2010 Breeders’ Cup Primer

*Editor’s note: For you horse racing fans out there, we welcome back guest columnist Marcus Schmidli, a local guru when it comes to equestrian sports. Check out his preview of this year’s Breeders’ Cup.

Long before pro and college football ever became the showcase sports in America that they currently are, two sports ruled the athletic landscape: boxing and horse racing. Those sports flourished because they attracted large amounts of money from gamblers years before Atlantic City and Las Vegas became the gambling strongholds they are today. To a large extent, boxing and horse racing have faded into the sunset. Then, someone came up with the crazy idea of the Breeders’ Cup and it gave race fans and sports fans a weekend to circle on their calendars each year.

Saturdays in the fall are currently reserved for College Football for a large majority of sports fans. Those college football games, however, are played over a 13-week schedule and missing one game means very little. In comparison, this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup World Championships is essentially a bunch of All-Star games for horses. The best horses in the world come to North America to compete against Zenyatta for the ultimate prize, the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Before that big race, 13 other races will take place to determine the sport’s best. Those 13 races will tell the tale of who the best sprinter horse, best distance horse, best turf horse and best juveniles in the world are. Not witnessing what is essentially the Horse Racing Olympics is the same as not wanting to watch the Super Bowl. It’s asinine. It’s silly and above all, it’s ignorant. Horse racing requests your attention one weekend a year and it requires you to TiVo that Oregon-Washington football game. Get a group of people together, find some food, find a computer and bet on the ponies. Make an event of it. I guarantee you if you take it seriously, you won’t be disappointed.

What:

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships. A two-day, 14-race event held at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky.

When:

Friday, Nov. 5, beginning at 1:10 p.m. PT on ESPN 2; continuing Saturday, Nov. 6 at 10:50 a.m. PT on ABC/ESPN. Post time for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, held on Saturday, is 3:45 p.m. PT on ESPN.

Why You Should Care:

Because undefeated and legendary Zenyatta will attempt to do something incredible and make history in winning back-to-back Breeders’ Cup Classics. Doing so would vault her into the pantheon of all-time greats.

Because the field of horses out to prevent a Zenyatta victory includes standouts like Blame, Quality Road, Lookin At Lucky, Haynesfield and Musket Man, all horses very capable of beating the undefeated super mare.

Because no Arc De Triomphe winner (Europe’s premier race) has ever won the Breeders’ Cup Turf and that should change this year.

And lastly, because Goldikova will have to face a hellish group of horses in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile on her quest to become the first horse to ever win three Breeders’ Cup races.

Breeders’ Cup Questions

Can Zenyatta, having run mostly on a synthetic surface, beat the best boys in the world on dirt?

In last years Breeders’ Cup Classic, Zenyatta became the first filly or mare to ever win the prestigious race in the 25 years since its inception.

That race was held at Santa Anita Race Course in Arcadia, California on a synthetic surface that many pundits hailed as a home field advantage for Zenyatta.

This year, Zenyatta has far more questions to answer if she intends to remain undefeated in her career.

For one, she will have to beat an exceptional group of males on a surface she’s been lightly tested on. How she handles the surface may, in fact, mean less than the caliber of opponents she’s facing but the point is worth emphasizing: If Zenyatta intends to finish her career a perfect 20-for-20, she will have to beat the greatest field of horses she’s ever faced, on a surface she may not be in love with. The combination of the two may just prove enough to derail her quest for perfection.

For Goldikova, is the third time a charm?

The Irish born superstar mare, now five years old, isn’t the headliner of the weekend that Zenyatta is for obvious reasons, but the task at hand be just as hard, if not more impressive.

Goldikova will take to the starting gate in the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile looking to win a Breeders’ Cup race for the third time in a row, a feat no horse has ever accomplished.

Awaiting the internationally-traveled mare, will be a group of horses all too eager to erase her aura of invincibility at the eight furlong distance on grass. Gio Ponti would seemingly be the biggest obstacle in Goldikova’s brilliant career and his connections opted to run him in this race as opposed to the Classic. The talented horse certainly has all the tools to beat Goldikova but I believe this weekend is all about horses fulfilling destinies. In a manner befitting a Shakespearean eulogy to her career, expect Goldikova to fulfill her destiny, in what should be a race that lasts through the ages.

How do we look at the Breeders’ Cup Marathon?

The old horse racing adage that “great horses could run all day” proves to be especially true in modern racing. As breeding happens more and more in the sport, one has to wonder if the talents are being thinned out of the horses.

Once upon a time, horses raced the distance of the one-and-three-quarter mile Breeders’ Cup Marathon with ease. It was a time when great horses were challenged in grueling distance battles to determine what horses had the most heart and the biggest gas tank.

Then, someone’s conscious kicked in and paraded around the idea that maybe having half-ton animals run long distances on their tiny legs was somehow cruel and inhumane. Since that notion, American horse racing has changed into a sport that focuses more on speed than stamina, more on talent than guts.

The $500,000 Marathon, which was established in 2008, harkens back to the glory days of horse racing even if it can’t attract the weekend’s premier horses. It’s recent addition to the event proves that there is a group of loyal fans and people within the sport that truly do enjoy watching horses test themselves in making nearly two trips around a track.

