How was it?
That’s the question I’ve been asked since returning home from my first ‘working’ trip to the Breeders’ Cup.
Perfect Shirl gave Roger Attfield his first Breeders' Cup win
It’s not the easiest thing to put into words, but the soundtrack to the scene would certainly be fuelled by the Happy Monday’s, '24 Hour Party People'.
You've been running around the racetrack
You've been running around the racetrack
Put that mother to bed to bed
Put that mother to bed
I’ve never seen such a media crush at a racetrack. Nearly every writer I encountered on the backstretch was halfway, walking briskly, to whichever barn they needed to visit, working on putting some story (or two, or three) that was near, or past, deadline, to bed.
Frantic. I guess that might be one word to describe my trip.
I arrived on the Churchill Downs backstretch at 6:30AM on Thursday morning - - tired, a bit fuzzy-headed, but ready to work. My self-directed duties included visiting each of the Woodbine-based trainers in the morning for a ‘notes’ compilation for Woodbine’s Breeders’ Cup page, as well as a short, hopefully informative, mini-feature with a relevant spin - - and, of course, Tweeting about the overall experience from the track.
My mornings also included ignoring a slew of signs from handicapper’s heaven above.
Some were visual signs. On this first morning, I stood at the rail in near darkness. Churchill Downs main track was flood lit, and heavy shadows were cast across the track. As I watched Gail Cox’s Hard Not to Like gallop through a training session, a gorgeous near-white beast decided to stop and join me observing the workers. He was radiant in appearance, to the point that light seemed drawn towards him in some warped racetrack version of chiaroscuro effect. The horse was Afleet Again, and he won the Breeders’ Cup Marathon at odds of 41-1. No, I did not place a penny on him.
I was this close to Afleet Again
It was rather fortuitous, for me, that most of the Canadian contingent was grouped together. Cox and Ian Black, in the midst of designing an upset of his own with Excaper, were stalled in Barn 41. Across the way, in Barn 43, were Mark and Pam Frostad with Turf Sprint hopeful Grand Adventure. I suppose this temporary tight-knit community was helpful for all involved as Greg Cox, assistant (and husband) to Gail Cox, was able to gallop both Hard Not to Like as well as Black's Excaper. At the other end of the backstretch, Roger Attfield and Mark Casse were in reasonably close quarters which meant gathering quotes wasn’t too difficult an assignment.
Excaper under a dark sky
As I blazed a trail across the backstretch, my head was on a swivel. You see, all of the horses involved in the Breeders’ Cup would train wearing a purple saddle cloth identifying their name and event. These horses were everywhere. And so, it became a bit of a game to check the saddle cloth of each, and every, horse that walked by. Holy cow! There’s Uncle Mo…is that Goldikova…check it out, there’s Perfect Shirl.
The legendary Goldikova couldn't catch Court Vision
Ah, yes. Perfect Shirl. I saw her walking back from her gallop that first morning at Churchill Downs and I followed her all the way back to the barn and a waiting Roger Attfield. It was dark, rain was on its way, and Attfield was worried.
"She loves the firm turf," he said, (and I wrote in my notebook ).
We proceeded to talk about how talented the horse was and how unfortunate it was that on the eve of her biggest start, rain clouds were circling Churchill Downs.
A day later, Perfect Shirl would capture the Filly & Mare Turf at odds of 27-1.
Of course, not every horse I looked at was a winner. It’s just the way you tell the story in hindsight. ‘Man, I was right there…so close…I should have…it could have been.’
A morning’s work of note collecting over, I headed back to my room at the Galt House, transcribed my interview tape and wrote a notes piece plus a feature on Grand Adventure. By the time I’m done, it’s past noon and I’m starving. In all the excitement, I had forgotten to eat.
Melanie and Northern Passion moments before their morning gallop
Fortunately, food wasn’t hard to find on this trip. The media centre at the Galt was well-stocked with food, drink, information and writers. Dozens of writers.
Here’s how you introduce someone with media-credentials at the Breeders’ Cup.
Keith: “Hi, this is my friend Brooklyn Backstretch.”
Teresa: “Oh, have you met my friend TripleDeadHeat?”
Gene: “Hi, I’m Equispace.”
