The 2016 Breeders’ Cup World Championships was one for the history books
The Chicago Cubs won the World Series last week, ending a 108-year drought. The “World Series” of horse racing, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships, took place over the weekend.
In my favorite sport, I cheer for multiple teams – as do most horse racing fans. My game hats and tee-shirts don’t sport a single set of colors or a solitary name of who I stand behind. Red and white for Songbird, orange and purple for Beholder, silver and white with the word “Chrome” for California Chrome, one fan can have alliances with one or all.
Our sport is unique in the sense that nearly every “player” has their own jersey with distinct colors and symbols to represent their team – a team that consists of a jockey, trainer, owner, hot walker, groom, veterinarian and exercise rider, or maybe multiples of each.
Our series is spread out throughout the year, with each team picking their games based on the ability and necessities of our superstars – the equine masterpieces that have been bred for centuries just to play and excel at this game. Each game is strategically selected based on the horse’s level of training, ability, stamina, speed and preferred distance. The other teams are also taken into account, with the “coaches” speculating about the right time and place to challenge a particular foe.
Some horses race once a month, maybe twice if they turn around strongly in short amounts of time. Others prefer to be fresh, showcasing their finest performances with two or more months in between races.
There’s no single formula for greatness. The options are countless but volatile, ever-dependent on the privation of animals that speak a language we can only attempt to understand – whose actions are derived from the fight or flight instinct that prompts them to win races or just as easily injure themselves by spooking at a shadow.
A trainer maps out a racehorse’s schedule for the year, then hopes and prays that all goes according to plan, which it usually doesn’t. Running a temperature or exhibiting heat in an ankle shortly before a race can interfere with training, or lead to the bypass of one race for another.
If you have a good team, just the right player and a heckuva lotta luck, it all culminates in the finals.
Thirteen races. Two days. Teams from around the world. The Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
Each race has different conditions, depending on horses’ ages, racing distance and surface. Some races are restricted to 2 or 3-year olds, like the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies, a race exclusively for 2-year-old fillies, run over 1 1/16 miles on the dirt and won this year by Champagne Room. Others are open to horses of all ages, such as the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint won by 8-year-old gelding, Obviously, going 6 1/2 furlongs on the turf. Breeders’ Cup race distances vary from 6 furlongs (3/4ths of a mile) to 1 ½ miles, and are run on dirt or turf.
Heart-wrenching, breath-quickening, tear-inducing, sore-throat-screaming, chills-up-your-spine.
Horse racing and baseball fans alike have all felt these emotions, sensations, euphoric highs and crumbling, crushing lows.
The epitome of horse racing, for me, was this year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
In a grinding finish that rang out like the screaming violins in Charlie Daniels’ “The Devil Went Down to Georgia,” Hall of Fame jockey Gary Stevens beseeched 6-year-old champion mare Beholder forward with urging from his low-set body and hands that pushed up and down with the pendulum motion of her neck. The pair locked in stride with fellow Hall of Famer Mike Smith and undefeated 3-year-old filly, Songbird at the top of the stretch.
“Songbird! Beholder! They are nose to nose!” The announcer cried out, the amazement and disbelief in his voice echoing the thoughts tumbling from side to side in the minds of every person watching live, on television or listening over the radio.
A person wonders what the filly and mare were thinking feet before the wire, eight legs pounding into the California dirt of Santa Anita Park, sides heaving, ears pinned. You wonder about the insatiable force God has nestled in their heart, lungs and soul that drives them to the wire – the willpower to stretch and strain every muscle throughout the length of their body to place their nose in front.
At some point in the midst of that stretch, Beholder looked Songbird in the eye and said “Not today, young’un. Not today.”
“As they come to the wire, they’re noses apart!” The announcer shouted. “It’s… BEHOLDER! I think she got her head down at the wire!” His voice scratched and broke as he shrieked the name, still uncertain of the victor because of the incredibly close margin between the light bay mare and dark bay filly.
It was indeed Beholder, by a nostril, going out in a blaze of glory in the final race of her career and taking nothing away from Songbird in the process.
The following day, on his way to the winners circle after winning the Breeders’ Cup Classic aboard Arrogate, Mike Smith chuckled when Donna Barton Brothers asked if this win softened the blow of his defeat aboard Songbird.
“She doesn’t know she lost.” Smith said.
Two teams can’t win the World Series. But two teams can win the Breeders’ Cup World Championships.
(Top photo: Songbird training at Saratoga. Photo by Annise Montplaisir)