View From The Eighth Pole: Sublime To The Ridiculous At Breeders’ Cup

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how did you like the Breeders’ Cup?

Putting aside for a moment the unprecedented fiasco that began when the horses for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf were loaded in the starting gate (and which continued for days while officials revised their take about what happened), there were many positive stories that came out of this 38th edition of what is moving closer toward its self-proclaimed status as Thoroughbred racing’s world championships.

Let’s begin with the fact there were no serious injuries or fatalities sustained by any of the horses competing over the two days at the Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif., on Nov. 5-6. Considering how the final race of the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita ended with the fatal injury to Mongolian Groom, it was extremely important to have an injury-free event.

California, by necessity, has led the way on equine safety reforms after the spike in fatalities at Santa Anita in the winter and spring of 2019 that put the sport in the crosshairs of animal extremists, national media and a growing number of politicians.

One of those reforms, which has nothing to do with musculoskeletal injuries, is the elimination of the race-day administration of Lasix, the anti-bleeder diuretic whose use is not permitted close to competition in any major racing countries outside of North America. Some horsemen raised concerns about the absence of Lasix, especially on older horses that had been running on it previously, but we have yet to see the predictions of doom come true about numerous horses gushing blood from the nostrils or jockeys coming back with red-splattered pants.

It turns out American horsemen can do what the rest of the world has proven it can do: race Thoroughbreds without giving them race-day medication to treat exercise-induced pulmonary hemorrhage.

Another reform taken by California regulators is restricting the use of the riding crop, or whip. The crop can only be used in an underhand manner, according to the regulations, and jockeys are limited to six strikes and no more than two in succession. While there were violations and rulings against three jockeys for going over the limit or raising the whip above the shoulder, I heard no suggestions that the whip restrictions altered the outcome of any races. Two of those races – the Sprint and Distaff – were decided by no more than an inch or two.

The storyline that could have the biggest impact on the Breeders’ Cup over the long term were the two victories by Japanese-based horses: Loves Only You as the third betting choice in the Filly & Mare Turf and 49-1 outsider Marche Lorraine in the Distaff.

Japanese horsemen have been dipping their toes in American racing waters for at least 35 years, dating back to 1986 when Japan Triple Crown winner Symboli Rudolf traveled to California to run in the San Luis Rey Stakes at Santa Anita. That’s around the time Japanese breeders like the late Zenya Yoshida and his family, among others, began injecting significant funds to their upgrade breeding stock.

For the next 30 years, while there were a handful of Japanese runners who competed in the U.S., there was no serious effort by Breeders’ Cup or racetracks to recruit those horses, largely because Japan – which has enormous wagering numbers annually – was a closed market for simulcasting. That changed in 2016.

Since select races are now permitted to be simulcast into Japan for separate pool wagering, we’ve seen Churchill Downs incorporate a Japanese Road to the Kentucky Derby, the New York Racing Association offer a bonus to a Japanese horse that wins the Belmont Stakes, and the Breeders’ Cup actively recruit horses for its races.

That recruiting paid off this year, with seven Japanese runners in six Breeders’ Cup races – by far the largest number ever. Separate pool wagering in Japan was permitted on three races, and fans there bet US$12.4 million (despite the extreme time difference, with post time Sunday morning in Japan between 7 and 9 a.m. The first of the three races, the Filly & Mare Turf handled US$3.7 million, the Mile US$3.9 million, and the Turf US$4.8 million.

Those numbers, supplied by Graham Pavey  (@LongBallToNoOne on Twitter), pale in comparison to what Japanese fans bet on the 2021 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe from France. That race, run late on a Sunday night in Japan, handled nearly US$48 million.

The good news for the Breeders’ Cup (and Triple Crown tracks Churchill Downs, Pimlico and Belmont) is that the successes by the Japanese runners will likely lead to more participation from that country’s horsemen, which should lead to greater awareness of the Breeders’ Cup and American Triple Crown by Japanese racing fans and increased handle.

One story that got lost in the swirling controversy surrounding the Juvenile Turf was the victory earlier on the Future Stars Friday program by Bobby Flay’s Pizza Bianca, which gave the accomplished trainer Christophe Clement his first Breeders’ Cup victory after 41 consecutive defeats. The late Hall of Famer Robert Frankel saw a similar string of frustration, losing 38 Breeders’ Cup races in a row before breaking through with Squirtle Squirt in the 2001 Sprint at Belmont Park. Frankel would go on to win five more Breeders’ Cup races, winding up with a 6-for-82 mark overall.

I wouldn’t be surprised to see Clement add several more winners to his resume before long.

On to the bad news.

First, it is embarrassing to the sport that races can not be timed properly. Times were revised after the fact on two Breeders’ Cup races on Friday and another on Saturday – all turf races. Inaccurate timing of races has become almost an epidemic in American racing at multiple tracks to the point that you no longer can trust the fractional times posted as the race is being run.

We should be getting better at this, not worse.

The mistaken scratch from wagering pools of Modern Games in the Juvenile Turf began with human error by a veterinarian who apparently was being asked to perform a regulatory job that he doesn’t do on a regular basis.

The mistake was compounded by false statements from the California Horse Racing Board that were later retracted, miscommunications between stewards and Del Mar’s mutuels department, and wagering rules that are outdated.

Breeders’ Cup took no responsibility for what happened, saying in a statement it was the CHRB’s problem. The CHRB insisted at first it was a Breeders’ Cup-hired veterinarian who blew the call before realizing that same veterinarian reported to the CHRB’s equine medical director.

With apologies to the men and women who make their living as clowns, this was a clown show. The industry must do better for the men and women who bet a record of nearly $183 million on this event. An independent review of what happened is needed, not a navel-gazing exercise conducted by the same people who made the initial mistake and then kept digging a deeper hole.

That’s my view from the eighth pole.

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