Triumph meets tragedy in climax to Breeders' Cup

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Írad Ortiz Jr. celebrated his victory on Vino Rosso on Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Santa Anita. (Alex Evers/Eclipse Sportswire photo courtesy of Breeders’ Cup)

Arcadia, Calif.

 

Todd Pletcher’s first Breeders’ Cup Classic win came Saturday.

 

So did Írad Ortiz Jr.’s biggest day as a jockey. That also happened Saturday.

 

And so did Bricks And Mortar’s valedictory win to clinch Horse of the Year. That was Saturday.

 

But so, too, was the breakdown and subsequent death of Mongolian Groom. After the final turn of the final race of what had been a beautiful two days in southern California – a nearly perfect celebration of horse racing – a cursed truth came back to rear its ugly head at Santa Anita.

 

And so the postscript to the 36th Breeders’ Cup is complicated. For those immersed in racing – and numb to what the 37th racehorse death here since Christmas – Vino Rosso’s victory in the $6 million Classic and Bricks And Mortar’s in the $4 million Turf were the big stories. And since he rode both of them, Ortiz may have been the biggest of all.

 

“I am blessed,” said Ortiz, 27, who was the winning jockey in four of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races the past two days. “Thank God for everything, keeping me in one piece, keeping me healthy. I really work to do what I love to do, and that is riding horses.”

 

In the case of Vino Rosso (9-2), it was a case of redemption and validation. Redemption for his controversial disqualification from an apparent victory five weeks ago in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Saratoga. Validation for having been shipped here in May to win the Gold Cup at Santa Anita, his most recent victory before Saturday.

 

“As much as getting him out over the track, it gave us confidence that the horse handled the track,” said Pletcher, who got his 11th Breeders’ Cup victory but his first in 13 tries in the Classic. “We knew he’d love a mile-and-a-quarter. We had a blueprint in place that worked, so we tried to follow that pattern exactly. We did. And the horse was crawling out of his skin, literally.”

 

A 4-year-old sired by 2007 Classic winner Curlin, Vino Rosso took the lead passing the eighth pole. With Ortiz using a left-handed crop, he drew away to win by 4¼ lengths over pace-chasing favorite McKinzie (5-2). Higher Power (9-1) was another 4¼ lengths behind in third. The winning time was 2:02.80 on a fast but deep, in-the-name-of-safety dirt track that produced slow times throughout the two days of the Breeders’ Cup.

 

Ortiz’s win in the Turf aboard Bricks And Mortar (1-1) was more widely expected. Never more than 2¾ lengths behind at any call, the 5-year-old sired by Giant’s Causeway went from fifth at the top of the stretch to what seemed to be an inevitable lead in the final strides, passing second-place long shot United (51-1) to win by a head. Anthony Van Dyck (5-1) finished third to leave European horses with only one win out of the seven Breeders’ Cup races on their pet grass surface.

 

Bricks And Mortar went 6-for-6 in 2019 and 11-for-13 in a career that was interrupted almost all of 2018 because of a ligament injury. Now he is expected to be anointed America’s best in the year-end Eclipse Awards on his way to stud in Japan with his new owners at Shadai Stallion Station.

 

“We never had a Horse of the Year,” said Brown, whose three victories this year brought his career total to 15, tied with Bob Baffert for second behind D. Wayne Lukas’s 20 Breeders’ Cup wins. “If he’s fortunate enough to get that award and for his body of work and for what he’s overcome, all those things go into putting right at the top as the best we have ever had.”

 

Unfortunately, the celebrations were muted after Mongolian Groom broke down. He was coming off the final turn and appeared to be changing leads under the right-handed urging from Ábel Cedillo when his left hind ankle gave way. The euthanasia of the 4-year-old gelding was announced about two hours after the race in a statement from the Breeders’ Cup.

 

“The death of Mongolian Groom is a loss to the entire horse-racing community,” the statement said. “The Breeders’ Cup has engaged world-renowned veterinarian Dr. Larry Bramlage to conduct an independent evaluation.”

 

So the sigh heard at the end of the Breeders’ Cup was not of relief as hoped but, instead, of resignation. And with just one more day of racing left before Santa Anita closes shop until Dec. 26, who knows how the fallout will impact the sport.

 

Saturday’s other Breeders’ Cup races

 

Distaff. She seems to win everything but the Breeders’ Cup. For the second year in a row Midnight Bisou (1-1) found it to be her Waterloo. Her valiant, late move for the lead was plenty valiant, but it proved to be too late. Blue Point (8-1) made her charge from mid-pack and held on for a 1½-length win in the 1⅛-mile, $2 million Distaff. Front-running Serengeti Empress (10-1) faded to third. Joe Bravo rode the victory, his first in the Breeders’ Cup after 21 losses, and the first in three tries since 2010 for trainer Ignacio Correas, who, like Blue Point 5½ years ago, was born in Argentina. The winning time was 1:50.50, the slowest in eight years.

