On Track With Johnny D: One Weird Breeders’ Cup

This was a weird Breeders’ Cup. For me, the strangest ever. I’ve been around for all 35 of them–including in person at Hollywood Park in 1984 for the event’s maiden voyage. That sunny and 70 afternoon I stood this close to Elizabeth Taylor. Yep, that Liz Taylor. Our eyes met, briefly. Violet. Sparkling. Mesmerizing. Hers. Not mine. Although I’d never met the man, I suddenly understood how Richard Burton must have felt, twice. And Eddie Fisher and ‘Nicky’ Hilton and Michael Wilding and John Warner and Larry Fortensky.

Sorry, I digress. Where was I? Oh, yeah, I remember. This was a weird Breeders’ Cup. The racing fan living inside me was entertained. The horseplayer, who pays the rent, confused.

Friday, Newspaperofrecord absolutely galloped home to win the Juvenile Fillies Turf for trainer Chad Brown. Comparison to the great Lady Eli is unavoidable. However, as remarkable as it seems, ‘Record may be better than ‘Eli. Brown has hinted he might ship his new star to Royal Ascot to meet the world’s best in their own backyard. I can’t imagine her losing to anyone.

Day one of the 35th Breeders’ Cup was branded ‘Future Stars Friday’ and it appropriately delivered. Jaywalk ran away from fellow frosh sisters in the Juvenile Fillies, and Game Winner solidly disposed of contemporary male foes in the Juvenile. In the Street Sense–a stakes race carded before the actual Breeders’ Cup events–Bob Baffert, trainer of Game Winner, saddled an unbeaten colt named Improbable to victory. That ‘probably’ won’t be the last you hear of this 2-year-old son of City Zip. At this point, even though we are talking Bob Baffert, we won’t predict either Game Winner or Improbable as the 2019 Kentucky Derby winner. However, they’re both talented and obviously love Churchill Downs—a nice head start toward sniffing Roses in May.

In one of those ‘Hollywood moments’ Thoroughbred racing is prone to deliver, Jack Van Berg–a 2-year-old colt named for the respected and beloved trainer who passed last December–took the afternoon’s second race at $30. That Jack’s son Tom trains the colt heightened post-race emotions. Tom, who began training in 1999 but hadn’t started a horse in a decade before he assumed management of his late father’s barn in January of this year, also won the afternoon’s next race with Casino Star at $59.40! The longshot TVB Breeders’ Cup undercard double paid a healthy $972.60 and contributed to an already rich Van Berg family legacy that includes Jack’s accomplishments and those of his father Marion—both residents of Racing’s Hall of Fame.

In the initial ’84 Breeders’ Cup, Jack Van Berg saddled Preakness winner Gate Dancer for the $3 million Classic—at that time the richest Thoroughbred race in history. Since then, other races have had richer purses, but the ’84 Classic survives as the roughest edition in the event’s history. Approaching the finish, Slew o’ Gold, and jockey Angel Cordero, became the meat in a horse-sandwich between winner Wild Again, with Pat Day, on the inside, and original runner-up Gate Dancer, with Laffit Pincay, on the outside. The trio bumped, twisted and bounced home—a mere head and one-half length apart. Following a lengthy inquiry, stewards disqualified Gate Dancer and placed him third for interfering with Slew o’ Gold. The decision had detractors. Andrew Beyer, then a columnist for the Washington Post, wrote, “The crowd of 64,254 booed the verdict lustily.”

One of Saturday’s highlights was Enable winning the BC Turf. A two-time Arc winner, she became the first in history to cash the Arc-Turf double in the same season. That she had raced just twice before in 2018 promised that she would arrive fresher than previous Arc-winning shippers. However, it also reminded horseplayers that all had not gone smoothly for her. As is usual with the great ones, in the end nothing mattered—historical precedent; a difficult season; unappealing footing. All Enable did was ‘Just win, baby,’ over gallant Magical and jockey Ryan Moore, doing their best to keep up.

