On Track with Johnny D: Results Are In!

It’s over. Results are in. Finally. The matter settled by a dirt-flying race that culminated in a photo finish accompanied by tears, cheers, exaltation and despair. Afterwards, candidates and respective camps celebrate, wring hands, lick wounds and, most importantly, plan for future campaigns.

Breeders’ Cup 2016 is in the books!

Gotcha!

You assumed I was referring to that other horserace. The one televised nationally Tuesday evening into early Wednesday morning?

Nah, forget about that one for a while (if you can). To help divert your attention below is a BC 2016 post mortem that’s possibly worth your time.

Seldom, these days, does an event match the accompanying hype. Think Super Bowl, the newest iPhone, the latest blockbuster movie, etc. That’s because as a society we’ve become experts at hype but merely adequate at production.

By all accounts, Breeders’ Cup 2016 exceeded the buildup.

Friday’s Distaff concluded a mile and one-eighth journey with a fierce stride-for-stride stretch battle and a head-bob narrow nose decision for Beholder, a 6-year-old multiple champion mare appearing in her swan song, over Songbird, a swift 3-year-old phenom on an 11-race win streak. In person the finish was too close to call and on national television the slo-mo video was downright deceiving. Heck, even the official photo finish remains under some suspicion in social media circles. When Beholder’s number was posted on top, tears of joy and sadness were spent. Had Songbird’s number gone up first instead, waterworks also would have been acceptable, because both runners represent significant and loyal fan bases and each ran too well not to win.

In most cases, the Distaff would have supplied sufficient drama to dismiss everyone for the weekend satisfied. However, there was more to come Saturday, much more. Beneath the warmth of the southern California afternoon sun, California Chrome, the state’s 5-year-old native son and highest-earning equine of all time, was eclipsed in the final strides of the $6 million, mile and one-quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic by 3-year-old upstart Arrogate. Not as many tears flowed this time because, apparently, the boys don’t generate the same passion as the gals. Or, maybe it was because as soon as ‘Gate and ‘Chrome hit the finish thoughts went immediately toward a possible rematch Jan. 28 in the newly formed $12 million Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park.

One easily can sympathize with those who propose that Breeders’ Cup should circulate between various nationwide sites. Since 2007, the extravaganza has been presented either in Kentucky (Churchill, Keeneland) or in California (Santa Anita). Next year it will return to the Golden State, near San Diego, at Del Mar, and then will return to Churchill in 2018. Tracks in areas such as New York (Aqueduct, Belmont), Chicago (Arlington), Toronto (Woodbine), Dallas (Lone Star Park) Miami (Gulfstream) and New Jersey (Monmouth) have hosted the event in the past and some of those sites hope to attract it again. Hollywood Park, now nearly an empty lot in Inglewood, California held the inaugural Cup in 1984, and again in ’87 and ’97.

Without a doubt, Santa Anita does Breeders’ Cup best of all. The facility is expansive enough to handle a sizeable crowd and nearby Pasadena and Los Angeles are pros at accommodating guests. Outstanding weather for the event is almost guaranteed, an important factor for attendees and participants. Who wants to don parka and gloves to attend championship events conducted over ‘off’ tracks or ‘soft’ turf courses?

While there was just one successful BC favorite in Obviously (Turf Sprint), the biggest shock came in the 14 Hands Winery BC Juvenile Fillies won by Champagne Room at $69.20. Any hunch player worth his salt would have seen this one coming from a mile away. Naturally, a race sponsored by 14 Hands Winery would go to a filly named Champagne Room! Sometimes this game is easy-peasy-lemon-squeezy and 2 + 2 actually equals 4. Unfortunately, yours truly was asleep at the switch. Probably could have used one of those Gladys Ormphby hand-bag-to-the-head wake-up calls famously delivered by Laugh-In’s Ruth Buzzi.

Part of the reason I missed catching that bomb was because the 2-year-old filly’s final BC word did not go as planned. She ended up breaking off just behind the mature male Hoppertunity and a pair of other runners. She worked four-wide into the stretch while covering five furlongs in around a minute. After the work, in an XBTV.com interview, Peter Eurton, a clearly frustrated trainer, called the work, “…a little more than I wanted her to do.” Then he concluded sarcastically, “She’ll be the fittest in the race!”

Sometimes things just work out, I guess.

Flintshire and Tepin, two potential favorites for respective BC events—Turf and Filly and Mare Turf–lost BC prep races. The former failed in the Joe Hirsch at Belmont over a yielding turf course he reportedly hated and the latter missed catching a runaway leader in the First Lady at Keeneland. BC Saturday, horseplayers needed to forgive and forget or to view those defeats as red flags. Turns out, as it often does in racing, the answer was somewhere between extremes. Flintshire and Tepin both ran creditably, but finished second again.

