The Classic decision not to disqualify Bayern dangles temptingly like low-hanging fruit. But much has been written about that already. And to focus on the Classic might overlook a more disturbing problem: This was the most unsatisfying Breeders' Cup in history.
As soon as I say that I realize that the caviling cynics and the chronically captious who look for ulterior motives behind everything will jump up and say, "He must have bet on Shared Belief. He's just upset because he didn't make any money on the Breeders' Cup." So I suppose I must point out -- and I do this with reluctance and hesitation because I deplore nothing so much as those columnists who in the guise of writing about sports actually write about themselves in a clumsy attempt to toot their horns -- that I actually had a profitable Breeders' Cup, thanks largely to Take Charge Brandi. Nevertheless, in terms of the excitement it created, the new fans it enlisted and the quality it displayed, the recent championship series at Santa Anita was easily the least successful of all the Breeders' Cups.
Sunday morning, as I was preparing to check out of my Pasadena hotel and travel north to Yosemite, five people expressed to me their opinion that this was the worst Breeders' Cup ever. And maybe it was.
The trouble started in September, when stars suddenly started falling out of the sky. First, two of the best older horses in the country were retired because of injuries: Palace Malice, who started the season with four major stakes victories, and Will Take Charge, who finished second, a nose back, in last year's Classic. Palace Malice was an especially strong candidate for Horse of the Year, and both were prominent Classic contenders. Then a precarious situation veered toward disaster on Oct. 13, when Morton Fink informed Breeders' Cup officials that because of an injury, his two-time Horse of the Year Wise Dan would not be able to participate in the event. Wise Dan had been all set to pursue a third consecutive victory in the Mile. Six days later, two-time champion Beholder spiked a temperature; illness forced her out of the Distaff. And then on Tuesday, a day after he was made the 2-1 favorite in the morning line for the Juvenile, American Pharoah was scratched from the race because of a bruised foot.
Every Breeders' Cup, it's true, has defections. But this year's, it seemed, were all stars. And the Europeans did nothing to assuage the sense of loss. The European contingent was thin as gruel. Of the top 20 older horses in Europe according to Timeform, three came here for the Breeders' Cup. But of the top 20 3-year-olds, not one was seen at Santa Anita. And even though the juvenile turf races were created solely to propitiate foreign interests, not one of Europe's top 2-year-olds made an appearance.
And so in the days leading up to the Breeders' Cup, the apathy was palpable. In the past, throngs would gather to await the appearance on the track of Zenyatta, or Goldikova, or Royal Delta or Ghostzapper. But this year, indifference replaced the enthusiasm and passion that typically characterized the anticipation of a Breeders' Cup.
One of the advantages Santa Anita has over other sites, according to those who have pushed it as a permanent home for the event, is that there's no better setting for visitors to watch the horses in the mornings, with the San Gabriel Mountains as a backdrop. That's true, but visitors to Clockers' Corner on Friday morning saw little unless they were wearing night vision goggles. The track closed at 6:45 a.m., a few minutes before sunrise.
And Saturday morning, it was closed to training because of rains that pummeled the area. Reports of rainfall varied from a little to a lot, from 0.12 to 1.34 inches.The track was sealed. And so was the fate of this year's Breeders' Cup.
The Santa Anita track quickly dried, and when the races began Saturday, the surface was a drag strip. Ocho Ocho Ocho led throughout to win the first race after running an opening half-mile in, believe it or not, 43.96 seconds. Yes, he ran a sub-44 opening half and then drew clear to win by nearly six lengths. Acceptance led through an opening half-mile in 44.39 and won the second race, and then Amaranth led throughout, with an opening half-mile in 44.03 seconds, to win the third. On Friday, the track had been fair and the racing formful, but suddenly the track was silly-fast, and the speed bias couldn't have been stronger if the competitors had been jumping off a bridge into a river -- first one to jump gets there first.
And so by the fourth race Saturday, the Juvenile Fillies, Take Charge Brandi, a 61-1 long shot who also happened to be the quickest filly in the field, suddenly had a very real chance to win. On the other hand, horses that relied on a late charge to be effective, such as Conquest Eclipse and Puca, two of the favorites, had little chance. The speed bias grossly distorted the results. Is Take Charge Brandi the best 2-year-old filly in the country?
By the eighth race, the Juvenile, a speed mania had taken over, and everybody that had any speed at all left the gate in a hurry. But the drying out track -- it was always "fast" -- actually had been slowing down as the day's temperature gradually rose. The result was a chaotic meltdown in the Juvenile. Blue Dancer led through an opening half-mile in 45.66 seconds, followed closely by Souper Colossal and Upstart, with Daredevil struggling to keep up while six-wide. And then Texas Red rallied from last to run by the exhausted speedsters. Is he the best 2-year-old in the country?
And so the Classic, in retrospect, was a fitting conclusion to such a day and such a Breeders' Cup. The decision not to disqualify Bayern was craven, and the explanation -- that his veering in "did not alter the original order of finish" -- incredibly disingenuous. Bayern veered inward not for just one step, but for at least three strides, wiping out the favorite, Shared Belief, and the rival speed, Moreno. And so on this perverse speed-biased surface, Bayern, Toast of New York and California Chrome went around the track, one-two-three, for 1-1/4 miles.
I had to wonder what casual or new fans thought. Surely they were puzzled, perhaps even turned off by the Breeders' Cup. This is it? This is the culmination of the racing season and the richest race in North America? Didn't they just go around in a circle with about as much passing as in NASCAR? Is mugging allowed? And if they can get away with that at the start, if anything goes for the first three strides, then couldn't jockeys pull out a bludgeon and attack each other?
Justice wasn't possible in the end. Bayern, despite all the trouble he caused, gave an admirable performance. His veering in wasn't planned or intended. And so would it have been just to disqualify him and put up Toast of New York, who caused nearly as much trouble by also veering in at the start? Would the stewards have disqualified Bayern if the popular California Chrome, who was beaten a nose and a neck, had finished second? Maybe that would have been an approximation of justice, but it wasn't possible, and nothing could restore the chances of Shared Belief or remove the blemish from his erstwhile pristine record. After the Classic, nothing good for horse racing was coming out of this Breeders' Cup, which probably harmed more than it helped the sport's image.
The results were inconclusive. Who's the champion 3-year-old? The Horse of the Year? Who are the champion juveniles? This Breeders' Cup confused rather than clarified. And the fans, I suspect, were disappointed and disillusioned.
Their disappointment was evident in the numbers. This year's Breeders' Cup handle, for the two days that included 13 championship races, was $151,158,815, or $6,870,855 for each of the 22 races on Friday and Saturday. In 2006, the last time the Breeders' Cup was confined to a single, exhilarating day and eight championship races, handle was, in terms of 2014 dollars adjusted for inflation, $165,691,543, or $20,711,442 a race.
Another Breeders' Cup like the recent one at Santa Anita could be the beginning of the end for the sport's championship event, as it likes to call itself. Certainly it will be better at Keeneland next year; it couldn't be any worse.