Riders Up! for the Breeders’ Cup

6 November 2010: Blame, ridden by Garrett Gomez and trained by Albert M. Stall Jr., narrowly hangs on to defeat Zenyatta, ridden by Mike Smith and trained by John A. Shirreffs, for the win in the Breeders Cup Classic at Churchill Downs in Louisville, KY. (Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire)

By Bill Doolittle

The Breeders’ Cup is one of those things that has worked out almost exactly as envisioned – a season-ending set of championship races with plenty of racing action and a touch of class.

As the show returns to Churchill Downs for the ninth time in 34 runnings, the Breeders’ Cup remains a dressed-up day – actually, two days – at the races with the stars of the sport flashing to fame and fortune.

All that was expected and hoped for, though there is one trend that wasn’t expected that could be an easy handicapping hint if you’re headed to the track Nov. 2 and 3. And we’ll come to that in a minute.

The Breeders’ Cup began in 1984 as a one-day affair of seven races but has grown to 14 races over two days. This year’s modification – a pretty darn good one – is to turn the five races on Friday into a showcase built just for 2-year-old horses. A day for the young debs and dashing beaus to strut their stuff before an audience that’s always interested in young horses. It is the Breeders’ Cup, after all. Here in Kentucky, we’re all about improving the breed – and did I mention we have some nice ones for sale?

For racing fans, it’s always the chance to glimpse the future stars of the sport.

That’s on Nov. 2.

Then, on Saturday the older horses take the track for some real rock ’n‘ roll. Such is the acceptance of the Breeders’ Cup, that the best horses are particularly pointed for these races, with the winners very often receiving Eclipse Awards as the best performers of their sex and age for that year.

Plus, that bit of élan, the touch of class.

Tweed jackets and fall fashions. A table in the Clubhouse. Nights out in Louisville restaurants. Mornings at the backside barns as the big horses and their people arrive at famous Churchill Downs. The bourbon flows, hotels fill up and sharp “handicappers” pore over morning workout reports and exotic “figs” to conquer the betting fiesta that comes with offering exactas, trifectas, superfectas, pick threes, fours, fives, sixes – plus good old-fashioned win wagers that often roll through the windows in five-figure increments. Full fields of top horses in nearly every race get the arithmetic cooking and the tote board smoking.

Plus the horses themselves, which include the stable stars of both coasts – New York and California, East vs. West. But also the often-overlooked hard hitters of the midlands of the U.S. and Canada, that every once in a while take down the tony Ivy Leaguers and surfside superstars.

Then out at the airport, plane loads of stars swoop in from Ireland, Britain and France. High-bred Thoroughbreds with manes and tails trimmed straight across like brunette bangs.

It’s a really good show.

Back in the original Breeders’ Cup days in the 1980s, the races were simply open to all those nominated and entered. When there was an overflow, they had a committee of experts to narrow the fields to a manageable size. And still do. But today there are an increasing number of “win-and-you’re-in” races leading up to the Breeders’ Cup. They’ve got them at Churchill and at tracks like Santa Anita and Saratoga. There are a bunch scheduled at Keeneland on the first weekend in October, plus overseas. New this year is a win-and-in race in Brazil and one in Argentina. It’s similar to college basketball teams playing to get into the NCAA. Or the way 3-year-old colts earn points in Derby Preps to qualify for the Kentucky Derby. The extra benefit for racing is it extends the Breeders’ Cup excitement back into the season.

The Breeders’ Cup is not like the Kentucky Derby, which enjoys a fan base far beyond horse racing. The Derby is one-of-a-kind: one horse, on one day, hoping for one shot at history.

The Breeders’ Cup is about ALL horses of all ages. At sprint distances and going longer. Races on dirt and grassy turf. It’s got races reserved for two-year-olds. Fillies have their own races. 

Mike Smith during the Rood & Riddle 2017 Breeders’ Cup Post Position Draw at Barn at the Beach at Powerhouse Park on Oct. 30, 2017, in Del Mar, California. Photo by Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders Cup.

Something, in other words, for everybody, capped with a grand Breeders’ Cup Classic that carries a purse of $6 million, run at one-and-one-quarter miles.

A handy distance under the Twin Spires.

On the Road Again

There’s a well-practiced feel now to the Breeders’ Cup.

Since the first one at Hollywood Park in 1984, the Cup has made stops at a slew of revered tracks, with names like Woodbine, Arlington, Monmouth, Hollywood, Belmont, Gulfstream, Del Mar, Keeneland, Santa Anita and Churchill Downs. But currently, the series seems to be settling into to a nucleus rotation of the two top tracks in California – Santa Anita and Del Mar – and the top two in Kentucky – Keeneland and Churchill. Places where the crowds are big, the enthusiasm is solid and the weather is – well, it’s usually pretty good. (Though this scribe believes the weather would be better in the middle of October than the first week in November.)

