Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 5, 2017

Improbable Breeders’ Cup Mirrored Horse Racing’s State

When thoroughbred owner and trainer John Gaines proposed the idea of a season-ending day of championship thoroughbred racing in 1982, his plan was met with skepticism my many in the horse racing industry. But Gaines persevered, and two years later the inaugural Breeders’ Cup was held at Hollywood Park with a card of seven races offering $10 million in total purses. The nearly 65,000 fans who crowded into the old race track and millions more watching on NBC saw 2-year old Chief’s Crown storm down the stretch to overtake Spend a Buck and Tank’s Prospect and win the very first Breeders’ Cup race, the Juvenile. The sixth win of his 2-year old campaign made Chief’s Crown a lock for the Eclipse Award for Outstanding Two-Year-Old Male Horse. The colt would go on to win another six times the following year, including both the Flamingo and Travers Stakes, and eventually became a successful sire. But Chief’s Crown is mostly remembered as one of just two horses ever to be a beaten favorite in all three Triple Crown races.

At the other end of that first meet’s card, the inaugural running of the Breeders’ Cup Classic had a $3 million purse that made it the richest race in the world. Three horses battled down the stretch, the favorite Slew o’Gold, Preakness winner Gate Dancer, and 31-1 longshot Wild Again, with Pat Day in the irons. Despite holding the lead from midway around the first turn, Wild Again had enough left in the tank to hold off his two more highly touted foes, winning by a head.

Hollywood Park is long gone, of course. Where horses once raced construction is underway on the future home of the NFL’s two recently transplanted Los Angeles franchises, the Rams and the Chargers. But the Breeders’ Cup lives on, its popularity and its purses likely far exceeding anything that Gaines dared to imagine. Expanded to two days a decade ago, this year’s event was held at Del Mar, the venerable seaside oval between San Diego and L.A. The thirteen Grade I stakes races offered total purses of $26.5 million. More than 70,000 packed the stands over the two days, with ticket sales limited because of the relatively small size of the facility. Still they managed to set a record for on-site betting, with more than $25 million wagered. The total handle from all sources was just over $166 million, up six percent or almost $10 million over last year, and the highest betting total since 2010, when the card at Churchill Downs included fifteen races.

But this year there were an unusually large number of betting slips cast aside after each race. Parimutuel betting odds are determined by the gamblers, not by the house. The horse with the most money bet on it is going to be the favorite, because that payout will be the smallest since the total pool must be spread over the greatest number of winning bets. But as Friday turned to Saturday and race after race was run, this year’s Breeders’ Cup kept harkening back to that unlikely victory by Wild Again in the very first Classic more than three decades ago.

On Friday it took until the fourth and final Breeders’ Cup race for a favorite to be first across the wire. That was Mendelssohn in the one-mile Juvenile Turf. At odds of 9-2, he was hardly a strong choice, but at least he was a favorite who won. Before Mendelssohn took the Juvenile Turf by a length with a strong stretch drive, the racing began with favorite Happily finishing dead last in the 14-horse field that contested the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Then Mor Spirit plodded home eighth in the Las Vegas Dirt Mile, before Elate managed a fourth-place finish in the Distaff. Favorites were not merely being beaten for first, they weren’t even finishing in the money.

Horseplayers determined to follow the wisdom of the crowd fared no better on Saturday. Despite the larger card of nine races, the second day again produced just a single winning favorite, the 5-2 World Approval in the Mile. The striking gray colt bided his time down the backstretch of the turf course. As the field swept around the final turn John Velasquez asked his mount to run, and World Approval swept around horses, seizing the lead at the head of the stretch and pulling away to win by a length and a half.

But by that time many in the crowd were in betting shock. It wasn’t just that favorites weren’t winning; by day’s end World Approval was one of just three winners to go off at single digit odds. The Juvenile Fillies went to 17-1 Caledonia Road. The Turf Sprint was won by 30-1 Stormy Liberal. Then 60-1 longshot Bar of Gold came home first in the Filly & Mare Sprint.

So it went throughout the card, and just like Friday the favorites in many races were finishing well up the track. That did not bode well for Arrogate, the slight favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Sure enough, in the last big North American thoroughbred race of 2017, the Bob Baffert trained horse swerved to the left coming out of the number one post. The misstep cost him right at the start, and he was never a factor, finishing in a dead heat for fifth place.

While Arrogate was stumbling around, the second choice of the punters, Gun Runner, was busy running to victory. The 4-year old took the lead the first time by the grandstand. He then went eye-to-eye with Collected around the track, the two matching strides. Only in the final furlong did Gun Runner manage to pull away, winning by two lengths. The win avenged his loss to Arrogate at the Dubai World Cup last March.

This unlikely Breeders’ Cup, with its host of beaten favorites, was a fair reflection of thoroughbred racing over the last two years. Since American Pharoah captivated the country with his Triple Crown run in 2015, to which he added a win at the Breeders’ Cup Classic, no horse old has managed any sustained dominance. If one counts the three Triple Crown races, the Classic, and the Dubai World Cup, now the richest race in the world, that’s ten major races in the last two years. That card has produced nine different winners, with Arrogate’s March win in Dubai and at last year’s Classic the only multiple victory. After the thrill of American Pharoah, the thoroughbreds have become a muddle. Exactly like this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

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