(Del Mar / Photo Courtesy of Del Mar)

Here’s a few after-tastes from the 2021 version — the 38th edition — of the Breeders’ Cup extravaganza:

4-Thumbs Up / Del Mar Is A Beautiful Venue, To Be Sure:

There are few places in the world more beautiful than the Del Mar Turf Club, the little racetrack that is snuck in-between the ridges and the beaches of Southern California’s La Jolla area. And, although the ocean’s chill brought dense fog for much of the week leading up to the 38th retention of the Breeders’ Cup, the mystery of the event was shrouded with both glamour and prestige.

The track was beautifully prepared, and although the quirky layout makes for some interesting races both on the dirt and the turf, the surface was fair and safe. From gate to wire. From pillar to post. From beginning to end.

The industry should congratulate Del Mar for that, if nothing else.

But…

If you want to showcase the best of the best in an industry that needs a ribbon or two tied on the package, then Del Mar did a “Best in Show” performance for both fan and participant.

The two-day attendance for the sport’s premier showcase was just 47,089. Part of this was due to some COVID restrictions that are still hindering live events on the Left Coast.

But the betting handle set an all-time record at $182,908,409. That is a near-5% increase over the previous high water mark, set in 2019 at Santa Anita. And, it was a dramatic increase of 14%-plus over what was pushed through the various betting portals a year ago when the Breeders’ Cup was hosted at Keeneland.

Much of this success may be due to the increase in world-class horses, who were shipped to San Diego from around the globe. Most notably, mind you, the increase in horses that were run from connections in Japan.

Whatever the reason(s), much credit must go to Del Mar. A wonderful host.

Congrats.

4 Thumbs Down / Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf Debacle Should Never Happen — Period:

Much has already been written about the last Breeders’ Cup event on Friday — the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf — and the debacle that occurred when Albahr acted up in the starting gate, and, ultimately had to be scratched.

We were all aghast and holding our collective breath as Albahr first got his front legs over the top of the gate and then, subsequently, flipped over, and seemed to be trapped on the ground under the starting device. Finally, we were both relieved and thrilled when the horse was extracted and was able to jog off the track under his own power.

That relief only got better when it was revealed that the 2YO son of Dubawi — who came in off a nice win in the G1 Summer Stakes at Woodbine Race Course — was declared unhurt and unharmed.

But that sigh was short-lived. The ensuing debacle was soon to become as troubling and embarrassing for the Breeders’ Cup.

For some reason, a veterinarian communicated to the Stewards that the #1 horse — Modern Games — was to be scratched, as well. Although the horse was not impacted or struck by the trapped Albahr to his outside, and was allowed to escape any possible damage or threat by the gate crew, someone made a gut reaction move to eliminate both horses from consideration.

As you know by now, the matter was only to become much, much, much worse. After the horse was removed from the betting pools and announced to the general public as a scratch, the connections argued that the horse was fine and not injured in any way and should have never been scratched.

Apparently, the connections made powerful lobbyists. The horse was allowed back in. What?

While I respect a good lobbyist, this should have never occurred. Unlike anything I have ever witnessed before at a racetrack or watching any race, the “scratched” Modern Games was suddenly allowed back into the race and allowed to participate for “purse money only.”

Yet, things were only to get worse from the PR prospect. As you knew it would happen, the “scratched” and “reinstated” Modern Games went on to win.

For his very wealthy connections and owners.

Yet, not for his more modest supporters at the windows and the consumer bettors.

Many of them were left holding a bag of horse manure and a bad Pick 5 ticket when their money was suddenly converted to the Post Time Favorite — who didn’t win. All the while, they got to watch their “real pick” win.

As you might expect, this did not go over well.

The Breeders’ Cup issued many statements trying to explain the inexplainable. They even went so far as to release something like this — twice:

“The CHRB, Del Mar, and Breeders’ Cup officials reviewed the circumstances of the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf last night and again this morning.

