Best Bets: A handicapping history of the Breeders' Cup, Part 2 [Breeders' Cup]

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This article appeared in the November 2010 issue of Louisville Magazine. To subscribe, please visit loumag.com.

A favorite, Chief’s Crown, won the first Breeders’ Cup race at Hollywood Park in 1984 and paid $3.40. If anyone thought that would be the norm from there on, they were wrong.

The second race was won by a 74-1 shot named Fran’s Valentine — although she ended up not winning. The filly was disqualified for interference, and second place finisher Outstandingly was put up the winner. And she was 22-1.

The rest of the afternoon featured a few favorites, including the terrific filly Princess Rooney, but at sunset the winner of the first Breeders’ Cup Classic was an unheralded 31-1 shot named Wild Again, who won by a nose over more ballyhooed opponents Gate Dancer and Slew o’ Gold in a three-horse photo finish. Wild Again also survived a stewards’ inquiry into the stretch run, with Gate Dancer eventually being flagged for causing a squeeze to the wire. Gate Dancer was placed third and Slew o’ Gold moved up to second. But Wild Again’s number — it stayed up.

“It’s very emotional to recall that stretch drive, because on every jump he was groaning, he was straining so hard,” says jockey Pat Day. “Wild Again fought as hard as any horse I have ever ridden. He ran the last quarter mile in that race on sheer guts and determination.

“There was a lot of bumping going on the last three-sixteenths of a mile. My horse was on the inside, trying to get out. Slew o’ Gold (with Angel Cordero Jr. aboard) was in the middle, and Gate Dancer (Laffit Pincay Jr.) was on the outside lugging in. I didn’t know if we had won. It was so close. And I was trying so hard just to keep my horse running straight.”

Up until that race, Day was a top jockey, and had already led North America in victories. But he wasn’t one of the elite riders club based in New York, or the glittery riding stars of California. But a sharp handicapper could have climbed into the saddle that day with Pat Day and won.

And kept on winning. Over the next two decades, Day and Jerry Bailey dominated the Breeders’ Cup. By the time they retired, Bailey had won the most Breeders’ Cup races and Day the most money. Both still rank 1-2 in those categories, long after hanging up their tack.

Some say following jockeys is a certain path to handicapping bankruptcy. But not in the Breeders’ Cup. In its first two decades, if you added Mike Smith, Gary Stevens, Jose Santos, Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron and Angel Cordero to Day and Bailey, plus the European champion Frankie Dettori, you would have a list of riders that pretty much swept every Breeders’ Cup card.

And at any price. In the Classic alone, Day hit at $64.60 on Wild Again and $41.20 on Cat Thief (Gulfstream Park, 1999). McCarron scored with Alphabet Soup at $41.70 (Woodbine, ‘96). Santos and Valponi paid $89 (Arlington, 2002). Oh, and did we mention Jerry Bailey winning the Classic at Santa Anita in 1993 on a French horse named Arcangues? For a deuce on Bailey you got back $269.20.

The Breeders’ Cup came along at the end of the careers of Bill Shoemaker and English rider Lester Piggott, considered among the best ever. But each won a Breeders’ Cup race. Piggott’s win aboard Royal Academy in the Mile at Belmont in 1990 is part of the something-to-see archive.

“Like everybody else, I didn’t know much about the European horses or trainers — but I knew about Lester Piggott,” recalls George Hobbs, a big-play bettor who fires hard at the Breeders’ Cup card. “Lester was famous, but he’d also had his share of dust-ups with the authorities. They finally put him in the pen for income tax ‘irregularities,’ but I think Lord Something-or-other smoothed all that out. Anyhow, he’d been retired for five years before he came back to ride the Breeders’ Cup in New York. You had to love the guy, and you had to figure he hadn’t come over just to see the Colonies. The horse had to be good.”

Piggott and Royal Academy lay back in the early going. “But then he swung out to the middle of the track and came flying,” remembers Hobbs. “Practically standing up, like you’d see pictures of old Fred Archer riding for the Queen. And he had that whip, holding it way up in the air, and then down – whack! All the way down the stretch out in the middle of the track, and just up at the wire.”

Interestingly, all of the abovementioned riders except Dettori and Smith are retired, and the dominance of a handful of riders has vanished. The Cup victories are pretty much spread around now, says Philadelphia Daily News columnist Dick Jerardi.

“I think back then we had about a half-dozen jockeys that were clearly better than anybody else. Clearly,” says Jerardi. “And even if they weren’t, they were judged best by the best trainers, so they got the best horses to ride anyway. If you said today, who are the best six jockeys in the country, you could probably name them, but you’d get an argument, and also the separation between those six and the next 20 would not be nearly as big as the separation between the Baileys and McCarrons and Corderos of the previous generation.”

Photo: Courtesy Breeders' Cup

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