It has reached the point, in the world of turf writing, that a Twitter handle is a far simpler introduction than a person’s name. Score one for @JoeDepaolo and Mike MacAdam.
Taste of the World
I was able to catch up with a lot of old, and new, friends on this trip. I shared a laugh with Brian Zipse, Molly Jo Rosen, Penelope Miller, as well as the aforementioned DePaolo, MacAdam, Brooklyn Backstretch and Equispace to name a few.
Later that night, after an evening of fine dining at the Breeders’ Cup Taste of the World event, which featured food and drink sponsored by Grey Goose, blurrily followed by the infamous after party, well, it’s no wonder that my Friday morning backstretch visit was even fuzzier than the previous day’s effort.
Still, I trucked on through the morning gathering quotes and completed my notes, as well as a feature on Excaper, from the comfort of the Churchill Downs press box. In addition, I stopped by the Dale Romans barn to ask a few questions about future Ontario stallion, Court Vision. I was in no state to recognize it at the time, but Romans was providing me with Friday’s edition of hindsight handicapping.
“It’s a good group of horses, but he’s doing super,” said Romans. “Robby (Albarado) worked him Sunday and said he’s working as well as he ever has in his life. I think he’s going to do okay. He’ll drop back and come running. He’ll just have to run ‘em down.”
More on Court Vision a bit later, needless to say, it gets worse.
* As a side note to organizers, I would highly recommend having a Friday morning brunch sponsored by Advil following next year’s pre-BC festivities.
Friday, which started out dull and grey, quickly warmed up and eventually improved to sunny by the time Secret Cirle romped the Juvenile Sprint. My first post-race assignment, re-capping the efforts of Woodbine-based horses, would be the Juvenile Fillies Turf. Three of the fillies - Dayatthespa, Stephanie’s Kitten and Hard Not to Like – raced at Woodbine in the Grade 3 Natalma Stakes won by Northern Passion, who skipped the turf to try her luck in the Juvenile Fillies.
Famous Twin Spires
I’ve been keeping tabs on Hard Not to Like for some time. I wrote a blog post, Run ‘Lila’ Run, about her back in September after she beat the boys in the prep for the Summer Stakes. The Hard Spun filly is easy on the eyes and I made my way to the paddock for a closer look. The Gail Cox trainee looked as good as expected, but lost ground out of the gate and suffered through a wide trip under jockey Mike Smith. The jock urged her into contention through the far turn, but she gave too much, too early, and raced home fifth.
As Hard Not to Like’s day came to an end, my on-track experience was launched. I gathered more quotes from Cox, snapped photos and quickly headed back to the press box to file a story on the Woodbine website. While I typed, Musical Romance won the Filly & Mare sprint, and I completed the task in time to head back to the finish line to watch Northern Passion.
This was my Friday. Watch, recap, repeat. I stood on the press box terrace and watched, in awe, as Perfect Shirl was tipped off the rail by John Velazquez and guided home in front with such subtlety that even track announcer Trevor Denman didn’t pick her up until it was nearly too late.
Perfect Shirl wins the Filly & Mare Turf
As I completed my recap of Attfield’s first ever Breeders’ Cup score, Royal Delta, a horse I watched outclass a solid field in the Grade 1 Alabama at Saratoga earlier this year, went about making herself an $8.5-million mare, with a stunning score in the Ladies Classic.
By the time I arrived home to the Galt later that night, via shuttle, I was exhausted. But all my friends were there and they’re going out. They asked, but I persevered. Instead of going out, I called Warren Byrne at Park Stud to talk about Court Vision so I could complete Saturday’s feature a day in advance. Boy, am I smart!
Byrne was prophetic.
“I’d be ecstatic if he could place,” said Byrne, instrumental in bringing Court Vision to stand in Ontario. “He’s up against it. He’s six-years-old and he’s been running since September of his two-year-old year without any significant break. Stranger things have happened.”
Boy, am I stupid! I stayed up late writing that feature, patted myself on the back and then placed a grand total of $0 on Court Vision who would shock the Breeders’ Cup Mile at odds of 64-1.
