This weekend, November 2 & 3, Churchill Downs will host the 2018 Breeder’s Cup. Since its inception in 1984, the Breeder’s Cup has evolved into the climax of the racing calendar; outside of the Triple Crown classics in the spring, a number of elite horses and their connections point toward these two days of racing. Capping off the weekend is the Breeder’s Cup Classic, the mile-and-a-quarter test of the best of what racing has to offer, male or female, three years old and up. The list of Classic winners includes thirty-four years of the best horses we’ve seen on the turf — Derby winners, Dubai World Cup winners, and more, many names that went on to stamp their excellence at stud after dominating the Classic’s ten furlongs. In 2015, the Breeder’s Cup Classic featured a horse that the Breeder’s Cup had yet to see: a Triple Crown winner, American Pharoah.
When Pharoah ended the thirty-seven-year Triple Crown drought, the Breeder’s Cup Classic became an immediate destination. What better way to cap off a historic year than to add the Classic to his resume? Termed the Grand Slam, the four victories in the most elite races that American racing has to offer could put American Pharoah into the top tier of the most exclusive club in racing. All that stood between him was ten furlongs at Keeneland.
Nearly one hundred years before, in 1919, the first Triple Crown winner had no Breeder’s Cup to point toward, but he did follow up his victories in the American classics with another ten furlongs in the Maryland Handicap at Laurel. Assigned the heady impost of 133 pounds, Sir Barton faced a lightly weighted horse on a hot streak, the fractious Mad Hatter. Carrying only 106 pounds despite recent victories, Mad Hatter was a son of Fair Play (as was Man o’ War), possessed of speed and a tumultuous demeanor as well. He could spoil the race for Sir Barton, who was nearing the end of a long season of racing while Mad Hatter had only returned to the track in September. On October 4, 1919, the two colts met on the Laurel oval, along with a field of four others. All eyes, though, were on the Triple Crown winner and his potential rival.
At the break, Mad Hatter and his stablemate Thunderclap jumped out to the lead, with jockey Johnny Loftus tucking Sir Barton behind the frontrunners. Content to wait for the speedy Mad Hatter to wear himself out, Loftus kept Sir Barton to the outside, giving him room to move toward the rail if the need arose. Mad Hatter ticked off fast fractions, 22 1/2 for the first quarter, 46 3/5 for the half-mile, and then 1.12 for the three-quarters, but, by the stretch, the Fair Play colt was done and the onrush of closers came on to pass him in the stretch.
First, Audacious tried to skim ahead on the rail, but, on the outside, came the awesome acceleration of the Triple Crown winner. Thunderclap had carried him wide on the final turn, but Sir Barton’s speed made that extra ground irrelevant. He came on with a rush, his powerful stride leaving the rest of the field looking like they were simply loping along rather than running all out. Sir Barton finished two lengths in front, returning to a thunderous ovation — and without two shoes, his notoriously shelly hooves shedding those in the race’s running. His patient stalking and its resultant onslaught of speed in the Maryland Handicap “stamped him perhaps the best three-year-old of his time” (Washington Post, 10/5/1919). For Johnny Loftus, Sir Barton’s win at ten furlongs that day was among the greatest of his mounts in his illustrious career.
Ninety-six years later, American Pharoah ran ten furlongs in the Breeder’s Cup Classic, dominating the field from gate to wire. His time was a full two seconds faster than Sir Barton’s, and his ease of stride, his speed, and his stamina demonstrated why he had become America’s twelfth Triple Crown winner. The emotions loosened by his win in the Belmont poured forth once again as he came home six lengths in front. Like Sir Barton, American Pharoah returned to the thunderous admiration of the crowd at Keeneland, his performance stamping him as one of the greatest three-year-olds of our time. If Breeder’s Cup Classic had been an option for Sir Barton, perhaps, like American Pharoah, he would have put on another ten furlongs of greatness there instead of in the Maryland Handicap.
On Saturday, the 13th Triple Crown winner Justify will be absent from the Breeder’s Cup Classic, injury forcing him into retirement before he could return to Churchill Downs for this capstone race. Instead, fourteen horses will contest for the Classic, including 2018 Travers Stakes winner Catholic Boy, 2017 Travers winner West Coast, and McKinzie, my early 2018 favorite for the Triple Crown before an injury sidelined him until the Pennsylvania Derby last month. Mike Smith rode Justify to his Triple Crown and Saturday he will ride McKinzie in the Classic. I predict that Mike’s ride on McKinzie will be another ten-furlong demonstration of greatness. Go, McKinzie!