Nicholas Godfrey on Breeders’ Cup 2020: the good, the bad and the ugly

Horse Racing Breeders' Cup Sprint Keeneland 2020
The runners break in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint at Keeneland. Photo: Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire (Matt Wooley)
Horse Racing Planet Nicholas Godfrey

Now the dust has settled on a memorable Breeders’ Cup 2020 at Keeneland, NICHOLAS GODFREY has a few thoughts on matters arising

Good: Europe

The visitors turned the Keeneland turf into their own personal playground, winning all four grass races on the Saturday card. Even allowing for a strong team, this was as unexpected as it was unprecedented.

Just consider the European record in the Turf Sprint alone, where European-trained horses had gone 0-for-13 altogether, none being placed since Diabolical finished second for Godolphin in the first running in 2008. Step forward Glass Slippers for Kevin Ryan and Tom Eaves, putting the Americans in their place. 

Horse Racing Glass Slippers Breeders' Cup Turf Sprint
Glass Slippers and team after winning the Turf Sprint. PhotoBreeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire (Bill Denver)

She is an autumn filly, while Audarya and Tarnawa are a seriously progressive pair, having both taken their form to a new level in the latter stages of the season.

Moreover, with both climate and turf more forgiving, the demands of a Kentucky Breeders’ Cup plainly suit Euros more than the west coast. Glass Slippers also benefited from an extra half-furlong in the Turf Sprint; she would not have won at a dead five.

Bad: Authentic

Or, more specifically, the decision to retire him after his brilliant Breeders’ Cup triumph. Or, even more specifically, the decision to retire him using the well-worn ‘nothing left to prove’ justification after winning the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.

“There wasn’t a lot more to accomplish,” was the precise phrase used by Spendthrift Farm general manager Ned Toffey.

Garbage. While such a decision could have been expected as his principal owners are a breeding operation, Authentic could have stayed in training for just three months in 2021 and taken in the Pegasus, Saudi Cup and Dubai World Cup.

Win a couple of those, and he would go down as a US racing great. Instead, he will just be remembered as very good indeed. Commercial considerations win out over legacy. He’ll rightly be crowned Horse of the Year, mind you.

Ugly: the golden highway

Such a pronounced speed and rail bias as evinced at Keeneland for the Saturday card makes for an unedifying, one-dimensional spectacle. Horses on or near the lead on the dirt circuit held a massive advantage, with Gamine, Knicks Go and Authentic making all in three of the five Breeders’ Cup races. They all broke track records, as did sprinter Nashville on the undercard.

Even the Keeneland teletimer seemed to have given up the ghost by the time the Classic came around, as Authentic’s official final clocking of 1m59.19s for the 1m2f was manually taken from the video. It was nearly a second faster than American Pharoah’s previous best of 2m00.07s.

Good: Brad Cox

Became only the second trainer in 37 years to saddle four winners at a single Breeders’ Cup, emulating the feat of Richard Mandella in 2003 at Santa Anita.

TRC rankings star: Brad Cox

Like Mandella in 2003, Kentucky-based Cox had home-court advantage but in a sense he outdid his Californian-based predecessor inasmuch as Mandella’s quarter included one dead-heater in Johar. On the other hand, Cox had a few more races to play with as he saddled Aunt Pearl and Essential Quality for a Friday double before more of the same on Saturday with Knicks Go and Monomoy Girl.

Cox has now won seven BC races altogether, all in the last three years. A first Eclipse Award probably awaits the 40-year-old Louisville native.

Horse Racing Knicks Go Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile
Knicks Go wins the Dirt Mile: one of the Brad Cox fab four. Photo: Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire (Bill Denver)

Good: Monomoy Girl

Others were more spectacular – think Gamine and Knicks Go – but Monomoy Girl put the seal on an outstanding career with such an emphatic performance for her second Distaff. Her record now stands at 13 wins from 15 starts – and one of those defeats was a DQ. She has been beaten only once on the track, by a neck as a two-year-old.

The good news is that she’ll be back next year after her $9.5m sale to Spendthrift, who announced the surprise decision to keep her in training.

Bad: Chad Brown

Champion trainer in America for the last four seasons, he won’t be making it five in a row. Went into the Breeders’ Cup with a formidable record of 15 wins from just 91 runners at a strike-rate of 16.5% – well above anybody else with a similar number of runners. Left empty-handed after a disappointing weekend, where Rushing Fall’s brave effort over a distance just in excess of her best perhaps the only bright spark in an 0-for-13 effort. Only two Brown horses hit the board.

Brown now says goodbye to star racemares like Rushing Fall, Sistercharlie and Uni, all of whom are set for retirement. If the efforts of the three Brown two-year-olds at Keeneland are anything to go by, this most businesslike of trainers had better get out the cheque book. They were seventh, tenth and 12th on Future Stars Friday.