Ernie Munick's brilliant video captures the sights and sounds of the Breeders' Cup
But, I’m getting ahead of myself. You’d think I’d have learned my lesson from Thursday night, but no…not even close. With Saturday’s feature completed, I strolled down to the hotel bar in comfy clothes to see if anyone was hanging about. EVERYONE was hanging about. When in Louisville...
Another gorgeous morning at Churchill Downs
Saturday’s alarm sounded far too soon, but with time saved from the previous night's initiative, I completed my morning duties and posted my half-day’s work with plenty of time to spare for handicapping. I mapped out tickets, advance wagered and watched in horror as Afleet Again destroyed the second leg of my pick 3. If I had included my friend from Thursday’s morning workouts on my ticket, I’d have been $7,841.60 richer when Wrote crossed the wire to win the Juvenile Turf. In related news, if my aunt had bullocks, she’d be my uncle.
The Juvenile Turf was likely my favourite race of the weekend. A week earlier, I sat in the jock’s room at Woodbine and talked with Emma-Jayne Wilson about Excaper and his ongoing education as a race horse. Before we parted ways, I asked Wilson if she was excited about her first Breeders’ Cup mount and she said she wasn’t, really. She told me she doesn’t get excited until the gate springs open, which made it all the more special a moment, for me, when after watching Excaper gut it out the length of the stretch to finish second, that a returning Wilson hopped off her mount, walked up to me on the famous Churchill Downs main track and exclaimed, “NOW, I’m excited!”
Dig the Canadian flag on Emma's boot!
Races flew by in quick succession. Amazombie won the Sprint with a brainy trip engineered by Mike Smith, followed a race later by Regally Ready, winner of the Nearctic at Woodbine in October, who captured the Turf.
Forgive my lack of attribution, but, somewhere in Louisville, over Twitter or the phone or in conversation, it was mentioned that Shackleford had turned for home in front in four Grade 1 races, with 'only' a Preakness win to show for his efforts. The horse was a warrior once again at Churchill, turning for home in front in the Dirt Mile, only to be passed by the flying Caleb’s Posse. Shackleford held strong for place. What a monster horse he is.
As the day flew by, the collective horror stories of wagers missed grew. Only one favourite, Regally Ready, had won. In fact, only one other favourite (Jackson Bend, 3rd in the Sprint), had even hit the board. It wasn’t about to get any easier for the handicappers.
St. Nicholas Abbey was steered home in the Turf by trainer Aidan O’Brien’s 18-year-old son, Joseph, at odds of 6-1. Union Rags, the even-money favourite, tried, but could not pass a free-wheeling Hansen in the Juvenile.
Hansen leads a band of boys past the wire for the first time
The two remaining races on the card was meant to be the ladies’ late double - - Goldikova was seeking her fourth-consecutive Breeders’ Cup Mile, and Havre De Grace, was chasing a second Grade 1 win effort over the boys, this time in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Neither would get their way.
As alluded to earlier, Court Vision, dismissed at odds of 64-1, raced twelfth of thirteen to the half before launching an all-out run through the stretch, and with 70 yards to run put away Goldikova and held off Turallure, whose jockey, Julien Leparoux, raised an arm in celebration, despite coming up a nose short. Goldikova would stay for third.
With one race left on the card, I enjoyed a particularly telling moment in Breeders’ Cup racing.
With my writing duties completed, and nearly all of the assembled press box crew heading out to the terrace to watch the Breeders’ Cup Classic, I nudged the arm of the French writer who sat beside me through the course of the weekend and said, “It’s post time for the big race, are you going to come out and watch?”
Without skipping a beat, the writer stated, “That last race was my big race.”
I can imagine most of Europe’s writers, with the exception of those leaning towards the Breeders’ Cup Turf, felt the same way.
Regardless, the Classic, under a floodlit Churchill Downs course was ready to get underway. As the gates opened, a cheer roared down the grandstand and followed the horses into the first turn. Chantal Sutherland and Game On Dude led the field into the darkness of the turn and down the backstretch.
Drosselmeyer, a lukewarm 14-1 shot, waited patiently at the back of the pack for a signal from jockey Mike Smith. Game On Dude led the field to the top of the stretch, where it appeared he would be swallowed up by the cavalry charge of onrushing horses. Havre De Grace, Flat Out and So You Think all loomed into contention, but Game On Dude persevered.
