Racing Roundtable: British Champions Day, Breeders' Cup memories, and the best of U.S. racing

October 24th, 2023

This week the Roundtable reflects on British Champions Day at Ascot, the top performances in the U.S. from the weekend, and past memories of the Breeders' Cup.

What were your takeaways from British Champions Day at Ascot?

James Scully: King of Steel delivered a thrilling come-from-behind win in perhaps Frankie Dettori’s last appearance in the Champion S. (G1) at Ascot, and the three-year-old colt will target a two-week turnaround for the Breeders’ Cup if he emerges from the race in good shape, according to trainer Roger Varian. King of Steel finished a good second in the English Derby (G1), won a Group 2 at Royal Ascot, and improved Saturday upon a third in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth II (G1) and a fourth in the Irish Champion (G1). The two-week turnaround may seem extreme, but King of Steel has raced only five times this year and European trainers have shown the willingness to run top-class horses on short rest once a year, with 16-time Breeders’ Cup race winner Aidan O’Brien being a prime example. King of Steel will be a major win contender if he shows up for the Breeders’ Cup Turf (G1) at Santa Anita.

Vance Hanson: I was disappointed to see the results of the British Champions Sprint (G1) and Queen Elizabeth II (G1) determined to an extent by the speed-favoring conditions along the straight track following extensive rain throughout the week. Art Power, who had gone unplaced in three prior British Champions Sprint attempts, edged the favored Kinross this time after setting the pace, a hard-to-figure outcome given his lackluster recent record outside The Curragh.

In the QE2, the French-based three-year-old Big Rock was a more logical winner. However, the lopsided margin by which he won suggests the conditions were hardly ripe for several of the other talented contenders in the field to make a serious rally from off the pace. The now-retired Tahiyra was beaten more than six lengths, Nashwa and Paddington by even more, and I refuse to believe there would have been that much separating them and Big Rock over a fairer-playing strip. The results of the Balmoral H. at the end of the card were also indicative of a pronounced bias.

Ashley Anderson: French-bred Big Rock relished the soft going in the Queen Elizabeth II to dominate in gate-to-wire fashion in the one-mile contest, earning a berth to the Breeders' Cup Mile (G1). The Rock of Gibraltar (IRE) son broke a streak of three consecutive runner-up finishes with the six-length triumph in a final time of 1:44.58. Four-time Group 1 winner Paddington was upset as the favorite and came home ninth of 11, but trainer Aidan O'Brien indicated the Breeders' Cup Mile is still on the table. However, his best races of the season are likely behind him, while the third-place finisher Tahiyra, a fellow four-time Group 1 winner and one of the top fillies to potentially watch for at the Breeders' Cup this season, was retired following the QEII. As for Big Rock, the Christopher Head pupil looked incredible on Saturday, but he does his best work on soft ground, which he's unlikely to get racing in Santa Anita in two weeks, if he goes.

Did anything catch your eye domestically over the weekend?

JS: Raise Cain appears to have found his specialty at one-turn distances, cutting back to seven furlongs to gamely win Saturday’s Perryville S. at Keeneland, his first victory since upsetting the Gotham (G3) at a one-turn mile last March. The Ben Colebrook-trained son of Violence netted a second consecutive triple-digit Brisnet Speed rating, and Dr. Venkman, who came up a head short in his third start and stakes debut, ran well for second, gaining valuable seasoning. Vahva continues to progress for Cherie DeVaux, overhauling odds-on Alva Starr to score by a half-length in Saturday’s Raven Run (G2), and the three-year-old daughter of Gun Runner registered a career-best 102 Speed rating for her second consecutive graded win at seven furlongs. And four-year-old Romagna Mia, third when making her U.S. bow in the Beverly D. (G1), confirmed herself as a promising prospect at longer distances in the female turf division for Graham Motion, scoring a three-length win as the favorite in Sunday’s Dowager at Keeneland.

VH: I've often privately fumed at the decision by some Eclipse Award voters to publicly express their intention to abstain from voting in the steeplechase category, claiming they don't follow the division enough to do justice to any choice they might make. It's obviously tough and time consuming for them to go back and watch (or re-watch) the handful or so of jump races that typically determines the outcome of the yearly championship.

