If the first week of October is any indication, racing fans are in store for an unforgettable autumn afternoon in Chicago, when the $13-million Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships visit Arlington Park for the first time.
Sensational performances were witnessed on both coasts as the Oak Tree Racing Association and New York Racing Association presented their major Breeders' Cup preview cards. Not to be outdone was Keeneland, whose "FallStars Weekend" more than lived up to its name as championship contenders in a number of divisions showed their very best. There doesn't figure to be a dull moment in any of the eight grade I championship races at Arlington Oct. 26.
This could be one of those years when the winner of the day's biggest race, the $4-million Classic, isn't the headliner. That happened in 1991, when 2-year-old sensation and Juvenile winner Arazi stole the thunder from Black Tie Affair, who wired his field in the Classic en route to Horse of the Year honors.
Back in 1991, the pre-Breeders' Cup favorite for Horse of the Year was In Excess, who had reeled off four consecutive grade I victories in New York. But the son of Siberian Express floundered in the Mile after trainer Bruce Jackson opted not to run him in the Classic. This year, with no dominant runner in the older male division, attention will turn to the top 3-year-olds pointing for the Classic: War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I); Came Home, who avenged his lone 2002 defeat in the Kentucky Derby by defeating War Emblem in the Pacific Classic (gr. I); and Medaglia d'Oro, winner of the Travers (gr. I) and a close second in the Belmont Stakes (gr. I).
If none of those three wins the Classic, Horse of the Year voters may have to go shopping in a division outside of the 3-year-old male and older male categories, which have provided 15 of the last 18 winners of Horse of the Year, beginning in 1984, the first year of the Breeders' Cup.
Hopeful Stakes (gr. I) and Lane's End Breeders' Futurity (gr. II) winner Sky Mesa has looked very good in all three of his starts, as has fellow Bessemer Trust Juvenile candidate Vindication, winner of the Kentucky Cup Juvenile (gr. III). The same also can be said of unbeaten Storm Flag Flying, the leader of the Juvenile Fillies division and winner of two grade I races. However, it says here a 2-year-old going 4-for-4 is short of a Horse of the Year campaign.
Most Horse of the Year voters apparently believe fillies and mares have to defeat males at least once to qualify. Lady's Secret, Horse of the Year in 1986 (the most recent filly so honored), won that year's Whitney Handicap (gr. I) over males and placed against males in the Metropolitan Handicap (gr. I) and Philip H. Iselin (gr. I). Three years earlier, the French filly All Along swept a trio of North American grade I grass races over males and received top honors.
Moccasin, a 2-year-old filly who shared 1965 Horse of the Year honors with Roman Brother, never stepped outside of her division, in which she won eight consecutive races. Horse of the Year fillies before her were the back-to-back duo of Twilight Tear (1944) and Busher (1945), both of whom defeated males on multiple occasions.
Azeri has been a dominating performer in 2002, winning seven of eight against fillies and mares, including the Apple Blossom Handicap (gr. I) in her lone excursion away from her California home base, where she's won three other grade I races and two grade II events. Her Oct. 2 triumph in the Lady's Secret Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. II) was a thing of beauty. If she adds the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) to her list of credentials, Azeri deserves consideration for racing's top honor. Judge her by what she's done, not by what she hasn't.