Wednesday, October 28, 2015

Breeders' Cup - Wishin' and Hopin'

Twilight Eclipse (Photo courtesy of West Point Thoroughbreds)

Do the horse racing gods answer prayers? Well, I suppose you could say yes, as someone's prayers get rewarded when their horse wins a race. But since only one horse can win (except for the rare dead heat), most prayers are not answered. 

I pose this question as this weekend, there will be a lot of prayers sent to the horse racing gods, as there's a little event called the Breeders' Cup, held this year at Keeneland Race Course. There are all sort of stories out there that take this great celebration of racing and make it even more dramatic. Can American Pharoah win the Classic and become the first horse to win the so-called Grand Slam (the Triple Crown and the BC Classic)? Can Beholder win this race and become only the second mare ever to win this race, following in the footsteps of the great Zenyatta? Can J. Larry Jones, one of the best-loved trainers - and one of thoroughbred racing's all-time good guys - finally win his first Breeders' Cup race, after coming so close in the past? (He had two second-place finishes in 2007, not to mention two second similar finishes in the Kentucky Derby in 2007 and 2008).

As I mentioned above, there will be a lot of prayers sent out this weekend, by owners, trainers and fans; so many so that they'll cancel each other out. The best horses will probably win - though not always - and it should be a fantastic weekend of racing, especially given the wide-open nature of so many of the Breeders' Cup races this year. Those of us that love this sport will be winners after watching the races on Friday and Saturday, no matter the outcome.

So while the prayers may or may not be heard, I have a feeling that there will be a few more prayers this weekend for one particular horse, that being Twilight Eclipse, who will be running in the $3,000,000 Longines Turf at 1 and 1/2 miles.

I say that as this is a horse who has had his share of bad racing luck. In fact, that may be an understatement. In 2014, Twilight Eclipse lost three straight Grade 1s to Main Sequence in agonizing fashion, losing by a head, a neck and a neck. That's bad enough, but when you consider that Main Sequence was named the Eclipse Award winner as American Champion Male Turf Horse and American Champion Older Male Horse, you realize just how good Twilight Eclipse was in 2014.

This year, Twilight Eclipse finally won his first Grade 1, when he captured the Man O'War stakes at Belmont Park back in May. But in case you thought his luck had changed, think again. After a rare dud in Grade 1 Knob Creek in June, in which he finished an uncharacteristic seventh, he then recorded three straight third-place finishes in Grade 1 races in New York. The third of these, the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont on September 26, was particularly frustrating for the connections of Twilight Eclipse, as he was given a rail-skimming ride down the backstretch and was all set for a big run in the stretch, but soon found himself trapped behind early speed Shining Copper entering the homestretch. Twilight Eclipse finally found some running room between the eighth and the sixteenth poles and made a furious rally, trying to catch winner Big Blue Kitten (whom he will face in the BC Turf on Saturday), who had a free run on the outside. Twilight Eclipse was nosed out for second by Slumber (also in Saturday's race), losing the race by a half-length.

So Twilight Eclipse will try once again on Saturday and despite the close calls and disappointments, he will have a big shot to win this race. Two things in his favor: this will be his third consecutive appearance in the Breeders' Cup Turf, so he has the experience of running against the world's finest turf horses. Also, he still owns the North American record for fastest mile and a half on the turf, when he went 2:22.63 at Gulfstream Park on March 23, 2013. Clearly, he loves the mile and a half distance and is better the longer he goes.

So Twilight Eclipse is ready to run a big - maybe huge - race on Saturday. But just in case, I'm going to offer up a prayer to the racing gods. I wonder if they'll be listening this time.

P.S. In his last race, Twilight Agenda was narrowly defeated by Big Blue Kitten and Slumber, both of whom are listed at 8-1 morning line for the BC Turf. But Twilight Agenda is 20-1 morning line. 

What's up with that?

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