The upcoming Breeders' Cup championships should produce one of the best days of racing in recent years. And then, of course, there's Breeders' Cup Friday.
Even if, in keeping with the modern trend of making everything more democratic and therefore less eminent, the quality has been diluted, the Breeders' Cup at Keeneland will be one of the best in the event's history. (Knock on wood.) A Triple Crown winner plus at least one more future Hall of Famer and the recent winner of the Arc de Triomphe provide the star power. And a full slate of champions will, in all likelihood, be running (knock on wood again) -- that is, every Eclipse Award winner will probably emerge, most of them with a victory, from these Breeders' Cup races.
That has happened only three times. It first happened in 2000, when Tiznow won the Breeders' Cup Classic to become champion 3-year-old and Horse of the Year. The other eight champions of 2000 all raced that day, Nov. 4, in the 17th Breeders' Cup. It happened again in 2006, when Invasor overcame a troubled and wide trip to run down Bernardini inside the 16th pole and win the Classic. And it last happened in 2010, when Zenyatta began slowly but then quickened like the collective heartbeat of her fans, charging determinedly down the stretch but nevertheless finishing a head behind Blame in one of the most exciting Classics in Breeders' Cup history.
All three of those events that featured a full slate of champions, it's worth noting, were run at Churchill Downs, which in 1988 was also host to the greatest day of racing in the sport's modern era. That fifth Breeders' Cup, the first in Kentucky, produced eight divisional champions, plus the Horse of the Year, Alysheba. Only absent was Risen Star, the season's champion 3-year-old. But a more discerning and refined metric insists the 1988 Breeders' Cup was the greatest of them all and unlikely ever to be surpassed for quality: Seven future Hall of Famers raced that day, in seven races, by the way, for such was the original format and vision.
Since the first Breeders' Cup in 1984, the rich extravaganza has produced 81 percent of the sport's champions and 74 percent of the Horses of the Year. And so the Breeders' Cup became what John Gaines envisioned when he announced its creation in April of 1982: a championship-defining event. In recent years it has expanded beyond what he envisioned. Since 2007, redefinition and revision have characterized the Breeders' Cup even more than jaw-dropping performances. Purses grew from $10 million in 1984 to $20 million by 2006. The event became so huge that a day couldn't contain it; so the Breeders' Cup added Friday to its schedule, along with several races, and then dropped two of those races, specifically the Marathon and Juvenile Sprint, which were, to be frank, like bibelots that look much more attractive in the store window than they ever could in your home. This year's Keeneland Breeders' Cup consists of 13 races worth $26 million.
Although every race might not actually be a championship event, every champion will race next weekend at Keeneland (knock on wood). A few titles already have been nailed down, of course. With her romping victory in the Pacific Classic, Beholder clinched the Eclipse Award as the champion older dirt female. It'll be her third Eclipse. With a win in the Classic, she could become the first horse ever to win three different Breeders' Cup races, having taken the Juvenile Fillies and Distaff in the past.
With his historic and dominating sweep of the jewels, American Pharoah pocketed the Eclipse Award as champion 3-year-old as well as Horse of the Year the moment he crossed the finish line at Belmont Park. (Anybody contemplating not voting for the first Triple Crown winner in 37 years should have the ballot ripped from his hands before he hurts himself.) American Pharoah could become the first horse to win what's popularly being called the Grand Slam, the Triple Crown plus the Classic. And so the two most celebrated American horses of 2015, Beholder and American Pharoah, will meet in Lexington on their way to the Hall of Fame. That alone would make this Breeders' Cup outstanding, but there's more.
Even though Horse of the Year isn't on the line, the Classic will determine a championship. Who's the champion older male -- or dirt male, as it's now being called, the clarification arriving like a tardy firetruck, after much of the damage has fallen charred to the ground and too late for horses such as Fort Larned and Palace Malice? Is Honor Code, the winner of the Met Mile and Whitney, the champ? Or perhaps Tonalist, winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup? A victory in the Classic probably would win an Eclipse Award for either. Or their head-to-head matchup could settle the issue.
If either Songbird or Rachel's Valentina wins the Juvenile Fillies, she's a champion. Both fillies are undefeated. Nobody, however, has shined very brightly among the 2-year-old colts. Nyquist, the divisional leader, looks like a careless running back, carrying the ball in one hand, away from his body, daring a fumble. He's unbeaten, with three stakes victories, but he looks less and less imposing every time he races. He's the clear divisional leader, but Brody's Cause, Exaggerator, Greenpointcrusader or Riker could claim a title with a victory.
Who are the champion sprinters? The Breeders' Cup will answer that question, too. Unbeaten in five races this year, La Verdad might be the quickest female this side of Danica Patrick, but she never has won at seven-eighths of a mile, and Cavorting, the winner of the Prioress, seems to be peaking at the right moment. Among the males, Runhappy, Private Zone, Appealing Tale and Wild Dude should have much to say about the title.
The turf awards also await a reckoning. Tepin has sparkled, but can she beat males in the Mile? If she succeeds, she's the champion turf female. Or could Hard Not To Like or Stephanie's Kitten hold off the Europeans to win a championship? And could the Arc winner, Golden Horn, do enough in one American start to earn an Eclipse Award, or will Big Blue Kitten and The Pizza Man thwart the European?
Among these horses, you won't find seven future Hall of Famers. But among these 13 races coming up at Keeneland, you should discover some of the best racing of recent years.