Posted by: Mike Cornelius | November 4, 2018

Game Winner Won, Enable Was Able, And Accelerate Did

Thirty-five editions later, it is hard to imagine that the idea of the Breeders’ Cup was met with skepticism when first proposed by John Gaines at the 1982 Kentucky Derby Festival awards luncheon. The pet food heir turned thoroughbred breeder and owner was hoping to burnish the image of a fading American sport by giving the racing calendar, which for most casual fans is heavily weighted toward the spring and the trifecta of Triple Crown races, a season-ending spectacle. Gaines, who passed away in 2005, would be fully justified in proclaiming a hearty “I told you so” to all the naysayers he encountered in Louisville. First staged as a one-day card with eight races two years after he proposed it, Gaines’s concept is now run over two days, with five races for 2-year-olds on Friday and nine more for older horses on Saturday. It has also spawned the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, in which the winner of more than eighty races around the world, from January through October, automatically qualifies for one of the Breeders’ Cup stakes races.

This year the event returned to the site of its conception, Churchill Downs, for the ninth time. That ties the venerable old racecourse with Santa Anita Park as the most frequent host, at least until next November when the Breeders’ Cup will again be staged against the stunning backdrop of the San Gabriel mountains. With purses ranging from $1 to $6 million and totaling a record $28 million, and every race but the new Juvenile Turf Sprint a Grade I, the Breeders’ Cup is now widely recognized as the premier event of American thoroughbred racing.

With Friday’s focus on 2-year-olds more than 43,000 fans turned out hoping to catch an early glimpse of the contenders for next year’s Triple Crown. That naturally meant the greatest focus was on the 1 1/16 mile Juvenile, the winner of which often garners Horse of the Year honors for his or her age group and is always conferred early favorite status for the following spring’s Kentucky Derby. With Joel Rosario aboard, the Bob Baffert trained Game Winner was sent off as the even money favorite. Rosario was content to run mid-pack through the first three-quarters of a mile, while Complexity, the second betting choice, set the pace. On the far turn Game Winner moved up on the outside, and as the field turned for home Rosario may have been surprised to find his competition was not Complexity, who began to fade, but the 40-1 longshot Knicks Go. The two ran side by side into the final furlong, even bumping at one point. But in the end the favorite was just too good, pulling away to win by just over two lengths.

His shock of snow-white hair alone makes trainer Baffert the most recognizable figure in thoroughbred racing. It’s hardly a surprise that he would saddle the early Derby favorite, as he guided first American Pharoah to the Triple Crown in 2015 and then Justify to the same horse racing glory earlier this year. But Baffert also understands the vagaries of the sport, so it’s certain that he’s not overly impressed by the accolades being tossed Game Winner’s way. It took more than ten runnings of the Juvenile before a winner went on to capture any of the three Triple Crown races the following year. That was Timber Country at the 1995 Preakness. Only two Juvenile champions have emerged victorious at the Kentucky Derby, Street Sense in 2007 and Nyquist two years ago. It’s a long way from Churchill Downs in November to the same starting gate next May.

More than 70,000 were in the stands on Saturday, making the two-day attendance the third highest in Breeders’ Cup history. As always, the richest races were the last two on the card, the $4 million Turf, run at a mile and a half, and the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic, run as always at the classic American thoroughbred distance of a mile and a quarter.

The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, run at Longchamp in Paris every October, is the most prestigious horse race in mainland Europe. Eight times before a winner of the Arc, as it is popularly known, had shipped over to compete in one of the Breeders’ Cup races, and eight times the trip had been in vain. That didn’t stop the punters from making Enable, the 4-year-old filly who has dominated European racing and who won her second Arc last month, the 4-5 favorite in the Turf. Louisville saw heavy rains in the days leading up to the Breeders’ Cup, and trainer John Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori were both concerned about the inner lanes of the turf course. Churchill’s turf layout drains inward, meaning the portion closest to the rail was likely to be the wettest.

So after breaking from the two hole Dettori quickly steered Enable toward the center of the track, three and even four spots wide of the rail, running comfortably in fifth place for much of the lengthy race. Dettori urged Enable forward and even further outside on the far turn, and she was the widest of a four-horse wall that charged into the final stretch as one. Others fell back but Magical, the only other filly in the race, kept pace with the favorite as the final yards slipped by. The two raced together down the center of the turf course until at the last Enable moved half a length clear for the victory, cementing her place in the record books as the first Arc winner to score a Breeders’ Cup win.

That left only the Classic, where Accelerate, the 5-year-old chestnut stallion, was sent off as a very slight favorite in the fourteen-horse field. Accelerate had won repeatedly throughout his career in California, but there were a few in the crowd who questioned whether he would travel well. It’s likely that more fans had doubts about his trainer. With three earlier losses at this year’s Breeders’ Cup, veteran John Sadler was an unsightly 0 for 44 at the season-ending spectacle when he gave jockey Rosario a leg up on Accelerate in the Churchill Downs paddock.

But as Sadler pointed out, it takes great skill over many years to get that many horses into Breeders’ Cup fields. He was confident that in time his efforts would be rewarded, and on Saturday that time came. It was Mendelssohn who took the early lead, as Rosario focused on moving Accelerate in from his break out of the fourteen post. The field ran a scorching first quarter before the pace moderated on the back stretch. Then just like Enable in the Turf, Accelerate moved to the outside and was one of four horses vying for the lead on the far turn. The favorite moved in front the lead at the top of the stretch, then finally began to pull clear at the sixteenth pole. Late runners Gunnevera and Thunder Snow made their charges, but too late to catch the winner.

It was a magnificent run that capped an outstanding campaign, one that has some pundits touting Accelerate for Horse of the Year. That seems unlikely in a season that featured a Triple Crown champion, and an undefeated one at that, even if Justify was retired early after a leg injury. No doubt John Sadler will be content with no longer being 0 for the Breeders’ Cup.

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