Arts & Culture

Why the Breeders’ Cup Is the Horse Race to Watch This Year

Derby, who? Triple Crown, what? Saturday’s Keeneland event is heating up to be the most exciting run of 2020

Photo: Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders’ Cup/CSM

The field on the run at last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.

The two days of Breeders’ Cup racing at Keeneland at the end of this week will feature the American calendar’s richest and most athletically demanding races. This year, for the thirty-seventh running, $31 million in purses dangle over the fourteen races to be run during the Lexington, Kentucky, event’s two days, which culminate in Saturday afternoon’s central, star-studded, cash-heavy feature, the $6 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. In other words, the Breeders’ Cup weekend is the main event for the Thoroughbred set—especially this year—one you’ll want to tune in to on NBC, or to livestream via TVG.

While the Triple Crown races make a bigger splash, as large as they might loom in the public imagination, their three-year-old athletes are just growing into their characters and discovering their talents and preferences. The Triple Crown races are basically a rite of passage, an equine version of the SEC football championship. The Breeders’ Cup weekend is, by that metric, the Super Bowl: an altogether sharper, brawnier and more athletically and financially rewarding international event. Friday’s five races are reserved for the up-and-coming two-year-olds; Saturday’s nine races are for three-year-olds and up. Held in the fall well after the Triple Crown season, the Breeders’ Saturday card presents the first opportunity for each year’s crop of three-year-olds to race against the best older, tougher, more experienced champions.

The purses are correspondingly more generously freighted. Saturday’s Classic purse alone is three times that of the 2020 Kentucky Derby’s; the Saturday turf race purse of $4 million, twice that of the Derby; and even Friday’s juvenile fillies’ race, with its mere $2 million pot, is equivalent to that of the Derby.

photo: © Breeders’ Cup/Dan Dry 2015
The Breeders’ Cup statue at Keeneland.

The scale of the lucre, and with that, the global racing-industry meet-and-greet, is the reason so many private 747s and other pricey airborne modes of conveyance are parked wingtip to wingtip on the tarmac in Lexington this week: Owners from the UK, Ireland, continental Europe, Asia, and the Middle East have flown in their stock to run against their American hosts. Thirty-seven of the Breeders’ total of 184 horses are from outside the U.S. Some of the owners will stick around for the fall Keeneland sales, which kick back into gear on November 9th.

This year, the Breeders’ races bear greater significance for the athletes and their trainers and owners, because so much of the 2020 racing season was moved, dropped, or chopped. The Kentucky Derby, the Preakness, and the Belmont Stakes were run by the skin of their teeth. The Derby was pushed to October, and the Belmont was actually shortened by three-eighths of a mile when it was run in June. The horses lost whole swaths of spring and early summer racing, which is to say, it was hard for them to stay sharp.

The odd silver lining—if it can be called that—is that the mad SARS-CoV-2 hopscotch of 2020’s asterisked racing season appears to have enriched the Breeders’ fields. There was just enough late summer racing, including in the rescheduled and truncated Triple Crown races, so that trainers had room to focus their horses’ fitness programs to peak now, in the autumn. Put another way, while there won’t be any spectators at Keeneland this weekend, as seen from the horses’ perspective, the 2020 Breeders’ has literally become the Triple Crown.

The field for Saturday’s $6 million Classic is the best example of this weekend’s super-dense concentration of talent. No fewer than five of the ten contenders are at single-digit odds in the morning line. That means many things, but what it indicates first is that there’s no clear, dominant favorite, and that all of those horses have similar, if not quite identical, abilities to lay just off the pace and bring a run in the stretch. Those five come with fine performances under their girths: Tiz the Law won 2020’s asterisked Belmont Stakes; Maximum Security is the strong 2019 Derby winner who was controversially disqualified; Authentic is this year’s Haskell and Derby winner; Tom’s d’Etat is a striking seven-year-old journeyman champ with eleven wins to his credit; and Improbable, the nominal favorite, is coming off three big wins in California and Florida. All five have lifetime earnings in the millions. The Classic’s extreme depth of bench will, also, mean that handicapping this race will be a job of work, forcing us to grind down into the nano-ephemera of pedigree, preferences, and past performance.

The winner traditionally takes home 60 percent of the purse, which in the Classic will be $3.6 million, and that staggering payday will depend upon infinitesimally small equine detail, a bit of pedigree here, a turn of foot there, a too-hot pace, a late switch of lead, a rival  getting boxed in at the top of the stretch.

photo: Sam Navarro/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM
Vino Rosso wins last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita Park.

To introduce us to some of the four-legged characters we’ll be seeing on the track and how they will perform, we turn now to the Bluegrass Wise Man™, a lifelong horseman who, like the horses in his stable, is a Kentuckian to the core. The Wise Man™ has no horses running in the 2020 Classic, but he has been closely observing the major players. As any discreet Southerner with manners would, the Wise Man™ prefers to protect his anonymity so that his editorial observations on the athletes and their performances can be most freely made without possibly offending his neighbors. He calls ’em as he sees ’em. 

