The 38th edition of the Breeders’ Cup Results was, as ever, one of the highlights of the whole year. The big festival at Del Mar brought together the best in the business at home and abroad, and as always the action on the track was of the very highest quality. Some of the participants enjoyed the best of times, while others endured the worst of times, and here we look back at the biggest winners and biggest losers of a show-stopping weekend.
2021 Breeders’ Cup Results & Winners
The Breeders’ Cup markets itself as the ‘world championship’, when in reality it is a transatlantic championship, which is not quite so catchy. This year, though, there was a new and very welcome guest at the party.
Japan is one of world racing’s superpowers, and horses trained on the island have won major races all over the globe. Never, though, at the Breeders’ Cup Results – until that omission was rectified not once but twice within the space of a couple of hours, giving the ‘world championship’ a lustre to live up to that name.
Yoshito Yahagi was the man responsible, a man fond of flamboyant hats – his weekend headgear was Breeders’ Cup purple – and a trainer who has already left his mark on the global stage with G1 wins in Australia, Hong Kong and Dubai. It was relatively easy to predict the victory of Loves Only You in the Filly & Mare Turf as she was probably the best Japanese horse ever to run in the US, having already proved her quality at Meydan and Sha Tin this year.
American horses are annually vulnerable in the turf races, and so it was again. But when Yahagi sent out the longshot Marche Lorraine to win the Distaff by the narrowness of a nose he was achieving a major breakthrough, never mind that the insane early pace contributed to an unexpected result, never mind that the mare’s previous form was insignificant in relation to her rivals.
It is extremely rare for a foreign raider to win on the dirt at the Breeders’ Cup, so Marche Lorraine’s upset victory should be greatly celebrated despite the circumstances of the race. Yahagi’s ground-breaking afternoon should encourage further participation from Japan on both turf and dirt, which will only enhance future editions of a true world championship.
“It’s so good to have been able to demonstrate the strength of Japanese racing at America’s biggest racing festival,” said the elegant Yahagi. So good for him, so good for the sport itself.
Charlie Appleby and William Buick
Newmarket trainer Charlie Appleby sent six horses to Del Mar last weekend, and three of them won. This remarkable strike-rate was almost overshadowed by his misfortunes with the starting gate, but his achievements were the hallmark of a champion trainer for whom everything has turned to gold this year.
Five minutes before the Juvenile Turf, Appleby had two non-runners. Both Albahr and Modern Games had been scratched owing to an incident in the gate, but Modern Games was reinstated and came home an impressive winner.
Twenty-four hours later, Appleby endured yet another scratch at the gate when Master Of The Seas lost his cool in the Mile, but once again came up trumps when Space Blues finished strongly to land the spoils. All went smoothly before the Turf, in which Yibir pulled off his familiar last-to-first swoop to complete the hat-trick for both Appleby and jockey William Buick, who had just four rides at the meeting and flew home with a 75 per cent strike-rate. All three horses were homebred by the Godolphin empire, and all were sons of the supersire Dubawi. A triple, yes, but the whole team really knocked it out of the park.
“To do it on the world stage, at the world championships, is very special. It’s exciting to be part of in the first place, but then to have the results we’ve had is amazing,” said Appleby, who recognised the debt he owed to the cool-headed Buick, who rode the tight Del Mar turf track as well as any of the locals.
They save the best till last at the Breeders’ Cup Results, and this year the Classic was even more eagerly anticipated than usual. Everyone prepared themselves for an enthralling tactical duel between the main contenders, but ‘keep it simple’ was the watchword of the winner.
Knicks Go went gate to wire, as he always does, setting the fractions that suit him perfectly while simultaneously putting his rivals off their game. He never looked under pressure at any stage and around two turns the five-year-old seems unbeatable, and he answered all the pundits who doubted his potential to stay ten furlongs by finishing off his race as strongly as he started it, barrelling home by nearly three lengths.
The eyecatching grey wasn’t born a star but has fought for his stardust along the way. He was runner-up in the 2018 BC Juvenile but went winless through 2019 before joining trainer Brad Cox, for whom he has gone eight-for-ten including Grade 1 scores in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, the Pegasus World Cup and the Whitney. He may try the Pegasus again next year before taking up stud duties.
“He has speed, he’s tough and durable, he’s extremely sound,” said Cox. “He’s got everything it takes to be a champion.”
