November 30, 2020

Reflections on 2020 Breeders’ Cup: One for the record books

Authentic
Authentic wins the Breeders' Cup Classic (Coady Photography)

While the 2020 Breeders’ Cup will be remembered for its trying circumstances – a global pandemic that prevented the attendance of the general public (and a couple of high-profile jockeys) – the racing action at Keeneland made it memorable for all the right reasons. The two-day Championships enjoyed remarkably favorable weather for early November in the Bluegrass, and witnessed several performances that rewrote the record book.

Authentic turns rare Kentucky Derby/Breeders’ Cup Classic double

Once Kentucky Derby (G1) winner Authentic scooted to a comfortable early lead, on a very fast track that was kind to high-class speed, the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1) was effectively over. The Bob Baffert trainee joined the exclusive club of Derby winners to add the Classic – Ferdinand and Alysheba (as 4-year-olds in 1987 and 1988 respectively), Sunday Silence (1989), Unbridled (1990), and American Pharoah (2015) – while eclipsing the latter’s 1 1/4-mile track record at Keeneland. Authentic clocked 1:59.19 (hand-timed), beating stablemate and top older male Improbable, to clinch the champion 3-year-old male title and likely Horse of the Year.

Authentic’s rare Derby/Classic double might not have happened but for the COVID-altered Triple Crown landscape. The postponement of the Derby from the first Saturday in May to Labor Day weekend gave the May foal time to develop physically and improve mentally, and he’s put it together in the fall.

For that very reason, Baffert would love to keep him for a 4-year-old campaign, but his stud value could prompt his retirement to Spendthrift Farm sooner rather than later. If so, at least the timing of the Pegasus World Cup (G1) – on Jan. 23 at Gulfstream Park – would give him the chance of a last hurrah.

Monomoy Girl, Cox emulate Breeders’ Cup legends

The 2018 Distaff (G1) champion Monomoy Girl nearly equaled a track record herself as she capped a perfect comeback season. The hoped-for clash with Swiss Skydiver, who just outdueled Authentic in the Preakness (G1), didn’t quite materialize once she stumbled at the start. Out of position early, Swiss Skydiver did sneak through along the rail into the stretch, but the hint of a Preakness-style battle with Monomoy Girl was only a tease. The presumptive champion 3-year-old filly tired to an uncharacteristic seventh as Monomoy Girl stamped her authority in 1:47.84 – just .09 off Keeneland’s 1 1/8-mile mark.

As a former winner who regained her crown, Monomoy Girl achieved a feat like that of 1996 and 1998 Mile (G1) hero Da Hoss. Both missed the entire season following their first Breeders’ Cup win, thereby involuntarily vacating their thrones before reclaiming them.

Da Hoss remains unique in that he had but a single prep in advance of his second Mile, but Monomoy Girl’s accomplishment is exceptional as a female recapturing championship form from a prolonged absence. Unlike the older gelding Da Hoss, Monomoy Girl matured from a 3-year-old filly into a 5-year-old mare during her time on the sidelines, making her return to the top level that much more remarkable.

Her non-consecutive wins are reminiscent of two other Breeders’ Cup legends, albeit in different circumstances. European star Ouija Board captured the 2004 Filly & Mare Turf (G1), finished second in an injury-interrupted 2005, and reigned again over the 2006 edition. More recently, Beholder romped in the 2013 Distaff, missed the next two Breeders’ Cups, and prevailed in 2016. Beholder is unique in this group since she’d also won the 2012 Juvenile Fillies (G1).

At the same time, Monomoy Girl propelled trainer Brad Cox into the record book as his fourth winner of the meeting. Cox equaled the record set by Hall of Famer Richard Mandella in the 2003 Breeders’ Cup. Earlier Saturday, Knicks Go wired the Dirt Mile (G1) in a track-record 1:33.85. Two of Cox’s scores came on Future Stars Friday with Aunt Pearl in the Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) and Essential Quality in the Juvenile (G1).

