It often takes a career-best effort to win a Breeders’ Cup race, and many over the years have been unable to duplicate it.
It would be an almost impossible task to come up with the 10 “best” horses who ran their career peak at the Breeders’ Cup, but the list below scratches the surface of talented Thoroughbreds that rose to the occasion on the big day while finding limited fortune afterwards.
Proud Truth — 1985 Breeders’ Cup Classic
Though only fifth behind runaway winner Spend a Buck in the Kentucky Derby (G1), Proud Truth was still considered a top-flight member of the three-year-old class following wins in the Florida Derby (G1) and Peter Pan (G1). However, a mid-season setback had trainer John Veitch playing catch-up with the Darby Dan color bearer.
Following a seven-furlong allowance victory and a narrow score in the Discovery H. (G3) one week before the Breeders’ Cup, Proud Truth won for the third time in 26 days in the Classic at Aqueduct, edging accomplished older rival Gate Dancer by a neck with past and future champions Turkoman, Chief’s Crown, and Vanlandingham farther back.
Proud Truth never rose again to those heights, winning only the Tidal H. (G2) on turf in eight starts at four.
Very Subtle — 1987 Breeders’ Cup Sprint
She loved Hollywood Park and had been domineering against fellow three-year-old fillies in sprints like the Test (G2), Princess (G3), and Santa Ynez (G3), but Very Subtle was a 16-1 chance to outrun Groovy, the freakishly fast New Yorker aiming to cap a seven-for-seven season.
The favorite broke a bit tardily from post 1, leaving the filly to set the pace from post 11. She simply forgot to stop, stunning the Southern California crowd with a four-length romp over Groovy.
Unsuccessfully stretched out early in her four-year-old season, Very Subtle found her speed somewhat blunted when shortened up in distance later. Though a credible fourth in her Sprint title defense at Churchill Downs, the chestnut would only win twice in her final 13 starts.
Great Communicator — 1988 Breeders’ Cup Turf
Surely named in inspiration of the Chief Executive whose term in office was in its final months, Great Communicator brought to the Breeders’ Cup an admirably consistent season mark of 4-3-1 from nine starts, but was still a 12-1 outsider against the likes of the three-year-old Sunshine Forever and the star European filly Indian Skimmer.
Taking a lead none wanted, the gelding was nursed through very soft fractions over the wet ground and held sway over both the other main principals to win by a half-length for his Louisiana-raised connections.
Although confirming his class over soft ground in the Hollywood Turf Cup (G1) on Christmas Eve, Great Communicator’s subsequent seasons of action were not as successful. His life tragically ended in the 1990 Oak Tree Invitational (G1).
Arazi — 1991 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile had never seen a favorite nor such an electric performance as that turned in by Arazi. From mid-summer through fall Arazi dominated his peers in France, winning a trio of Group 1s. Whether that form would translate to dirt remained to be seen, but bettors thought it would as the leggy son of Blushing Groom was sent off the 2-1 favorite.
Running by rivals as if they were standing still, Arazi scorched America’s best juveniles by five lengths. Off-season surgery and one modest prep at Saint-Cloud failed to tamper expectations of a glorious Triple Crown run, but after making a strong move into contention Arazi wilted down the Churchill Downs stretch as an odds-on choice in the 1992 Kentucky Derby.
Arazi would win only one of his final four starts, his career ending with an 11th-place finish in the 1992 Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) as the 3-2 favorite.
Thirty Slews — 1992 Breeders’ Cup Sprint
The first nationally significant Thoroughbred conditioned by an ex-Quarter Horse trainer named Bob Baffert, Thirty Slews had gone unplaced in two starts over the winter before reappearing more than five months later at Del Mar. The word was out, though, as Thirty Slews swept both the Bing Crosby (G3) and CERF Sprint H. as the betting favorite.
Sent off at 18-1 in the Sprint at Gulfstream, Thirty Slews proved plenty fit following a near two-month break. Not only did he wear down the speedy three-year-old filly Meafara (who would also lose another tight photo in the 1993 Sprint) by a neck, but also eventual sprint champion Rubiano, who was generally judged to be more effective at seven-to-eight furlongs.
