Del Mar, Calif.
He brought a little gray to a blue sky day. His dappled coat pierced the growing darkness at Del Mar as evening turned to night, and as the 2021 Breeders’ Cup came to an end.
Knicks Go (3-1), the horse that skeptical handicappers faded because he had never gone 1¼ miles before, looked like he could have gone another lap around the main track. Maybe he still is. It got dark rather soon after he led from go to whoa, extending his advantage to 2¾ lengths at the end of his victory in the $6 million Classic.
It was an amazing near-swan song for a 5-year-old who is ticketed for stud duty next year with Taylor Made Stallions. It was also the last race for his 3-year-old stablemate Essential Quality (9-5), who was a beaten favorite finishing third. He joins Darley Stallion this winter after winning the Belmont and Travers but falling short in the Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic.
“We’re in a day and age when horses go to stud so early,” said trainer Brad Cox, who will see off his two best male horses this winter. “He’s a little bit of a throwback. Very proud of what he’s accomplished this year.”
For a discerning crowd of 26,553 basking and sometimes even singing their joyful noise in the autumn sun, Knicks Go might have provided some relief, too. Splitting the two Cox horses at the end of the race, hanging-by-a-thread Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit (6-1) finished a credible second despite a slow start. Maybe that was fate’s way of giving the sport a reprieve from another fusillade of drug questions and such for Bob Baffert, who faced the music Friday when Corniche won the $2 million Juvenile.
Not only was Knicks Go dominant, he was methodical in his triumph Saturday. In winning the Classic for the second time, jockey Joel Rosario took the 5-year-old Paynter horse out to a modest 23.16-second first quarter-mile. Then he picked up steam, going the second quarter in 22.61. At that point, Rosario put Knicks Go in cruise control, clicking 12s for the last six furlongs. His final three quarters went in 24.27, 25.24 and 24.29 seconds.
“He’s very fast,” Rosario said. “He did exactly like he’ll always do. He broke very, very, very sharp, and then like Brad told me, I just let him do his thing.”
Rosario might have clinched his first Eclipse Award as North America’s best jockey. Cox could be looking at his second consecutive training championship, although Steve Asmussen’s breaking of the North American career wins record will merit consideration. And Knicks Go will be the Horse of the Year.
The Classic brought down the proverbial curtain on the 38th Breeders’ Cup, which had more than its share of the good, the bad and one big bowl of ugly.
Japan. No, not the horse. The nation. It sent seven horses to the Breeders’ Cup, more than it had ever shipped before, and two of them won. Loves Only You (4-1) looked like the videos of her races overseas when she found an opening to the inside in the last 100 yards, shot her way through traffic and won a heart-stopping renewal of the Filly & Mare Turf. Exactly two hours later, Marché Lorraine (49-1) closed from ninth place with a wide run around the turn and shockingly won by a nose in the Distaff. Those were the first two Breeders’ Cup triumphs for Japan since it started sending horses to the championships 25 years ago. Kate Hunter, a Nashville native who has worked in Japan’s racing industry for 13 years, has worked the last three years as the Breeders’ Cup recruiter there. She predicted last week that within five years, her adopted homeland would produce a big-time November winner over here. Now Hunter is playing with four years and 51 weeks of house money. Japan racing fans are the best in the world. Just watch video of any big race there from before the pandemic to see proof. That is a big reason why Loves Only You and Marché Lorraine authored what was the best feel-good vibe in recent memory for the Breeders’ Cup.
Photo finishes. They can be routine, can’t they? And so can the crowd reaction. “The longer it takes, the more likely it is a dead heat.” Or “The wire is deceiving on TV. There is a bad angle.” Yeah, yeah, yeah. Loves Only You and Sprint winner Aloha West (11-1) hung highlight moments that should be bottled and used as promotional tools to attract new fans to the sport. If bottles are not available, how about GIFs on social media? At least these would not be as annoying as those hair flips.
Godolphin U.K. Especially Charlie Appleby and William Buick. The trainer and jockey combined for three wins the past two days, giving them both career highs for a single Breeders’ Cup. True, one of the victories was controversial (see below – way below), but that was not the fault of either of these engaging professionals who have had a very good 2021 on both sides of the Atlantic.
Letruska, et al. There was supposed to be a Horse of the Year case to be made when Letruska won the Breeders’ Cup Distaff. But she did not. And it was not just Marché Lorraine who took her down. In the biggest upset of the two days, a 49-1 shot won the race, and 8-5 favorite Letruska did not. She finished next to last, and trainer Fausto Gutiérrez blamed the hot pace up front. “When it’s 21 and 44 (seconds for the first two quarter-miles), it’s impossible to run with those fractions,” he said. Be that as it may, Letruska, Jackie’s Warrior in the Sprint and defending champion Gamine in the Filly & Mare Sprint were bigger duds than Steve Carell’s TV show “Space Force.”
Middle of the track. Actually, that was a positive for the horses who used it to rally in the stretch. But should a track being set up to decide championships have such an obvious path to victory? Worse yet, what about handicappers who did not notice? Now they would fall under “The Bad.”
Clocking. In a year when Belmont Park and Keeneland had trouble getting the times of races correct, so did Del Mar on Saturday. Two early charts had different times than those shown on the track feed. They were announced as revised. How does this happen so often nowadays in U.S. racing? Here is a concept. See the horse pass the pole? Click. Start the timer. Then see that same horse cross under the wire? Click. Stop the timer. Now, was that so hard?
The Juvenile Turf. A horse that was scratched was allowed to race and win. A rogue veterinarian named Dr. Chuck was allowed to act on his own and order that horse out of the race without having all the facts about what happened in an incident at the gate. When Dr. Chuck was called out for pulling an Al Haig (look him up, kids), then the rest of the veterinarians rounded themselves up to concoct a story with more holes in it than a Manhattan street after winter. Bettors, as usual, were caught holding the bag when it was announced that said horse, the aforementioned Modern Games, would run only for purse money, voiding all the bets that made him a 9-5 favorite. It was an embarrassment during the Breeders’ Cup – but not for the Breeders’ Cup. This was all on the California Horse Racing Board. Here is hoping the Cup’s CEO Drew Fleming let the state regulators hear that loud and clear. He would be forgiven if he was packing a 2x4.
Oh, for all the bleating social-media opinion shapers who claimed that horse racing completely splat the bed (or words to that effect), just remember this sport is not alone. Weren’t the Saints robbed against the Rams in an NFC Championship? Weren’t the Yankees gifted a home run when a kid reached over the wall to intercept the ball? Didn’t the United States get screwed out of the 1972 Olympic gold medal in men’s basketball? Last time I checked, the NFL, Major League Baseball and the Olympics are still ticking.
Racing knocks itself around a lot, but it is durable. There are about 1½ centuries to prove it. Two-day celebrations of the Thoroughbred like the Breeders’ Cup remind us all that this is one terrific game in which to be immersed. Especially when there is always another race tomorrow.
Ron Flatter’s racing column is usually available every Friday at VSiN.com, and there have been more frequent articles during the Breeders’ Cup. Flatter, however, will be on vacation next week, so the next column will not be until Nov. 19. The Ron Flatter Racing Pod is also available at VSiN.com/podcasts. A new episode will be available Friday, when former Churchill Downs TV handicapper Ed DeRosa looks back on the Breeders’ Cup and discusses his move to Horse Racing Nation. The RFRP is available for free subscription at iHeart, Apple, Google, Spotify and Stitcher. It is sponsored by 1/ST BET.