Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 2, 2014

Surprises Abound At The Breeders’ Cup

For the eighth time Santa Anita Park was the host track for the Breeders’ Cup Championships this weekend, and it’s hard to imagine a more picturesque site for the annual autumn reminder that at its highest levels horse racing remains a sport in which serious money is spent. Small regional tracks may be disappearing, or limping along on the strength of slot parlors or casinos, but from the Triple Crown campaign in the spring through a handful of major stakes races during the summer and at last with the thirteen-race, $23.5 million dollar Breeders’ Cup card, big-time racing still attracts thousands of fans who wager millions of dollars. Almost $152 million was bet on this year’s Breeders’ Cup Championships.

Santa Anita first opened its gates eighty years ago, and for all that time the San Andreas Fault has been pushing the San Gabriel Mountains toward the sky, forming a stunning backdrop for spectators in the grandstand and clubhouse. The full house of fans were joined by many more watching on the NBC Sports Network both Friday afternoon, when the first four Breeders Cup races closed out Santa Anita’s regular card, and again Saturday for the remaining nine races run over both the one mile dirt oval and the inner turf track. The television coverage was climaxed by a one-hour prime time show on NBC proper for the running of the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. But while racing fans and anyone who earns their living from the sport will cheer the idea of a prime time television event, the network’s coverage itself was an odd hour in which the buildup to the race seemed focused as much on the assorted celebrities and sports figures in attendance as in providing viewers with any knowledge about the 14 horses competing in the Classic.

For the most part what all those spectators saw was a reminder of horse racing’s appeal to the betting public. For all of the rigorous handicapping by any number of experts, for all of the serious study of past performances and close analysis of Beyer speed figures, in the end the horses still have to run the race, and once the gates swing open anything can happen. What happened at this year’s Breeders Cup was, more often than not, something surprising.

There were surprises of the personal variety, as when 26-year old jockey Rosie Napravnik announced her retirement after winning the Distaff aboard Untapable.  Napravnik married trainer Joe Sharp three years ago, and she is now pregnant.  It was a reminder of the biological and familial challenges working women face.  With 1,876 wins and tough as nails style in her short career, Napravnik has been a fan favorite.  One hopes the retirement instead becomes a hiatus, and that one day Rosie rides again, this time with a young fan cheering her on from the box seats.

There were surprises of the seismic variety, like Take Charge Brandi winning the 1 1/16 mile Juvenile Fillies with a blazing wire-to-wire run. The 2-year old was sent away at odds of 62:1, but she broke cleanly and moved quickly to the lead. By the first turn she was a length in front and never looked back. Three horses came at her in the closing strides, but Top Decile, the closest of those, could get no nearer than half a length before the wire. In addition to returning her backers $125.40 on a $2.00 wager, the filly’s romp allowed veteran trainer D. Wayne Lukas to increment his own record for most Breeders’ Cup wins from 19 to 20.

While not quite as earthshaking plenty of other races on the two-day card has unexpected results. In the Mile, run on the turf late Saturday as the table setter for the Classic, favorite Toronado was stalking the tiring frontrunner Obviously around the final turn, before drifting way out into the middle of the track. That allowed 30-1 longshot Karokontie to charge down the lane and win by a length. Bred in Japan and previously raced only in Europe, the 3-year old’s victory was a reminder of racing’s international appeal. Other longshots first under the wire included 20-1 Work All Week in the Sprint and 15-1 Texas Red in the Juvenile.

Even races that didn’t result in big payouts were not free of surprises, as the biggest race of the weekend proved. After five straight years in which an older horse had won the race, this year’s Classic was predicted to be a slugfest between a pair of 3-year olds, with Horse of the Year honors very possibly hanging in the balance. The favorite was Shared Belief, who finished his 2-year old campaign unbeaten and the winter favorite for the Kentucky Derby. But an abscess in his right foot forced the horse off the Derby Trail, and Shared Belief wound up missing all three of the Triple Crown races. When he returned to the track Shared Belief added four more wins to his record, and thus was a perfect seven for seven going into the Classic.

The principal rival to Shared Belief was California Chrome, the blue-collar colt who captured the hearts of racing fans with his victories in the first two legs of the Triple Crown. After losing the Belmont Chrome’s owners gave him a lengthy rest, and he looked rusty in his return in Pennsylvania. But he was the co-second choice in the betting, and a win in the Classic to bookend his earlier triumphs in the Derby and Preakness would likely make him the Horse of the Year. If those two faltered, then Tonalist, the horse who denied California Chrome in the Belmont, was also in the field and at the same odds as Chrome.

In the end a 3-year old did indeed win the Breeders’ Cup Classic, but it wasn’t any of the three that most bettors thought would turn the trick. Rather it was the Bob Baffert trained Bayern, as unpredictable a runner as any in the field. Bayern had won 5 times in 9 starts, but was also a well-beaten third in the Arkansas Derby, his first start against top competition. He then finished next to last in the Preakness, and was eased off in the stretch at the Travers in August, finishing last after going out as the favorite.

The race may have been decided in the first few strides. Bayern broke sharply left out of the gate, colliding with Shared Belief and bottling up all of the horses to his inside. Jockey Martin Garcia straightened Bayern and took him to the lead, which is where he likes to run. But for the favorite the damage was done. Bayern led all the way, just barely holding off a pair of too-late challenges. Longshot Toast of New York was second by a nose, and California Chrome was third by little more than that. Shared Belief managed to get up to fourth, the best of any of the horses involved in the opening scrum.

A nearly ten minute inquiry by the stewards kept the crowd in suspense, but in the end they concluded that the melee at the start of the race left all the horses in the field a mile and a quarter to recover. Shared Belief’s connections were left unhappy, but then officials rarely take down a winner for something that happened so early in the race. To do so in the richest race in the United States would have been a bigger story than the race itself. The stewards’ decision was the least surprising event at the end of two days full of surprises.

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