First Breeders’ Cup Experience Exceeded Lofty Expectations

Events / Travel
Ariel Cooper, right, with Alexa Ravit at the John Henry statue. (Ariel Cooper photo)

I first heard of the Breeders’ Cup in Thoroughbred, a series of horse racing novels I read in middle school. The first time I heard of Santa Anita Park was in one of the many books about Seabiscuit I pored over at the same time. So, when I decided a year ago that I would attend the 2016 Breeders’ Cup World Championships, the 11-year old inside me nearly fainted. For most of my life, horse racing was a world I only saw on TV. Now, an event and a racetrack I’d only dreamed of were about to be very real, and when I boarded my flight to Los Angeles on Nov. 3, I could hardly contain my excitement.

To make matters better (or worse), I’d been closely following many of the horses I’d see at “The Great Race Place.” While on big days I usually recognize a handful of the stakes race contenders, the Breeders’ Cup is the target of the connections of nearly every top U.S.-based horse. Every race is important. For months leading up to the event, I struggled to comprehend that I would be seeing 13 races featuring the best of the best in one weekend.

On that note, since it would be nearly impossible to write down every detail of the most incredible weekend of racing I’ve ever experienced, here are some of my highlights:

Santa Anita

Catch a Glimpse (Ariel Cooper photo)

I’m a diehard NYRA (New York Racing Association) girl, but I couldn’t wait to experience Santa Anita and West Coast racing for the first time. I had seen Santa Anita many times on TV, but nothing could prepare me for the moment I first entered the grandstand. Santa Anita, with its sunlit fountain and mountainous backdrop, is horse racing on the grandest scale. There are statues paying homage to John Henry, Zenyatta and, of course, Seabiscuit as well as some famous jockeys.

Like Saratoga, the horse paths crisscross the backyard, allowing ample opportunity to catch horses on their way to and from the track. It was also fun to see the West Coast-based jockeys and trainers in action alongside my East Coast favorites. In short, Santa Anita is pretty magical, and I hope I go back someday.

Christophe Clement

If you’ve read any of my previous posts, you’ll know that I’m a big fan of Christophe Clement. I have been following him closely ever since he introduced me to Tonalist, and I love seeing him and his family at the NYRA tracks.

Clement brought three horses to the Breeders’ Cup — Lull, Yellow Agate and Pure Sensation — and I had to see them all. I stood by the path between the saddling area and paddock for a few races, so when I wished him luck with Lull, he not only thanked me, he turned around a few moments later and said, “It was nice to hear that,” which made me feel amazing. Later, I caught him coming out of the Turf Club to saddle Pure Sensation, and when I reintroduced myself he remembered me and we chatted for a few minutes. A year after meeting Tonalist, I’m still in awe of Christophe Clement’s kindness and generosity with his time. There are other trainers and jockeys who will acknowledge fans — it’s one of my favorite things about racing — but Clement makes me feel like I’m part of it all. On Breeders’ Cup Saturday, Clement was like a football coach, casually pausing to chat with a fan in the middle of the Super Bowl, and I have yet to meet a football coach — or another trainer — who would do that.

The Distaff

Champion Beholder after winning the Distaff. (Ariel Cooper photo)

I was torn about this race before it started. I’ll admit that I was favoring Songbird, but Beholder had been at my first Belmont Stakes and I desperately wanted her to end her career as the champion she is. When the two crossed the finish line together in the Distaff, I was thrilled. Both horses put in incredible races and Beholder’s nostril victory was surely the highlight of my weekend. Beholder is off to live the broodmare life at Spendthrift Farm, while Songbird proved she truly is a champion, even in defeat. I can’t wait to see what Fox Hill Farms and Jerry Hollendorfer have planned for Songbird as a 4-year-old in 2017.

Coming Full Circle

The Classic, on the other hand, was bittersweet. I hadn’t seen California Chrome since my first Belmont, and he and Tonalist played a big part in making me an avid racing fan. It was only fitting that Chrome was also at my first Breeders’ Cup. When Arrogate proved to be the real deal, I was disappointed. But Chrome will get a chance at redemption in the Pegasus Cup and, after that, maybe I’ll visit him at Taylor Made in May ... because I’m officially going to my first Kentucky Derby!

All in all, the Breeders’ Cup was everything I’d dreamed it would be ... and more. Why did I have to wake up?

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