A look inside the heart-pounding, high-stakes run-up to one of horse racing’s most storied events
Author MICHAEL KAPLAN
ILLUSTRATION BY ILANA KOHN
ON A BEAUTIFUL SUNDAY AFTERNOON at Monmouth Park on the northern Jersey Shore, the betting windows absorb a crush of horse racing fanatics while, down below, jockeys steer thoroughbreds toward their stalls at the starting gate. As post time nears for the day’s big race, the Resorts Haskell Invitational, a tension settles along the trackside seats, where pastel-suited owners and their posses sit, painfully aware of the fact that they have more on the line in the next two minutes than the rest of the bettors at the track combined.
That the race’s robust $1 million prize is merely a secondary draw for thoroughbred owners is telling. Today’s winner also snags an automatic berth in the Breeders’ Cup Classic, which takes place this month and ranks among the world’s most prestigious races. A horse that finishes first in the Breeders’ is instantly imbued with so much credibility and celebrity that his breeding revenues typically eclipse the race money, and the owner becomes, as one past winner put it, “the equivalent of a rock star.” That the 2011 Breeders’ Cup takes place at Churchill Downs in Louisville, Ky., sacred ground for horsemen, only adds to the cachet.
The anticipation can be grueling. “I woke up nervous, and it’s getting more intense,” Lori Hall says, a couple of hours before the big race. Along with her husband, George, she owns Ruler on Ice, winner of this year’s Belmont Stakes and a horse to watch in today’s event. Hall looks racetrack-stunning in a pink dress and a strawberry shortcake of a hat wrapped up in a complex arrangement of ribbon. She has a full entourage of friends and family in tow. “If our horse finishes first,” she says, eyeing the group, “I can only imagine what the winner’s circle will look like. All I can say is that Monmouth might need to bend the rules a little bit in terms of how many people are allowed down there.”
Besides Ruler on Ice, there are two horses competing today that have strong shots at acing the Haskell, according to insiders: Preakness Stakes champ Shackleford, and Coil, a horse that has won three out of the four races he’s run. At the Turf Club, a semiprivate enclave with an expansive buffet and full bar, Peter Rotondo, a retired foreign-exchange trader draped in seersucker and buried in a pile of heavily notated racing forms, announces, “I’m going with Ruler on Ice. He’s been training well. Monmouth is the track where he’s stabled. He likes this track and he has something of a home-court advantage.” Considering Rotondo’s record, it’s no surprise that his opinions have weight: He correctly picked Ruler on Ice to win at Belmont, and he called the last winner of the Kentucky Derby. “I’ve been handicapping since I was 8 years old,” he says. “And in the end you’re still making an educated guess. You’re reliant on a horse! He can’t tell you whether or not he has a headache and doesn’t feel like racing today!”
THE BREEDERS’ CUP, which launched in 1984, was not, as it happens, created solely out of love of the sport. In the early ’80s, breeder John Gaines publicized the fact that he and his colleagues made more money in breeding than in racing. But to get the big bucks as breeders, they needed big wins on the track. In order to increase the visibility of top thoroughbreds, Gaines devised a string of races that would allow all the best horses to compete within their specific categories, concluding with the Breeders’ Cup Classic. “The Breeders’ Cup Classic is the richest race in North America,” says Breeders’ Cup senior vice president Carter Carnegie. “It is a determining factor in terms of greatness for a horse. It’s the difference between a horse being worth $20,000 for [each session of] breeding and being worth $45,000.” And the Classic’s $5 million purse doesn’t hurt.
Karl Watson, co-owner of Coil, is among those hoping to reproduce past Breeders’ Cup experiences. In 2007 and 2008, his horse Midnight Lute won the sprint. As for today, “We’re optimistic,” he says, standing outside his private box, where boosters lunch on crab cakes. “But this is a day of firsts. Coil is running on dirt for the first time and running without blinkers for the first time. Bob [celebrity thoroughbred trainer Bob Baffert] is trying to get him to relax a little bit.” Taking a breath and smiling tightly, Watson, who supports his horse habit with a string of car dealerships, adds, “Coil is facing some major competition. He really needs to step it up this afternoon.”
Down below, the snowy-haired Baffert, pulling off a bumblebee-yellow necktie/pocket-square ensemble with élan, is oozing confidence as he makes his way to the stables where Coil needs to be prepped. “The Breeders’ Cup is special,” he says. “Every great trainer and every great horse is there. You want to be there and you want to be there big.” That being said, he likes his chances. “With Coil,” he says, “I’ve got them over a barrel.”
FANS BEGIN CHEERING as soon as the starting gate flies open and eight horses thunder down the opening stretch. Coil gets a bad jump and is having a hard time keeping up with the competition, appearing to be out for a morning constitutional while the other beasts run for all they’re worth. Shackleford threatens to take the lead at the half-mile point, coming up from the outside, and Ruler on Ice holds back in fifth place.
Then, Shackleford bursts into the lead, Ruler on Ice steps up to second and, suddenly, at that moment, coming around on the outside, Coil locks in. He starts making up for lost time. Storming down the middle of the track, taking the normally inadvisable long way, he bears down. In no time, he’s chewing up the other horses. Then he’s past them. Then, amazingly, he wins the race. Winners in the stands are jumping up and down, screaming, hugging one another.
It was a nail-biter for fans, but it was a heart-stopper for Karl Watson and Coil’s other owners. After they celebrate in the winner’s circle, Watson wonders aloud why Coil got such an unpromising start. “I didn’t know what to think,” he says, accepting a glass of champagne. “I had never seen him running so slow.” Friends and reporters press in, wanting to hear what he has to say. He obliges them, but you can see that his mind is already somewhere else — at Churchill Downs in November, most likely, where he hopes to see Coil make one more run for glory. Anyway, he shrugs about the day’s drama, waving his champagne, “that’s a nice thing about owning a racehorse. It keeps life interesting.”
Hemispheres contributing writer MICHAEL KAPLAN has yet to leave the track a winner.
Raven’s Pass becomes the fifth European horse to win a Classic since 1999. In the process, he sets a record for Santa Anita Park, the venue for the Breeders’ Cup that year.
Zenyatta wins the race as the first filly to ace the Classic. Her performance is so stunning that star trainer Bob Baffert claims to not mind that his own horse lost in the wake of the history-making run.
Race fans were pulling for a repeat performance from Zenyatta, who had logged 19 wins in a row before the 2010 Classic. Heartbreakingly, she’s beaten by a proverbial nose.