These abstainers might have a legitimate gripe this year, though, as Noah and the Ark's upset win in Saturday's Grand National (G1) at Far Hills resulted in all five Grade 1s in the division this season being won by different horses. What makes it worse is that none of the five consistently carried their form in the Grade 1s they did not win.

This might be the most inexplicable jump season I can recall in my 24 years as a voter, and sad to say I might actually invoke my right to abstain in the category for the first time. Perhaps it's time to throw the decision-making process for this award to a committee.

AA: Nyquist two-year-old Nysos romped to a 10 1/2-length victory on debut at Santa Anita in a six-furlong maiden special weight, in which he beat two of his stablemates as the 6-1 post-time choice. Out of a Bernardini mare, the Bob Baffert trainee is bred to enjoy Classic distances and would be an interesting contender for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile (G1) should Baffert decide to enter Nysos off short rest.

With a final time of 1:08.97, Nysos earned a 102 Brisnet Speed figure, tied for the career-best earned by stablemate Prince of Monaco in his victory in the Best Pal (G2). Nysos' debut Speed figure is also two points better than Muth's career high, recorded in his third start when victorious in the American Pharoah (G1). While we may not see him in the Juvenile, Nysos is certainly one to keep an eye on going forward and may be a serious threat along the Triple Crown trail next season.

What was the first Breeders' Cup you watched, and what are your favorite memories from it?

JS: I remember watching the first Breeders’ Cup at Hollywood Park on television in 1984. Highlights included the brilliance of Chief’s Crown and Eillo, but the Classic (G1) stretch battle between Wild Again, Slew O’ Gold, and Gate Dancer provided the momentum the championship event needed. It couldn’t have been more thrilling. Slew O’ Gold and Gate Dancer made sense, they were classy warriors, but Wild Again appeared overmatched, to this observer, following a third in a turf allowance at Bay Meadows. But he had captured a Grade 1 event two starts back, and Wild Again proved to be all heart with Pat Day, showing the way on a short lead before turning back a pair of formidable challengers.

While still in high school, I attended the second Breeders’ Cup at Aqueduct. Precisionist, who raced primarily at longer distances and finished third in the Classic a year later, cut back to six furlongs to win the Sprint (G1) off a runner-up in the 1 1/4-mile Hollywood Gold Cup (G1) and was named champion sprinter. Tasso edged Storm Cat, who went on to be a great stallion after being trained by Jonathon Sheppard, by a nose in the Juvenile (G1). Life’s Magic dominated the Distaff (G1) at odds-on in her career finale, and Proud Truth, who had captured an allowance at Aqueduct seven days earlier for John Veitch following a five-month layoff, closed from last to deny Gate Dancer by a short neck in the Classic. 

VH: The first Breeders' Cup I recall having rooting interests in was the third edition held at Santa Anita in 1986, though I didn't watch it all live. Instead it was the 1987 edition at Hollywood Park (belatedly held on Nov. 21) which was the first I watched on television from start to finish. Although the star power was not quite what it could have been, due to attrition in various divisions throughout the season, the Classic (G1) showdown between Kentucky Derby (G1) winners Ferdinand (with the soon-to-be retired Bill Shoemaker up) and Alysheba remains one of the most dramatic moments in Breeders' Cup history. It was one indelibly etched in the mind of a budding 10-year-old racing fan, and there was no turning away from the sport after that. I later got to experience the Breeders' Cup as a spectator for the first time in 1998 at Churchill Downs, when Awesome Again prevailed over one of the best Classic assemblages in race history.

AA: The first Breeders' Cup  I recall watching was in 2011, when I attended the event at Churchill Downs. I worked for a local newspaper at the time, and we were involved with some of the Breeders' Cup festivities leading up to the races. Back then, I had very little handicapping knowledge, and I cannot tell you who I even bet in the Classic, but the main storyline from the race was Mike Smith earning a then-record-tying 15th Breeders' Cup victory aboard longshot Drosselmeyer. The win was also redemption for Smith's loss aboard Zenyatta the year before. The other interesting angle from the 2011 Classic came from the matchup of Smith and Chantal Sutherland, who guided Game On Dude to a runner-up finish as a 14-1 longshot in the Classic. Sutherland was looking to become the first female rider to win the Classic and came up just short to her ex-fiance, Smith.