OPINION: BREEDERS’ CUP THE BAD AND GOOD OF RACING
This past weekend’s Breeders’ Cup was the sport of Thoroughbred racing writ small.
The humans at the top screw it up, and the horses redeem it. Lather, rinse, repeat.
By the end of Friday’s races, San Diego’s pitchfork purveyors were sold out, and the barbarians were at the gate. And with good reason.
First came the ludicrous spectacle of the Bob Baffert-trained Corniche winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile. That means that the likely two-year-old champion, and certainly one of the early favorites for the Kentucky Derby, is trained by a guy who, you know, can’t enter horses in the Kentucky Derby.
Too bad there’s no winter-book betting on the Preakness.
Baffert winning the Juvenile was almost a guaranteed outcome once racing’s powers that be (or be not) completely bollixed the response to the post-Kentucky Derby betamethasone positive incurred by Medina Spirit.
Remarkably, it took the sport just one race to outdo itself. And, man, did it outdo itself.
In the Juvenile Turf, the gate scratch of Albahr led to the mistaken scratch of Modern Games, followed by the corrective unscratching of Modern Games, who then ran for purse money only. That meant thousands of bettors who liked Modern Games in multi-race wagers ended up with Dakota Gold, a perfectly nice horse who might nevertheless have been the weakest favorite of the weekend.
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Inevitably, Modern Games came home as much the best, which didn’t help matters, while Dakota Gold finished fifth. The betting public was — and rightly — not happy.
“This specific situation almost warrants FBI involvement,” one horseplayer wrote on Twitter.
“The circus literally stole money from deserving players,” wrote another.
“Name the MOFO vet who did this,” added a third.
In a namby-pamby statement, the Breeders’ Cup blamed the California Horse Racing Board (CHRB). And while it expressed “regret” for the impact of the mistake on bettors, it hastened to add that “the health and safety of our equine and human athletes is our top priority,” which almost didn’t have to be said, since it was already quite clear that the well-being of the bettors was no one’s top priority.
The CHRB responded that its hands were tied by the rules. But the truth is that this was human error.
The state veterinarian on the ground recommended the scratch apparently without fully examining the horse or understanding what had happened. The stewards accepted the recommendation without demanding more information.
While presumably the mistake was made in good faith, the reality is it cost thousands of horseplayers millions of dollars and gave the industry yet another black eye and some heads really should — and almost certainly won’t — roll because of it.
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But then Saturday’s racing started, and you’d be hard-pressed to find a more satisfying sequence of races than the day delivered.
You had scintillating performances, like those of Dirt MIle winner Life Is Good and Classic champ Knicks Go. Both went very fast early and drew away late, and they may bump into each other in the Pegasus World Cup in January at Gulfstream Park.
You had heart-stopping finishes. Both Aloha West — rallying wide in the stretch of the Sprint — and Marche Lorraine — hanging on for dear life in the Distaff — won by a nose. Loves Only You sliced between horses to score late in the Filly and Mare Turf.
You had wins from unexpected places: two Maryland-breds, for example, as well as two horses based in Japan, including 49-1 Distaff winner Marche Lorraine.
And if, like a lot of people, you’re sick of Bob Baffert and the whole sorry, sordid mess of his positives and the puzzling map of where he can and can’t run, well, his horses went 0fer on Saturday.
For a day, all was right with the racing world.
But nobody should get too comfortable. After all, a lot of folks still have those pitchforks.