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Taking Track: Breeders’ Cup Saturday Recap

What a day from Churchill Downs.  It had exciting finishes, it had upsets, it had surprises and it had tremendous stories, certainly headlined by the redemption of Mike Smith and the stunning run of Drosselmeyer to take the Breeders’ Cup Classic in both stunning and emphatic fashion.

Rob Carr, Getty Images

Marathon: The horse racing world looked to double down on what was a magnificent opening act of Breeders’ Cup action on Friday when the gates flew open in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Marathon.  It was the first championship race of the day and was headlined by A.U. Miner and Birdrun.  The former was sent away as the favorite, though he would not figure in the race as the betting public of Churchill Downs wouldn’t have to wait long for the first major upset of the day.  At 41-1 Cornelio Velazquez steered Afleet Again to the win – his first in a year and a half – setting a track record in the process.  It was a stunning and exciting beginning to the day’s action.

Juvenile Turf: The Juvenile Turf played the encore to the shocking start.  This field of fourteen was led onto the one mile turf course by the favorite, and winner of three straight, Finale.  He was a long-odds favorite at 4-1 however, speaking to how wide open this field was.  That point was driven home just minutes later when the Irish colt Wrote came with a big run on the outside and got the win – headlining an exacta that paid $964 with the 33-1 Excaper finishing second.  What a start to the day, especially for those out there lucky enough to have the exotics in the first two races.

Matthew Stockman, Getty Images

Sprint: The always electric Breeders’ Cup Sprint tried to live up to the sensational precedent set forth by the day’s opening races.  Jackson Bend took all of the early money and took to the starting gate the 5-2 favorite.  The betting public’s selection was the most logical as his prodigious closing speed was the perfect answer to a field that figured to light the stop watch on fire early.  He’d face tough competition in last year’s Sprint champion Big Drama, Eurorears, Giant Ryan, Aikenite and Amazombie.  The early speed did develop, with the opening quarter flying by in a blistering :21.1.  In the end it was Amazombie who came from mid pack to run down the lead and clip the wire first.  He battled Force Freeze down the length of the stretch and turned back the expected late run of Jackson Bend – who had just too much work to do from second to last.

Turf Sprint: The next race was the five furlong Turf Sprint – a race as wide open as its finishes are frantic.  Regally Ready was pegged the favorite for the race and with good reason.  The gelding took the final turn on the lead and strolled home with ease, barely feeling the sting of the whip and never being tested by the field – the customary turf sprint calvary charge never materialized.  Finally the betting public was right.

Matthew Stockman, Getty Images

Dirt Mile: But would their success continue in the Dirt Mile?  In an unbelievably loaded field, the public chose to put their money on the backs of Wilburn and Trappe Shot, betting them down to 5-2.  Despite the odds, their hold on favorite status could be nothing more than tenuous.  As I wrote in my preview of the race, the outcome in the Dirt Mile would hang largely on pace.  A fast pace favored the closers like Caleb’s Posse; a slow pace favored the front-running Shackleford; and a reasonable pace gave Wilburn and others in the field the inside track at the win.  As loaded a field as you’ll see, and as wide open a one to boot, would take the track in the 7th race on Saturday and fly out of the gate.  The opening half went by :45.36, setting the stage for the closers.  Shackleford took a confident lead into the stretch despite the early fractions and looked keen to go on for the win, but Caleb’s Posse would not be denied.  Rajiv Maragh brought this closer with a profound late run and turned in a dynamic and emphatic win that was every bit as impressive as his upset over Uncle Mo in the King’s Bishop.  Shackleford stayed for second, a valiant run for the front runner against such suicidal fractions.  In the end, though, a perfect race for Caleb’s Posse and an incredibly impressive race.

Turf: Looking to capture some of Caleb’s Posse’s magic was Sarafina, the 2-1 favorite of the Turf.  She broke the post parade early and quite literally lead the field onto the turf course.  This European filly, with three wins in her last four races, was looking to conquer the boys and the U.S.  Her bid would be denied, however, when eighteen year old jockey Joseph O’Brien navigated St. Nicholas Abbey through the crowd and delivered a Breeders’ Cup win for his father, the trainer of St. Nicholas Abbey, Aidan O’Brien.  The 5’11 Joseph O’Brien became the youngest jockey to win a Breeders’ Cup race when he patiently sat near last around the final turn before moving St. Nicholas Abbey to the outside and letting him unwind a marvelous stretch run that took home the victory.

Juvenile: Then came the young-ins.  The best two-year olds the sport could offer would take the stage and look to stamp themselves a favorite for the 2012 Kentucky Derby.  Union Rags carried the hype and the tag of favorite into the race, bet down to an insane 6-5.  Favorite?  Certainly.  Odds on?  Probably not.  Regardless, the Michael Matz trained horse took to the Churchill Downs track a prodigious favorite over Dullahan, Drill and Creative Cause. The race opened with Hansen taking to the lead as expected.  Union Rags was unlucky to be caught several horses wide around both turns.  Still, he took the stretch looking poised to run on for the win – and should have.  Again, the favorite’s connections were unlucky to watch their horse wander the front stretch in search of a finish line that, in the end, came too early. Had Javier Castellano been able to guide Union Rags to a straight run down the stretch he would have chased down the front runner for the win.  In the end, the long-shot who’s chances I liked to hang on to the lead, did just that.  This Juvenile championship belonged to the white flash of Hansen, who may not have been the best horse on the day, but hit the wire first.

