Breeders’ Cup: Behind every horse a human story
As a racing fan and now turf writer, I have been a part of two Kentucky Derbies, two Preaknesses, and now two Breeders’ Cups, last year at Keeneland and this year at Santa Anita, each time pinching myself that I was able to share the experience of those big days with the thousands that packed each racetrack. I have also spent countless days at racetracks from Saratoga to Kentucky Downs and reveled in watching live racing on the routine race cards that are the bread-and-butter of the sport.
Each time, whether it’s Breeders’ Cup Saturday or a Thursday at Delaware Park, the joy I feel is the same because each horse that enters the gate and each human that stands at the rail rooting them on is a story, and those are what draws us in every time.
Cody Dorman and Cody’s Wish
Less than 24 hours after I deplaned from my flight home, I was trying to collect my thoughts about this weekend when the news of Cody Dorman’s passing came. The connection between Cody and the horse Cody’s Wish, a story captured many times over in print and on television, had what we all thought was a fitting coda with the five-year-old horse’s repeat victory in the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile, his final start before heading back to Kentucky to stand at Godolphin’s Darley Stud.
Yet, as we learned that the young man at the heart of the story was gone, that victory, the culmination of sixteen starts with five Grade 1 wins, took on a meaning that none of us wanted. We wanted the next phase, with the two Codys meeting again and again as the son of Curlin started his stud career. Instead, we mourn with collective gratitude.
The generosity that both the Dormans and Godolphin have shown with both the young man and his equine namesake brought joy to racing fans everywhere, pulling in even the most casual of observers with the clear connection between human and horse. Like Seabiscuit and Secretariat, the story transcends the sport itself and draws in those who may not make the equine world a regular part of theirs. Indeed, it is truly what one might expect Hollywood to make a film about and yet we were all fortunate enough to see it all play out in real life.
I attended the pre-Breeders’ Cup NTWAB’s annual awards banquet where Team Cody’s Wish were the fitting recipients of the Mr. Fitz Award, named for the Hall of Fame trainer “Sunny Jim” Fitzsimmons and celebrating those who “typify the spirit of racing.” The Dormans were there with members of the Godolphin team behind the horse, including trainer Bill Mott.
The next day, I saw photos of the Dormans meeting the family of Carson Yost, who has Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, the same rare genetic disorder as Cody. On Saturday I saw the Dormans – father Kelly, mom Leslie, daughter Kylie, and Cody — erupt in cheers when Cody’s Wish outlasted National Treasure in the Dirt Mile and then survive an inquiry for interference, the family embracing each other and wiping away tears as they celebrated the victory.
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Of all of the stories that emerge from the fourteen championship races, theirs is the most poignant and best known of the two days – perhaps of the last two years – but certainly not the only one that caught my eye Friday and Saturday.
With names like Epsom Derby winner Auguste Rodin; Japan’s Ushba Tesoro, this year’s Dubai World Cup victor; and more, Santa Anita was awash in fan favorites, rare opportunities to see the international competitors among America’s best horses. With them came their people – some of whom I won’t soon forget.
A video released by World Horse Racing shared the ecstasy of Pat Keating, groom for Auguste Rodin, as he cheered on the son of Deep Impact during the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Keating pumps his arms and shouts as he watches the three-year-old colt add the Turf to his already sterling record in 2023.
Minutes later, Team White Abarrio, three men who care for the four-year-old in Rick Dutrow’s barn, were yelling their encouragement for their charge as he powered down the stretch to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic over Derma Sotogake and Proxy. Each cheer their horse on with their whole body, embracing with fist pumps and slaps on the back as White Abarrio crosses the finish line.
Before the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, I take a spot on the steps behind the winner’s circle, a space full of fans and what turns out to be a special connection for one horse running in the 1¼-mile test. Wearing the distinctive purple hats given to the team behind each starter and holding a leather lead shank, the young blonde woman turned out to be Korina McLean, exercise rider for Moira, 2022 Queen’s Plate winner and Canadian Horse of the Year.
Shouting her “baby girl” on at the top of her lungs, McLean watched the filly charge down the stretch to finish third behind Inspiral and Warm Heart. I have to admit that I was cheering Moira on as well, buoyed by her love for her champion, who easily outran her 13-1 odds.
For the tenth race of the day, I was in the paddock to watch Caravel in what may be her final turn around the walking ring as she prepared to run – and, her connections hoped, defend her crown — in the Turf Sprint. Also in the field was the gelding Nobals, the lone entry for trainer Larry Rivelli after the veterinarian scratch of One Timer.
Rivelli started the year with Street Sense Stakes and Jeff Ruby Steaks victor Two Phil’s in his barn; after finishing second in the Kentucky Derby and winning the Ohio Derby, injury forced the three-year-old’s retirement. Nobals picked up where Two Phil’s left off, winning four of his last five starts in 2023, including the Turf Sprint. The gelding sat midpack early, escaped traffic by going to the rail, and took over in the last sixteenth to win. Nobals’ win gives Rivelli his first Grade 1, a fitting end to what has been the Chicago-based trainer’s best season.
In a weekend full of glorious moments, these were just a few that I was privileged to witness, and will carry with me in the years to come.