Steve Haskin's Breeders' Cup Retrospective: What Might Have Been

Steve Haskin's Breeders' Cup Retrospective: What Might Have Been
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The 2005 World Thoroughbred Championships had an opportunity to provide several unforgettable chapters in the annals of the Breeders' Cup, but failed to do so. Still, it was a good day of racing, with its usual share of champions crowned, some by victory, some by default.

Imagine $800,000 supplement Starcraft and his colorful and outspoken owner, Paul Makin, winning the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) just days before Makybe Diva's historic third straight victory in Melbourne Cup. As the International Racing Bureau's Nick Clarke said before the race, a victory by Starcraft would "shrink the world."

Imagine Lost in the Fog winning his 11th straight race and stamping himself as racing's newest superstar and one of the most popular sprinters of all time.

Imagine back-to-back victories by Singletary in the NetJets Mile (gr. IT) and another wild and memorable winner's circle celebration by Billy Koch, Don Chatlos and company. Or imagine Leroidesanimaux winning the race breaking from the 11-post and wearing aluminum pads (bar shoes) for his ninth straight victory, putting him in a class with the brilliant Lure.

Imagine Ashado closing out her career with another victory in the Emirates Airline Distaff (gr. I), while breaking Azeri's all-time earnings record.

Imagine First Samurai ending his 2-year-old campaign undefeated, becoming the first horse ever to sweep the grade I Hopeful, Champagne, and Bessemer Trust Breeders' Cup Juvenile.

Imagine Shakespeare becoming the first undefeated American grass champion.

As we all know, none of it happened. What could have been a memorable day of racing turned into a good day of racing, with few, if any, storylines destined to become part of Breeders' Cup lore. Perhaps one will be Merv Griffin winning the Juvenile with Stevie Wonderboy, a Stephen Got Even   colt who looks to be major player on next year's Kentucky Derby (gr. I) trail. But the real impact of Griffin having a big horse will not be felt until next spring when mainstream America hones in on the Derby.

Other than the frenzy in trainer Rick Dutrow's box following Saint Liam's victory in the Classic, NBC wasn't able to provide much excitement in that aspect of its coverage. Many of the post-race "celebrations" and winner's circle presentations were downright boring. Most of Griffin's best material was saved for the post-race interview room, where it was only heard by the media. Let's just hope we can get Griffin, who could be one of racing's great ambassadors, and Stevie Wonderboy to Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May. Anyone who starts belting out "My Old Kentucky Home" six months before the Derby, as Griffin did in the interview room, has to be a public relations goldmine come next spring.

The only compelling human interest story focused on by NBC and the rest of the media was Garrett Gomez' comeback from substance abuse. It was an uplifting, heartwarming story, but one that has become a common one in the world of sports. While people will remember Gomez' two victories, at least for a while, how many will remember the two victories by Edgar Prado, who broke an 0-for-41 winless streak in the Breeders' Cup?

This is not to say it wasn't a satisfactory Breeders' Cup in terms of racing. The track was playing fair, the fields were competitive, there were excellent betting opportunities, we came away with two exciting juveniles to follow next year, and we crowned a worthy Horse of the Year in Saint Liam. And the Europeans again showed their mastery over the Americans in the John Deere Turf (gr. I), this time occupying the first four positions. While it was a good day of racing, it failed to cross the line into a great day of racing, despite its many opportunities to do so.

Sadly, we had to witness the fifth Breeders' Cup fatality at Belmont Park in four years when Funfair had to be euthanized after breaking down in the Mile. And we received another scare when Wildcat Heir simply fell after crossing the finish line in the Sprint. It was a frightening sight, but thankfully it had a happy ending for both horse and rider, although Wildcat Heir did suffer a career-ending injury.

In addition to Saint Liam, the hero of the Classic was Jerry Bailey, who proved yet again he is one of the most intelligent riders of all time who knows how to read a race and his horse as well as anyone. His ride on Saint Liam was flawless. Most riders would have been lost after breaking to the outside from the 12-post and falling way back with a horse who likes to be up close to the pace. But Bailey didn't panic. He quickly got his horse into a contending position, about five lengths off the lead, and then took a nice easy hold of him and let him settle comfortably down the backstretch. Around the turn, he allowed Saint Liam to steadily close in on the leaders without asking him for too much too soon. That allowed the horse to have plenty left for the stretch drive.

One horse in the Classic that needs to be mentioned is Starcraft. Breaking from post 13, he came out of the gate slowly and found himself dead-last early. Pat Valenzuela wisely steered him to the inside and let him save ground. Once they hit the backstretch, Starcraft began passing horses through a pair of quarters in :23 2/5 and :23 3/5 until he found himself right on Saint Liam's heels. He looked like a major threat at that point, but with a wall of horses in front of him, he was taken to the outside, losing ground. By the time they straightened into the stretch he had expended too much energy and was unable to sustain his run.

Although he wound up seventh, he was beaten only 7 1/2 lengths, indicating he would have had a good chance to be right there with a clean break and a good trip. Makin should be saluted for his audacious gamble, which may have paid off with better luck. There was some thought about keeping the horse here for the Cigar Mile (gr. I), but he was shipped back to England.

Although Tiznow  's daughter Folklore is a worthy champion, one had to be impressed with the second-place finish turned in by Wild Fit. The daughter of Wild Wonder, making her first start outside of California, did not have a clean break and dropped well off the pace, some six lengths behind the ninth-place horse. Horses that far back at Belmont, especially an inexperienced 2-year-old, normally have no chance to be anywhere at the finish. But Wild Fit turned in a sensational final quarter, while circling her field (which normally also spells disaster at Belmont), and not only finished second, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths by Folklore, she was 4 3/4 lengths ahead of third-place finisher, the undefeated Original Spin. The fact that she also had to steady on the turn made this one of the more impressive performances of this year's Breeders' Cup.

Here's hoping that Perfect Drift makes it back for his fifth Classic next year at age 7. After finishing 12th in 2002, sixth in 2003, fourth in 2004, and third this year, it's only logical, or wishful thinking, to feel there is a Classic with his name on it coming up. With the Breeders' Cup being run at Churchill Downs, perhaps he can return to his glory days of 2003 when he defeated eventual Horse of the Year Mineshaft   in the Stephen Foster Handicap (gr. I). He also finished an excellent third in the 2002 Kentucky Derby. He is stabled only a few miles from Churchill at the Sports Spectrum, and what a great story it would make for him to return home and finally win that elusive Classic.

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