The 2002 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships has so many scenarios regarding the Horse of the Year title, it should provide several intriguing subplots as the afternoon of Oct. 26 at Arlington Park progresses.
If Azeri wins the Breeders' Cup Distaff (gr. I) to start the day off, then many believe the title is hers until someone takes it away from her, even though she's never run against colts. That someone could be Came Home, War Emblem, or possibly Medaglia d'Oro, who square off in the Classic (gr. I). A victory by either of the first two would all but nail down Horse of the Year honors.
If none of these horses win, then the title will be like a scrap of bread thrown to a flock of pigeons. Anything with four hooves, a mane, and some graded stakes victories will dive right in. You'll have undefeated 2-year-olds like Sky Mesa, Vindication, and Storm Flag Flying all thinking they're Favorite Trick. You'll have European superstar Rock of Gibraltar thinking he's All Along. And you'll have Evening Attire trying to emulate his sire, Black Tie Affair, who nobody gave a thought to for Horse of the Year until he won the Classic.
Even the 7-year-old grass horse, With Anticipation, would be considered if he scored his fourth grade I victory of the year in the Turf (gr. IT), defeating English (Eng-I) and Irish (Ir-I) Derby winner High Chaparral. And what if Beat Hollow dethrones the mighty Rock of Gibraltar in the Mile for his fourth grade I win of the year?
But before we get too far ahead of ourselves, the most important task at hand is winning a Breeders' Cup race, and not worrying about Horse of the Year implications. A total 104 horses will take on that challenge as the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships comes to Arlington Park in Chicago for the first time. That number equals last year's total, but is down from the 135 horses pre-entered in 2000. In all, 113 pre-entries were taken, down from 117 last year. Nine horses cross-entered, seven of them naming the Mile (gr. IT) as their second preference. Also, 12 horses were supplemented to five of the eight races, all for a 9% fee of the total purse.
The Breeders' Cup will be televised live by NBC Sports (1-6 p.m. ET).
While Bobby Frankel and Bob Baffert dominate the American forces with seven horses each, Aidan O'Brien will unleash an arsenal of European stars, pre-entering 10 horses, including his big guns Rock of Gibraltar, High Chaparral, and Hawk Wing, and five 2-year-old colts.
Baffert will be top-heavy with 2-year-olds, pre-entering three each in the Juvenile and Juvenile Fillies (both gr. I). His only non-juvenile will be War Emblem in the Classic. Frankel is more spread out, with two in the Classic, two in the Mile, two in the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), and one in the Turf.
The total number of O'Brien horses to make the starting gate, and which races they run in, still is to be determined. The Wizard of Ballydoyle has Rock of Gibraltar and Hawk Wing pre-entered in both the Classic and Mile, with Rock of Gibraltar's first preference being the Mile and Hawk Wing's the Classic.
Unlike last year, when they brought major stars Sakhee, Fantastic Light, and Noverre, the powerful Godolphin team will not be sending anyone from Europe, relying solely on their American-based E Dubai in the Classic and Imperial Gesture in the Distaff. Kazzia had shipped in earlier, winning the Flower Bowl Invitational (gr. IT) at Belmont as her prep for the Filly & Mare Turf.
Of the 14 horses pre-entered for the Classic, half are 3-year-olds, with either Came Home, War Emblem, or Medaglia d'Oro vying for favoritism. That is a complete turnaround from last year when only four of the 13 starters were 3-year-olds, and two of those were European shippers. The two American horses--Macho Uno and Orientate--both were longshots. Macho Uno is back for another try at the Classic, while Orientate, riding a four-race winning streak, is the horse to beat in the Sprint (gr. I).
The 3-year-olds no doubt will supply the glamour to the Classic, with the winners of the grade I Kentucky Derby, Preakness, Travers, Santa Anita Derby, Haskell Invitational, Pacific Classic, Blue Grass Stakes, and Florida Derby pre-entered. This will be the first time since 1990 that the Kentucky Derby winner and Travers winner lock horns in the Classic that same year.
Evening Attire, winner of the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) and Saratoga Breeders' Cup (gr. II), will be the main hope of the older horses.
The day is expected to start off with a bang in the Distaff, as the exciting Azeri, riding a brilliant six-race winning streak, takes on the best of the East--Summer Colony and Mandy's Gold and 3-year-olds Imperial Gesture, Take Charge Lady, and Farda Amiga. With such a deep, talented field, only eight were pre-entered.
The Long John Silver's Juvenile Fillies should provide an exciting regional battle, with Storm Flag Flying, the queen of the East, taking on Bob Baffert's trio of Composure, Santa Catarina, and Atlantic Ocean; the Calder sensation Ivanavinalot; and the hard-hitting Midwestern fillies Westerly Breeze and Ruby's Reception.
The NetJets Breeders' Cup Mile likely will showcase the European titan Rock of Gibraltar, winner of a record seven straight group I stakes. With 17 horses pre-entered as their first preference, not to mention the seven pre-entered as second preference, the members of the Breeders' Cup selection committee had their work cut out for them.
In races that are oversubscribed (more than 14 horses pre-entered), the top seven Breeders' Cup point earners gain automatic berths. The remaining seven horses are selected by the Breeders' Cup Racing Directors/Secretaries Panel. The panel also ranked all horses not selected into the body of the field in preference order. Should there be a defection from a field, horses will fill any vacancies in the order of ranking until the time of entry, Oct. 23 at 10:00 a.m. (CT). Post positions for all eight Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships races will be drawn at that time.
The Napa Auto Parts Sprint is a wide-open affair, with last year's runner-up Xtra Heat back for another try. This race also has oversubscribed, with 16 pre-entered. Winner over the colts in the Phoenix Breeders' Cup Handicap (gr. III), Xtra Heat, along with other female stars Kalookan Queen and Carson Hollow, will face a barrage of early speed from Orientate, Bonapaw, Disturbingthepeace, and Day Trader.
In the Filly & Mare Turf, Golden Apples should be the solid favorite, but there are no weak links among the 14 horses pre-entered. And she'll have to contend with last year's runaway winner Banks Hill, who is coming off a disastrous trip in the Yellow Ribbon (gr. IT), and the Michael Stoute-trained Islington, coming off a big effort in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I).
The Bessemer Trust Juvenile is probably the most wide-open race on the card, with undefeated Sky Mesa and Vindication facing a talented field of proven juveniles, including the aforementioned group from O'Brien. With 16 pre-entered, O'Brien is assured of getting at least three of his youngsters in the starting gate.
The John Deere Turf drew only nine horses, the smallest amount since 1986 when Dancing Brave and Manila scared most everyone off. Now it is European invaders High Chaparral and Golan, winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-I), who have helped keep the field at a minimum. With High Chaparral's less-regarded former stablemate Ballingarry easily winning the Canadian International Championship (Can-I), it served notice of what was to come.