Does winning the Breeders' Cup Classic matter anymore?

Profile Picture: Vance Hanson

November 12th, 2016

One week removed from the Breeders' Cup Classic (G1), rumblings suggest that California Chrome has an inside track on Horse of the Year honors despite having lost the country's most lucrative weight-for-age event to Arrogate, the presumptive champion three-year-old male, in their only face-to-face encounter.

Having gone on record with my support of Arrogate for this award, I'll have nothing further to add between now and when the polls close. However, there's been a very noticeable disconnect between the results of the Breeders' Cup Classic and what has subsequently occurred in Eclipse Award voting this decade, something I first brought up earlier this week on "Turf Talk" with Ed DeRosa.

Given the Classic's purse, conditions, and its acknowledged importance by those within the industry, this disconnect seems rather odd and perhaps is worth looking at in greater detail.

When all is said and done, the 2016 Horse of the Year race might end up resembling the one in 2010, when the popular mare Zenyatta defeated Blame in the balloting despite losing to that rival on the square in the Classic. As a Blame supporter, I could only surmise that Zenyatta had virtually clinched the award before the Classic was run, irrespective of what her performance against the best older male and best three-year-old male would have been in her only open company start of the season.

Fast forward to 2012 and 2013 when victories in the Classic, in addition to their accomplishments earlier in the year, were not enough for either Fort Larned or Mucho Macho Man to earn champion older male honors. The selection of two grass horses for the award, which had historically honored excellence on the main track, eventually led to the re-naming of the category and restricting nominees to dirt performers only. Unfortunately, that came far too late for the connections of Fort Larned and Mucho Macho Man.

In 2014, Bayern beat California Chrome for the second time in three meetings that year in the Classic, but came up short in Eclipse balloting to that rival for champion three-year-old. Last year at Keeneland, American Pharoah romped in the Classic, but is there any doubt that, due to his Triple Crown sweep, he would have been voted Horse of the Year even if he had lost?

For as much attention, anticipation, and excitement as America's richest race seems to generate beforehand, how a majority of voters feel about it after the two minutes and change it takes to run it seemingly determines whether the result was a true and accurate measurement of talent between two or more horses. I'd feel the same way, too, if the Classic result was consistently like 2011's, when Drosselmeyer won it for his only graded score of the year. But we know that hasn't been the case in any other renewal since 2010.

I could certainly be wrong about my perception of what the Breeders' Cup Classic is and what it should generally be. Perhaps in advance of the 2017 renewal at Del Mar, it would be better to consider it simply as a coronation opportunity. And if the coronation doesn't happen, I can simply pretend it never happened.