The BC Turf triumph provided jockey Lanfranco Dettori a second consecutive BC-race win—he had accompanied Expert Eye home first in the BC Mile and had not ridden the Distaff. Enable’s triumph elicited an especially vigorous flying dismount from the ebullient Italian. His position as one of the all-time great riders, worldwide, already is cemented, but it’s likely that he’s just now executing his craft at an unmatched level of maturity, precision and verve.

Enable’s trainer John Gosden, like Dettori, already is considered one of the all-time greats. He merely adds to legend. Back in ’84, during the original Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park, Gosden conditioned another outstanding female BC race winner in Royal Heroine. Long before 4 others of her sex accounted for a total of 8 subsequent Mile renewals, the Irish-bred 4-year-old filly, claimed the race’s inaugural running in 1:32 3/5–a new Course and American record.

Royal Heroine was ridden by Chilean-born Fernando Toro, a SoCal-based journeyman especially regarded for his turf prowess. His agent at the time was Ron Anderson, who now serves as agent for jockey Joel Rosario, pilot of three 2018 BC race winners—Juvenile (Game Winner), Juvenile Fillies (Jaywalk) and Classic (Accelerate). Rosario also won the $200k Marathon Stakes, a supporting race on BC Friday.

Trainer Peter Miller also deserves a standing ovation as the first trainer to win two BC events with defending champs—Stormy Liberal (Turf Sprint) and Roy H. (Sprint). In a game where it’s best never to say ‘never,’ Miller’s achievement is so remarkable that in this context the ban against the word is hereby suspended. The feat’s likely never to be duplicated. The Miller barn’s 2018 season included a horrifying December preamble as they fled the Lilac fire that attacked the San Luis Rey Downs training center. Not a year removed from that tragedy, the defending champ BC double-play holds additional significance.

That loud ‘thud’ you heard at approximately 5:50 pm Saturday evening was the sound of a very large monkey falling from his perch atop trainer John Sadler’s back and solidly hitting the ground. For decades, Sadler’s name has been prominent among leading SoCal-based trainers. However, for some strange reason, he couldn’t win a Breeders’ Cup race. Saturday, after dismal performances by Selcourt in the F&M Sprint and favored Catalina Cruiser in the Dirt Mile, the racing gods callously teased Sadler with a runner-up finish by Catapult in the Mile. Finally, Accelerate won the $6 million Classic, ending Sadler’s zero-for-Forty/Forever Breeders’ Cup drought.

Accelerate’s victory, which capped an already outstanding season, launches a Horse-of-the-Year debate. Has the 5-year-old son of Lookin at Lucky done enough to dislodge unbeaten Triple Crown winner Justify’s connections from the golden Eclipse statue? We shall see.

On the wagering front, and this is where the 2018 Breeders’ Cup gets weird. Yours truly cashed late Pick 4, Pick 5 and Pick 6 tickets on both BC days, but failed to make much money. How is that even possible? In the past, hitting a Pick 6 on either BC Friday or Saturday would have meant a solid financial windfall. Not this year. The winners of nearly every BC race on both days came from one of the top three choices in each race. The only real bomb was Shamrock Rose at $53.80 in the F&M Sprint and that race wasn’t in any late multi-leg wagers.

Nearly every vertical (i.e. win, place, exacta, trifecta and superfecta) play I attempted crashed and burned. Favored Marley’s Freedom in the F&M Sprint; longshot Isotherm in the Dirt Mile; Wild Illusion in the F&M Turf; Promises Fulfilled in the Sprint; Next Shares in the Mile; Midnight Bisou in the Distaff and West Coast in the Classic…all disappointments. However, since in most races I had used several runners I was able to stay alive in multi-leg bets.

What an unusual experience. Because I was so wrong, so often, I should have been financially ruined. But I wasn’t. My second and third choices (and everyone else’s, too) consistently combined to complete successful multi-leg wagers. I didn’t get rich, but I had carfare and drinking money.

After 34 years of watching and wagering on Breeders’ Cups, I figured I’d seen it all. The 35th year showed me I haven’t. Wonder what next year will bring? Can’t wait to find out.

Race On!

On Track With Johnny D: One Weird Breeders’ Cup

On Track with Johnny D |