This Side Up: Breeders' Cup a Track-and-Field Event


Essential QualitySarah Andrew


The genius of the Breeders' Cup is the way it brings together the two ancillary channels of investment that offer a Thoroughbred racehorse such viability as it may have: from the bloodstock industry, on the one hand; and fans and handicappers, on the other.

So far as the first group are concerned, it might be overstating things to say that the GI Kentucky Derby would not lose a single runner if they only ran for that blanket of roses. But it's certainly true that the values of the bloodstock market are self-fulfilling: a yearling colt can only raise millions on the premise that he might someday generate millions more, as a stallion, in turn only because someone will repeat the same gamble on his own sons.

In subscribing the prize fund at Del Mar next weekend, however, breeders not only tighten that cycle with a direct reward for racetrack excellence, and a heightened incentive for seeking it. They also give a narrative coherence to the career of a racehorse that simply wasn't there before 1984.

Hopefully that can also help to maintain the racetrack as the center of gravity for their own endeavors, in terms of genetic selection. We all know that far too many matings are oriented to the sales ring instead. But by spurring the competitive ardor of professional horsemen, with better purses harnessed to a better storyline, the Breeders' Cup conflates their interests with those of fans.

Sure, gaudier prizes even than the Classic are nowadays offered elsewhere, but nothing can match the organic engagement–both with the public, and with the rest of the racing calendar–of the greatest single innovation of the modern Turf.

True, some of us retain reservations about the dilution inevitable with the expansion of the Breeders' Cup program. We have a short field daring to take on Gamine (Into Mischief), for instance, instead of discovering whether she could emulate Safely Kept against the boys. As has become bleakly predictable, moreover, the Europeans have again failed to muster a single entry on the main track, partly because they are nowadays indulged with so many more turf options. And potentially the most talented animal at the meeting has sought easier pickings in the Dirt Mile.

Not that anyone could quibble with the connections of Life Is Good (Into Mischief), who still lacks seasoning and has not had the chance to explore 10 furlongs at any level, never mind in the company than would await in the Classic. In its short history, after all, the Dirt Mile has been used as a platform for precisely the kind of breakout that remains available to Life Is Good as he matures. The pair that chased home Tamarkuz (Speightstown) in the 2016 running divided the next two Classics between them: runner-up Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) the following year, and third Accelerate (Lookin At Lucky) coming through as a 5-year-old. This time round, of course, Knicks Go (Paynter) is bidding to become the first to win both races.

And Life Is Good still has to go out and earn these laurels, bearing in mind what happened to Omaha Beach (War Front) when in a similar situation. But while its inauguration has eroded both the Sprint and the Classic, the Dirt Mile has unquestionably matured to fill a valid niche and it's no surprise to see such a warm reception for City Of Light (Quality Road) at stud, following the promising starts made by the likes of Goldencents (Into Mischief) and Liam's Map (Unbridled's Song).

The miler has always had a premium for stud, as eking out sprint speed towards Triple Crown eligibility. By the same token, however, a race like the GI Met Mile surely owes its stallion pedigree to its one-turn, one-gasp configuration. This will be a relative crapshoot and it's a shame that only Churchill, among established and surviving Breeders' Cup venues, can approach the same aerobic/athletic demands. (Yet another reason for grieving the doom of Arlington and Hollywood).

This revives a point I've made before about the modern Kentucky Derby, which appears to favor speed without really testing it, now that the sprinters are being squeezed out by the points system. In terms of the stud careers of winners, the Derby has been going through quite a sticky patch. (Though obviously there are some younger sires now in a position to do something about that). And if Essential Quality (Tapit) happens to win the Classic, leaving his messy Churchill run as the single blemish of his career, then we might have another reason to be nervous of the Derby's current direction.

In contrast, there probably won't be any hiding place for the speed horses in the Classic. And that's just as it should be. Certainly those who have subscribed the funds will, as usual, be perusing the pre-entries over the coming days to see how their funding of the breed's proving ground will play out.

In the Classic itself, for instance, we have a son of Kitten's Joy who has become a revelation on dirt. We have sons of Oxbow and Paynter who, whatever happens, will presumably go to market at a higher fee than their under-rated sires. We have a colt that could secure a different legacy for that most precocious of broodmare sires, Bernardini, who has also bequeathed a longshot in the Juvenile.

Two other lamented sires feature in that race: Giant Game is one of three named colts from the final crop of Giant's Causeway; while the tragically premature loss of Arrogate would feel still more poignant should Jasper Great score a historic success for Japan. Across the card, moreover, the late City Zip has three chances to add to his five individual Breeders' Cup winners.

Among those still with us, let's hear it for the only stallion to have sired the winners of seven races, More Than Ready, who just keeps on rolling: he has three leading contenders for the Juvenile Fillies' Turf alone. And another evergreen veteran, Speightstown, sees his studmate and raises him with four starters in the Sprint!

At the other end of the spectrum, Gun Runner and Connect have managed to get members of their first crop into both the Juvenile and the Juvenile Fillies. That's a hell of an achievement. We can certainly celebrate those rookies that do make the grade, while still deploring the way commercial breeders stampede from one unproven sire to the next. It's only right that some freshmen excel, because they are given every chance to do so. That doesn't mean their success should be downplayed, but nor does it excuse people for breeding so transparently for the ring.

The covering stats that have just been published by the Jockey Club contain all their usual horrors, at both ends of the scale: many stallions that will be in Oklahoma or Turkey in five or six years' time, covering far more than the proposed limit of 140; and others, far more eligible to sire a Grade I horse, struggling with two or three dozen (one of them shockingly down to single figures) because of a perceived want of commercial luster.

Which takes us back to our opening premise: that the Breeders' Cup abbreviates the connection between the bloodstock industry and the one crucible that should really count. This sport, in economic terms, is a triangle of symbiotic interests. So let's not just enjoy where the surf meets the Turf, but where the breeders meet the fans-and the track meets the field.

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