Thirty Slews would never win again in a career that lasted just seven additional starts. He finished second in the Bing Crosby and fourth in the Sprint in his 1993 title defenses.
Tikkanen — 1994 Breeders’ Cup Turf
Far from a world-beater in Europe, the George Strawbridge homebred hinted that a change in surroundings was perhaps all that was needed to light a fire underneath him as he entered the Turf at Churchill Downs following an upset win in the Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont Park.
Under Mike Smith, who earlier in the day had suffered a disappointing loss aboard Lure in the horse’s three-peat bid in the Mile, the three-year-old Tikkanen not only won the Turf at 16-1 but in doing so beat both Hatoof and Paradise Creek, that season’s champion turf mare and turf horse, respectively.
A continuation of that form at age four proved elusive for Tikkanen, who placed only once in six starts in 1995, three of which were in the U.S.
Cat Thief — 1999 Breeders’ Cup Classic
An admirably consistent colt, Cat Thief had thrown only the occasional clunker at ages two and three but had exhibited a propensity to settle for minor checks more often than winning. His two main victories had come in the Breeders’ Futurity (G2) and Swaps (G1), with losses by a length or less in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile (G1), Fountain of Youth (G1), Florida Derby (G1), Kentucky Derby (G1), and Haskell Invitational (G1).
This hardly made him popular in the Classic win pool at Gulfstream Park, but in a race missing that year’s leading three-old colt and older male, Cat Thief put it all together for the third and final time in his career. At 19-1, Cat Thief led a parade of longshots across the wire under Pat Day.
Cat Thief returned to his smaller share ways missing the Malibu (G1) by a neck the following month. At four, he would place five times in 10 starts and could only run seventh to Tiznow in the 2000 Classic at Churchill.
Spain — 2000 Breeders’ Cup Distaff
Although she had multiple placings at the Grade 1 level, Spain’s most significant victory had been in the Monmouth Oaks (G2) prior to entering the Distaff at Churchill Downs. She was a 55-1 longshot against odds-on favorite Riboletta, 1999 Distaff winner Beautiful Pleasure, plus the talented three-year-olds Surfside (a stablemate in the D. Wayne Lukas barn) and Jostle.
Tracking Surfside until the upper stretch, Spain turned in the performance of her life to wear down that foe en route to a 1 1/2-length victory while the leading older fillies all struggled.
Spain would win four additional graded stakes while placing in nine others, but even with another a narrow loss in the 2001 Distaff she could rightly be judged to have peaked at two Breeders’ Cups while displaying form that was both consistent and non championship-worthy throughout her long career.
Thor’s Echo — 2006 Breeders’ Cup Sprint
He had proven second best in Grade 1s like the Dubai Golden Shaheen (G1) and Ancient Title (G1), but Thor’s Echo seemed a cut below entering the Sprint at Churchill Downs.
Proof that the horses themselves don’t know their odds, Thor’s Echo proceeded to not only win the Sprint at a 16-1 price but demolish the field by four lengths in what turned out to be the first graded stakes win of his career.
Though he backed into an Eclipse Award as champion sprinter with a victory in the De Francis Memorial Dash (G1) against a modest field, Thor’s Echo placed only once in the final 10 starts of his career, most of which was spent in Dubai.
Fort Larned — 2013 Breeders’ Cup Classic
A consistent player in the older dirt male division that lacked a standout, Fort Larned first earned his Grade 1 stripes taking the Whitney H. (G1), but entered the Classic at Santa Anita off a third in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (G1) as the favorite.
Under the rising but unheralded Brian Hernandez Jr., Fort Larned made all and clung to a narrow half-length advantage over Mucho Macho Man, with Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Flat Out and heavy favorite Game On Dude farther back.
Fort Larned had his moments in 2013, including a tour de force win in the Stephen Foster H. (G1), but was below peak form when unsuccessfully defending his titles in the Whitney and Breeders’ Cup Classic.