Herewith, the field for the 2020 Breeders’ Cup Classic, in order of post position, listed with their trainer and jockey, followed by Keeneland’s morning line odds.

1. Tacitus, Bill Mott, Jose Ortiz, 20-1

2. Tiz the Law, Barclay Tagg, Manny Franco, 3-1

3. By My Standards, Bret Calhoun, Gabriel Saez, 10-1

4. Tom’s d’Etat, Al Stall Jr., Joel Rosario, 6-1

5. Title Ready, Dallas Stewart, Corey Lanerie, 30-1

6. Higher Power, John Sadler, Flavien Prat, 20-1

7. Global Campaign, Stanley Hough, Javier Castellano, 20-1

8. Improbable, Bob Baffert, Irad Ortiz Jr., 5-2

9. Authentic, Bob Baffert, John Velazquez, 6-1

10. Maximum Security, Bob Baffert, Luis Saez, 7-2 

Immediately prior to this conversation, the Wise Man had been at the Keeneland track since first light watching morning works. Guarantee: All dialogue is verbatim.

So, about that match race in the Classic…

[Snorts.] You been hittin’ the Pappy this morning, have you? No match race to bet around here big boy. More like a traffic jam on the FDR in New York at rush hour, if you could bet those. Last time I checked, count ’em, five favorites. Improbable is the favorite by a whisker. At the moment.

That was just a head feint to make sure you were sufficiently caffeinated to handicap the race for the good people. So, tell me why I don’t like Improbable, even as the lukewarm favorite-by-a-nostril.

Two words for you, to help you reconsider that: Bob. Baffert. Bob’s trained three of the top five in this race for a reason. He brings his horses ready to run. They have a long run into the first turn, so post positions won’t be a killer issue, but having said that, all three of his— Improbable, Authentic, and Maximum Security—have the three outside slots, which gives them room to settle in before the turn. I like Improbable, [whose sire was] City Zip, and he beat Maximum Security last time out, which is what the oddsmakers are saying by favoring him slightly. As the money starts talking on race day, that’ll go back and forth, but this is why they have Improbable as the slight favorite now.

Maximum Security, running in the 2019 Haskell International Stakes.

Settling in is key. Let’s explain how that’s gonna look.

Maybe not gonna be much settling in, which is part of what makes this race so much fun. Looking at ’em—the top five in the morning line—they all have the same running style. They’re all what we call pressers. They like to be up off the pace, pushing it. What I’m talkin’ about when I say it’s gonna be a New York rush hour. In fact, I can’t find any early speed. Maybe Dallas Stewart’s horse, Title Ready? He could be up there at the front and then fade.

What’s Tiz the Law’s race gonna look like?

Hard to say, but whatever it is, it won’t be easy. Of course, he won the Belmont, but that was short, so he’s got a little to prove. He got a tough draw with the two-hole inside there, but the gate’s at the top of the stretch and there’s such a long way to the turn that I think he’s gonna be okay. His problem is going to be the traffic jam on the backstretch. It’s gonna be every one of ’em’s problem. His question’s gonna be: He’s three, okay? He just has not raced with the big boys, and Maximum Security and Improbable are the big boys. I don’t see him as the third-favorite at post time. My thought is the money’s gonna walk away from him a little. Still, he could hit the board if he doesn’t freak out.

Getting the whiff that you’re gonna leave him out of your exactas and such?

Well, that is the fun problem here, isn’t it. Gotta leave somebody out. But no, I think I’ll have Tiz the Law in a trifecta, maybe. Really, I’m gonna leave out Authentic. Yes, he won the Derby, and it’s funny isn’t it, “leaving out” a Derby winner? Testament to the quality of the field, right there, but I just have never been able to really like Authentic. Then, he got beat by a filly in the Preakness, right? Mind you, that filly was Swiss Skydiver, whom I and everybody else really like, and who’s in the Distaff on Saturday, up against Monomoy Girl. That’s gonna be a race to watch and fun to bet. Still, all due respect to Bob, but I’m not gonna play Authentic. I’ll go with Improbable, Maximum Security, Tiz the Law, and By My Standards, who’s at 10 to 1 and a good buy right now.  

Most of these people will never have heard you do this, so let’s get it over with. You’re good at scaring the hell out of everybody about putting money down, especially on favorites. Give us your best shot.

Five under 10 to 1. Five. Three of the hottest ones are trained by Big Bob. They run the same way. So, is one of ’em gonna get out front in the stretch and eke out a win, or are they all gonna cancel each other out and fade? If they do that, who’s gonna be strong enough to be there at the wire to pick up the pieces? Second-tier Tom’s d’Etat? I don’t see that, but it could just happen. Know what? It’s a horse race. That oughta do it for you.