Business was good, very good, at the 23rd Breeders' Cup World Championships at Churchill Downs Nov. 4. And so was the racing, the only negatives being two high-profile injuries -- one fatal -- and a dirt racing surface that jockeys said was tight and fast near the rail, but loose and difficult for horses to handle on the outside.
Lord Derby's Ouija Board was the day's most popular winner. The globe-trotting 5-year-old mare put on a show, winning the Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT) for the second time in three tries, and her farewell tour now moves on to return engagements in Japan and Hong Kong. Ouija Board's professionalism and class have carried her to 10 victories from 21 starts at 16 tracks in seven countries. She has fans virtually everywhere horses race, and the 75,132 on hand at Churchill Downs showed their appreciation by giving Ouija Board a long ovation as jockey Frankie Dettori brought her back to the winner's circle.
Horse of the Year honors will almost certainly go to Sheikh Hamdan's Shadwell Farm colorbearer Invasor, the Uruguayan Triple Crown winner who capped off his American campaign of four consecutive grade I victories by defeating Bernardini in the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I). Bernardini carried the maroon and white Darley Stable silks of Sheikh Hamdan's younger brother, Sheikh Mohammed.
The Horse of the Year title was Bernardini's for the asking, with some considering victory in the 10-furlong Classic a mere formality for the 3-year-old A.P. Indy
colt, who had won six straight with an average winning margin of nearly seven lengths. The betting public was confident in him, sending him postward at 11-10 odds, making Bernardini the heaviest Classic favorite since Cigar was defeated at Woodbine in 1996 at 3-5. But there are no cinches in horse racing.
It was not a statistical aberration that horses breaking from the No. 1 post position won four of the five Breeders' Cup races on dirt. A number of jockeys recognized the Churchill track bias, and others came back from races commenting about their mounts' inability to get ahold of the "cuppy," or dry, racetrack.
That shouldn't happen on racing's showcase day, and it might not happen again if resistant track owners recognize the enormous positive benefits of synthetic surfaces such as Polytrack. It is not suggested here that the fatal injury to Pine Island or the tendon injury suffered by Fleet Indian in the Distaff were a result of an unsafe track. It can be stated, however, that synthetic track surfaces are dramatically reducing the rate of injuries, and nothing should have a higher priority than the health of these equine athletes.
Predictably, television ratings fell sharply when the Breeders' Cup moved from the NBC network to ESPN on cable. But ESPN and the new Breeders' Cup management team led by interim CEO Greg Avioli should be very pleased that pari-mutuel handle took its biggest jump in the event's 23-year history. Betting on the day totaled $138.7 million, a $15-million increase from 2005.
This year's growth can largely be attributed to ESPN's commitment of an additional hour to its telecast, allowing a few precious minutes more between the eight races. Also contributing were the full and extremely competitive fields in nearly every race and the effort to penetrate more international simulcast markets.
After a rocky year of changes that touched both the board of directors and the organization's top executives, stakeholders in the Breeders' Cup should feel good about its new direction. The relationship with ESPN and its numerous media platforms can only get better, and initiatives such as the "Breeders' Cup Challenge" and changes to the stakes program will further strengthen the World Championships.
The future of the Breeders' Cup is very bright.