There was a brief moment, in mid-stretch, that I thought the Winnipeg-born Sutherland was going to become the first female jockey to win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. But, the Churchill Downs stretch is long, and tiring, and Smith, who could not catch Blame in last year’s Classic aboard Zenyatta, arrived in plenty of time this year to steer Drosselmeyer to victory, by a length and a half, over Game On Dude. Ruler On Ice closed late for show over Havre De Grace.
My day, bar the eventual dinner and drinks banter over who should win the Eclipse for horse of the year (Havre De Grace, right?), was over. The debate raged late into the evening until, one-by-one, friends hugged and hand-shaked their goodbyes and promised to visit each other again soon.
So, how was it? You tell me!
Here's a few(dozen)more photos from my first Breeders' Cup road trip. As always, double-left click the photo to englarge it, and use your 'BACK' button to return to the photo essay. Emjoy!
Goldikova's final Breeders' Cup appearance
Grand Adventure and groom Chico Mendoza earned honours for 'best turned out'
Grand Adventure endured a troubled trip
Court Vision hits the front as Peslier goes to the whip on Goldikova
A trilling stretch run
Bo Derek can't believe her eyes...Court Vision has defeated Turallure and Goldikova
Prospective trained well but did not live up to expectation
Hansen..mmm....bops his way to the lead?
Poster boy Hansen after his historic score in the Juvenile
The Juvenile field thrashes by
Daddy Nose Best hope to inhale the Juvenile Turf field
Coalport's fire burned out early
Kieren Fallon and Caspar Netscher get friendly
Ryan Moore couldn't have penned a better result for Wrote
Rrrrrramon Dominguez aboard State of Play
Excaper gets a well-earned splash of water after his second-place effort
Shkspeare Shaliya fnshd nth n th Brdrs Cp Jvnl Trf
Trainer Ian Black bounces across the Churchill Track
Neil Callan guides Farraaj trackwaard
Fantastic Song was well back in this choir of Juvenile Turfers
A great Excaper
Excaper surges to the lead...
Emma-Jayne Wilson was worth her weight in gold on this day
Animal Spirits had a bumpy trip
An International scene at the Breeders' Cup
An impressive crowd
Hard Not to Like with jockey Mike Smith
Ryan Moore couldn't wait to get away on Up
That's one Sweet Cat
Stopshoppingmaria earned $180,000 of spending money for finishing second
Purrfect trip? Pounced to victory? Scratch, Claw? With two wins on the day Velazquez had to be feline pretty good...
If life gives you lemons...
Cornelio looking regal on Royal Bonnie
A lot of people were talking about Pure Gossip
That's My Gi Gi...
I wonder if the tattoo says 'Lila"
Elusive Kate takes Buick for a ride
Oh Dear Lavinia
Dayatthespa could use one after a ninth-place finish
Julien Leparoux and Customer Base were no factor in the Juvenile Filly Turf
Ann of the Dance shuffles on over to the track
Perfect Shirl poses with Assistant Trainer Suzanne Lorimer
Excaper gets a little love
Hard Not to Like stands and watches the morning workouts
Off to work...
Easy to look at
The stunning Creative Cause
The equally stunning Ernie Munick
Tamarind Hall moving pretty quick
Sweet Cat strolls by
Pleasant Prince prances past
Pachattack on the warpath
Holdin Bullets speeds by
Caracortado would finish fifth in the Turf Sprint
Perfect Shirl looks to be sitting on a big one...
Pomeroys Pistol fired home fourth in the F&M Sprint
Northern Passion takes a turn on the Churchill Downs track
Norm, Melanie and Northern Passion head to the main track
Prospective gallops over the main
Prospective and Team Casse
Grace Hall would be second best in the Juvenile Fillies
Court Vision...I saw this horse everwhere but on my ticket!
Distorted Legacy was no match for Perfect Shirl
Self Preservation is owned by Canadian J. Paul Reddam...accidental Canadian reporting here.
A head on shot of Prospective
Bath time for Prospective
Eldaafer could not repeat his BC Marathon run of 2010
Red sky at night, sailor's delight. Red sky morning...