A very full Cup
ELMONT, N.Y. -- It started and ended explosively, literally and figuratively, and in between there was enough action at the windows and on the racetrack to transfix serious horseplayers and casual fans for five hours. On a chilly, windy afternoon at Belmont Park, the 18th Breeders' Cup had it all and more.
Some of the marquee personalities and stables in the game scored, and others went down hard. Godolphin Racing, the greatest thoroughbred empire in history, ran 1-2 with longshots Tempera and Imperial Gesture in the Juvenile Fillies, and that was only its warmup act. Sheikh Mohammed bin Rashid al Maktoum and his brother Hamdan almost pulled off the ultimate late daily double when Fantastic Light won the Turf a half-hour before Sakhee, the best grass horse in Europe, was nosed out by Tiznow in one of the greatest Classics ever. For the second straight year, the defending Horse of the Year won the Classic over Europe's champion and made a late bid to retain his North American crown.
Trainer Jay Robbins, the quiet man, again came out ahead after sweating out a desperately close stretch fight in the $4-million Classic.
"I had more confidence [last year] because Giant's Causeway had to catch him and Sakhee got about a neck in front of him today," Robbins said. "I didn't think he'd ever let Giant's Causeway go by."
Tiznow's rider, Chris McCarron, won his record fifth Classic, breaking a three-way tie with Pat Day and Jerry Bailey.
"His name ought to be Tiz-Awesome. He's an incredible horse," McCarron said. "He gives us shivers and concern, but he's always there at the end. To be honest, at the eighth pole I thought I was riding for second. Sakhee seemed to have all the momentum."
Simon Crisford, Godolphin's racing manager, said of Sakhee, "That was tough. He ran a fabulous race. So close but so far but he lost nothing in defeat. The boss [Sheikh Mohammed] said to me, 'The picture is clear now why we chose to run him in the Classic and Fantastic Light in the Turf.' Sakhee was just inched out but it was a very game effort."
Behind Tisnow and Sakhee was another European superstar, Galileo, who failed to fire in his first try on the main track. The Irish colt ran sixth, and trainer Aidan O'Brien took the defeat philosophically. "It's the end of a long, hard season," O'Brien said. "Maybe the first time on the surface he just found it a little difficult. It's been a long season for a 3-year-old and you have to forgive it."
The Europeans equaled their best day ever at the Cup, taking three races with their 18 runners and barely missing a fourth in the Classic. The Old World's best riders, Frankie Dettori, Olivier Peslier and Michael Kinane, each had a winner, and so did Bailey and Day.
Officer, the alleged next superhorse, endured a brutal trip and finished fifth at 3/5 odds behind O'Brien's undefeated Johannesburg, the first European since Arazi in 1991 to take the Juvenile.
Trainer Bobby Frankel ended his Cup schneid at 0-for-38 when one of his least respected runners, the tiny 3-year-old Squirtle Squirt, rallied to win the Sprint and paid $21.20. None of Frankel's other five, including heavily favored Flute (seventh, Distaff) and You (fourth, Juvenile Fillies), could do better than third. After Aptitude plodded home eighth as the 2-1 chalk in the Classic, Frankel said, "I ain't saying nothing," as he got in his car. When you're 1-for-42 on championship day, what can you say?
Everybody else who had a bad day handled it with more class. Even trainer Bob Baffert, a notoriously bad loser, didn't rip jockey Victor Espinoza for getting caught up in a speed duel after breaking badly with Officer.
"It wasn't our day," Baffert said. "The winner [Johannesburg] looked awesome. [Officer] is still a good horse. I'm very disappointed."
So were most of the people who poured more than $4.8 million into the Ultra Pick Six, which rewarded only 11 winners with $262,442 each. A crowd of 52,987 bet a Belmont record of $13,087,813, and total worldwide handle will exceed $100 million. That's a lot of passion spent on a sport that's considered off the radar screen by the mainstream.
A longtime colleague spent her first day at a racetrack, made the first bets of her life and had a fine time. Made about 40 bucks, too. Part of Sandy's enjoyment came from Eddie Mac at the Track's tips that provided the winners of the Mile (Val Royal, $12.20) and Filly & Mare Turf (Banks Hill, $14), and like many first-timers, she quickly plugged into the scene. I think she'll be back.
For those who were there or saw this cosmic afternoon on television, I can't imagine any other reaction.