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Friday, October 25, 2013
Breeders' Cup by the numbers

By Gary West
Special to ESPN.com

The great columnist Blackie Sherrod, before he was, in his words, "all written out," delighted in puncturing pretense. He would often refer to baseball's championship series facetiously as the World Serious. So what would he say about the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships? The world, seriously?

Anyway, global claims and literal-mindedness aside, on the first two days of November, the Breeders' Cup races at Santa Anita will indeed determine several championships, at least nine or ten, and that's just among the horses. These championship possibilities, along with compelling stories, imbue the races with intrigue. But there's another factor in their appeal: contentiousness, tempered by quality.

Yes, some of the Breeders' Cup races are large aquariums with very small fish. John Nerud, a Breeders' Cup founder, recently told Jay Hovdey of the Daily Racing Form, that the event has been "screwed up." Part of the problem, he said, is the creation of "million-dollar allowance races." This year's Breeders' Cup, of course, has a few of those, races void of championship import that barely merit a quiver on the Intrigue Meter. They might score, however, a few mercy points for contentiousness.

Based on the pre-entries, for Intrigue and Contentiousness, this year's event can't compare with some of those in the era before "million-dollar allowance races," can't compare, for example, with the 2004 Texas-sized edition, or the 2003 Richard Mandella show or, most especially, the 1988 masterpiece. Nevertheless, many titles and many more millions of dollars will be at stake, and November's early Daily Double promises to provide two of the best days of racing this year.

Anyway, on the basis of their intrigue and contentiousness, graded on a 1-10 scale, here's an Appeal Rating for the 14 Breeder's Cup races, from "million-dollar allowance races" to genuine classics. The rating is highly subjective, of course, like everything in racing. But only by a suborning of standards and reason could there be any disagreement about the best races: the Classic, the Distaff, the Turf and the Mile.

Rating the Cup

The Marathon: This isn't a "million-dollar allowance race" only because the purse is $500,000. It gets an intrigue point only because of the presence of a South American and a European. But it is wide-open.
Intrigue: 1
Contentiousness: 7
Total: 8

Juvenile Turf: Bereft of championship implications, the race nevertheless has attracted two highly regarded juveniles from Britain, Outstrip and Giovanni Boldini, who both ran behind top-rated Toormore. And Bobby's Kitten, perhaps the best of the Americans, might be a good one.
Intrigue: 4
Contentiousness: 6
Total: 10

Dirt Mile: This race could affect the voting for the champion 3-year-old. Even though he faltered badly on the biggest stages and failed to win any of the races that traditionally define the division, could Verrazano put himself in the title discussion with a victory? Perhaps, especially given the fickleness of modern voters and depending, of course, on what Palace Malice, Will Take Charge and Orb do in their next outings. And given Verrazano inconsistencies, as well as the various pace scenarios, the race seems to be highly contentious, with no fewer than eight horses, not counting Graydar, having a very real chance.
Intrigue: 6
Contentiousness: 8
Total: 14

Juvenile Fillies Turf: Could My Conquestadory win a championship with a victory? Maybe, but only if there's a major upset in the Juvenile Fillies. She could be special. Adding to the intrigue is Chriselliam, who was a major winner at Newmarket.
Intrigue: 5
Contentiousness: 6
Total: 11

Distaff: Royal Delta has done enough already to win a title, and here she goes for her third consecutive Breeders' Cup victory, which would match the great Goldikova's record. Princess of Sylmar also has accomplished enough to win a title this year, as the best 3-year-old filly, and with a victory she could even put herself in the discussion about Horse of the Year. But should Beholder or Close Hatches win -- well, voters can be fickle. And Beholder especially, with an impressive triumph, would have a legitimate argument. This is a terrific edition of the race, with the best older mare taking on some extremely gifted 3-year-olds. Although the field won't be large, it'll be contentious.
Intrigue: 9
Contentiousness: 8
Total: 17

Juvenile Fillies: Maybe the Lasix ban has discouraged participation, but whatever the reason, this doesn't seem to be a strong group. Still, the race generally produces a champion, and it probably will again, the most likely candidates being Sweet Reason, Artemis Agrotera and Untapable.
Intrigue: 7
Contentiousness: 6
Total: 13

Filly And Mare Turf: This is another race that will probably produce a champion. But if The Fugue goes in the Turf, as expected, then Dank stands out, and so the race slips on contentiousness.
Intrigue: 7
Contentiousness: 5
Total: 12

Filly And Mare Sprint: Can Groupie Doll, the defending champion, recover the form that made her so formidable a year ago? That's the intriguing question. Because it must be asked, the race is contentious. And the answer could produce a champion.
Intrigue: 6
Contentiousness: 7
Total: 13

Turf Sprint: No championship here, but any race run down the hill at Santa Anita has some intrigue, especially one involving the return of Mizdirection, who won this event a year ago.
Intrigue: 4
Contentiousness: 8
Total: 12

Juvenile: Like the juvenile fillies, this group doesn't seem to be very strong. But the race will produce a champion. On a speed-biased surface, Havana, who won the Champagne after disputing a lively pace, has the edge. But in his debut, Tap It Rich looked like a star that could continue shooting through the skies and beyond the horizon all the way to the classics.
Intrigue: 7
Contentiousness: 7
Total: 14

Turf: Can Point Of Entry, who narrowly lost this race last year, return from an injury and find his best form? Did Little Mike, whose recent Turf Classic victory was his first since taking this race a year ago, return to form just in time? Or is the outstanding European filly, The Fugue, just too good for them? At least one and maybe two champions will come out of this race.
Intrigue: 8
Contentiousness: 8
Total: 16

Sprint: A few horses here might seem to stand apart -- Pointsofthebench, Private Zone, Justin Phillip and Secret Circle. But the history of the race includes both shocking victories and stunning defeats. A source of many upsets, the Sprint is always contentious and likely to produce a champion.
Intrigue: 7
Contentiousness: 8
Total: 15

Mile: It's all about Wise Dan, of course, the reigning Horse of the Year who'll probably be a short-priced favorite. But the Europeans here are very good and could threaten, especially Olympic Glory and Toronado, who are both among the top-rated 3-year-olds across the pond. As for championship implications, Wise Dan remains a major player. Milers traditionally aren't in the running to be Horse of the Year or for champion turf honors and certainly not to be champion older horse. Amazingly enough, Wise Dan hit the trifecta last year, and he's still one of the best horses in the country, perhaps the world.
Intrigue: 9
Contentiousness: 7
Total: 16

Classic: With a victory, Game On Dude becomes the Horse of the Year. Of course, the same could have been said a year ago, when he finished seventh in the Classic. He hasn't lost since, and his trainer, Bob Baffert, says the old pro is better than ever. He might be able to win the golden Eclipse with only a good effort even if it leaves him just short of a victory. But the top three finishers in last year's race all return -- Fort Larned, Mucho Macho Man and Flat Out. And the 3-year-olds, especially Palace Malice and Will Take Charge, are talented. In fact, they're racing for an Eclipse Award of their own. It's an outstanding race, a fitting conclusion to what promises to be a great day of racing.
Intrigue: 9
Contentiousness: 8
Total: 17