Nicholas Godfrey on the Jockey Club Gold Cup

This year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup anchors a fantastic card at Belmont on Saturday night, but before that, get to know the Jockey Club history a little better; courtesy of Nicholas Godfrey.

  • Thursday 08 October
  • Blog
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WITHOUT any question, the Breeders’ Cup is one of the brightest jewels in the crown of global racing, providing the stage for some of the sport’s most iconic moments since its creation in 1984.

The names just roll off the tongue: Royal Academy and Arazi or Zenyatta, Cigar and American Pharoah – or even, rather less trumphantly, Dancing Brave and Dayjur. All of them responsible for utterly unforgettable moments etched in the annals of the turf.

If the Triple Crown and the Kentucky Derby in particular retain a much greater hold on the consciousness of the wider public in the States, then the Breeders’ Cup has totally reshaped the US programme outside the Classic series.

Watch the 2020 Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 6th and Saturday 7th November.

However, as a corollary of the two-day championship’s unalloyed success, what cannot be denied is that it has also had a detrimental effect on certain other high-profile contests, which have been diminished to the status of mere prep races or, in some cases, lost altogether.

The Marlboro Cup, for example, won by Secretariat, Seattle Slew and Spectacular Bid in the 1970s, hasn’t been run since Java Gold won the Belmont contest in 1987.

Historic international turf races that undoubtedly helped spark the creation of the transatlantically inclined Breeders’ Cup no longer have the same clout. 

The Arlington Million and Canadian International – both not run in 2020 owing to COVID-19 – are not the races they were, though at least they both retain Grade 1 status.

But what about the storied Washington DC International? For a couple of decades the ground-breaking Laurel Park showpiece was one of the most coveted prizes on the planet and certainly the most cosmopolitan; Lester Piggott’s furious stretch drive on Vincent O’Brien’s Derby winner Sir Ivor in 1968 caused ripples around the racing world.

Well, while you could be forgiven for not noticing, the race is still clinging to existence, despite having been discontinued in 1984 for a period owing to the proximity of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

It is now no longer international in any real sense and it’s no longer a Grade 1 event: the Baltimore Washington International Turf Cup is a G2 event, still at Laurel (a famous racecourse back on the way up, incidentally, and quite likely a future Breeders’ Cup venue).

Another race that has lost a bit of its lustre is the Jockey Club Gold Cup, which takes place on Saturday at Belmont Park. While this isn’t quite the fall from grace suffered by the Washington DC International, it would be idle to suggest it is still the race it used to be.

Put simply, outside the Triple Crown you would be hard pushed to locate any race on the US calendar with a richer history than the Jockey Club, which served as the nation’s most prestigious clash of the generations – sort of a dirt version of the King George – until the Breeders’ Cup stole its thunder.

Inaugurated in 1919 and a two-mile race from 1921 to 1975 (and then a mile and a half until 1990), the Jockey Club’s roll of honour reads like a who’s who of American racing’s equine luminaries. No fewer than five Triple Crown winners also won the Jockey Club, namely Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation and Affirmed. Other Hall of Famers on the list include the legendary Man o’War – number one, in front of Secretariat, in the Blood Horse’s list of the Top 100 Racehorses of the 20th Century – John Henry, Easy Goer, Cigar and Skip Away. That’s before we get to five-time winner Kelso, the great gelding who made the race his own in five Horse of the Year seasons between 1960 and 1964.

And then there is perhaps the most memorable Jockey Club of them all in 1978, in which Nelson Bunker Hunt’s ex-French Exceller, reborn as a US dirt/turf performer for the ‘Bald Eagle’ Charlie Whittingham, defeated a pair of Triple Crown winners in Seattle Slew and Affirmed.

Ridden by Bill Shoemaker, Exceller came from 22 lengths back to claim the race – but not until he had been involved in one of the most celebrated stretch duels in US racing history with the gallant Seattle Slew, who had set seemingly suicidal fractions up front.

"Exceller won by the snip of his chocolate nose,” suggested garlanded sportswriter Bill Nack.”That battling final furlong remains his [Seattle Slew's] most enduring legacy as a racehorse.”

What a race, as they say. By the way, Affirmed’s saddled slipped in that 1978 running – but he came back 12 months later to hold off Spectacular Bid.

While things ain’t wot they used to be, veterans of the east-coast racing community still venerate the Jockey Club and winners of Triple Crown races such as Funny CIde, Bernardini, Curlin, Summer Bird and Tonalist have won since the turn of the century.

Even Ballydoyle’s Dylan Thomas had a go after winning the Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes in 2006 though, he need not have bothered as he never went a yard on the dirt behind Preakness victor Bernardini.

But the fact that is also part of the Breeders’ Cup ‘Win and You’re In’ Challenge tells its own story. This is a prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It is a major prep race, and quite valuable too – $750,000 in a normal year, only $250,000 now owing to coronavirus economic imperatives – but still a prep race.

Still, it wasn’t that long ago that Cigar, Skip Away and Curlin were using the Jockey Club as their gateway to the Breeders’ Cup, and last year’s Classic winner Vino Rosso passed the post first at Belmont before being disqualified for interference in favour of Travers victor Code Of Honor, who was only seventh at Santa Anita.

This year’s Jockey Club anchors a fantastic card at Belmont - live on Sky Sports Racing - featuring three other Grade 1s, the Flower Bowl for turf fillies and mares and the Champagne and Frizette for two-year-olds. All of them are Breeders’ Cup Challenge races offering the winner a fees-paid berth at Keeneland. 

As for the Jockey Club itself, the reshaping of the Classic programme, with the Preakness only last weekend, probably cost a couple of potential runners. Last year’s third Tacitus is set to head the field for the in-form Bill Mott against rivals including progressive three-year-olds Happy Saver and Mystic Guide, Godolphin’s Jim Dandy winner. 

Whatever happens, they’ve got a lot to live up to. You just have to look a little while back to find out precisely why.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Jockey Club Gold Cup
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