Whether the rest of horse racing fans catch Marathon fever relies on whether ESPN wants everyone to catch on.

Animal cruelty is a big issue these days and horse racing already has a small target on it’s back. If ESPN and the Breeders’ Cup choose to give this race the respect it deserves, race fans will have the pleasure of watching true specialist horses do battle. For some, these battles will bring back memories of the days when horse racing wasn’t on its death bed.

Does local product, Atta Boy Roy, actually have a shot to win the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint?

For Northwest sports fans, the last few weeks have been marred with ugly losses and cold weather.

If Atta Boy Roy can heat up the track at Churchill Downs and defeat the likes of Big Drama and others, he would almost certainly become one of the most nationally successful horses to come out of the Seattle area (and, specifically, Emerald Downs) in a long time.

Roy’s chances in the race will hinge almost entirely upon his ability to change his running style and make a late charge needed to put away fading foes rather than run them into the ground early. Regardless of the outcome, expect the horse to represent the Northwest quiet well.

Is it a good thing to have “Filly Friday” at all?

Lately, the Breeders’ Cup has expanded its race schedule to accommodate more specialist horses by adding events it hasn’t in the past. With the additions, has come a politically correct name change for the premiere female race of the event from the Distaff to the Ladies’ Classic. Those in favor of the change also pushed for an entire day’s events on Friday, primarily focusing on the best females in the world. While the idea was sound on some level in showcasing the talent of the female sex in horse racing, there’s a feeling that “Filly Friday” is a superfluous attempt to get women excited about a sport that involves gambling. The truth of the matter is this: the best fillies and mares in racing don’t show up on “Filly Friday” because the best end up facing the boys on Saturday.

If the Breeders’ Cup wants to feature the female horse, they need to stop trying to make horse racing into a “Battle of the Sexes.” As it were, anyone who pays attention can see that the three most talented horses on the planet the last three years (Rachel Alexandra, Goldikova and Zenyatta) were all females. Only when television networks grow up and make it about the sport of racing again rather than playfully appease to feminist groups and fans who support “Filly Friday,” will they see the writing on the wall: horse racing has never had such equality within the sport as it currently does. And when people start to appreciate that fact, horse racing might make some significant leaps and bounds in adding viewers and fans. “Filly Friday” just isn’t doing the job.

Under The Microscope: Breeders’ Cup Classic

With Gio Ponti bolting for the TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile, this race becomes slightly easier for Zenyatta, given that Gio Ponti finished second behind the champion in last year’s running of the Classic.

Neither of the two horses figure to be better on dirt than synthetics, but there’s something to be said about the consistency Gio Ponti brings on a race track. It’s that kind of consistency that would be needed to hold off Zenyatta at the wire. Without him in the race, it’s really a crap shoot as to which horse can put forth their “A” game and try to knock the super mare from her perch.

Zenyatta has displayed all the making of a legendary mare. She’s smart, she runs with guts, she finishes just ahead of the pack at the right time – the finish line. It’s almost as if she knows exactly how long her races are and when she needs to motor on to win them. That kind of strategic racing has caused many a heart attack for her fans. There have been races in which she did not look her best but alas, she still finished first.

Zenyatta leaves me slightly at a loss for words on a personal level. I know she’s a great horse and I know she’s gritty and talented, but I wonder if being given such a cupcake schedule this year will affect her when she tries to run down horses far superior to the competition she’s been facing.

Unlike Goldikova, or the recently retired Rachel Alexandra — who together combined for 10 wins over male horses — Zenyatta has only beaten the boys once. She did that in the Classic last year on her home track at Santa Anita. I can’t help but wonder if being trained to beat slightly above-average horses will get her in trouble at some point. The problem is, this is the last opportunity we have to find out.

At stake: For Zenyatta, the chance to go 20-for-20 in her career, lock up Horse of the Year honors and become one of two horses to ever win back-to-back Classics. For the rest of the field, a chance to beat Zenyatta and an honest shot at Horse of the Year with a gutsy performance. If Zenyatta can’t win, that title really is up for grabs.

Wildcard: Quality Road. No horse in the entire field has more pure talent. The issue with Quality Road is two-fold. One, he had to be scratched from this race last year because he wouldn’t stay in the gate. A repeat of that would be devastating to the pace of the race. Two, no one really knows if he can sustain his talents and speed for one-and-a-quarter mile. If you gave his trainer truth serum, he would tell you he prefers a shorter race for his horse. None of that will matter if Quality Road runs the race of his life, because that race would be good enough to win handily.

Who Wins: Quality Road is, in my opinion, the best horse in the race and should win if all things are equal. The problem is, though I’ve rooted against Zenyatta in the past, even I can’t overlook her 19-for-19 career resume. At some point, logic says she has to get beat and that this would be the field to do it. But maybe the cosmos will align, fate will take its course, numbers, times, weight and age won’t matter and Zenyatta will run down the field just as she has 19 other times. On paper, Zenyatta shouldn’t win and my gut says Quality Road should. But horse racing is all about heart. And my heart says some things were meant to be. I think this is one of them. I expect Zenyatta to win her second Breeders’ Cup Classic.

2 thoughts on “2010 Breeders’ Cup Primer”

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