A ‘Quality’ contender for the 2021 Triple Crown

Considering the scope that Godolphin blueblood Essential Quality has going into next year, it’s a most encouraging sign that he was able to stay perfect in the Juvenile. As 9-10 favorite Jackie’s Warrior was undone by a wild pace, Essential Quality again showed his knack for working out the right trip based upon the race flow. The 94-1 runner-up Hot Rod Charlie (a half-brother to Mitole) had more useful form from California maidens than his odds suggested, and late-running third Keepmeinmind was reinforcing the merit of Essential Quality’s Breeders’ Futurity (G1), where he was second.

Essential Quality was still learning the game in his first couple of starts, according to Cox, and he has every right to keep progressing. With his classic pedigree – by Tapit from the family of 2004 Triple Crown near-misser Smarty Jones and current Japanese Triple Crown hero Contrail – the gray goes into the winter as not only the presumptive divisional champion, but an exciting Derby contender.

Jackie’s Warrior is in a different category, having lost his two-turn debut. Yet his fourth-place effort is inconclusive, since he hung much tougher, for longer, than the early duelists he stalked. It does not undermine his chances of capturing more points races contested at a normal tempo, although he would have to pass that test before we discuss 1 1/4 miles.

Whitmore heartwarming; Nashville and Gamine blazing

Beloved veteran Whitmore made for perhaps the most heartwarming moment when romping in the Sprint (G1) in his fourth attempt, and prompting an emotional postrace interview of trainer Ron Moquett. Eighth in 2017, second in 2018, and third in 2019, the 7-year-old didn’t appear to be in the kind of form that could see him finally win it. But the 18-1 chance reveled in the pace collapse to score his biggest victory since the 2018 Forego (G1).

From a raw talent perspective, though, two speedsters earlier on the card stole the show. Sophomore Nashville, who was under consideration for the Sprint before connections preferred to play it conservatively, smoked the 6-furlong Perryville in a track-record 1:07.89. It’s facile to compare it to Whitmore’s 1:08.61, since Nashville enjoyed a virtual time trial on the lead, and the Sprint would have been a cauldron for a colt with only two starts going into Saturday. Indeed, that lack of experience likely cost his Steve Asmussen stablemate in the Sprint, Yaupon, who wound up eighth as the 13-10 favorite. We’ll be hearing a lot more from both.

The 7-furlong Filly & Mare Sprint (G1) was not only a reminder of Gamine’s ability, with yet another track record in 1:20.20, but also that she’s not necessarily just a sprinter. The way she let Serengeti Empress go, eased around, and rolled to a 6 1/4-length decision suggested she’s worth another try around two turns. Baffert indicated that her one-turn specialization now could be more owing to the stage of her development, and next year she might be able to stretch out.

Europe conquers the turf – except for the juveniles

Europe ran the table in all four of the turf events on Saturday, a sweep beginning with the race that’s eluded the Continent since its inception – the Turf Sprint (G1). The Kevin Ryan-trained Glass Slippers was plenty good enough on paper, as a multiple Group 1 winner, but the turning sprint in American conditions has hitherto bedeviled Europeans. Glass Slippers proved adaptable, riding the rail before splitting rivals in a messy stretch run that Imprimis had cause to rue. Although the knee-jerk reaction is to wonder what European sprint supremo Battaash might have done here, Glass Slippers fully deserves this day in the sun. The 2021 Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar is on the agenda for her, so hopefully she’ll be back to try it again – and bring some more Europeans emboldened by her breakthrough.

The Prix de l’Opera (G1) not only continued its ascent as a key race for the Filly & Mare Turf, but also furnished the Turf heroine in Tarnawa. An overdue first Breeders’ Cup winner for Dermot Weld, the Aga Khan’s homebred deployed her sparkling turn of foot just as she had at ParisLongchamp. Although Magical lacked her usual punch in second, the sit-sprint race shape arguably played to Tarnawa’s strengths in any event. It definitely did not suit fifth-placer Mogul, so he’s one to mark as a rebound candidate next, possibly in Hong Kong. Tarnawa’s plans are to be determined, but chances are she’ll bow out on top. Given how superb she’s become, it’s tempting to wonder what if she’d contested the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1) instead of the Opera?

