Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup

Nicholas nominates his favourite dozen races from the 35-year history of the Breeders’ Cup.

  • Wednesday 16 October
  • Blog
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THE 36th edition of the Breeders’ Cup will take place at Santa Anita on November 1-2. Look back on the previous 35 and one thing’s for sure: there has rarely been any shortage of drama.

I’ve always loved this event, and perhaps the most remarkable thing about this list is what it leaves out. Where, for instance, is Goldikova? If Tiznow vs Sakhee is there, then how come Tiznow vs Giant’s Causeway is not?

How can any collection of memorable races leave out Arcangues, one of the biggest shocks in the entire history of horse racing, let alone the Breeders’ Cup?

Watch the 2019 Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita live on Sky Sports Racing (Sky 415 | Virgin 535) on Friday 1st and Saturday 2nd November.

The truth is, there is no real answer. This is a personal list, and I’m not sure I’d even come up with the same dozen races if I compiled it again tomorrow. I mean, it’s all right trying to be glass half-full rather than half-empty, but a generation of racing fans are still haunted by the memory of Dancing Brave’s virtual no-show at Santa Anita in 1986, aren’t they?

Throw in Swain, Rock Of Gibraltar and Toast Of New York plus a couple of others that did make the cut here (hello Dayjur), and we’re a long way down the road to a list of the most stomach-churning defeats. Maybe next year…



The little chestnut’s dramatic victory beneath the Twin Spires was as spectacular as they come, earning a lasting place in racing folklore. The passing of the years has done little to extinguish the memory of an explosive performance as the Francois Boutin-trained two-year-old treated America's best with absolute contempt on their own patch. Entering the back straight, Arazi was still 15 lengths adrift of the leaders, having passed just one horse but what happened next beggared belief.


Zenyatta was already America’s most popular horse before she took on the boys for the first time at the 2009 Breeders’ Cup, held on the Pro-Ride at Santa Anita. Truth to tell, though, there were more than a few who doubted the depth of her form, suggesting a reputation based more on style than substance. Such assertions were notable for their absence after the mighty mare circled the entire field in typically stunning fashion in a performance for the ages. Vindication indeed. On a personal level, your correspondent managed to win the Joe Hirsch Breeders’ Cup writing award for a piece about the most exciting race I have ever witnessed in the flesh.


One of those races more for the identity of the vanquished than the victor as the appropriately named Blame ruined Zenyatta’s celebrated winning streak in utterly agonising fashion. The career record of ‘America’s Sweetheart’ stood at 19 wins and no losses before she started favourite under the floodlights. Zenyatta’s run was to end in characteristically theatrical style as she raced miles adrift (even by her own exaggerated standards) until after halfway. A startling rally followed but the line came just too soon – leaving jockey Mike Smith in tears, like much of the crowd. Nerve-shredding stuff.


Beating US speedballs on the dirt is no easy assignment, but rarely has Britain had a sprinter like Dayjur – and rarely can a horse have been beaten in such extraordinary circumstances. Looking to overcome a wide draw and an alien surface, the blistering Dick Hern-trained colt and his jockey Willie Carson went hammer and tongs against lightning-fast American filly Safely Kept, the pair locked in battle until Dayjur got the upper hand approaching the final furlong. Then the phrase ‘jumped the shadow’ suddenly entered the racing lexicon.


You really couldn’t make this up. After five years in retirement including a spell as a trainer and a 12-month stretch in clink for tax offences, a 54-year-old Lester Piggott had returned to the saddle only 12 days before. When stable jockey John Reid got injured, who should come calling on his old accomplice but Vincent O’Brien, and so the most legendary trainer/jockey team in the modern era of horse racing was reunited one more time at Belmont with the Mile favourite, who duly charged home out wide to pass seven horses in the final furlong and lead in the last 20 yards. Even Old Stoneface found it hard to suppress his smile.


The word ‘epic’ can often sound like a cliche but both days’ highlights served up a classic encounter at Santa Anita three years ago. Twenty-four hours before Arrogate thwarted California Chrome in the Classic, Beholder emulated Goldikova with her third Breeders’ Cup victory by edging out the gallant Songbird – three years her junior and hitherto unbeaten – in an utterly spine-tingling duel. “I’ve been in battles before, but never the length of the stretch,” said winning jockey Gary Stevens. “I mean, it was a full almost five-sixteenths – definitely a quarter of a mile of just a street fight. I didn’t know how much fight Songbird had in her but I found out.” Of all the eyeball-to-eyeball duels I’ve seen at the Breeders’ Cup, this was the ultimate.


A thunderous race that climaxed in three horses virtually inseparable as they crossed the line. Luca Cumani’s giant warhorse Falbrav looked the likely winner as Darryll Holland kicked on two furlongs out, only for Balydoyle’s High Chaparral to grind him down under a fierce Mick Kinane drive. The action wasn’t done, though, as an unheralded interloper in the shape of US-trained longshot Johar appeared as if from nowhere and flashed alongside High Chaparral on the line. It took 15 minutes before the verdict was announced: the only dead-heat in Breeders’ Cup history.


American racing enthusiasts look back on this with awe. Standing between Personal ensign and an unblemished 13-race career was a loose-on-the-lead Kentucky Derby winner in Winning Colors at a mud-spattered Churchill Downs. All seemed lost with Personal Ensign looking hopelessly beaten, sliding around on the slop nearly ten lengths adrift down the back before she mounted a valiant charge down the stretch. She got there – by a nose. What a race.


Given recent successes, it is easy to forget quite how tough it was for British-trained horses in the early years of the Breeders’ Cup. Unforgettable, though, was the quirky four-year-old dubbed ‘England’s superfilly’ by Tom Durkin after she held off Strawberry Road to win the Turf. Clive Brittain’s standard bearer enjoyed a Guinness and had a near-constant companion in the gelding Come On The Blues to calm her down; she’d never run abroad and she’d never been a mile and a half. With Brittain bribing someone to open a walkway, Pebbles missed most of the preliminaries before breaking Britain’s Breeders’ Cup duck under a daring ride from Pat Eddery – watch for the Sheikh Mohammed colours on the rail, dead-last as the crossed the wire first time around before scraping the paint. Course-record time, too.


Facing dirt for the first time, Arc winner Sakhee looked set for a famous victory when Frankie Dettori took him to the front approaching the furlong marker – but that was to reckon without reigning Horse of the Year Tiznow, who had edged out the ‘Iron Horse’ Giant’s Causeway 12 months before. The brave US colt became the first dual Classic winner with a near-identical performance, wearing down Sakhee in the dying strides.


In itself there wasn’t anything particularly special about this race – no tension, no drama, no more than a lap of honour. Don’t be misled, however: excitement levels were off the charts as Keeneland hosted the Breeders’ Cup for the first time and the Triple Crown winner sauntered into racing immortality by completing what became known as the ‘Grand Slam’. “A Triple Crown winner, a Breeders' Cup winner, a horse of a lifetime!” suggested NBC racecaller Larry Collmus as American Pharoah came down the stretch. Cue mayhem: on the track, in the winner's circle and in the stands, where a million mobile phones were held aloft. “It's the very definition of a group hug,” said the Lexington Herald-Leader.


The late 1980s had a habit of producing the sort of clashes for which dirt racing may have been created. First came Ferdinand holding off Alysheba in a battle of the Kentucky Derby winners at Hollywood Park in 1987; two years later, the final act of the long-running Sunday Silence v Easy Goer drama at Gulfstream Park. In between came the race dubbed the ‘Midnight Classic’, as ‘America’s Horse’ Alysheba held off Seeking The Gold in a desperate mud-caked finish.

Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup
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