With news via The Paulick Report that the Pennsylvania Derby is likely to receive Grade 1 status, the New York Racing Association should move the Jockey Club Gold Cup to the final week at Saratoga both as a sort of summer championship for the older male division and as an effort to make the premiere weight-for-age race outside the Breeders’ Cup Classic a more meaningful prep for the Classic.
The Gold Cup enjoyed a surge in relevance in 2006-2007 when three-year-olds Bernardini and Curlin, respectively, stamped themselves favorites for their Classics by defeating older horses. Bernardini would go on to lose to eventual Horse of the Year Invasor at Churchill Downs while Curlin romped in the slop at Monmouth. Curlin won the Gold Cup the following year, too, but faltered on the synthetic surface at Santa Anita en route to his second consecutive Horse of the Year title.
But it’s been tough going in the Classic for Gold Cup winners since with none of Haynesfield, Flat Out, Ron the Greek, Tonalist, or Hoppertunity making much an impact on the nation’s richest race following their Gold Cup wins, though Blame did win the 2010 Classic after finishing 2nd to Haynesfield in the Gold Cup. Before Curlin, the last Gold Cup winners to win the Classic were Skip Away in 1997 and Cigar in 1995.
This is not said to denigrate the race but rather as a means to suggest it deserves a brighter spotlight than can be cast on a race in the Classic’s shadow. For all its tradition and honor roll of winners, the fact is that that too many view it as a Classic prep, and it deserves more esteem than that.
Moving the Jockey Club Gold Cup to the last weekend of Saratoga would change that by giving New York Racing a true end to its pattern of older male races. Older males can either showcase their brilliance in the Met Mile or use the Suburban as a prep for the Whitney at the beginning of the Saratoga meeting. Then the Gold Cup at 1 ¼ miles to end the summer would be a welcome test of stamina at America’s showplace venue.
And admittedly that’s another angle at play here. The Gold Cup is the only 1 ¼-mile Grade 1 race for older horses on dirt in New York. California has three (The Big Handicap. Santa Anita Gold Cup, and Pacific Classic).
Return the Woodward to Belmont (where both Ghostzapper and Saint Liam prepped ahead of their Breeders’ Cup Classic victories en route to Horse of the Year honors) as a Classic prep at 1 1/8 miles like all the other Classic preps and give Saratoga a classic-distance race for older males.
And who knows, the Gold Cup in early September might end up being New York’s better Classic prep, anyway. That’s not the primary goal here, but it could happen considering the trend to rest Classic horses more before that race.
The average layoff for Classic winners from 1991-2000 was 29.3 days; the average layoff for Classic winners from 2006-2016 was 44.6 days. I.e., the average time off has gone from 4 weeks to 6 weeks. Since 1991, the average layoff for winners AND second-place finishers in the Classic was 35.2 days and the average for the 3rd through 6th place finishers was 32.3 days. Those performing best in the Classic have had more time off than the also rans.
Interestingly, the last two Classic winners—American Pharoah and Arrogate— prepped going 1 ¼ miles at Saratoga, albeit in the Travers Stakes.
Moving the Gold Cup to Saratoga would absolutely hurt NYRA’s Super Saturday card in late September/early October. For all its big winners—especially recently—the Woodward isn’t the Gold Cup, but that’s why this change is needed. The Gold Cup deserves to be billed as the main event, not as a prep. It can be that too but more as a byproduct its placement versus that being the goal.