By Ed McNamara
Fear of being around others, anxiety about the air we breathe. Isolation, illness and much death — The New Abnormal in the year of the plague. America divided as never before, facing an election for the soul of the nation. Almost all the news is bad 24/7 in apocalyptic 2020, so you find consolation wherever you can.
The late Phil Bull, the Englishman who founded Timeform, called thoroughbred racing “the great triviality,” an absorbing pastime but insignificant in the big picture. But amid hard times, we need distractions that much more, and the temporary shutdown of sports, though necessary for safety, was a serious jolt.
Santa Anita didn’t race from March 22 until mid-May, a depressing time for trainer Bob Baffert.
“It was looking so gloomy when Santa Anita shut down,” Baffert said on a Breeders’ Cup conference call earlier this week. “I shut a lot of my horses down. I really didn’t think we’d be able to run, and I thought ‘What a shame.’ It was really devastating for everyone.
“And to be able to come back … I feel really fantastic that we got to reopen and that this is happening.”
By “this” Baffert meant the Breeders’ Cup, which will be run Friday and Saturday at picturesque Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. For the 37th consecutive year, the thoroughbred world will come together, a reason for owners, trainers, riders and horseplayers to celebrate.
My friend Craig says the announcement of the Breeders’ Cup pre-entries is the best day of the year, like Christmas when you’re 6 years old. It feels even better because the Cup stayed on schedule in a year when our Triple Crown was scrambled in a world turned upside down. The Belmont Stakes, the traditional finale, came first, on June 20, with the Kentucky Derby on Sept. 5 and the Preakness on Oct. 3.
Racing across the Atlantic suffered collateral damage, too. The 220-year-old Epsom Derby, an eternal fixture in early June, was pushed back to July 4. Its 25-1 winner was named Serpentine, meaning snakelike, sadly appropriate for a twisted year. And like Belmont Park, Churchill Downs and Pimlico, Epsom Downs’ stands were deserted.
Two of the world’s best trainers, Irishman Aidan O’Brien and Englishman John Gosden, are longtime supporters of the year-end championships. O’Brien, with 12 Breeders’ Cup trophies, pre-entered 10 runners Monday, seven more than Gosden, who has five Cup wins.
Ireland and England require a 14-day quarantine after travel from the United States, which didn’t keep them away.
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“Travel has been difficult all year with all of the COVID restrictions, but we’re glad that America and the Breeders’ Cup have allowed this to happen,” O’Brien said. “The Breeders’ Cup has the perfect races and on fair tracks. We always look forward to seeing horses from all over the world compete. I suppose it’s something everybody looks forward to all year, and we think it’s very important for the whole thoroughbred industry.”
Gosden was based in Southern California when the Cup debuted in 1984, when he won the Mile with the filly Royal Heroine.
“I’ve been a passionate believer in it since we started at Hollywood Park,” Gosden said. “So many people turned up, and it was a great day, with phenomenal racing. I’ve had my heart in it all the way through. It’s such a wonderful international event, and if you have a horse capable of belonging in a race, there’s nothing more you could want than to run in the Breeders’ Cup.”
Like Baffert, O’Brien and Gosden had to overcome unprecedented obstacles.
“It’s been a bit of a nightmare year,” Gosden said. “We were getting horses ready for the spring and then we didn’t race in April or May. But we are living in a strange world now, and we’ve just got to get on with it.”
In early April, Baffert had three undefeated 3-year-olds — Nadal, Charlatan and Authentic — the strongest Derby hand of all time. If the race had been run on the first Saturday in May, he might have run 1-2-3. Instead, it was pushed back to Labor Day weekend, and Nadal and Charlatan got hurt. Baffert still managed to win a record-tying sixth Derby with Authentic, and he could finish 1-2-3 in Saturday’s $6 million Classic with him, Improbable and Maximum Security
How good is this guy? Like The Dude in “The Big Lebowski,” Bob abides.
Minutes after the Derby, he said, “This is the craziest year ever. It’s been a roller coaster, but thankfully it’s the love of the horses that keeps me going. They’re the best therapy a human can have. I love being around them.”
As for enduring the stress and challenges of navigating 2020, Baffert is philosophical.
Ed McNamara is an award-winning journalist who has been writing about thoroughbred racing for 35 years. He has handicapped races for ESPN.com, Newsday and The Record of New Jersey. He is the author of “Cajun Racing: From the Bush Tracks to the Triple Crown” and co-author of “The Most Glorious Crown,” a chronicle of the first 12 Triple Crown champions.