Smile Politely

To Go or Not to Go: The Breeder’s Cup Quandary

With the most prestigious event in American racing only five weeks away, all eyes are sitting on this year’s standout horses. Every other year, those contenders who’ve been snagging the classics and adding up the graded stakes races to their records were a shoe-in for the Breeder’s Cup World Championships. With 14 purses totaling a combined worth of $25.5 million dollars, why on earth wouldn’t someone go? But with this year’s events to be run at Santa Anita on the synthetic Pro-Ride track surface, more and more horses look to be steering clear of the “Olympics of horse racing.” Currently, some trainers are teetering on the cusp of decision, asking themselves: “Is it worth it?”

One horse that has been targeted toward the Breeder’s Cup Classic — the big tuna of the championship — is Big Brown. Even before his bid for the Triple Crown, his connections wanted the Classic to be his last career start. A win in the BC Classic would put the Kentucky Derby winner in a new league of respect, something the horse has had a hard time garnering this year. The best horses in the world descend upon America to run in the Classic, and so there would be no question as to whether or not the winner was tested with superior competition. Big Brown showed an impressive will to win in the Monmouth Stakes, holding off older graded stakes winners by a neck on the turf. It wasn’t a flashy win like his debut, but it was a victory no less spectacular. Finally, Brownie was allowed to do things his own way, and now that his connections have witnessed that’s all the horse needs to be happy, he stands a helluva chance in the Classic. His chances will be in great question, however, if last year’s BC Classic winner, Curlin, returns to repeat.

Owner Jess Jackson has been hemming and hawing over whether or not to run the 2007 Horse of the Year again in the Classic for months. At first, he said Curlin had “been there, done that” and wanted to point him toward big races across the pond to “expand his legacy.” Obviously, there’s a good degree of merit in pitting a horse of Curlin’s talent against horses in other countries. But then all that talk about Big Brown being “much better” than Curlin started flapping from Dutrow’s gums. Now, Curlin has nothing to prove — he’s faced all who will face him, older horses and foreign racers; he won the Jaguar Cup and the Dubai World Cup, the BC Classic, the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Preakness, etc… It may be only my opinion, but there are just some people who need to be shut up, and shut up good. Curlin would be unique if he went on to compete in the Japan Dirt Cup, but is this really the race we fans are titillated about? Winning the Breeder’s Cup Classic two years in a row would put Curlin right alongside Tiznow as the only horse to win the Classic twice, improve his legacy if he was to win on the synthetic surface, and also pit the chestnut against the bay, a match up that has handicappers frothing at the mouth.

The magical thing about the Classic is that there are so many good horses who enter, the race is usually nearly impossible to handicap. But as so many horses are putting distance between themselves and the synthetic surface, the competition this year may suffer. A second horse who is a “maybe” for the championships is the hard-working filly Proud Spell, who didn’t finish as well on synthetics in her only start over the surface at Keeneland. Proud Spell would be targeted toward the Breeder’s Cup Ladies’ Classic, formerly the BC Distaff, and be put up against certainly the most talented field of horses in the championship. You’d have Zenyatta, the 7-for-7 Collosus; Santa Anita is her home turf, and she’s beaten everything that’s come at her, including the formerly invincible mare, Ginger Punch. Ginger Punch won the Distaff last year in a stretch duel between the hardy Hystericalady, a mare who’s blown away her competition this year like she was racing a bunch of maidens. And then of course, there’s Proud Spell’s arch-rival, Music Note, who walked to victory last Saturday in the Gazelle Stakes. Each and every one of these fillies and mares have what it takes to win a race of this caliber—but the chink in the armor will be the surface. In a race so dreamlike it deserves to be the showcase of the championships, the challenge will be marred by the surface advantage, forever being the objection to anyone discussing the outcome. I wouldn’t blame Larry Jones for being hesitant to run Proud Spell on the synthetics again, especially since the stuff hasn’t gotten the best reputation from trainers.

Even though it’s designed to be safer than organic dirt, several horses have been injured obscurely, from Georgie Boy and Smooth Air to more recently, Midnight Lute. There are some trainers, like Nick Zito, who want their horses to stay off the stuff. Their argument is that synthetics should be considered a third surface, because each horse takes to it differently; you have turf horses, dirt horses, and synthetic horses. While turf horses are said to better transition over to synthetics, many dirt horses flounder on the stuff. If several major dirt races are being run on synthetic, that’s taking out the dirt category altogether.

With the final prep races being run for the eventual contenders of the Breeder’s Cup World Championships, we will soon find out exactly who’s going and who’s keeping out of it. One of those who have already veered away from the road to the championships is Pyro, whose lone start on synthetics led to a disastrous result and may have cost him a better effort in the Kentucky Derby. And then there are those like Casino Drive, Colonel John, Commentator, and Smooth Air who are getting primed and ready for America’s biggest showdown. It’s a Who’s Who of horse racing, and to opt out is to decline an invitation to the big party. It’s definitely a tough decision, and an unfortunate one to have to make. But with the rate of how fast horses retire nowadays, who can afford to keep these stars from shining?

Proud Spell will be running in the $750,000 Grade II Fritz Dixon Cotillion this Saturday at approximately 2:50pm CT. The race will be broadcast live on TVG and HRTV.

Commentator is entered to run in the $500,000 Massachusetts Handicap this Saturday at approximately 4:47pm CT. The race will be broadcast live on TVG.

Macho Again is slated to race in the $500,000 Super Derby at approximately 4:12pm CT. The race will be broadcast live on TVG.

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