There's certainly nothing wrong with a $5 million horse race that includes a Triple Crown winner, the horse who beat the Triple Crown winner, a Belmont Stakes and two-time Jockey Club Gold Cup winner, a four-time Group 1 winner out of Europe and the Met Mile and Whitney champion. But let's not kid ourselves. The announcement Thursday that Beholder was being withdrawn from the Breeders' Cup Classic due to a bleeding issue was a huge blow to the race and to the day. The race went from the most widely anticipated racetrack showdown in over 20 years to just another really good race.
I thought Beholder was going to win. I don't like the fact that American Pharoah is coming into the Classic off his worst performance as a 3-year-old, his second-place finish in the Travers. But this was more a case of my being dazzled by Beholder. Her win over males in the Pacific Classic was electric, the type of performance you see from a top horse once every decade or so. She wasn't quite as good when she won the Zenyatta Stakes just a month later, but she didn't have to be. It was a tune-up race for the Classic, and she did exactly what she had to do, win while leaving plenty in the tank.
But the outcome of the Classic was far from certain. This was going to be Ali vs. Frazier, Hulk Hogan vs. Andre the Giant, a battle between unbeatables that was going to settle supremacy where it's supposed to be settled in this game, on the racetrack. That one of the two giants was a giantess made the storyline all that more compelling. Now we have American Pharoah against a "solid group" of horses, not a very sexy storyline.
American Pharoah's chances of winning rose significantly with the withdrawal of Beholder, but this isn't good news for him either. He's already made $5.9 million, will make much more than that as a sire and, win or lose in the Classic, he will be Horse of the Year. For him, the Breeders' Cup was all about having a chance to further enhance his status. Where does he belong among the rankings of Triple Crown winners? By beating Beholder, he'd have jumped right into the Seattle Slew, Affirmed category. (Secretariat, in my book, will always be in a class by himself.) Taking nothing away from this horse or what he's accomplished, I don't think he can reach that upper, upper echelon by beating Honor Code, Frosted and Tonalist, especially if he gets loose on the lead and goes unchallenged for much of the race. This Classic will be remembered as much for who wasn't in it as who was.
No sport is more snakebitten than horse racing. When everything seems ready to fall into place for one of these "race of the century" races, something always goes wrong. It happened over and over again with Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta. Holy Bull versus Cigar never really happened because Holy Bull was pulled up in the Donn Handicap. Remember when Sunday Silence and Easy Goer were going to resume their rivalry as 4-year-olds? It never happened. And now this.
This is the second straight year that Beholder has missed the Breeders' Cup. She came down with a fever last year. The latest issue was a result of her having problems shipping. It's worth nothing that she has never won outside of California, going 0-for-2.
For her, the good news is that the 2016 Breeders' Cup will be in her backyard at Santa Anita and she won't have to do any more than walk a few hundred yards from her stall. Trainer Richard Mandella has already said his mare will be back next year at 6 and, presumably, the Classic will again be a major goal. But it just won't be the same. American Pharoah isn't sticking around for next year, and the odds that the Classic will include a freshly minted Triple Crown winner are astronomical.
That doesn't mean this won't be a fun, exciting Breeders' Cup. Really, there's no such thing as a bad Breeders' Cup. But it could have been so much more. American Pharoah versus Beholder, Triple Crown winner versus a filly for the ages, is as good as it gets -- overtime in the Super Bowl, bases loaded, two outs, game tied in the bottom of the ninth in the seventh game of the World Series. Now we've got a "really good horse race." How disappointing.