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  /  Backstretch Buzz   /  Brilliant Breeders’ Cup Weekend

Brilliant Breeders’ Cup Weekend

By Dick Jerardi

Pennsylvania Derby Day on the last Saturday of September, Breeders’ Cup on the first weekend of November.

Privileged to have been there for both and can hardly wait until 2022 to do it all over again.

Got to Del Mar last Tuesday evening after my first flight in almost 20 months. The track’s lights were on with the darkened Pacific Ocean just to the other side of Highway 101. There can’t be many more glorious settings in sports than the Del Mar Turf Club where the turf actually does meet the surf.

The racing on Friday and Saturday perfectly fit the venue. Two races decided by the tiniest of noses. Six foreign-bred winners. Four winners based in Kentucky, three in New York, three in Europe, two in California and two in Japan, the country’s first BC win. Three wins for Godolphin, trainer Charlie Appleby and jockey William Buick, all by Dubawi, making that stallion the first to sire three BC winners in the same year. Gun Runner became the 10th Classic winner to sire a BC winner, Echo Zulu. Four of the world’s best jockeys _ Buick, the Ortiz Brothers, Irad and Jose, and Joel Rosario _ won 10 of the 14 BC races. And Knicks Go, finishing off a Horse of the Year campaign and the two days with a dominating, front-running win in the $6 million Classic.

Trainer Wesley Ward completely dominated the two turf sprints _ again. Twilight Gleaming wired the field in Friday’s Juvenile Turf Sprint and Golden Pal, seemingly 2 lengths in front two jumps out of the gate in Saturday’s Turf Sprint, became the fifth horse to win different BC events. Knicks Go later became the sixth.

Would not be shocked if trainer Steve Asmussen, who has won every big race there is to win except the biggest race of all, points the filly Echo Zulu to the Kentucky Derby next year. She was every bit as impressive in the Juvenile Fillies as the unbeaten colt Corniche was in the Juvenile. In fact, she ran the mile and a sixteenth in 1:42.24 while Corniche finished in 1:42.50.

Now, there is a question of what happens with Corniche, six months before the Derby. Normally, the colt would have earned 30 Derby points by now, but because trainer Bob Baffert is currently banned from running horses at Churchill Downs (when will the Medina Spirit hearing be scheduled and the positive test issue resolved?), Corniche has no Derby points and the owners may have to make a decision in 2022 to give the horse to another trainer if this does not get resolved in Baffert’s favor.

Nice to see Christophe Clement (was 0-for-41 in BC) finally get that first win when Pizza Bianca flew from last to first in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. (Keep an eye on Bubble Rock for the future. Hers was the greatest 12th place finish you will ever see. She was 5 lengths back and had 10 lengths worth of trouble).

As to the fiasco that was the Juvenile Turf, it was hard to understand the miscommunication between the vets at the gate and the stewards that resulted in the “scratch’’ of favored Modern Games. Harder to handle still was the resulting disaster for bettors who were locked into Modern Games in the double, pick 3, pick 4 or pick 5. When the horse ran for “purse money only,’’ by rule, they ended up with the post time favorite Dakota Gold who, if they had wanted to use him, they would have used him.

When Modern Games won and Dakota Gold finished fifth, the Modern Games multi-race bettors got nothing. How is that fair? In 2021, they really need to develop a software program to address that obviously rare issue. Even if the horse is running for “purse money only’’ and refunds need to be issued for in-race bets (win, place, show, exacta, etc.), there is no reason players that had multi-race wagers should not have been paid off if they had Modern Games.

The great Gamine was beaten in Saturday’s Filly & Mare Sprint when she got into a speed duel and the deserving Ce Ce, brilliantly trained by Michael McCarthy, was there to take advantage, jockey Victor Espinoza getting his first BC win since American Pharoah finished off his epic “Grand Slam’’ in the 2015 Classic.

How good was Life Is Good in the Dirt Mile? And wouldn’t it be cool, if as planned at the moment, Life Is Good and Knicks Go really hook up in the 2022 Pegasus World Cup at Gulfstream Park? Think the fractions will be fast?

Loves Only You gave Japan its first BC win in the Filly & Mare Turf, followed two hours later by 49-1 shocker Marche Lorraine when, after favored Letruska was taken out by a pace meltdown  (21.84, 44.97), the Japanese bred and trained mare took the Distaff by an inch over Dunbar Road.

To me, the most shocking defeat was Jackie’s Warrior finishing sixth in the Sprint when Aloha West, who did not make his first start until Feb. 7, caught Dr. Schivel on the last jump. There is some evidence the rail was not the place to be on Saturday, but, other than that, Jackie’s race did not make much sense.

McCarthy did another fabulous job with Smooth Like Straight who nearly stole the Mile until the Appleby-trained Space Blues, sitting a perfect rail trip, came and got him in the stretch.

 Appleby did it again with Yibir in the Turf, the 3-year-old unleashing an almost impossible late run to blow by the field. It is hard to be certain from the video, but my estimate is that Yibir ran the final quarter mile in 22.50 seconds. That is sprinter speed at the end of a mile and a half grass race. Unreal.

Knicks Go did not need to run his last quarter that fast because the 5-year-old won the race in the first quarter when he cleared the field. Before coming to trainer Brad Cox last year, Knicks Go was 2-for-14, his 70-1 win in the 2018 Breeders’ Futurity and 40-1 second in the BC Juvenile looking like flukes.

All Knicks Go has done for Cox in eight two-turn races was go 8-for-8, winning by a combined 38 lengths. None of those wins were ever in doubt. Knicks Go will be the 2021 Horse of the Year.

I loved the Knicks Go-Hot Rod Charlie exacta and thought I had it until I didn’t. Perhaps, being on the rail hurt Charlie as he faded to fourth.

Medina Spirit outran Essential Quality for second and that will make for an interesting dilemma for Eclipse Award voters when they consider the 3-year-old championship.

Essential Quality won the Southwest, Blue Grass, Belmont Stakes, Jim Dandy and the Travers while finishing fourth in the Derby and third in the Classic. Medina Spirit won the Robert Lewis, Kentucky Derby, Shared Belief, and Awesome Again while finishing second in the Sham, San Felipe, Santa Anita Derby and Classic and third in the Preakness.

I think Essential Quality won the better overall quality of races, but Medina Spirit fans will rightly point out that Medina finished in front of Essential Quality in the only two races where they met. It will be a fascinating debate.

There will be no debate about the success of the 38th Breeders’ Cup. It was wonderful, as always. On to Keeneland 2022 next November.