Victory in the Classic generally precedes an Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. Knicks Go was a front-runner for that prize before the race, and after another two minutes of front-running he stamped himself as the only logical candidate. Go, Knicks Go.
The tag of ‘best trainer never to have won at the Breeders’ Cup’ is a label no-one wants to wear, so Christophe Clement is walking a little taller right now without that weight around his neck. Forty-second time’s a charm.
The New York-based Frenchman began his Breeders’ Cup adventure back in 1997, when Flag Down finished third in the Turf. There have been plenty of near-misses among his 40 beaten horses since then, more defeats than any trainer who had never won at the Cup, and Clement must have feared more of the same when Pizza Bianca was trapped behind a wall of horses as the field for the Juvenile Fillies Turf swept into the stretch.
Yet Jose Ortiz found the gaps, weaving his way through traffic like a despatch rider in Los Angeles rush hour, and Pizza Bianca found the lead and got home by a half-length, and Clement finally found his way to the winner’s circle after 24 years of looking at the map.
“He’s the best trainer in the world that hasn’t won the Breeders’ Cup, and I’m glad that story’s over,” said winning owner and celebrity chef Bobby Flay.
Flay’s right, that story’s over. So who carries that unwanted label now? Probably Kenny McPeek, who has had 37 Breeders’ Cup starters and no winners, but seven runners-up and ten thirds.
Life Is Good
Horse racing can be a tough business, but it can also provide moments of pure joy. It was tough for owner WinStar Farm when ankle chips sidelined their unbeaten Kentucky Derby favourite Life Is Good, and even tougher when Medina Spirit – twice beaten by Life Is Good – went on to win at Churchill Downs in May.
Then the other side of the coin sparkled in the Del Mar sunshine when Life Is Good produced the performance of the meeting, sprinting from gate to wire to win the Dirt Mile, his first Grade 1 score but surely not his last.
Life Is Good went so fast that when race-caller Larry Collmus noted his first-quarter split of 21.88 it drew a gasp of amazement from the crowded grandstands. And he didn’t slow down, posting a half-mile in 44.94 before drawing off down the lane to win by five and three-quarter lengths.
“He’s exceptional,” said trainer Todd Pletcher, and of all the winners on Breeders’ Cup weekend, Life Is Good is the one who holds the most promise for next year. He could be anything, and plans are already in place to stretch him out for the Pegasus World Cup and the Saudi Cup. Life can be good, yes. But Life Is Good is a lot better than ‘good’.
The Ortiz boys
Of 14 races over Breeders’ Cup weekend, more than a third of them were won by jockey brothers Irad and Jose Ortiz, confirmation that the boys from Puerto Rico have few peers when it comes to big-race success.
Irad Ortiz, 29 and the elder by a year, won three races – the Juvenile Turf Sprint on Twilight Gleaming, the Turf Sprint with Golden Pal, and the Dirt Mile on Life Is Good – and in so doing took home the Bill Shoemaker Award, given to the outstanding jockey of the meet, for the fourth consecutive year. He beat out British rider William Buick, who also rode three winners, for the title by virtue of more placed horses.
Younger brother Jose Ortiz rode Pizza Bianca to win the Juvenile Fillies Turf on day one and won the Sprint aboard Aloha West the following afternoon. Mention should be made of Joel Rosario, who also left town with a double following the wins of Echo Zulu (Juvenile Fillies) and Knicks Go (Classic).
The affable Washington native can always be relied upon to bring fast horses to the Breeders’ Cup, but he can’t have brought many faster than the pair who scorched the Del Mar turf track last weekend.
Ward was ready to call Golden Pal the best he’d ever trained after his blitzing victory in the Turf Sprint, when he shot out of the gate like a burly bullet and had the race won in the first half-furlong. Such was his electrifying speed from the gate that it left Steve Miyadi, trainer of runner-up Lieutenant Dan, musing that “my horse wasn’t ready to run against a rocket-ship”.
Twilight Gleaming also showed plenty of early pace when wiring the Juvenile Turf Sprint, and it is likely that both horses will again travel to Europe next summer to give the Anglophile Ward another opportunity to wear his top hat at Royal Ascot. The aeroplane taking them there will be faster than its cargo – but only just.