“The CHRB determined that, as discussed in the aftermath of the race, #1 Modern Games was scratched by the stewards on the recommendation of one of the track veterinarians, Dr. Chuck Jenkins, at the starting gate at 17:35:35 PT.

“After additional examination and assessment of Modern Games by the attending veterinary team, track veterinarian Dr. Dana Stead concluded that the horse had not been injured and communicated to the stewards that the horse was cleared to run.

“Due to a miscommunication between the stewards and the Del Mar mutuels department, Modern Games was reinserted into the pari-mutuel wagering pools at 17:37:01 PT.

“At 17:43:49 PT, after it was made clear to the mutuels department that Modern Games was competing for purse money only, the horse was again removed from the wagering pools.

“The race went off at 17:47:34 PT.

“Per CHRB rules, all wagers on #1 Modern Games in the win, place, show, exacta, trifecta, superfecta, and super high five pools are subject to refund. Daily double and Pick 3 wagers to Modern Games received a consolation payment. Per CHRB rules, in all other multi-leg wagers ending on the 10th race, bettors with tickets including #1 Modern Games and #2 Albahr received the post-time favorite, #3 Dakota Gold, unless they designated an alternate for the race.

“As a result of the review, the CHRB, Del Mar and Breeders’ Cup are modifying their injury management communications protocols,  so that Dr. Stead will make the final determination with respect to recommended scratches at the starting gate and has sole authority to communicate those recommendations to the stewards.”

According to a source very, very close to the situation — and sitting next to some of those that were ultimately drug into the embarrassing debate and debacle — the scratch was entirely due to a Breeders’ Cup appointed veterinarian.

According to the source, it was not due to the Stewards and/or miscommunication to the mutuels department.

it was due to a Breeders’ Cup official on the ground.

But…

Guess what, Breeders’ Cup:

It doesn’t matter that you reviewed the issue and protocols. Does not matter that you made a change so that Dr. Stead got to make the final determinations. Doesn’t matter.

What Does Matter?

It does matter that many bettors were left holding a bad piece of bad paper and a terrible taste in their mouths.

You allowed a “scratched” horse to re-enter the race and win $1 million purse for rich owners.

Name me one time in your review you have ever — ever — witnessed that ever happening before. Just once?

Fact is?

You screwed the betting public.

That is what matters.

The truth is very simple. Once it was announced that Modern Games was scratched from the race and the horse was eliminated from the pari-mutuel pools then the Breeders’ Cup should have stayed the course.

The horse should never have been reinstated into the race.

The horse should have never been allowed to run for “purse money only.”

The horse should have remained scratched.

That was and is the only fair and equitable remedy.

No apology will make it better. No excuse is palatable. Just admit you screwed up and you screwed your own fans.

Own it.

(Knicks Go / Photos by Holly M. Smith)

3-Thumbs Up / Knicks Go Is Still Going:

Before Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic, much was made of how the brilliant Knicks Go could never win this most important race of the year and his life.

Much was made that Knicks Go had never been the distance of the 11/4-mile distance that was to be negotiated in the BC Classic.

Much was made that the colt had prepped for the biggest race of his life with an easy hand-ride victory in the weak, G3 Lukas Classic at Churchill Downs over a bunch of out-classed foes.

Much was made that this steel gray could and would never “steal away” on an easy lead here. Not against the likes of these other classy speedsters like Medina Spirit and Hot Rod Charlie.

Much was made by some of TVG’s so-called experts that the mare Letruska could be poised for an impressive win in the Breeders’ Cup Distaff and could be in line to win this year’s Horse of the Year honors.

So much for the skeptics. So much for the questions. So much for the much.

On Saturday, Knicks Go — expertly trained by Brad Cox — put a butt-whipping on every horse and every doubter in the 2021 Breeders’ Cup Classic. On Saturday, Knicks Go put to bed all the critic’s arguments and questions. On Saturday, Knicks Go answered all the questions — including who is the 2021 Horse of the Year.

Period.

On Saturday, Knicks Go went right to the front of the 11/4-mile race — just like everyone knew that he would.