Ugly: Bob Baffert

Given that he had such fine time at the event, it may seem a little churlish to put ‘Uncle Bob’ in here and, admittedly, this is more about what had gone before than anything that happened at Keeneland.

Relief seemed to be the overriding emotion for the trainer after Gamine’s spectacular victory had been followed by a historic Classic one-two. American racing’s most famous face was doubtless pleased to be making headlines for the right reasons after such a turbulent year beset by a slew of positive post-race dope tests (two of them involving Gamine).

Now let’s be clear here: these were not criminally egregious transgressions of the type for which Jason Servis and Jorge Navarro have been accused. Rather, they were what Americans like to call ‘overages’ – trace amounts of legal medication not allowed on raceday. 

Bob Baffert: aims to “raise the bar”. Photo: Breeders Cup/Eclipse Sportswire (Alex Evers)

Nevertheless, a noxious smell has surrounded the Baffert barn in 2020 and the contrite trainer has vowed to “raise the bar” on this issue in his barn – as frankly he should. His immediate description of what had happened with Gamine as “BS stuff and stupid contamination” should not be taken out of context – he was defending his filly rather than slamming the test findings – it did not sound great.

When you have a trainer of Uncle Bob’s stature defending himself with arguments about accidental cross-contamination (jimsonweed, human back pain analgesic or cough syrup), the optics are horrible.

Good: Dermot Weld

Any number of trainers deserve special mention, among them the likes of James Fanshawe, Kevin Ryan and even Nigel Tinkler, while jockeys like PIerre-Charles Boudot and Colin Keane served notice of an imminent changing of the guard at the top level.

However, in finally tasting Breeders’ Cup victory with the brilliant Tarnawa, Dermot Weld filled a notable omission on one of the world’s most cosmopolitan training CVs, featuring all five Irish Classics plus Derby and Oaks in England – and, lest anyone forgets, a series of ground-breaking efforts farther afield.

Weld has trained major winners on four continents: he remains the only European-based trainer to win a Triple Crown race (Go And Go’s Belmont in 1990), he was the first to win the Melbourne Cup (Vintage Crop in 1993 ) and he was even the first to win a race at the Hong Kong International meeting (Additional Risk 1991). He even rode a winner over hurdles as an amateur jockey in South Africa (on Poplin at Pietermaritzburg in the early 70s) !

All in all, it’s fair to say that it’s not only Galway where the Irish legend knows the time of day.

Bad: John Gosden

Britain’s pre-eminent trainer will complete a championship hat-trick at home but there is a sense in which the Gosden team has been limping towards the finish line, especially at the highest level, where the stable’s runners have struggled markedly since Enable and Stradivarius suffered their Arc indignity.

The Breeders’ Cup told its own story as Gosden’s three runners failed to land any serious blow. Lord North did best in finishing fourth in the Turf, where Mehdaayih was seventh of ten, while Terebellum beat only one home in the Filly & Mare Turf. Mind you, it could have been worse. Charlie Appleby never even had a runner.

Horse Racing Authentic Breeders' Cup Classic
Authentic wins the Classic: in the background is what appears to be a crowd. Small, but a crowd. Photo: Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire (Alex Evers)

Ugly: the crowd

To refer to something as ugly, generally speaking we are talking about appearances – and when it comes to the Keeneland crowd scenes, the optics (them again) could have been better.

Remember, this was supposedly a fan-free Breeders’ Cup owing to Covid-19 precautions. As such, only those directly involved with the competitors and people working at the event were meant to be allowed on site at Keeneland.

How, then, does that explain trackside crowds lining the rails seemingly five deep at times? Even Bob Baffert, with what can only have been a slip of the tongue, mentioned how nice it was to be able to have some sort of crowd at the event after Authentic had won.

At least they were wearing masks, even if the social distancing protocols largely fell by the wayside. But it is little wonder the issue was highlighted on social media – at times it seemed like every one of the 5,300-plus ‘micro-owners’ involved in Authentic via the website had been allowed to attend. If there weren’t any paying customers, then an awful lot of people got in free.

At the risk of coming across as a spoilsport, at a time when much of the world is in lockdown and virtually every sport in Europe and America is taking place behind closed doors, this did not look good.

Good: Whitmore

Fourth time lucky in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint for the veteran Arkansas-based gelding in the Breeders’ Cup Sprint with a hugely popular result to a smile on the face of the US racing community.

… and good: Breeders’ Cup Challenge

The ‘Win and You’re In’ series proved itself more than just a useful PR vehicle. It is doubtful Glass Slippers would have been in Lexington without their expenses-paid victory in the Flying Five. Doubtless it also helped persuade others, defraying the costs for the likes of Cadillac, New Mandate and Sealiway.

• Visit the Breeders’ Cup website and the Keeneland website

‘The best horse in America’ – Bob Baffert heads our Breeders’ Cup takeaway

Breeders’ Cup: Tarnawa tops clean sweep for Europe on the Keeneland turf

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