The greatest race of all? For me, it's the Classic
By Greg Wood
It sounds unlikely and unpatriotic, almost heretical in fact. Perhaps it is all three. But it is true, and I am happy to admit it. My favourite race of the year is not the Epsom Derby or the Grand National, deeply embedded though both races are in my country's sporting life. It is not a race at Goodwood, sumptuous though its downland setting is, and Sussex-born and raised as I am. It is not even the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, though it is always a spine-tingling experience to walk toward Longchamp through Bois de Boulogne touched by autumn on the first Sunday in October. No, my favourite race of the year is the Breeders' Cup Classic, and I can hear some of the complaints already.
It is run on dirt, not grass. It rewards brute strength ahead of brilliance. It claims to be a "World Championship," yet its terms and conditions are skewed very deliberately to suit American-trained horses. And, of course, there are the drugs. How can the Classic be anyone's favourite race when the horses are all running on drugs?
There is at least something to be said for all these points. But as the sun starts to set at the end of the Breeders' Cup's main card, and above all when the Classic is about to be run in the twilight glow from the San Gabriel Mountains at Santa Anita Park, as it will be this year, the simple truth of it is that I'm too excited to care.
One reason is, I suspect, uniquely mine. There cannot be many racing fans from Sussex, or from the U.K. for that matter, whose first trip to a racecourse at the age of eight happened to be at Santa Anita. But mine was, and the experience made such an impression that I can remember to this day which horses my father backed on my behalf. Both were outsiders, but the second was an unexpected runner-up. I won enough money to buy a new fishing reel. When you are eight, things like that stick.
Even now, 40 years later, when I go back to Santa Anita to cover the Breeders' Cup, the mountains, palm trees, and grandstand will all be just as I've always remembered them from the day when my dad was putting on my bets. It is my favourite racecourse and always will be, and for me, no race brings out its qualities quite like a Classic. America's most beautiful racecourse and its most valuable race are a natural fit.
But it is not just a personal, Santa Anita thing. There are sound professional reasons why I love the Classic too, the most obvious one being that when it comes to stories, it is a race that never seems to disappoint. Whether it is a stretch duel, a head-bobber, an agonizing near miss, or something else entirely, there is, almost without exception, a news line to grab and drama to unpick and explain.
In its relatively short history, the Classic has already given us Ferdinand vs. Alysheba - at now defunct Hollywood Park - and Giant's Causeway vs. Tiznow. There was Zenyatta's unforgettable success in 2009, and the almost equally unforgettable defeat by Blame 12 months later.
There was the year when Mike Smith aboard Drosselmeyer beat his former girlfriend Chantal Sutherland riding Game On Dude, and the time when trainer Andre Fabre shocked everyone except those who knew him with 133-to-1 Arcangues. There was Swain veering toward the stands under Frankie Dettori's unrelenting drive, and the same jockey getting it right with a flawless ride on Raven's Pass. Even an apparently freak result such as Volponi's win in 2002 turned out to have a back story when it exposed an attempt to rig the Pick 6. If any horse bar the 40-to-1 outsider of the field had won, the crooks might have got away with it.
The stories keep coming, at an event that positively encourages you to write them. The Breeders' Cup is unique in that it is able to build anticipation through the week, with all the players in town several days beforehand. The horses are there and easy to identify at exercise every morning, and their people are mingling and eager to talk too.
For American trainers and jockeys, talking seems the most natural thing in the world. They appreciate that, without an audience, it is pointless to put on a show. For a journalist brought up with the British way of doing things, it remains an annual breath of fresh air.
And the Classic is the race that everyone wants to talk and think about most. There is an extra buzz at Clocker's Corner every morning when a Classic contender breezes by. They are the heavyweights, the headline acts, and a daily reminder that, whatever dramas unfold on Friday and Saturday, the best will probably be saved for last, to send everyone out into the warm evening buzzing and already counting the days until we can do it all again.
It would be better yet without the dirt and the raceday medication. Which race would not?
But no race all year, at Cheltenham, Aintree, Ascot, Newmarket, Epsom, Longchamp, or anywhere else, etches itself into my memory as often or as permanently as the Classic. Time and again, it delivers on its show-stopping promise. Both as a fan and as a reporter, I can't ask for more than that.
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