By Mike Farrell
Swiss Skydiver left the door wide open and Authentic powered through to decisively clinch Horse of the Year with a front-running victory Saturday in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (G1).
Case closed. Grade 1 victories in the Haskell, the Kentucky Derby and finally the Classic sealed the deal for Authentic.
The Breeders’ Cup, as usual, was the defining moment for settling year-end disputes. The battle lines for Horse of the Year, the biggest prize of all, were stark. The honoree would either come from the Classic with it’s loaded lineup of dirt handicap stars including Maximum Security, Improbable, By My Standards and Tiz the Law … in addition to Authentic.
Or it would be Swiss Skydiver, the filly who bravely defeated Authentic last month in the Preakness (G1).
None of the other divisional contenders factored into the Horse of the Year discussion, unlike last year when turf star Bricks and Mortar nabbed the HOY prize.
Swiss Skydiver needed a convincing victory in the Distaff (G1) to remain in the conversation. An unfortunate stumble at the break took her out of the race, and shifted the spotlight squarely onto the Classic.
Could Swiss Skydiver have beaten Monomoy Girl with a clean start? We’ll never know, and we’ll leave that debate to your good judgment.
So, it came down to the Classic to conclude a sun-kissed, spring-like weekend at Keeneland.
Authentic was certainly up to the challenge, and found a dirt surface that strongly favored speed all day. If you didn’t have early gas, you didn’t have much chance.
Authentic got the 1 1/4 miles in 1:59.19, slicing almost a full second off the track mark set by American Pharoah — certainly no slouch — in his 2015 Classic victory.
The souped-up track was a major negative on an otherwise stellar weekend. We like to see the championships decided over a fair surface.
In defense of Keeneland, you can’t fool Mother Nature but she can certainly fool you. They had set up the track for early November. What they got was a day Churchill Downs would gladly accept on any first Saturday in May.
And we got a clear-cut Horse of the Year determination.
“Today there was a lot on the line,” now four-time Classic winning trainer Bob Baffert said. “There’s a lot of championships on the line today and so I’m biased, of course, but what he did today was pretty amazing.”
And so was Baffert’s 2020 season, a year filled with controversy over medication violations that concluded with the silver-haired trainer smelling like a rose once again.
He left Keeneland with a 1-2 finish in the Classic as Improbable took the place spot, and Gamine bounced back to blitz the competition in the Filly & Mare Sprint (G1).
The Horse of the Year title was just the icing on the cake.
It’s now Brad Cox’s world and we’re just visiting. Cox went from “up-and-coming” trainer to over the top with four Breeders’ Cup wins over the weekend. And now he’s poised for racing’s biggest stage with Juvenile (G1) winner Essential Quality emerging as the early leader on next year’s Road to the Kentucky Derby.
It always does the heart good to see an old-timer like Whitmore, still spry at 7, pull out a win in the Sprint (G1) … the Juvenile Fillies (G1) was a welcome reminder that there is more to U.S. racing than the New York-Kentucky-Southern California axis as Vequist from Parx defeated Ohio’s own Dayoutoftheoffice.
It marked the second straight year a horse from Philadelphia won at the Breeders’ Cup, following Spun to Run’s victory in the 2019 Dirt Mile (G1)… Baffert’s four Classic wins were with 3-year-olds – Bayern in 2014, American Pharoah in 2015 and Arrogate in 2016 were the others… It should go without saying that Authentic is a lock to be voted 3-year-old male champion… Baffert’s other two Classic runners Saturday, Improbable (second) and Maximum Security (fifth), are headed into retirement — Improbable to WinStar Farm, Maximum Security to Ashford Stud… Irad Ortiz, Jr., one of five riders with two BC wins, won the Bill Shoemaker award as outstanding jockey for the third year in a row. Ortiz won aboard Golden Pal in the Juvenile Turf Sprint and Whitmore in the Sprint. He was second with Improbable and third with Sharp Samurai in the Dirt Mile.
Mike Farrell has worked in thoroughbred and harness racing for much of his career in journalism. Mike is a turf writer, harness writer, and handicapper, covering and analyzing races at dozens of racetracks around the country. Based on the East Coast, Mike has covered the Triple Crown races and the Breeders’ Cup for a number of publications, including Daily Racing Form, as well as The Associated Press. He spends time at Gulfstream Park taking in the races, and also hits the harness racing circuit in the Northeast region. He’s been a fixture at The Hambletonian and the Haskell Invitational for longer than he’d like to remember.