Lady Eli’s tale has been recounted often. Here it is again in a nutshell: Unbeaten as a 2-year-old, she won the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf and was runner-up in Eclipse Award voting. At three, she won her first three starts, including the Belmont Oaks Invitational. Following the race, on the way back to the barn, she stepped on a nail. That misfortune led to a severe case of laminitis and a serious brush with death. She was gone from racing for over 13 months and finally returned to finish second at Saratoga and then to win at Belmont Park. That she survived and, amazingly, was able to race again was a tribute to the filly’s intelligence and spirit; advances in veterinary science, and trainer Chad Brown and his staff. While Lady Eli didn’t deliver a storybook ending by winning the BC Filly and Mare Turf, she did manage to finish second in a memorable comeback.

While saluting Chad Brown and his ‘Band of Renown,’ this seems like a fitting time to mention a trio of notable training feats. Richard Mandella has handled Beholder with kid gloves for years, running and winning with her when she was right and resting her when she was not. At six years old, the mare joins Goldikova as three-time winners of BC events, and becomes the only horse to have won titles in three different BC divisions. Mandella’s training skills require no additional adulation in this corner. He’s been considered a consummate trainer for a long time, enshrined in the Hall of Fame in 2001, two years before four of his horses won BC events in the same afternoon!

Bob Baffert has won nearly all of this nation’s top dirt races more than once. In fact, with Arrogate’s Classic victory he becomes the only trainer to have won that prestigious test in three consecutive years. He, too, already is in the Hall of Fame, so nothing you will read here is particularly newsworthy. However, what should be underlined is that Baffert’s ability to point a racehorse toward a particular event and to have that charge arrive at that moment prepared to deliver a peak performance ranks him alongside the greatest of all time. Again, that’s not a particularly earth-shattering observation—that Bob Baffert can train a racehorse—but it’s more nuanced than that. Baffert won a pair of races on Travers day at Saratoga—King’s Bishop and Travers. Immediately after he announced that both winners would be pointed toward Breeders’ Cup without prep races. They were and they both won—Drefong going six furlongs and Arrogate at a mile and one-quarter!

One of the magical aspects of horseracing is that lightening can strike at any moment. The whole ‘Chance-of-a-lifetime-in-a-lifetime-of-chance’ mantra grew legs for owners DAP Racing–an acronym for Dumb Ass Partners–who fittingly and proudly sported a donkey on their racing silks. A meagerly bred colt named California Chrome, kissed by racing gods at birth, took DAP Racing on the ride of a lifetime that extended through the Kentucky Derby and Preakness winner’s circles.

Trainer Art Sherman directed the fantasy flawlessly until a rough trip and nasty leg gash helped spoil ‘Chrome’s Triple Crown Belmont bid. After that, the colt that had won six in a row before the Belmont, won just once in four tries as a 3-year-old after it—and that came on grass against a toothless bunch.

However, because breeders weren’t clamoring for ‘Chrome’s chromosomes, he continued to race at age four. That appeared to be a mistake. ‘Chrome raced just twice—second to Shared Belief in the San Antonio and runner-up to Prince Bishop in the Dubai World Cup. He then was transferred from Sherman’s shed to Europe with the Prince of Wales Stakes at Royal Ascot as the target. He never made the race. Looking thin and tired, ‘Chrome finally was shipped home and returned to Sherman’s care. Ownership ranks shifted and a new course was set.

This, in our humble opinion, is where the story approaches racing lore. Seldom, as in ‘almost never,’ does a top-class racehorse at ages 2 and 3 virtually disappear at age 4 and then return to former greatness at age 5. Why? Because as the late, great, Hall of Fame trainer Charlie Whittingham once said, “Horses are like strawberries. They spoil overnight.” ‘Chrome went the wrong way and odds said he wasn’t coming back—not to the top of his game, anyway. Most assumed that the flash-in-the-pan California-bred had been lucky to have accomplished what he had, and they wrote him off.

Two who didn’t were 79-year-old Sherman and son Alan. They gave him time to recover and then trained him to the minute. At five, California Chrome won six consecutive starts, including the Dubai World Cup, the world’s richest race. That he finished second to Arrogate in the BC Classic to end the year is no disgrace. That we may see him race at least once in 2017 is exciting.

Unlike Mandella or Baffert, Sherman’s name does not appear on a plaque in that hallowed hall across Union from Saratoga. By rights, it shouldn’t. His body of work doesn’t warrant it. However, there’s no doubt in this writer’s mind that ‘Chrome’s resurrection and subsequent 2016 season was a Hall of Fame-level training accomplishment.

Breeders’ Cup 2016 is in the books! And, for a variety of reasons, it may have been the most interesting of all time.

Just like that other horserace.

Race On!

On Track with Johnny D: Results Are In!

On Track with Johnny D |