East-versus-west rivalry in the Classic
WITH Accelerate and Diversify high on the list of likely protagonists, next month’s Breeders’ Cup Classic could well provide the latest chapter in the story of a long-standing and deep-seated rivalry between America’s two most prominent racing communities that sits at the very heart of the sport in the US, writes NICHOLAS GODFREY.
On the east coast, focussing on the New York circuit but stretching down to Kentucky thoroughbred heartland, stand the traditional elite, the patriarchal families largely responsible for the establishment of racing in the latter half of the 19th century.
Out west, a world away physically and spiritually from the nation’s old-money bluebloods, sits the Californian racing circuit, which did not really exist until the mid-1930s. Mind you, they did not take long in leaving their mark: as the east coast held its collective nose at such nouveau riche vulgarity, the year after it was opened at its present location,Santa Anita stunned the racing world in 1935 by carding the first $100,000 purse.
Never is this divergence better illustrated than during the summer months, when Saratoga and Del Mar, the twin jewels of US racing crown, hold sway for a few short weeks. Where Saratoga is all about history and tradition in its unquestioned role as sacred keeper of American racing’s flame, Del Mar - one-time home to the Hollywood glitterati - is the arriviste, famously laidback and easygoing. Californian, in other words.
Even in the modern era, signs of cultural difference remain evident. While there is a degree of caricature about the generalisation, nobody could deny the contrast between New York top dogs Chad Brown and Todd Pletcher and immediately recognisable larger-than-life figure of Bob Baffert, king of the Californian hill, where the ebullient D Wayne Lukas crafted his legend.
However, this is not a case of never the twain shall meet. Leading trainers regularly ship cross-country in search of major prizes and occasionally, just occasionally, such a showpiece rivalry can extend to the racetrack. Go back nearly three decades and you’ll find the most obvious example in a series of celebrated punch-ups between Sunday Silence and Easy Goer.
That passionately partisan east-versus-west clash dominated the racing headlines, culminating in a 3-1 victory for the westerner Sunday Silence as the Kentucky Derby winner narrowly held off his fast-closing rival by a diminishing neck in an unforgettable Breeders’ Cup Classic at Gulfstream Park.
Race Replay: Sunday Silence fends off Easy Goer in the 1989 Classic.
Down the years there have been others, of course, but seldom has the sport seen such a frenzied rivalry; even 29 years after the two horses collided, their respective champions are still moved to debate their respective merits.
Whether we will still be debating the merits of this year’s Classic crop is open to question but the fact remains there is a distinctly east-versus-west flavour to America’s championship race, which is to be held on (relatively) neutral ground beneath the iconic Twin Spires at Churchill Downs.
In 34 previous editions of the Classic, 21 have been won by eastern-based horses, compared to 11 from the west (plus two Europeans in Arcangues and Raven’s Pass, on the synthetic at Santa Anita). Even with Triple Crown hero Justify long since retired, Baffert looks sure to field his usual strong hand with the likes of the appropriately named Dubai World Cup runner-up West Coast, Collected and one-time Kentucky Derby hope McKinzie (now back after injury) among the possibles.
However, leader of the Californian pack is ante-post favourite ACCELERATE, whose form has been taken to another level in 2018 for trainer John Sadler with victories in the state’s three major contests for older horses, the Santa Anita Handicap, (former Hollywood) Gold Cup and Pacific Classic.
Race replay: Accelerate romps home in the $1 Million TVG Pacific Classic at Del Mar.
Potentially ranged against the best in the west comes east-coast star DIVERSIFY, whose triumph in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup has been followed by more of the same in the Whitney and Suburban.
Aside from their training bases, there are notable similarities between the pair, both five-year-olds each of whom looked brilliant on their most recent outings - a thumping 12 1/2-length success for Accelerate in Del Mar’s Pacific Classic; an easy three and a half lengths over fellow Classic hope Mind Your Biscuits (receiving 6lb) for Diversify at Saratoga.
Race replay: Diversify runs out a ready winner of the Whitney Stakes at Saratoga.
Their running styles are similar, with Diversify a confirmed front-runner and Accelerate also geared towards speed; they’ve barely set foot outside their home states over the years, though Accelerate’s second-placed effort in the Oaklawn Handicap at Arkansas at the start of the season was a fair enough effort giving weight away to a good horse, even if he was beaten as a short-priced favourite. Diversify faded to finish fourth in the Grade 1 Clark on a previous visit to Churchill Downs.
Both horses have emerged from relative obscurity: as the Blood-Horse’s excellent columnist Steve Haskin pointed out recently, Accelerate was 42-1 for the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile in 2016, while Diversify has progressed from small-beer races restricted to New York-breds.
Similarly, the trainers involved, though well-known figures, have never saddled a single Breeders’ Cup winner between them. Diversify’s trainer Rick Violette is 0-for-6, while Sadler’s record is becoming notorious: in a career of nearly 2,500 winners and $112m-plus, he is 0-for-41 at America’s foremost event.
What is more, they are also following a relatively old-fashioned route to Churchill Downs, with Accelerate set for a final prep in the Awesome Again (formerly Goodwood) Stakes at Santa Anita on September 29, precisely the same day as Diversify will be bidding to defend his crown in the Jockey Club Gold Cup at Belmont Park, where his rivals may include a couple of high-profile potential Classic contenders from the European superpowers in the shape of Coolmore’s Mendelssohn and Dubai World Cup victor Thunder Snow representing Godolphin.
With the Pegasus World Cup and Dubai in the offing, there remains a chance that Diversify could bypass the Classic entirely, whatever happens next weekend, in which case the mantle of east-coast favourite might pass to Catholic Boy, the versatile three-year-old who has won Grade 1s on both turf and dirt, the latter triumph coming as he defeated Mendelssohn in the Travers Stakes at a speed-favouring Saratoga.
Another converted turf performer is Yoshida, who ran with credit in the Queen Anne at Royal Ascot before winning the Woodward on dirt at Saratoga; his Bill Mott-trained stablemate Hofburg has the blinkers added as he clashes with the aforementioned McKinzie in the Pennsylvania Derby at Parx on Saturday.
Throw in the likes of popular come-from-behind performer Gunnevera, former Jeremy Noseda-trained Gronkowski (lest we forget, second to Justify in the Belmont) and even Jamie Osborne’s Toast Of New York (set to try his luck at Churchill next weekend in the Lukas Classic) and America’s most prestigious race has all the makings of an epic.
Not for the first time, the Classic might well produce a classic.