And, on Saturday, Knicks Go went all the way around the oval in front — easily, in fact — and just over-powered every other horse and “mouth” that promised to be better and do more.

No contest. Simply no contest.

The truth was told on Saturday.

The best horse in the world right now is Knicks Go — who just so happened to win the 1-mile Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile a year ago.

The. Best. Horse.

(Jockey John Velazquez / Coady Photography)

3-Thumbs Down / John Velazquez — Rider of Medina Sprit:

All week long, leading up to the Breeders’ Cup Classic, Hall of Fame rider John Velazquez spoke in brave and arrogant terms of how he and his horse were going right to the lead and would take on all challengers.

The jockey spoke of how his horse has tremendous speed and knows how to use it. The jockey spoke of how his horse only knew one way to run, and he would take no other strategy as an option. The jockey spoke on high of how he would tackle Knicks Go early and often. In fact, the jockey truly issued a challenge of “May the best horse win.”

But when the starting gate opened and the gauntlet was ready to be run?

Velazquez and Medina Spirit were found wavering and wondering.

So much of Velazquez and his bravado.

So much for Medina’s Spirit great speed and guts.

So much for the challenge.

On Saturday, Velazquez either swallowed his guts, or swallowed his words.

He and Medina Spirit never mustered any true challenge. Not early. Not often. And, truly, not even late.

In truth, they got their butts kicked.

Soundly.

Sure, he and his horse — best known for their soon-to-be disqualification in the 2021 Kentucky Derby — got up to be second.

Sure, Velazquez surfaced on Twitter on Sunday to say that he didn’t have a good enough start to challenge Knicks Go on the front and that he had “informed” his owners prior to the race that he would get trapped in a speed duel that would spend his horse too early.

Sure, Medina Spirit inched out Essential Quality at the wire for the “Place” position, and now Velazquez wants to broadcast his boosts about being the best 3YO in the country.

Maybe Velazquez was just game-playing prior to the race, and holding his boss’s strategy in his pocket? Maybe Velazquez was just promoting and touting like some WWF superstar of yesteryear. Maybe Velazquez was just kidding.

Doesn’t matter.

Knicks Go showed up for the fight, full of vigor.

Velazquez and Medina Spirit didn’t.

(Life Is Good / Photo Courtesy of NYRA)

2-Thumbs Up:

Life Is Good may be the best horse in the world today not named Knicks Go.

Change that.

Life Is Good is the best dirt horse in the world today not named Knicks Go.

This 3YO colt is — in my mind — the best 3YO in the world. Not Medina Spirit. Not Essential Quality (sorry Brad). Not Hot Rod Charlie, either.

It’s Life Is Good.

On Saturday, this amazing colt ripped away from the starting gate in pursuit of a championship in the Breeders’ Cup Mile at Del Mar like a bat-out-of-hell style. He went the first quarter mile in a blistering :21.88 seconds. He went the first half mile in :44.94. He covered 6 furlongs in 1:08.76.

To put that in perspective?

Aloha West won the Breeders’ Cup Sprint on Saturday in a final time of 1:08.49. The early fractions in the Sprint were even slower.

For Life Is Good to finish the Mile and win by nearly 6 lengths over Ginobili after those kind of early speed numbers?

Amazing.

Truly amazing.

Just a year ago, Knicks Go won the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile at Keeneland. This year, Knicks Go returned to the races and went on to dominate this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic. Here’s hoping that the connections will allow Life Is Good to have a chance to do the same thing.

And, guess what?

The fact is that the owners moved this colt from the embattled Bob Baffert to trainer Todd Pletcher earlier this year and the horse has gotten even better.

See?

The horse should always come first.

Always.

(Trainer Bob Baffert / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

2-Thumbs Down:

I have absolutely nothing against the 2YO colt Corniche. Not one thing. In fact, on Friday, the colt stamped himself as the best juvenile in the land by winning the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile at Del Mar.

He will win the Eclipse Award. And, he should. After all, he is now 3-for-3 in his abbreviated career, to date, and is still looking for a serious challenger in a race. Still.