But there are reasons (read that territorial turf and college football) that the championships must wait for November. That’s no problem here. November is a traditional Fall Meet racing month in Louisville, and Churchill Downs is all set up for it.

And you know those Euro steeds, they like a little cut in the air as they prefer a little cut in the turf – and they get both in Kentucky.

The Breeders’ Cup founders would certainly like to see more press coverage, more television and the event sparking a growing base of day-to-day fans at all tracks. But the Breeders’ Cup itself is a resounding success. A crowd of 70,000-plus can be expected for this year’s edition at the Downs. The turnstiles still spin for the sport’s top events and best venues, and the Breeders’ Cup’s biggest fans are racing’s most ardent followers.

The race to the race

But, as noted, there is a surprise.

And it’s not about horses. Or tracks.

It’s the jockeys.

The one outlier of outcomes is that a handful of jockeys win most of the Breeders’ Cup races. An elite handful. Sometimes just a couple of jocks divvying up the millions.

DUBLIN, IRELAND – SEPTEMBER 10: Alice Springs #3, ridden by Ryan Moore and trained by A P O’Brien, wins The Coolmore Fastnet Rock Matron Stakes on Champion Stakes Day at Leopardstown Race Course on September 10, 2016 in Dublin, Ireland. (Photo by Aindreas Lynch/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)

It’s a surprise, considering that the influx of so many top horses requires an influx of top riders. And that’s happened. You look down the program and the jock’s column is a virtual list of the top riders in North America. But it seems just a handful of those win a majority of the races.

The opinion here is there is tremendous competition among trainers to sign the tip-top riders to guide their cream-of-the-crop horses in the Breeders’ Cup. And the elite handful have the most choices. That’s true in everyday racing, but super-so in the Breeders’ Cup. The best riders are on the best horses. And that might not be apparent in the odds.

Back in the 1990s, two jockeys, Jerry Bailey and Pat Day, dominated the Breeders’ Cup jockeys standings, ranking 1-2 in Breeders’ Cup races won and 2-1 in cash earned by their mounts. Bailey and Day rode far out in front of everyone else. Even years after that pair retired in the early 2000s, they remain third and fourth in all-time standings in money earned. Day is still tied for second in wins with current rider John Velazquez at 15 each.

But there’s a new sheriff in town. Today, Mike Smith is a clear No. 1. He’s won 26 Breeders’ Cup races and $35 million in earnings for the owners of the horses he’s ridden. Velazquez is now slightly ahead of Day in earnings at $23 million.

Beyond Velazquez, a number of jockeys in the standings are retired, or nearing retirement, as the 53-year-old Smith must be. Though it certainly doesn’t seem that way. There is another short list of jockeys vying to become the new go-to Breeders’ Cup riding elite.

To this writer, it looks like six are in stride. Those include Smith and Velazquez (who is 46), Javier Castellano (40), Joel Rosario (33), Irad Ortiz Jr. (26) and Jose Ortiz (24). The Ortiz Brothers both ride in New York but have gotten the attention of racing people everywhere. Trainer Bill Mott says there’s a reason: “They show up on the big days.”

Covering our bases, we could note young California prospects Flavien Prat and Drayden Van Dyke, both 26. Prat was born in France, Van Dyke in Louisville. Maybe those two more for next year when the Breeders’ Cup is run at Santa Anita.

The top European rider in the Breeders’ Cup is Ryan Moore (34), who rides “first call” for Coolmore and trainer Aidan O’Brien, who annually send over the most European contenders for the Breeders’ Cup.

Moore is a definite for the list, which gives us seven jockeys.

We’ll see if that’s the new right list. The list you can take to the betting window at Churchill Downs.

What’s interesting is the elite riders’ story may offer an inside look at the sport of the Breeders’ Cup.

It starts by working backwards. That’s what the trainers of the top prospects do. They circle Nov. 2 and 3 on the calendar, then work the schedule backward. Maybe planning a race for a month out in late September or early October and a race maybe three weeks before that. Owners will wish to see the horses run at Saratoga or Del Mar. Before that, the trainers might pencil in a month off in June to rest up for a fall campaign. That’s after a spring campaign to begin the calendar. The trainers are thinking about distance and competition and maybe zeroing in on one of the win-and-you’re-in races. Along the way, they’re blending in workouts to build stamina or hone speed. All that is plotted backwards from the date of the Breeders’ Cup.

The jocks and their agents, however, are looking forward. They’re dotting around, riding prospects and entertaining requests to commit for the Breeders’ Cup.

No. 1 Mike Smith

And so, here’s Mike Smith with 26 Breeders’ Cup wins. On the lookout for more.

“We want to ride high quality horses, and help prime them for their big races,” says Smith. “A lot of times you have conflicts of one horse or another (for longtime clients), and one date or another, and we (he and agent Brad Pegram) have to be good at making it work and keeping everybody happy.”