Although Audarya was the only Filly & Mare Turf runner to sport the key Opera formline, the James Fanshawe trainee was a 17-1 outsider in part because her Group 1 form was all on pretty desperate ground. The race appeared to go through American star Rushing Fall, so it was appropriate that she was the one Audarya had to collar in the waning strides. Maybe Rushing Fall could have seen out the 1 3/16-mile trip if not for Cayenne Pepper’s unexpectedly setting the stage for a course record. The improving Audarya will try to continue her trajectory in 2021, with Fanshawe hoping to extend his Breeders’ Cup record to 2-for-2 at Del Mar. If Cayenne Pepper fans (myself included) were disappointed by the tactics, at least trainer Jessica Harrington could take solace in the fact that her 3-year-old filly Alpine Star got a huge form boost, having split Tarnawa and Audarya in the Opera.

Audarya’s victory was in no small part due to the tactical genius of Pierre-Charles Boudot, who arguably is at least as responsible for the 73-1 shocker Order of Australia in the Mile. And in an amazing turn of events, both were pick-up mounts after original riders tested positive for COVID. On paper Order of Australia was doubtful good enough to give Aidan O’Brien his first Mile win ever. But the also-eligible benefitted from Boudot’s astute placement and stole a march on his more accomplished stablemates Circus Maximus and Lope Y Fernandez in the all-Ballydoyle trifecta. Order of Australia was exploiting an angle O’Brien has used in the past – the dramatic cutback in trip, although with horses of proven class. The disappointments of Kameko and Siskin were reminders of the futility of reigning Guineas winners in the Mile (the Newmarket version forever winless here, the Irish equivalent successful only in the next year). The Americans were perhaps missing their best chance in Mo Forza.

American juveniles defended the turf more effectively than their elders, and here too tactics were decisive. In the Juvenile Fillies Turf, Cox’s aforementioned Aunt Pearl was likely always going to be too fast from the start, and O’Brien’s Mother Earth does her best from off the pace, so her belated second was probably her ceiling. In the Juvenile Turf (G1), stablemate Battleground finished stoutly for the runner-up spot to the close stalker Fire at Will, in a performance full of promise for the son of War Front and Found. Wesley Ward’s brilliant Golden Pal, the son of Uncle Mo and Lady Shipman, continued the profile of Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) winners as the speed-of-the-speed, despite Irad Ortiz’s taking a hold that almost made him put on the brakes on the backstretch.

Sire and dam milestones

Aside from Golden Pal, Uncle Mo could take pride in his freshman sire son Nyquist, who’s responsible for Juvenile Fillies winner Vequist. A different race dynamic from the Frizette (G1) helped Vequist turn the tables on Dayoutoftheoffice, while 19-10 favorite Princess Noor flopped in her major class test. In the process ,Vequist was completing a rare three-generation sequence of Breeders’ Cup winners, after father-son Juvenile heroes Uncle Mo and Nyquist.

Tapit achieved a milestone sixth Breeders’ Cup win courtesy of Essential Quality, and now ranks alongside the great Sadler’s Wells and Unbridled’s Song as a joint second behind More Than Ready’s record total of seven. One of Tapit’s winners, Tapizar (2012 Dirt Mile), is the sire of two-time Distaff champion Monomoy Girl.

Leading sire Into Mischief was responsible for two of the track record-setters, Authentic and Gamine. Now the sire of five Breeders’ Cup winners, Into Mischief is tied with European supersire Galileo, City Zip, Danzig, Smart Strike, and his own male-line ancestor, Storm Cat.

The Danehill mare Senta’s Dream became the sixth to produce multiple Breeders’ Cup scorers. Her multiple Group 1-winning daughter Iridessa was a 13-1 overlay in last year’s Filly & Mare Turf, but son Order of Australia had much less to recommend him going into the Mile. Watch out for her juvenile filly Santa Barbara.