Week in Review: Intriguing Plot Twists Anchor Rousing Breeders’ Cup

By T. D. Thornton

If this year’s Breeders’ Cup was a theatrical production, you’d have to give its cast of characters high marks for intrepid off-script improvisation. Many of the anticipated stars of the World Thoroughbred Championships flubbed their big-stage performances, yet budding understudies rose to the occasion, stealing the show with aplomb by incorporating new plot twists that now spin the sport’s chief story lines in intriguing new directions.

Would you have thought that the Friday and Saturday races would have unfolded as appealingly and competitively as they did if you knew ahead of time that pari-mutuel favorites would tank and only manage two wins from 13 races, with nine of those chalky no-shows failing to even hit the board?

Or what if I told you in advance that it would be evident just a few jumps out of the gate in the GI Breeders’ Cup Classic that the highly hyped showdown between Arrogate (Unbridled’s Song) and Gun Runner (Candy Ride {Arg}) was never going to materialize, yet the 2:01.29 of drama in the closing act would still rate the Classic as one of the most captivating races of the year?

Some of those 11 well-beaten Breeders’ Cup favorites could very well qualify to have their photos plastered on milk cartons in an effort to determine why they went “missing” on the most important racing weekend of 2017.

Yet by a similar analogy, you could make a strong case for Gun Runner deserving to get his picture emblazoned on the front of a Wheaties cereal box, because the chestnut colt’s hard-earned victory epitomized the twin virtues of finely honed athleticism and an ability to deliver a dynamic performance under pressure.

When jockey Mike Smith had to shake the reins at a lackluster Arrogate soon after the starter sprung the latch in the Classic, the focal point of the race immediately shifted to Gun Runner, who had jumped away keenly and then confidently secured a ground-saving spot under Florent Geroux just ahead of the projected main speedster, Collected (City Zip).

Those two sparred tenaciously through energetic early splits of :22.50 and :46.31, then came on even terms three-eighths out. At that point it had already been made obvious that Arrogate was not going to be an active participant in the final race of his meteoric career, and it was just starting to sink in that even the determined sophomore West Coast (Flatter) was not going to be able to parlay his gift-trip stalking of the duelers into any meaningful stretch attack against his elders.

The frontrunning slugfest continued until just before the furlong pole, when Gun Runner finally cracked the pesky Collected for good, then clicked into yet another overdrive gear to demonstrate he still had plenty of power in reserve.

So Gun Runner vanquished Arrogate for the first time in their three matchups. Even if his victory was not the result of direct hoof-to-hoof combat against that arch rival, other aspects of the 4-year-old’s scintillating win stand out.

For starters, Gun Runner conquered the perceived slant against inside speed that had been percolating through the first two days of the championships at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club. Although the sample size is too small to deem it a true “bias,” Gun Runner was the only wire-to-wire winner from seven main track Breeders’ Cup races (three closers, two stalkers, and one pace-presser accounted for the others).

Gun Runner also attained his first lifetime victory at 10 furlongs, smartly shaking free of his 0-for-3 stigma at that distance, and he’ll enter the winter as the presumed Horse of the Year victor in the Eclipse Awards voting.

Gun Runner has been a three-year study in watching a racehorse methodically mature into a champion, and here’s hoping we see more of him on the track in 2018.

To steal a line from the always-quotable jockey Kent Desormeaux–who seemed to invent a new turn of phrase earlier on Saturday when he waxed glowingly in the aftermath of Roy H (More Than Ready)’s win in the GI Breeders’ Cup Sprint–Gun Runner has “gained the ascendancy” to the highest level of the sport.

The buildup to Saturday’s Classic was preceded by several solid lead-in Breeders’ Cup races that stand out on their own: The new-course-record score by Talismanic (GB) (Medaglia d’Oro) in the GI Turf, and the look-what-we-have-here breakout performance by the maiden Good Magic (Curlin) in the GI Juvenile.

With four long, white stockings, a distinctively striking full-face blaze, and an aura of gritty determination, Talismanic in full flight is a treat to watch race, and the deliberate way he punched past top-ranked North American grass specialist Beach Patrol (Lemon Drop Kid) and defending Turf winner Highland Reel (Ire) (Galileo{Ire}) was a more impressive effort than it might seem at first viewing.

Talismanic’s authoritative win also underscores the potent precision of legendary French trainer Andre Fabre, who opted to send only one horse to this year’s Breeders’ Cup but made it count at generous 14-1 odds. It’s also worth noting that Talismanic was one of only eight horses not treated with Lasix in the Breeders’ Cup, and the only one to finish better than fifth.

The stylish unveiling of 2-year-old Good Magic exactly six months from the GI Kentucky Derby sets him up as the (very) early favorite for the first leg of the 2018 Triple Crown. Stalking the pacemakers confidently with an inside trip, Good Magic responded willingly to his cue to quicken by jockey Jose Ortiz, and the million-dollar KEESEP yearling inhaled the field in deep stretch with an authority that belies his light (three races to date) seasoning.

Granted, the very-wide-on-both-turns overland journey that beaten favorite Bolt d’Oro (Medaglia d’Oro) endured begs the legitimate question of whether Good Magic really got a stern test from the best horse in his division on the first Saturday in November. But we have the whole winter ahead of us to debate such Derby-related minutiae, and for now it’s fine just to appreciate Good Magic’s coming-out party, which was capped off by a decidedly feel-good moment when the NBC microphones picked up an enthused Ortiz congratulating and praising his mount past the finish wire as Good Magic noticeably pricked his ears in response to the encouraging words and touch of his rider.

Of all the beaten favorites in the Breeders’ Cup, none tugged at the heart so much as Lady Eli (Divine Park) in the GI Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf, both because of her career-long stature as an adversity-overcoming racemare and because she seemed to have the most legitimate excuse of all the chalky no-shows.

Lady Eli was banged around and stepped on from behind heading into the first turn and was tossing her head around like she wanted to savage the competition before settling midpack and finishing an uncharacteristic seventh. After the race, it was revealed that she lost a hind shoe and suffered significant lacerations and puncture wounds to both of her hind legs. The injuries are not life-threatening, but a need for stall rest has forced her withdrawal from this week’s Keeneland November Breeding Stock Sale.

Safety, by and large, was not an issue at the 2017 Breeders’ Cup, as all 159 starters finished their respective 13 races. There was also no need for overt officiating, as no results required prolonged inquiries, objections, or changes in the order of finish by the stewards.

In fact, the only happenstance that could even be remotely called a “controversy” involved the pre-race stewards’ determination that Charles Fipke, the owner of Forever Unbridled (Unbridled’s Song), would have to pay double jockey fees as a penalty for a late rider switch from Joel Rosario to John Velazquez. Forever Unbridled ended up winning the GI Distaff, and trainer Dallas Stewart deserves an award for level- headedness for his emphatic but polite attempts to defuse the situation by repeatedly switching the focus back to his mare, even as numerous media entities kept asking him to explain the situation over and over again, both before and after the race.

 

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