By Dick Jerardi
My three favorite racing days of the year are not the Triple Crown, although I certainly love the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes. They are: Pennsylvania Derby Day and the two days of the Breeders’ Cup. Terrific horses, big purses, top trainers and jockeys, great racing from the first race to the last.
The weather was no help for 2023 Pa. Derby Day, but the day still went off perfectly, a major testament to everybody associated with Parx Racing. The 2023 Breeders’ Cup, the 40th since the first at Hollywood Park in 1984, also went off perfectly at Santa Anita, with three defending champs winning their races again and a fourth, the Pennsylvania Bred Caravel, trying hard, but past her peak, tiring late in the Turf Sprint. She was to be sold, along with her dam Zeezee Zoomzoom, on Nov. 8 at Keeneland.
Where to begin?
Irad Ortiz won three races and got the Shoemaker Award for outstanding jockey that goes to whoever has the most winners. Ortiz won on three solid favorites and he obviously is terrific. Ryan Moore’s ride on Auguste Rodin in the Turf will be long remembered as a masterpiece. But the best rider at Santa Anita over the weekend was Flavien Prat and I don’t think it was close.
Here is the evidence: On Friday, Prat was a fast-closing second on Jody’s Pride at 17-1 in the Juvenile Fillies. He won the Juvenile Fillies Turf on Hard to Justify at 9-1. He was a rallying fourth on 18-1 Can Group in the Juvenile Turf.
On Saturday, he rode National Treasure as well as you can ride a horse, only to lose to the horse that refuses to lose, Cody’s Wish. He was third on 13-1 Moira in the Filly & Mare Turf and second on 7-1 Randomized in the Distaff after a race-long duel with favored Idiomatic. Prat was simply brilliant, especially for exacta, trifecta and superfecta bettors.
Bill Mott, again, was the training star, first with 7-1 Juvenile Fillies winner Just FYI, given a brilliant ride by Junior Alvarado. Then, on Saturday, Mott won the first BC race with Cody’s Wish and finished off the BC races with Elite Power repeating in the Sprint.
In fact, it was about New York and European-based trainers. Chad Brown won two more, with 9-1 Hard to Justify in the Juvenile Fillies Turf and Goodnight Olive, a repeat winner of the Filly & Mare Sprint.
No horse was more impressive over the two days than the Juvenile winner, Fierceness. If you could put a line through his Champagne when he was 1-2, but got off poorly, ran in the slop and never got into the race, Fierceness, with a 95 Beyer in the most impressive maiden win of the Saratoga meeting, had the best number in the race. His trainer, Todd Pletcher, drew that line and was rewarded with a blowout win at 16-1. Fierceness got a 105 Beyer and will enter 2024 as the winter book favorite for the Kentucky Derby.
The Euros, as they always do, dominated the grass races. The great trainer Aidan O’Brien won the Juvenile Turf with his backup horse, Unquestionable, when favored River Tiber was scratched the day of the race. He also won the Turf again, this time with Auguste Rodin. John Gosden unleashed the amazing filly Inspiral in the Filly & Mare Turf. Her awe-inspiring rally was just enough to catch the O’Brien-trained Warm Heart who was given another world-class ride by Moore.
Trainer Charlie Appleby won the Mile again, this time with an insane rally from the 14 post by Master of the Seas. Michael Appleby (no relation) unleashed the amazing speed of Big Evs in the Juvenile Turf Sprint. So the Euros won five of the seven grass races.
The Turf Sprint produced the only longshot of Day 2 when the Larry Rivelli-trained Nobals came flying up the rail and held off a very unlucky Big Invasion.
Trainer Brad Cox was struggling all weekend until Idiomatic found a way to survive a race-long battle to win the Distaff and put her name firmly in the Horse of the Year race. She ran in every month of the year except April and September, with eight wins and a second from nine races, a true campaign when those are most relics. She finished the season off by winning two Grade II and three Grade I stakes.
The most amazing training job award, of course, goes to Rick Dutrow with Classic winner White Abarrio. He was just back off his 10-year suspension which I would argue was far too long when, by sheer happenstance, he ended up with White Abarrio, a colt who appeared to have peaked in the 2022 Florida Derby.
White Abarrio ran a terrific third in the Met Mile behind Cody’s Wish in his first start for Dutrow. The colt’s astonishing win in the Whitney was the best dirt performance in America this year. Immediately, Dutrow said he would wait for the Classic three months down the road and send the colt to California early.
I have never forgotten what Mark Reid told me years ago when Bill Warren asked him to take over as stable manager for Saint Liam. He said Rick was the best he’s ever seen with a horse. Reid immediately gave Saint Liam to Dutrow and Saint Liam became Horse of the Year in 2005 when he won the Classic.
White Abarrio looked the winner of this Classic as soon as he got position behind the frontrunners. It was all but over when the white horse moved past those leaders at the top of the stretch. White Abarrio was in no danger in those final 100 yards, winning clear. Dutrow, whose flawed personality got him in so much trouble, proved once again that if somebody gives him a fast racehorse to train, he can do it as well as anybody in the world.
In the most hard to believe stat, California-based horses went 0-for-33 in the 14 BC races. Bob Baffert-trained horses were the only ones close – Preakness winner National Treasure doing everything but winning the Dirt Mile against the amazing Cody’s Wish who defended his title with a final stride win in his final race. The inexperienced 3-year-olds, Arabian Knight and Speed Boat, both ran heroically in the Classic and Sprint respectively. The rest of the California contingent? No good at all.
When I watched Justify dominate the 2018 Triple Crown after beginning his career in February, I knew I was watching a rare talent. No telling how many big races he would have won if his career had not ended after the Belmont Stakes. He is off to an incredible start as a sire and his daughters, Just FYI and Hard to Justify, won the two filly 2-year-old races Friday.
And then there is the incredible two-time Horse of the Year Curlin, somehow just as good a sire as he was a race horse. Saturday, all Curlin did was sire the winner of three BC races – Cody’s Wish, Idiomatic and Elite Power – all three of which will get Horse of the Year consideration along with possibly the great grass horse Up to the Mark as well as Belmont and Travers winner Arcangelo.
That will be an interesting conversation for December. Right now, another memorable Breeders’ Cup is done and we look forward to 2024.