile Turf he sent St. Nicholas Abbey to the gate. But the real story was in his choice of a jockey for the $3 million race. It was his 18-year old son, Joseph O’Brien. A successful rider in his native Ireland since 2009, the young O’Brien rode like a seasoned veteran. He kept his mount comfortably loping along in mid-pack for most of the race, followed the closer Sea Moon through an opening at the head of the stretch, and then swept out and past both Sea Moon and leader Brilliant Speed to win by more than two lengths.

Already 5’ 11” and 126 pounds, Joseph O’Brien knows that his days as a thoroughbred jockey are limited. He may move to steeplechase, which remains popular in Europe and has less severe weight restrictions; or perhaps follow in his father’s footsteps as a trainer. Whatever his future, on this Saturday afternoon he was a champion; the youngest jockey ever to win a Breeders’ Cup race. The son called it a dream come true. The emotional father called it one of his proudest days. Horse racing fans called it just one more surprising story on a day that turned out to be full of them.

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