Racing Roundtable: Breeders' Cup recap and Horse of the Year candidates

November 7th, 2023

This week the Roundtable discusses the best and most disappointing performances from the Breeders' Cup World Championships along with the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.

Which Breeders' Cup performance stood out to you?

James Scully: Fierceness on Friday, he rebounded from a clunker in the Champagne (G1) to record an impressive 6 1/4-length win in the Juvenile (G1), and his 112 Brisnet Speed rating was the top number from 14 Breeders’ Cup races. By comparison, Forte received a 100 Speed rating for winning last year’s Juvenile.

White Abarrio outclassed the competition in Saturday’s Classic (G1), closely stalking a hot pace before powering clear in the stretch, and the four-year-old colt made remarkable progress over the last four months for Rick Dutrow, recording a non-threatening third in Met Mile (G1) in his first outing for Dutrow. The gray son of Race Day netted a 108 Speed rating.

New York stakes also deserve mention, producing seven winners. Internationals did well as expected, winning five events, but nobody expected to see horses exiting starts at Aqueduct and Saratoga to dominate fellow North American-based counterparts. 

Vance Hanson: While there are so many good ones to choose from — Fierceness, Inspiral, and Elite Power among them — I remain in awe of what Master of the Seas was able to accomplish from a highly disadvantageous position in the last half of the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1). A dozen lengths down and with one horse beaten with four furlongs left, Master of the Seas nonetheless displayed a turn of foot I wasn't sure he possessed (and I've been a close observer of his for three seasons). Jockey Will Buick timed the move virtually to the millisecond, and in a sustained swoosh Master of the Seas was able to pass 10 rivals in the final furlong, including fellow Godolphin homebred Mawj, to win by a nose. While no all-time great, Master of the Seas is certainly an above-average winner of the Mile and, as a gelding, we have more from him to look forward to.

Ashley Anderson: Fierceness' rebound win in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) in which the City of Light colt dominated by 6 1/4 lengths over eight talented rivals while clocking a 112 Brisnet Speed figure. The Repole Stable homebred impressed on debut when winning a six-furlong maiden special weight by 11 1/4 lengths in late August but turned in a dud as the odds-on favorite in the one-mile Champagne (G1), where he came home a distant seventh to Timberlake over a sloppy Aqueduct track. Sent off at 16-1 in the Juvenile, bettors seemingly wrote off the Todd Pletcher trainee in his third career start but he crushed the competition and is a horse to watch on the Kentucky Derby trail next season.

Whose Breeders' Cup performance were you most disappointed in?

JS: Tamara’s flop in the Juvenile Fillies (G1) came as a surprise, and Japanese challengers Songline and Ushba Tesoro did not live up to pre-race expectations, finishing fifth in the Mile (G1) and Classic, respectively. Both lacked the necessary finishing kick in the stretch.

Santa Anita proved no advantage for locally based runners, as Southern California horses were shut out in the Breeders’ Cup. Juvenile runner-up Muth and Dirt Mile (G1) second National Treasure were the only ones to come close, and it was a far cry from 20 years ago when Southern California horses produced five wins from eight Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita. In 2003, horses exiting races out west finished 1-2 in the Classic and Juvenile, and 1-2-3 in the Distaff.

VH: It was no great surprise Auguste Rodin proved me wrong in the Turf (G1), though I'm still at a loss as to why my preferred selection, King of Steel, was so underwhelming. Most will point to the two-week turnaround between the Champion (G1) and Breeders' Cup, and he didn't get the best of trips in the Turf either. Other European contenders fared worse than King of Steel, but when you're outfinished for a minor slice by the likes of Gold Phoenix, that provides little comfort. I've admittedly overestimated his talents, vis a vis Auguste Rodin, but the sub-par performance largely remains a head-scratcher.

AA: I admittedly bought into the hype on Tamara despite my hesitation over her stretching out to a route and trying two turns for the first time. The Bolt d'Oro filly out of Beholder certainly has the pedigree to enjoy the distance, but set too hot a pace and faded in the stretch to finish second. Just F Y I and Jody's Pride were part of my exotics wagers, but against my better judgment, I keyed Tamara on top and lived to regret the decision. Jockey Mike Smith indicated Tamara made a noise when she pulled up and may have had an issue with her breathing. I expect the two-year-old to improve going forward, but after all the hype surrounding her on Saturday, her seventh-place finish was certainly a letdown.

Who should be Horse of the Year?

JS: Cody’s Wish captured four of five starts this season, split decisions with White Abarrio, and deserves Horse of the Year for his body of work. It was a remarkable campaign!

VH: Recent developments lead me to believe Cody's Wish is a strong favorite, despite the fact there was little separating him and fellow older dirt male title contender White Abarrio at their respective peaks. While he would be an acceptable selection, I'd make a strong case for Up to the Mark. No American-based runner on Breeders' Cup weekend displayed as much world-class talent as he did when finishing within a length of Auguste Rodin in the Turf. He was also flattered when Master of the Seas, whom he had beaten at Keeneland last month, won the Mile (G1) earlier in the day. Up to the Mark enjoyed a consistently stronger season than White Abarrio, has no distance limitations compared to Cody's Wish, and compared himself favorably with world-class competition. He seems more deserving than the amount of support he will actually receive. 

AA: I expect Cody's Wish to get the award, but I think Idiomatic has a case to be made. While it's been more than a decade since a female won Horse of the Year (Havre de Grace in 2011), Idiomatic has the resume to contend with Cody's Wish and White Abarrio for the honor. She raced nine times in 2023 and won eight of those starts, with her lone setback a second in the Ruffian (G2) at Belmont on May 6. She then went on to win her next five starts, including three Grade 1s — the Personal Ensign, Spinster, and Breeders' Cup Distaff. She also secured victories in the Delaware H. (G2) and Shawnee (G3). Considering how rare it's become to see a top horse race as many times as Idiomatic did in one season, it's all the more impressive she managed to reach the winner's circle as often as she did and in some of the biggest races in her division.