Breeders’ Cup Juvenile showcasing top 2-year-olds to highlight the 14-race event
The Breeders’ Cup, horse racing’s year-end coronation, is hoping to carve out a small space in the sports landscape for two days starting Friday, a couple of weeks after the World Series and a week before the Masters golf tournament. And that’s not to mention two months after the Kentucky Derby.
Keeneland Racecourse in Lexington, Ky., will host the 14-race, $31-million event that in the racing world is more important but less recognizable than the Kentucky Derby. Like most sports, it will be held without the general public. Only essential personnel and participants, which means owners, trainers and jockeys, will be allowed on the grounds.
The total purse was supposed to increase this year to $35 million, but in light of the pandemic and the associated loss of revenue, the increase was tabled for a year. Next year, the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Del Mar.
The format changed two years ago when it was held at Churchill Downs, whereby the five races Friday are all for 2-year-olds. Older horses race Saturday, culminating in the $6-million Classic.
Also, we get two weeks worth of stewards’ rulings.
The thinking is Friday would be the hype day for next year’s road to the Kentucky Derby. In fact, the 2021 points-earning road started before the running of the 2020 Kentucky Derby, when the Iroquois Stakes was run on the Derby undercard.
The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile is the cornerstone of Friday’s card, with 20 Derby points and a good shot at the Eclipse Award for best male 2-year-old awaiting the winner. As for a better Kentucky Derby shot, not so much.
In the 36-year history of the Breeders’ Cup, only twice has the same horse won the Juvenile and the Derby, Street Sense (2006, 2007) and Nyquist (2015, 2016). Only six times have horses who have run, but not necessarily won, in the Juvenile gone on to win the Derby.
The yoke of pressure and sky-high expectations Friday belongs to Jackie’s Warrior, unbeaten in four races including two Grade 1 wins.
“He’s the most accomplished [2-year-old] I’ve had to this point,” said Hall of Fame trainer Steve Asmussen, who has had his share of good horses but has not won the Kentucky Derby with 20 starters.
“We’ve had some really nice ones, but he’s the first to win the Saratoga Special, Hopeful [Stakes] and Champagne [Stakes] since Dehere did it [in 1993]. Obviously, he’s a very accomplished 2-year-old. We’re very proud of that.”
The horse was purchased for $95,000, a pittance in today’s high-priced auctions, at the Keeneland sale as a yearling for Kirk and Judy Robison, originally from California but who now live in New Mexico.
“I’ve been very fortunate to train for the Robisons for a very long time,” Asmussen said. “The association started at Sunland Park in El Paso, Texas. We’ve had some very good horses but Jackie’s Warrior is easily the best.”
Horse racing connections treat talking about the Derby at the end of the previous year much like some baseball announcers treat a no-hitter.
When Nyquist won the Juvenile in 2015, immediately after the race, owner Paul Reddam was asked by Laffit Pincay III of NBC what he thought about the horse’s prospects for the Derby.
“When is the Derby?” Reddam deadpanned.
Asmussen also wouldn’t go near talking about next year’s Triple Crown race.
“We’ve got a lot on our plate right now, and that’s our focus,” Asmussen said.
The 1 1/16-mile Juvenile has a field of 14 with Jackie’s Warrior as the 7-5 morning-line favorite. Normally, the field has several Southern California-based horses, some with a good chance of winning. Not so this year.
Del Mar finishes its race year with a 15-day race meeting that goes until the end of November.
Six-time Derby winner Bob Baffert has a one-time starter, Classier, as his only entrant at 12-1.
“He’s lightly raced, but he could be a superstar,” said Baffert, who has won this race four times. “It’s a tough race.”
On Wednesday, Baffert announced a series of barn measures to try and mitigate a series of high-profile medication violations among some of his best horses.
Also shipping in from California is Rombauer (15-1) for trainer Michael McCarthy. He has one win and a second in the American Pharoah at Santa Anita in his three starts. Hot Rod Charlie (30-1) for Doug O’Neill is also entered. He broke his maiden in his fourth try at Santa Anita on Oct. 2.
The horse thought to have the best shot to beat Jackie’s Warrior is Reinvestment Risk (9-2) for Chad Brown. He finished second to Jackie’s Warrior in both Hopeful and Champagne.
Other Breeders’ Cup races on Friday are the Juvenile Turf Sprint, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies and Juvenile Fillies Turf.
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