ARCADIA, Calif. — The Breeders’ Cup is the “fill-in-the-blank” sports or professional achievement cliché of horse racing.
The Super Bowl. The World Series. The Academy Awards. Whatever your favorite flavor of sports championships is, that’s what the Breeders’ Cup Championship is — times 10.
That’s because, unlike team-versus-team or individual competitions, the Breeders’ Cup brings the year’s best of the best — horses, trainers, jockeys — together on the same weekend with winners crowned on the field in separate races.
Think of the Breeders’ Cup as a college football playoff where the top 16 teams in every division face off for a marathon weekend of football — with the best coaches and schools crowned champions at the end.
Horse racing was a bit slow to come to the obvious conclusion that staging an end-of-season world championship was a good idea. The first Breeders’ Cup was held in 1984 with a seven-race program and $10 million in purse money. This weekend’s race cards at Santa Anita feature 13 races and nearly $20 million up for grabs to the fastest horses on turf and dirt.
Every hour on the hour starting mid-afternoon Friday and running until the sun sets Saturday, a champion will be crowned, and millions of dollars in future earnings, stud fees and sales of yearlings are on the line.
The Breeders’ Cup is not only a big gamble for the bettors. The races are a windfall for the owners, trainers and jockeys who find themselves in the winner’s circle after one of the 12 races held Friday and Saturday.
The big prize is the Breeders’ Cup Classic. It’s the richest race in North America, with a purse of $5 million — including $3 million to the winning owner and future payoffs of stud fees — on the line.
This year’s Classic is missing the two horses that provided fans with a thrilling finish last year — Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge. Both have been retired, but their rivalry has been replaced by another one matching this year’s top contenders, two 3-year-olds: Kentucky Derby winner and near Triple Crown hero California Chrome and Shared Belief, who missed the Triple Crown races with an injury. Chrome is the marquee name but, in recent months, Shared Belief has been grabbing all the headlines. These two stars will have their first meeting today.
A brilliant horse owned by a sports media celebrity — Jim Rome — Shared Belief is a deserving favorite and, if he should win, he would be a clear choice for the other prize on the line: the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year.
In an unusual twist, the other main contender is also a 3-year-old: Tonalist, who beat California Chrome in the Belmont Stakes. Three-year-olds, being younger and less mature than their competition, usually are up against it running in “open age” company, but these three are clearly special.
One who could upset is Cigar Street, who’s owned in part by basketball player Rashard Lewis. This is the horse — at long odds — that could be the upsetter to the younger set.
I’ve been a fan of Tonalist from early on this year and picked him to win the Kentucky Derby after just two races, but he was injured and missed the race. He was ready for the Belmont and beat California Chrome — and my money will be on his nose to get the win Saturday.