Rob Carr, Getty Images

Turf Mile: And the stage was hers.  The fabulous filly Goldikova would step under the twin spires of Churchill Downs and look to once again make her mark on a race that she has firmly stamped as hers, the Breeders’ Cup Turf Mile.  She was the obvious choice for favorite in her final race and the betting public responded making her the 6-5 first choice.  Goldikova was pinned inside throughout the race and made a daring, borderline illegal jump in front of Courageous Cat at the top of the stretch.  The filly made a marvelous run down the stretch but she was no match for Court Vision and Turallure who came on the outside with Court Vision grabbing the win by the smallest of margins.  Goldikova, shockingly, would not be taken down and would finish third, a disappointing end to a brilliant career for a fabulous filly (I <3 Adjectives).  Court Vision was a 64-1 winner adding to the day’s already unspeakably rich pedigree.  The exacta paid $1,979.60.  I can’t say anything that that number does not, so we’ll just move on.

Classic: And here.  We.  Go.  Following the breathtaking stretch run of the Turf Mile was the match-up of the year between Uncle Mo, Havre De Grace and Flat Out.  To me, these three were far and away the best of the field, with Havre De Grace and Uncle Mo the rightful morning-line favorites.  The often mystifying betting public had done some pari-mutual magic at post time, however, betting Flat Out to favorite status over the super filly and the 2010 Juvenile Champion.  Havre De Grace was at a high, yet reasonable 4-1 while Uncle Mo was joined by European So You Think as the third choice at 5-1.  The energy was intense under the lights for a much anticipated battle of horse racing giants.

As expected Game On Dude and Uncle Mo went out to the early lead and ran together into and through the first turn.  They ran an almost surprisingly reasonable half in 47 and change.  As the field bunched together at the top of the turn it looked like Uncle Mo would pull away and invite the rest of the field to try and run him down.  Johnny Velazquez made his move, but Game On Dude refused to step aside, battling him every step.  When the rest of the field came it was not the long-shot who faltered, but the great Uncle Mo.  The Mike Repole owned colt faded to the back as To Honor And Serve, Ruler On Ice, So You Think, Havre De Grace and Flat Out came on to try and run down Game On Dude.  But again the stubborn Bob Baffert trained horse would not yield.  It wasn’t until Mike Smith brought 2010 Belmont winner Drosselmeyer “from the clouds,” as Trever Denman said, that Game On Dude stepped aside.  Drosselmeyer, who sat almost last on the turn, moved to the outside and closed like a freight train, finally wrestling the lead from the Chantal Sutherland ridden early speed.  In a bit of redemption for Mike Smith, who lost by a nose with Zenyatta in this race last year, Drosselmeyer delivered a truly Zenyatta-esq run to take the five million dollar Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Game On Dude was second, Ruler On Ice was third with the filly Havre De Grace a disappointing fourth.  Drosselmeyer’s win delivered yet another huge price for the handicappers of Churchill Downs, the exacta paid over $444.  The win also gave Mike Smith his fifteenth Breeders’ Cup win, tying him for the all-time record with Jerry Baily, and gave trainer Bill Mott his second “Classic” win of the weekend – he won with Alabama in last night’s Ladies’ Classic.

This was a race that while wasn’t what was expected, certainly lived up to the billing.  Despite Havre De Grace, Uncle Mo and Flat Out inexcusably not showing the runs that they should have – the three each caught good trips but just didn’t seem to have the run – the Classic delivered a breathtaking race.  Game On Dude was a valiant second, turning in a gritty, tough run that would make any horseman take notice. This day was, however, about the staggering run of Drosselmeyer.  A horse that was shown no respect by anyone but Hank Goldberg (ESPN betting expert who at last check was down nearly $500 on the day) spent most of the race showing exactly why.  The former Belmont winner was listless in pursuit of almost every other horse in the race…until it counted.  When called upon, Bill Mott’s horse showed that he was far from lethargic, he was calculating.  When finally urged by Mike Smith the once great champion did what champions do.  Win.  From the depths Drosselmeyer found open space and made a magical run to defeat the rather game, Game On Dude.

For my money, today was the best day of horse racing this year.  It was everything you love about the sport.  This day had upsets, like the 41-1 Afleet Again who took home the Marathon.  This day had close finishes, like the 64-1 Court Vision who took the Turf Mile by a nose over Turallure.  This day had great story lines, like 18 year old, 5’11 jockey Joseph O’Brien, who’s growing body will soon force him from the sport, riding his father’s horse to victory in the Turf.  And it had the unbelievable stretch runs that, while only a few seconds long, seemingly take an eon and certainly last an eternity. Caleb’s Posse and Drosselmeyer’s last-to-first thrilling victories spring to mind for me. Their nothing short of magical runs from certain defeat to infinite glory are ones that will stick with me as the indelible memories of this Breeders’ Cup Championship weekend, and get me through this rather long winter and to the Kentucky Derby with the same fervor and passion that the sport leaves me with today.

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