Echo Zulu and Corniche
The two-year-old picture heading into the winter is often cloudy, with horses developing at different rates and track performance not always representative of eventual ability. Not this year.
Both the juvenile races on dirt showcased bona fide champions, with Echo Zulu nothing short of magnificent as she took her unbeaten streak to four with an uncompromising gate-to-wire demolition job in the Juvenile Fillies, tearing up the track to win by five and a quarter lengths.
Her Eclipse Award for champion two-year-old filly is probably already in the mail en route to trainer Steve Asmussen’s barn, and the one addressed ℅ Bob Baffert for champion two-year-old colt can’t be far behind after the dominant display of Corniche in the Juvenile, another all-the-way win for a horse now unbeaten in three.
It isn’t straightforward to say that such brilliance will be sustained into a sophomore campaign, but both Echo Zulu and Corniche are exceptional two-year-olds. This year, Future Stars Friday might have lived up to its name.
What a difference a month makes. The man they nicknamed ‘Mr October’ after a phenomenal string of Graded wins couldn’t extend his hot streak of form when the calendar changed. The poet called April the cruellest month, but for Chad Brown it’s November.
Things started to go wrong for Brown even before the weekend, with the late scratches of Juvenile morning-line favourite Jack Christopher and leading Turf contender Domestic Spending. That still left the year’s third-ranked trainer with 11 runners over the 14 Breeders’ Cup races, but three losers on the first day were just a foretaste of what was to come.
Down they went like skittles, one by one, all his stable stars coming up short just when it mattered the most, with Dunbar Road coming closest when beaten just a nose in the Distaff. With 15 Cup winners on his resume, Brown can’t complain too much, but it was a weekend he’ll want to forget.
It would be wrong to say that bettors don’t mind losing, but they accept it as an occupational hazard. What they do mind is not having a chance to win, which is what happened to all those with a stake on Modern Games in the Juvenile Turf.
To make it brief, first Modern Games was race favourite, then he was let out of the gate by an attendant and mistakenly scratched by a racetrack vet who hadn’t examined him, then he was reinstated to the race but not to the mutuel pools. He ran for purse-money only, with all bets refunded, and as Sod’s Law would have it he won the race.
No wonder the grandstands echoed with jeers and boos as Modern Games hit the wire, with all his supporters denied a payout because of official incompetence and overly rigid regulations. Betting is the raison d’etre of horse racing, so for a horse to run without bets being permitted goes against every principle of the sport.
The rules of operation have swiftly been changed, but – ironically enough – it was only slamming shut the stable door after the horse had bolted. On one of the biggest three days in the calendar, US racing had once again made headlines for all the wrong reasons.
She wasn’t the shortest-priced loser of the weekend – that was Gamine in the Filly & Mare Sprint – but the defeat of Letruska in the Distaff was the hardest to take for more than one reason. First, she had already proved herself the best of the division; second, she has developed a huge public following through her brilliance and charismatic back-story; third, she wasn’t beaten by a better horse but by the brainless way in which the race was run.
Private Mission, ridden by Flavien Prat, set insane fractions – 21.84, 44.97, 1:09.70 – and Letruska, a habitual front-runner, got sucked into a speed duel that killed the chances of both horses before they reached the top of the stretch. Letruska weakened to finish second-last, Private Mission finished last.
All is not lost: Letruska is still likely to win the Eclipse Award for older filly or mare, and she’ll be back next year to win more races and more fans. But oh, what might have been.
Europe (with one obvious exception)
Every year there’s a lot of noise on the other side of the Atlantic about the strength of the European raiding party for the Breeders’ Cup Results, but this time – aside from the brilliant Charlie Appleby, who never makes much fuss anyway – the chest-beating was unfounded.
If Appleby hadn’t turned up the Europeans would have drawn a blank. Tarnawa was a huge disappointment in the Turf; the usually uber-powerful Aidan O’Brien went zero-for-six, with Broome’s second place in the Turf his best finish; and speedballs such as Armor, Twilight Jet and Emaraaty Ana all failed to fire.
There were a couple of examples of gallantry in defeat, such as Go Bears Go (runner-up Juvenile Turf Sprint) and Malavath (runner-up Juvenile Fillies Turf), as well as the aforementioned Broome, but otherwise zip, zilch, nada. Better luck next year at Keeneland, you chaps.