Eventually, Smith makes his choices, and concentrates on preparation for the Breeders’ Cup.

“I can’t wait,” says Smith, whose first Breeders’ Cup winner was Lure in 1992 for Claiborne Farm and trainer Shug McGaughey. “I get pumped up for these kind of races. When you get to prepare for the Breeders’ Cup, that’s what it’s all about. But you’ve got to handle all that energy. If you can slow things down and focus, great things happen. But in saying that, you have to be on the right kind of horse.”

But not necessarily practice with the horse. Top riders often win big races the first time they get boots in the stirrups.

“Sometimes the first time you ride a horse is the best time,” Smith says. “You know you just get along with them and don’t worry about any of it.”

Of more concern is the competition – the rival riders.

“I’ve got to handicap the rider as much as I do the horse,” Smith says. “I know who’s in there and who’s tough when the money is down. And in a lot of cases, they’re coming well mounted.

“You keep your eye on them, you know.”

A Wild Day

And speaking of first time in the stirrups, we go back to Pat Day and Jerry Bailey to see how they did it.

Day won the very first Breeders’ Cup Classic in 1984 on Wild Again, a 31-1 shot that he had not been riding.

That first Breeders’ Cup was run on a warm, sunshiny day at Hollywood Park, with the final quarter mile of the Classic full of back-and-forth, close-quarters action.

The Daily Racing Form chart caller noted that Wild Again was “rated” on the pace for six furlongs, then “resisted gamely when challenged by Slew O’ Gold around the final turn, brushed repeatedly with that one through the final quarter mile, was severely bumped near the finish but held the advantage.” Meanwhile, Gate Dancer, ridden by Laffit Pincay, came from behind, but “lugged in” on favored Slew O’ Gold, ridden by Angel Cordero, causing Slew to bump Wild Again. Gate Dancer finished second, but was placed third by the stewards for interference behind Wild Again and Slew O’ Gold.

This scribe was down on the rail near the finish, but I couldn’t tell which of the three had won, especially with the banging around that left them separated at the wire. I remember the jocks riding all hell-bent for leather, the horses flying. Day was a little harder for me to see on the rail across the track on Wild Again. He was a horse I hadn’t considered and expected him to get caught. The big noise was Gate Dancer thundering from behind. You could hear his hooves. I remember being shocked that Wild Again was hanging around to finish with the well-regarded favorites. Why was this unknown horse still alive after a rough mile-and-a-quarter?

Pincay and Cordero were already famous. Now, Day was getting his name called.

There was a photo, then an inquiry, then the numbers went up: Wild Again, $64.60.

LOUISVILLE, KY – MAY 04: Jockey Mike Smith says a prayer before joining other jockeys in honoring cancer survivors during the Survivor’s Parade on Kentucky Oaks Day at Churchill Downs on May 4, 2018 in Louisville, Kentucky. Jockey’s join as a show of support for Corey Lanerie’s wife, Shantel. Several jockey’s wore “Fight with Shantel” bands around their boots. (Photo by Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Getty Images)

Ar-KONG!

Of course, that was just peanuts compared with Bailey nine years later in the ’83 Classic at Santa Anita. The horse was Arcangues – a French horse that you, me and everybody else had never heard of. I think he was kind of an unknown even in France.

Bailey tells the story that he didn’t have a mount in the Classic, but prominent French trainer Andre Fabre was bringing over some grass horses for the turf races with this Arcangues – pronounced Ar-KONG, if you can believe that – entered to run in the $2 million classic. Apparently Fabre had no rider for Arcangues and simply wrote in Bailey’s name when he entered the horse.

Which was all right with Bailey. But come race day, he still hadn’t talked with Fabre about the horse.

“When I came into the paddock for the saddling, Andre (Fabre) wasn’t there,” said Bailey. “The ‘lad’ had the horse saddled, but he only spoke French, so I was waiting for some instructions and didn’t even have any hints.”

Finally, it’s time for “riders up,” and the French lad gives Bailey a leg up into the saddle aboard Arcangues, and off they go for the $2 million race.

“All of a sudden I hear, ‘Jer-ree,’ and it’s Andre waving at me from the crowd along the way to the track. He’s saying, ‘Good luck, Jer-ree,’”

Bailey allowed Arcangues to coast along near the rear in a field 13. Coming off the backstretch, Bailey got Arcangues rolling and steered him to the inside to pass horses around the turn for home, splitting more horses into the stretch and finally running right by 6-5 race favorite Bertrando to win going away – at 133-1.

That’s right, 133-1. The payoff on a $2 win ticket was $269.20.

What does it all prove?

Well, who knows?

But maybe this Breeders’ Cup we’ll have more of an eye out for the riders. Could use a little of that 133-1, myself. V