All sports worth their sweat have rivalries. Most of the time, they’re easily definable: Oklahoma vs. Texas, Duke vs. North Carolina, Yankees vs. Red Sox, Cowboys vs. Redskins, Navratilova vs. Evert. But in horse racing, rivalries have been few and far between — even among the game’s insiders, much less for the general public. Sure, you had Affirmed vs. Alydar and Sunday Silence vs. Easy Goer, but they were 32 and 21 years ago now. The statute of limitations on satisfying any kind of jones for those showdowns has expired.
But an undeniable rivalry has manufactured itself in today’s Thoroughbred racing, and it doesn’t even really involve two horses. It’s East vs. West, synthetics vs. dirt, Zenyatta vs. anyone. It’s as nasty and consuming as many fans have seen in their racing lifetimes.
And it all boils over this Saturday at 6:45 p.m. Eastern when the Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships culminate in the $5 million Classic. Welcome to the “Put Up Or Shut Up Cup.”
Never has so much angst and tension, coupled with euphoria and excitement, rolled itself into one two-minute horse race. The difference between this Classic and 99.9 percent of the races before it: Racing fans are undeniably either for or against the big mare going for 20 straight victories. You love her, or you hate everything for which her career has stood. There are some tempered people in the middle, but they’re silent. The noise you hear from the extremes is raucous.
In horse races, the fans cheer for their selections and favorites, and inevitably blame the jockey after every loss (hey, it’s part of the deal). You don’t see people hoping horses lose. It’s not as if you walk the track apron and see T-shirts that read, “My two favorite horses are Silver Charm and whoever beats Skip Away.” It’s never been that kind of sport, but maybe came closest to that surrounding Big Brown before the 2008 Belmont Stakes. He was the forerunner to a divided nation of racing fans, but that division has gone viral (in Internet terms) nowadays.
This Breeders’ Cup will not put a period on any of the storylines but rather will deliver a rousing exclamation point one way or the other. It’s truly where the trash talking stops and the final result gets the last word. Zenyatta gets the rarest chance in a game of Disney endings to finally just stick it to her detractors. In an era in which every athlete’s motivation plays out through the microphone as “They disrespected us and we had to show everyone what we’re made of,” the world of horse racing comes current with the sporting times. On the flip side, a Zenyatta flop will validate much of what her detractors have been saying all along, that her connections ducked top competition and that she’s a good horse made to look sensational by a fondness for synthetic surfaces.
Although she’ll be the crown jewel of discussion those two days, to be sure, it’s not just about Zenyatta. Many storylines in this 14-race championship series can end several years of heated debate.
With California’s Santa Anita Park hosting the past two Breeders’ Cup renewals on a synthetic racetrack, a chasm has been created in Thoroughbred racing, spread-eagling opinion of East vs. West and true champion vs. phony baloney. The fantastic thing about the 2010 Breeders’ Cup being back on natural dirt is not the mere footing itself but rather the fact that some of the major players from ’08 and ’09 are still in the mix to either validate themselves once and for all or be relegated historically as synthetic surface specialists, fair or not fair.
Not only do horses such as Zenyatta, Gio Ponti and Informed Decision (among others) have to prove that their successful synthetic runs in championships pasts weren’t flukes, but the dirt horses and horsemen who struggled statistically in recent synthetic bouts also have to put up or shut up. It’s back to the mecca of horse racing, Churchill Downs’ natural dirt, and the horses and horsemen from New York need to deliver on their two years of constant whining about heading west and running over stuff they categorized as clumped lint.
As much as it’s put up or shut up for Zenyatta and her crew, the same can be said for the big horses for trainers such as Todd Pletcher and Nick Zito, as well as West Coaster Bob Baffert, who make up a trio of huge names who have not been shy in their lack of fondness for racing on synthetic surfaces. Now they get what they want, a dirt surface, and it’s time for their horses to put the trainers’ money where their mouths have been. All three have a chance to knock off Zenyatta with horses Quality Road, Fly Down and Lookin At Lucky, respectively. The surface excuse is out the door, and she’s shipping east this time. Beat her, or bow to her.
The last two times the Breeders’ Cup was held on natural dirt, the surface was the major complaint, as well. A monsoon at Monmouth Park in 2007 left organizers contemplating a possible postponement, but the races went on through boggy conditions that no one would consider remotely “championship.”
At Churchill Downs in ’06, track superintendent Butch Lehr became the target of a firestorm when horses from post position No. 1 dominated the main track races and racing types called for his head for allegedly souping-up the inside of the dirt track to favor Kentucky horses. It’s a notion many find bogus, but it was out there, and it remains out there. For Lehr’s sake, let’s hope the No. 1 horses don’t sweep the daily early double on Friday and Saturday. And that the best horses in the races don’t happen to draw the No. 1 post, giving conspiracy theorists fuel for their notions when a string of logical horses win from the rail.
This year’s Breeders’ Cup is also “put up or shut up” time for the Europeans. It’s highly likely the synthetic surfaces in California helped their main-track rise in Breeders’ Cup success the past two years. But it’s also significant to note that this will be the first Breeders’ Cup held on dirt in the non-steroid era of American racing.
Did the Euros dominate because of surface and medication balancing, or just because of the surface? If they come across the pond and win big races on dirt at Churchill, perhaps there’s much more to their chest-pounding notions of purer racing with less medication than the Yanks. It’s another fascinating subplot of rivalry, foreign vs. domestic, in an event loaded with manufactured rivalries that don’t involve a swishing tail.
This Breeders’ Cup also gives jockey Garrett Gomez a stage to put up — and shut his critics up. He’s been the event’s most dominant rider in recent years, winning an unfathomable nine Breeders’ Cup events since 2005. No other jockey has won more than five. But the swirling talk among racing fans is that Gomez has been in a funk in 2010, being fired from the mount on Lookin At Lucky this spring and failing to deliver his Eclipse Award-winning abilities on an everyday level. The racing fans who chat daily online vow that Gomez turns it on only for the big races. Well, the races don’t get any bigger than these. My guess is that Go-Go will step up big, if paired with the right horse, and give his mounts every chance to land in the winner’s circle.
The 2010 Breeders’ Cup not only will crown 14 champions this Friday and Saturday but also will go a long way toward rewriting the history of its 2008 and 2009 events. Will it reinforce the results of recent years and recent champions, or change the way history remembers those performances?
It’s time to put up or shut up.