Japanese horses, celebrity chef Bobby Flay, and attendees hoping for a little more elbow room were among the big winners at the Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar this past Friday and Saturday.
Back when the San Diego-area track first hosted horse racing’s Super Bowl in 2017, the two-day attendance was 70,420. By Breeders’ Cup standards, that was a small crowd, just as Del Mar is a tiny track compared to the likes of Santa Anita and Churchill Downs, the event’s more traditional hosts. What ensued were enormous lines for concessions and wagering alike, causing many to wonder whether the sport was wise to hold a Breeders’ Cup at a venue with such modest capacity.
But this year, with COVID still hanging over the nation like morning fog over the Pacific, things were downright roomy at the rail. Pandemic-prompted restrictions limited live attendance to 47,089 over the two eventful days of racing, which nevertheless produced record all-source handle ($182,908,409).
In Saturday’s seventh race, Loves Only You became the first Japanese horse to win a Breeders’ Cup race, paying $10.60 to win in the Filly & Mare Turf. It wouldn’t take long for a second Japanese horse to prevail, as a 45-1 long shot, Marche Lorraine, pulled off a huge upset in the Distaff three races later.
A Friday of firsts and fiascos
Friday marked a couple of other firsts — one good, one bad. First, the good: After falling to win in 41 straight Breeders’ Cup starts, trainer Christophe Clement scored his first win with the filly Pizza Bianca. Owned by celebrity chef Bobby Flay, the horse paid $21.80 to win the Juvenile Fillies Turf by half a length over the Chad Brown-trained Malavath.
Friday was marred by controversy, however, when racing officials inadvertently scratched Modern Games from the Juvenile Turf after his stablemate, Albahr, flipped in the starting gate and Modern Games was let out of his stall. A veterinarian mistakenly thought Modern Games broke through the gate without being let out, which led to the horse being scratched. Long story short, Modern Games was ultimately permitted to run, but only for purse money. While he wound up winning, bet slips featuring the horse were declared null and void, leading to a chorus of boos from the crowd and a whole lot of busted exotics. Breeders’ Cup officials then took the extraordinary step of apologizing for the fiasco and promising that it would never happen again.
— Ray Paulick (@raypaulick) November 6, 2021
Two heavy favorites, Life Is Good and Knicks Go, prevailed in the Dirt Mile and the Classic, respectively, setting up a potential showdown at Gulfstream in January’s Pegasus World Cup. Knicks Go went wire to wire to win the Classic, with Bob Baffert’s Medina Spirit coming in second. That finish was good enough for first among the 3-year-olds competing in the race, compelling jockey John Velazquez to say afterward, “Who’s the best 3-year-old now? Hopefully they’ll stop talking s—t. He beat the other 3-year-olds.”
Johnny V puffing his chest out and going on about “talking shit” when his horse could get DQ’d from the Derby? When did he turn into a wrestling heel? https://t.co/JsAA9SaPrV pic.twitter.com/F5HL5atcbr
— Jeremy Balan (@jeremybalan) November 7, 2021
Among the day’s biggest upsets was the toppling of another Baffert horse, the heavily favored Gamine, by Ce Ce in the Filly & Mare Sprint. The loss marked just Gamine’s second in 11 starts, and Baffert blamed himself afterward for not finding a suitable BC prep race for her to run in after the Ballerina at Saratoga on Aug. 28, when she defeated Ce Ce.
Baffert was more successful in saddling Corniche, the winner of Friday’s Juvenile. While Juvenile winners have performed spottily in the Kentucky Derby, Corniche is, for now at least, the early favorite to prevail at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.
Problem is, Churchill officials suspended Baffert for two years when Medina Spirit tested positive for a banned substance after winning this past May’s Derby. (Whether the horse will get to retain the Derby title is subject to some unsettled legal and regulatory wrangling.) Barring some sort of change of heart from Churchill officials, Corniche’s owners will have to find a new trainer — temporarily or otherwise — if they want to enter the horse in the 2022 Derby.
Photo: Ray Acevedo/USA TODAY