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Monday, November 19, 2012
Lessons from the Breeders' Cup


As much as variety may be the spice of life, the return of the Breeders' Cup to Santa Anita in 2013 offers at least one redeeming aspect.

While there's no guarantee that 2013 will mirror 2012, some of the central themes at this year's event could fall into place again next November and make racing's most perplexing puzzle somewhat easier to fathom.

So while the events of earlier this month are fresh in the memory banks, let's look at what went right and wrong:

The East was the beast: In past editions of West Coast Breeders' Cups, the home team had a big edge over the invaders from the other side of the Mississippi. In six of the West Coast Cups at tracks without a synthetic main track, horses that last raced in California won 17 races and runners that last raced in New York won seven.

This year, of the 15 BC races, six were won by horses that were last seen in New York (four in dirt races, two on turf). Another three last raced at Keeneland and one more at Parx in Philadelphia.

Meanwhile, only two Californians won.

Why was it such a tough couple of days for the home team? Perhaps it was the sand in Santa Anita's main track that gave it the feel of an Eastern venue like Belmont Park -- which was where the 1-3-4 finishers in the centerpiece Breeders' Cup Classic last raced.

Or maybe it was because, travel aside, some of the West Coast horses felt ill-at-ease racing over the only natural surface among California's three main tracks.

Whatever the race, the East's success will surely embolden more horsemen to Go West Young Man, and Eastern horses should be taken more seriously next year, even as they rack up a ton of frequent flier points.

Pitching a shutout: West Coast-based trainer Bob Baffert had nine Breeders' Cup starters and figured to be the star of the two days with the favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic, Horse of the Year candidate Game On Dude.

Instead the Hall of Famer went 0-for-9.

As tough of a weekend as it may have been for Baffert, it's hard to believe he'll register a goose egg once again. If anything, Baffert seems more likely to rebound with a dramatically better showing than to go down swinging once again.

Playing favorites: Don't do it!

Of the 15 BC races, four were won by favorites, which isn't all that shabby. But more telling was that nine of 15 (60 percent) paid $20 or more.

With payoffs like that more the rule than the exception, it would be wise to include more 9-1 shots or higher in your exotics than the second or third choices.

Simply put, expect the unexpected again next year.

Are you on drugs?: In this year's juvenile BC races 2-year-olds were not permitted to race on Lasix, an anti-bleeding medication -- even if they had previously raced on the drug.

The idea was noble, and the plan was to also bar Lasix in all Grade 1 stakes. But once the American Graded Stakes Committee backed down and did not sanction a ban, the Breeders' Cup also should have waved the white flag on the issue. Millions of dollars are wagered on BC races and asking handicappers to bet on horses running without their usual medications makes little sense.

As reflected in the winning payoffs, it's hard enough to pick a BC winner without having to sweat out whether your choice will be pulled up with blood dripping out of its nostrils, and adding a reason to lose interest in betting on a horse seems a curious business practice for a pari-mutuel entity.

While there were no visible signs of bleeding by any of the juvenile runners, three of them reportedly were found to have bled. None of them won.

The rumor mill has the Breeders' Cup contemplating an expansion of the Lasix ban to all of its races next year and hopefully that idea will soon bite the dust. If wagering on Breeders' Cup races dropped 9.5 percent with the Lasix guessing game impacting five races, imagine the dip when every race features a coin flip on whether a horse will handle the lack of Lasix.

An experiment is one thing. Bad business is another.