LOUISVILLE, Ky. -- A great horse can come from any place, at any time.
Peter Walder knows this. Back in March he was training claimers at Monmouth Park -- good ones, sure, but no stakes contenders at the top of the game. Then he got a call about a runner named Force Freeze.
"I thought it was a joke," Walder said. "They told me, 'You know, we've got this horse that just ran in the Dubai World Cup Sprint; we'd like you to take him.' When he came off the plane, I said, 'I guess this is for real.' Six months later, here we are."
The 6-year-old runner is now entered in this weekend's Breeders' Cup Sprint.
Hundreds of storylines develop at the Breeders' Cup World Championships, horse racing's season finale. Here, $26 million in purses and 15 stakes races draw the best Thoroughbreds from around the globe. Sprinters and stayers, dirt and turf runners, older horses and juveniles, males and females, will all line up for two days of action Friday and Saturday 5 at Churchill Downs.
"It's our Super Bowl," top jockey Garrett Gomez said.
There are equine athletes that fans have followed for the season, some for multiple years -- such as Gio Ponti, the richest active horse in America, who is going up against European turf star Goldikova, the richest active horse in the world. Goldikova is in search of her fourth straight win in the Breeders' Cup Mile, and Gio Ponti ran second to her by 1 ¾ lengths in the 2010 edition.
Big Drama, California Flag, Chamberlain Bridge, Eldaafer, Midday and Shared Account also won Breeders' Cup races last season and are back for more, along with first-time Breeders' Cup contenders such as Preakness winner Shackleford in the Dirt Mile, top females Turbulent Descent and Switch in the Filly & Mare Sprint, Kentucky Oaks winner Plum Pretty headlining the Ladies' Classic, and a slew of European invaders looking to make their mark.
In almost every race there are horses trained by people like 43-year-old Walder -- a slim, athletic type who attended Niagara University under a baseball scholarship but suffered a rotator cuff injury after one year and turned to racing, opening his stable in 1995. They're taking on the biggest names in the business -- guys such as Todd Pletcher, Larry Jones, Bob Baffert, Steve Asmussen, Nick Zito, D. Wayne Lukas -- all here with high-powered runners for the sport's richest owners. As one would suspect given the high stakes, higher purses, and year-end award honors on the line, they all want to win.
Baffert, with a personal record of nine Breeders' Cup contenders slated to start this weekend, including Game on Dude in the Classic, is feeling the pressure. Generally a showman in the spotlight of media attention at big-time races, the white-haired horseman has been quieter this week.
"The pressure is on; we're going for the money," Baffert said Thursday morning. "Usually when I run horses in California, there are only two or three really good ones in the field that I need to beat. Here, you get a full gate of the best horses in the world, and that makes it really tough. All you can do is get them ready the best you can and send them up there to run, because they're not going up against one or two or three good ones, they're running against a whole gateload of talent."
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Everything at the Breeders' Cup culminates in the $5 million Classic, the last race of the event run under lights on Saturday at 7 p.m. The horse that steps up to win will become the talk of the nation.
Jones brings the superstar of his stable, a slender bay filly named Havre de Grace, with one goal in mind: securing the title of Horse of the Year. Coming off an 8¼-length victory in the Beldame Invitational Stakes last time out Oct. 1, the daughter of 2005 Classic winner St. Liam could cinch that honor with a win against the 11 male runners. Beating the boys is a task Havre de Grace already accomplished at Saratoga when she trounced older males in the Woodward, but she'll have to run 1¼ miles this time out, and although she's been second at the distance on two occasions, she's never won going that far.
Havre de Grace is owned by Rick Porter, a bow-tied sportsman whose Fox Hill Farm has campaigned runners in the nation's biggest races, from the Kentucky Derby to various Breeders' Cup events. The 71-year-old Delaware native is known for taking calculated gambles, but his biggest one in racing went horribly wrong.
In 2008, Porter and Jones entered a brilliant gray filly, Eight Belles, in the Kentucky Derby. Females rarely run in the biggest race in North America; only three have won. The daughter of Unbridled's Song turned in the best performance of her life on that first Saturday in May when she charged to a second-place finish behind Big Brown, but moments later she tragically broke both front ankles when galloping out on the turn. She was euthanized, and a maelstrom of fury enveloped the connections.
I wouldn't run a filly against the colts if I didn't think we had a very good chance of being 1-2-3. If I don't belong, I just step aside.
”-- Rick Porter, Owner of Havre de Grace
"It's something you'll never forget as long as you live," Porter told Jennie Rees of the Louisville Courier-Journal. "It was just one of the most tragic things that could happen."
Many believe a victory for Jones and Porter in the Classic would lessen the ache of that memory. But Porter said running his 4-year-old Havre de Grace in this spot is only about finding the best place for the filly's true talent to shine. Unbeaten in all but one of her races this year (she lost by a nose to rival Blind Luck in the Delaware Handicap two starts ago), Havre de Grace has been one of the most consistent performers -- male or female -- of the season.
"She belongs in this race," Porter said. "She fits. I think everybody knows she fits. I know she fits. I knew Eight Belles fit. And she proved she fit. We had a disaster, but I wouldn't run a filly against the colts -- and quite honestly, I wouldn't run most any horse in a big race against that group of horses -- if I didn't think we had a very good chance of being 1-2-3. If I don't belong, I just step aside."
The biggest competition for Havre de Grace comes in the form of a 5-year-old runner named Flat Out, conditioned by 70-year-old trainer Charles "Scooter" Dickey. Dickey nursed the ailing Flat Out back from multiple injuries, including quarter cracks and a fractured shoulder, and has become an overnight media sensation with his present-day Seabiscuit story. The tale gets better when you consider the fact that Dickey was down to a single horse at this time a few years ago, and that one was turned out to pasture. A lot of patience with one talented runner turned his life around. They're both about to make the biggest start of their careers, and on Wednesday, Dickey had one thing to say about that: "Bring 'em on, we're ready."
Last year's champion 2-year-old, Uncle Mo, and his stablemate, Stay Thirsty, (both owned by billionaire Mike Repole) and the past two Belmont Stakes winners, Ruler on Ice and Drosselmeyer, will be among Flat Out's most likely challengers. Throw in European contender So You Think and West Coast invader Game On Dude under jockey Chantal Sutherland (who could be the first female rider to win the Classic), a few longshots in Headache, Rattlesnake Bridge, Ice Box, and To Honor and Serve, and you have a veritable collection of talent -- but no easily determinable winner.
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Hall of Fame trainer D. Wayne Lukas has saddled a record 18 Breeders' Cup winners and holds the record for earnings, too, with $20,005,520 at the World Championships. He has one horse, Hamazing Destiny, in the Sprint, and one in the Juvenile named Optimizer. He doesn't have a runner in the Classic, but reporters don't care.
He doesn't seem to mind this honor. In fact, standing in Barn 44 on a rainy Thursday morning, Lukas was all too ready to opine on the Classic field.
"We don't have the superstar," he said. "You could make a case for the filly or for Flat Out after he won the Jockey Club Gold Cup, but the field in general is even enough that it's going to take a spread across the board in betting. I think people are going to try to handicap it and find a horse to hitch their allegiance to, rather than almost everybody being in one camp like with Zenyatta last year."
When the sun sets on Saturday night, the sport of horse racing may find another superstar in the Classic. We could also see a major upset, a runner who jumps up to win it only to never be seen again. Since the Breeders' Cup was inaugurated in 1984 we've seen both -- plenty of times before.
Claire Novak is an award-winning journalist whose coverage of the thoroughbred industry appears in a variety of outlets. You can reach her via her website.