Garrity's Breeders Cup Notes: Small dirt fields, the short Del Mar stretch, old whiny codgers, and more
Entries for the Breeders Cup were drawn Monday, and we’ve had a chance to make a first pass through the past performances of all fourteen Breeders Cup races on Friday and Saturday. We’ve compiled some notes from the process, which we present below, in no particular order.
Horseplayers are a cranky lot, one prone to complaining, especially about how much better the sport used to be. This can be annoying; if in the next few days, you hear some old codger in a Members Only jacket say something about how the Breeders Cup was better when Cigar was running, you have our permission to punch him in the face.
But while we dislike nostalgia more than most, there is no getting around the fact that the fields of 2021 Breeders Cup dirt races are weak, and a couple of them came up historically small: both Friday’s Juvenile Fillies and Saturday’s Filly & Mare Sprint drew just six entrants. There are several ways one can look at this: as fluky occurrences caused by the presence of overwhelming favorites (Zulu Alpha in the Juvenile Fillies, Gamine in the Filly & Mare Sprint); as a sign of the decline of American Thoroughbred breeding, and the increasing presence of horses from Europe and Japan; or a sign of the continuing disaffection with racing in California; or just as an aberration. Whatever the cause, it is something gamblers will have to deal with, as the primary reason the Breeders Cup is such a great gambling event is big fields. One thing that is inarguable is that the difference in field size (the seven dirt races drew 61 total entrants, or 8.7 per race, compared to 108 total entrants for the turf races, a whopping 15.4 per) makes the dirt races significantly inferior betting affairs: we cannot remember a Breeders Cup that contained lousy betting races, but the 2021 edition has at least a couple.
It is obvious to anyone with eyes that when it comes to turf racing, especially at the highest level, European runners are superior to their American counterparts. This was proved again this summer, when horses based in Europe crossed the pond to win a number of significant American stakes. The European turf contingent that has been shipped to California looks strong, and would appear poised to dominate, but whether they can do so on a Del Mar turf course that frequently plays against the closing running style so prevalent in European racing will be a fascinating thing to watch. Euro horses have done well at places like Woodbine and Belmont Park, but those tracks have big, sweeping courses that are much more similar to the undulating courses in Europe than is the smallish oval at Del Mar. The stretch on the Del Mar course, at just over 900 feet, less than 3/16 of a mile, will be a particular challenge for horses trying to rally from far back (by comparison, the stretch at Woodbine is 1,440 feet long, and those on Belmont’s two turf courses are both over 1,000 feet). It will consequently not be surprising to see some high-quality European turf runners launch late bids that come up just short.
We will be factoring all of this into our assessment of all fourteen Breeders Cup races, which we will handicap in detail in the coming days. But the last thing that kept running through our mind as we looked at the running lines is that the continued absence of the Breeders Cup from Belmont Park, which last hosted the event in 2005, is indefensible, especially considering that the racing in New York is clearly the best in the country. The races next year will be held at Keeneland in Kentucky, but the venues beyond that have not yet been decided; 2023, when the construction of the new hockey arena next to Belmont Park is scheduled to be completed, seems a natural fit. It is past time for the sport’s greatest event to be held in the sport’s, and the world’s, greatest city.