By Gene Kershner
It was truly a wild and wacky weekend in Louisville for the 27th edition of the Breeders' Cup World Championships. The Europeans, thought to own the American horses on the turf, only won one turf race over the weekend. We had a jockey fight, a non-scratch of a horse clearly in distress and an epic stretch duel in the Classic, a race that should go down as one of the greatest ever.
The crowd uttered a collective "ohhh" as the two horses crossed the line. Instead of a coronation of the great Zenyatta for winning a second straight Classic over the boys, a hush came over the 72,000 plus at Churchill Downs. Race caller Trevor Denman, who was willing Mike Smith early in the race to get closer to the pack when she was in her usual trailing position, was as shocked as everyone else as he repeated her name down the stretch. But it was Blame, the 4-year-old winner of five of six during 2010, that stole the show and Zenyatta's quest for perfection. While the race didn't pan out the way most of the public wanted, the giant mare proved she belonged.
If she could have found some running room inside at the top of the stretch, we would be celebrating the career of an undefeated champion. Jockey Mike Smith was forced to steady and veer his horse outside to make a frantic final dash to the wire. Unlike her many tight, late closing victories against female company, she was up against a different kind of competitor in Blame, who benefited from a perfect trip.
Blame did not give in to the charging Zenyatta and refused to fold against the defending champ in the final 50 yards. Trainer Al Stall on Sunday continued to relish the victory.
"I loved the trip he was having," Stall said. "I liked the way it was setting up. He had a little scrimmage on the front end at the quarter pole, but when he got through there and kind of pushed Lookin At Lucky out of the way, here comes Zenyatta and they both just made tracks for the wire.
"I know the Zenyatta people aren't happy with the outcome, but, believe me, she didn't lose anything in defeat. As everybody knows, she's the best race mare there's ever been in the game."
Do I think jockey error was to blame for the loss? No, I think Smith did his best to get her in position to win. Running on synthetic surfaces for 17 of her 19 career races up to this point she had never had as much dirt kicked in her face. Smith went through six pairs of goggles. Yes, he could have had her closer during a sluggish start, but it was no different than the way she ran in winning last year's Classic at Santa Anita.
It was a combination of two things: (1) the competition was much stronger this year with numerous Grade I winners in the field and (2) the soft campaign running against female company, principally in Southern California, did not have her as prepared to face the steeper competition. She's still a two-time Breeders' Cup champion (she won the Ladies' Classic in 2008) and will go down as one of the all-time great race mares.
Enter a new hero
As one hero, Zenyatta, will most likely retire as a broodmare, a new hero may have emerged out of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Uncle Mo, an Indian Charlie 2-year-old colt, won the Juvenile going away over my choice, Boys at Tosconova, by four and a quarter lengths.
Uncle Mo's owner, Mike Repole, was beside himself after the race.
"It's basically gone from surreal to real," Repole said. "I've thought about this moment for 30 years, 25 years as a racing fan and five or six years as an owner, to just one day own a horse like this. So many kids growing up wanting to be baseball players .‚.‚. to be football players, and I just wanted to own a special horse."
Is the Kentucky Derby in this horse's future? Trainer Todd Pletcher knows the difficulty in getting a horse to the Derby. This year's probable favorite, Eskendereya, had to bow out a week before the race with a soft tissue issue in his left foreleg.
"When you have a horse like this that's this talented, we just need him to stay as good as he is right now," Pletcher said. "You know, I mean, he's already running races fast enough to beat what normally wins 3-year-old races. You know, the challenge always in this game is keeping them healthy. You know, that'll be our primary goal, and we'll kind of look at the calendar and see what the best game plan is."
We'll be following Uncle Mo as the Derby prep races commence in January.
When ABC signed off at 3:30 p.m. to hand the telecast over to ESPN, a Big Ten football game just happened to be in overtime. Michigan and Illinois were locked in a back-and-forth duel that threatened the showing of the Juvenile, scheduled to go off at 3:55. Some racing fans scrambled to find the race on their computers via ESPN3, although one would need the correct ISP to use that vehicle.
Luckily, we had downloaded the Breeders' Cup iPad application, which was showing the track feed and didn't miss a beat. While following along on Twitter (a must-have for racing fans and handicappers), many fans were irate and upset at the ESPN networks for not switching over to their ESPN Classic channel.
Other Breeders' Cup notes
* Golidkova closed late on the Churchill Turf to capture an unprecedented third straight Breeders' Cup Mile. Her groom pranced happily down the center of the track in joy after the race, a sight you don't see every day.
* Thank goodness for the ESPN reporters on Friday evening before the Ladies' Classic. Fortunately, I was able to cancel immediately all wagers on Life at Ten, who just wasn't right warming up in the post parade. The horse should have been gate scratched but the stewards let her run and she didn't even finish the race. In the newspaper Friday, we called the second and third finishers correctly, but my top choice, Life at Ten, just wasn't the same horse she's been all year long.
* My best predictions all weekend were Chamberlain Bridge ($15.80) in the Turf Sprint and Dangerous Midge ($19, $9.80, $5.20) in the Turf, not to mention Zenyatta getting beat at the wire for second. I was nipped out of two Pick-3 wagers by long shots, one on Friday where Midday was nosed out by 47-1 Shared Account in the Filly and Mare Turf and Saturday by 37-1 Dakota Phone over Morning Line in the Dirt Mile.
* Total attendance for the two days increased 18.5 percent from 96,496 in 2009 to 114,353 in 2010. The two-day common pool total was $163,619,784, an increase of 13 percent over the $144,599,205 wagered in 2009.
* Tragedy struck in the Juvenile Turf when Rough Sailing lost his footing, dumping jockey Rosie Napravnik after the clubhouse turn and breaking his shoulder. Rough Sailing was euthanized shortly thereafter.
There's still some racing left in the 2010 calendar and we'll take a look at the Saturday race of the week before we start concentrating on the 2011 Derby Trail.
Gene Kershner is a Buffalo-based turf writer, handicapper and member of the Thoroughbred Bloggers Alliance who blogs at equispace.blogspot.com. He handicaps the race of the week on Friday at the Sports, Ink blog at www.buffalonews.com.