 

Mile. For the second time Saturday a girl beat the boys in open company. In her fifth try facing males, Uni (7-2) closed strong and won the $2 million Mile on the firm turf course. A British-bred filly, Uni ran in France before being transferred to Brown during the summer of 2017. She has since collected three Grade 1 victories, all ridden by Joel Rosario. Nearly three months after beating Uni in the Fourstardave at Saratoga, another filly – Got Stormy (3-1) – finished second, 1½ lengths behind. Without Parole (8-1) was another 1¼ lengths back in third, nosing out co-favorite Circus Maximus (7-2). The winning time of 1:32.45 was 4.13 seconds faster than that for the Dirt Mile.

 

Sprint. Ricardo Santana Jr. timed it just right. He hit the accelerator on Mitole (9-5) at the start of the turn, pushing him past pace-setting Shancelot (3-2) for a 1¼-length win in the six-furlong, $2 million Sprint. Whitmore was 3½ lengths back in third.  The victory put a successful punctuation mark on a season that included Grade 1 wins in the Churchill Downs, Met Mile and Forego and validated seven-time Breeders’ Cup-winning trainer Steve Asmussen’s decision to ship his horses to Santa Anita a month ago to get used to the track. The winning time of 1:09.00 was the slowest for this race in eight years. By the way, track announcer Frank Mirahmadi declared Mitole to be “the best sprinter in the world.” This may come as news to the likes of Battaash, Beat The Clock, Blue Point, Santa Ana Lane and Yes Yes Yes.

 

Filly & Mare Turf. He was 18 in 2011 when he rode St Nicholas Abbey. That made Joseph O’Brien the youngest jockey ever to win a Breeders’ Cup. Saturday, the now 26-year-old O’Brien became the youngest trainer to do it when 3-year-old Iridessa (13-1), already a three-time Group 1 winner, got a neck in front of Vasilika (9-2) to finish first in the 1¼-mile Filly & Mare Turf for Europe’s only win of the two days. The son of legendary Coolmore trainer Aidan O’Brien, Joseph joined Freddy Head as the only men or women to ride and train Breeders’ Cup winners. Trained by assistant Dan Ward while his boss Jerry Hollendorfer remains on suspension for horse deaths here at Santa Anita, Vasilika was three-quarters of a length better than odds-on favorite Sistercharlie (4-5), whose third-place finish ended her six-race winning streak that included her 2018 win in this race.

 

Dirt Mile. Leading from go to whoa, Spun To Run (9-1) was never threatened by late-running favorite Omaha Beach (1-1) on his way to an upset victory with Ortiz in the slowest running of the $1 million Dirt Mile at its current distance. Never better than third in two previous Grade 1 starts, Spun To Run “broke running,” according to Ortiz. “I just followed the instructions.” Those orders came from trainer Juan Carlos Guerrero,. who got his first Breeders’ Cup win. Omaha Beach closed from seventh to finish 2¾ lengths back in second with Blue Chipper (16-1) another 1¼ lengths back in third. The only slower Dirt Mile than Saturday’s 1:36.58 was the inaugural running in 2007, when it was not dirt but instead mud, and it was not a mile but instead a mile and 70 yards.

 

Filly & Mare Sprint. Named for a Twitter typo by President Trump, the pace-chasing favorite Covfefe (3-2) fended off a late charge by Bellafina (9-2) to win the $1 million Filly & Mare Sprint by three-quarters of a length. It was the third Breeders’ Cup victory for trainer Brad Cox, who also saddled British Idiom in Friday’s Juvenile Fillies and Monomoy Girl in last year’s Distaff. Rosario got his first of two wins in Saturday’s championships, bringing his career total to 11. Dawn The Destroyer (22-1) was third, 8½ lengths off the winning time of 1:22.40 for the seven furlongs on fast but deep dirt.

 

Turf Sprint. Despite being drawn widest in the field of 12, the 6-year-old mare Belvoir Bay (14-1) got to the lead early and stayed there, setting a course record to beat the boys in the $1 million Turf Sprint. It marked the third time in a row that trainer Peter Miller won the race; he did so the last two years with Stormy Liberal (15-1), the eighth-place finisher Saturday. Their 7-year-old stable mate Om (15-1) was 1¼ lengths behind in second, the bob of the head better than Shekky Shebaz (5-1). Trained in her early days by Englishman Richard Hannon Jr., Belvoir Bay had a winning time of 54.83 seconds, the best ever on the five-furlong turf flat track that has only recently come into frequent use at Santa Anita since this spring’s closing of the downhill course.

 

Ron Flatter’s weekly racing column is normally posted every Friday morning at VSiN.com. It appears more frequently during coverage of big racing events, including this week’s Breeders’ Cup. You may also hear the Ron Flatter Racing Pod posted Friday mornings at VSiN.com/podcasts. Next week’s episode features ESPN’s Kenny Mayne. The RFRP is also available via Apple, Google, Spotify, Stitcher.

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