In any other year, the son of Quality Road would immediately ascend to the top of the Kentucky Derby rankings and be headed into the off-season as the #1 threat to capture the “Run for the Roses” early in the 3YO campaign.

In any other year, Corniche would be the early “Talk of the Town.”

But?

There’s always a but.”

Despite all the things that this colt has done and accomplished so far, it is so unfortunate that the horse is being overshadowed by the shadowy name, game and image of his trainer — Bob Baffert.

As of right now, Baffert — whose 2021 Kentucky Derby winner Medina Spirit tested positive after this year’s spectacular event and is waiting adjudication and probable disqualification by the Kentucky Horse Racing Commission — is not permitted to enter any horse at Churchill Downs for the next two years.

As of right now, Corniche has Zero qualifying points for the Kentucky Derby.

As of right now, if the owners and connections of Corniche plan to run this colt in the 2022 Kentucky Derby then they must make a decision on who will be the next and new trainer for this speedy and talented colt.

If Baffert stays in charge, then this horse will not be at Churchill Downs on the first Saturday in May.

If the horse moves to another barn, then hopefully the horse will be allowed to run without the stench and stereotype of whether this horse, too, will test positive — like so many of Baffert’s horses have done in recent times.

It is sad, truthfully.

The 2021 Kentucky Derby has already been tainted by Baffert and this ugly mess. The 2021 Derby already has been brought into question and has already come under scrutiny and speculation. The 2021 Derby already has an asterisk assigned to it.

Why should the 2022 Derby be labelled with this same curse?

Why should this stench linger any longer?

Here’s hoping that the owners of Corniche come to their senses and do the right thing for this sport and this horse and make the same decision as those that own the spectacular Life Is Good.

Here’s hoping that the owners make the right choice, and make it soon.

Here’s hoping that the muck of the 2021 Kentucky Derby finally goes away, along with the man who has it stuck to his shoes.

(Trainer Wesley Ward / Coady Photography)

1-Thumbs Up:

Just got to love the connections of the two Japanese horses that won in the Breeders’ Cup. Loves Only You captured the Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, while Marche Lorraine shocked the world by winning the Breeders’ Cup Distaff.

Just got to love the job done by trainer Charles Appleby, even though he seems to have a number of horses that still need a little tutoring in the starting gate. He won with Modern Games, Space Blues, and Yibir

Just got to love the exhilarating finishes in the Sprint, where my very own selection Dr. Schivel got caught by Aloha West on the wire by a skinny nose, and the remarkable closing kick of the grand Yipir.

Just got to love the job that Kentucky-based trainer Wesley Ward does to get his horses ready and geared up for the Breeders’ Cup every year. He came home to Lexington with two more wins this year with Twilight Gleaming and Golden Pal.

Just got to love the Breeders’ Cup — created by the late, great John Gaines — to give us this annual celebration of the horse.

Just go to love it.

(Letruska / Photo by Holly M. Smith)

1-Thumbs Down:

Sorry to see the great Letruska have such a tough and sad day on Saturday.

The grand mare had such a fantastic year, winning G1s over and over and over and over. She catapulted into the Breeders’ Cup off a win in the G1 Spinster at Keeneland in October, but had so many great wins and memories along life’s journey this year.

She defeated Monomoy Girl at Oaklawn Park and all the best fillies and mares that later came her way. One by one. All by all.

But despite all the rhetoric created all last week over whether or not Letruska should be considered for this year’s Horse of the Year Award, the grand mare never looked comfortable or energetic at Del Mar. She appeared a bit dull, and, perhaps, a bit over-tasked.

On Saturday, after a determined effort, where she took a brief lead just past the 3/8ths pole, the grand Letruska was done. Finished. Toast.

She fell out of contention and out of sight of the leaders. She defeated only one horse and was distanced by many, many, many lengths.

It was not befitting of her class. It was not the way to finish the year. It was not the way to go out for the year.

It was sad.

And, if you love the horse, your heart bled just a little, along with a tear or two.