Breeders’ Cup for Beginners: What to Know for Racing’s Biggest Weekend

Events / Travel
Eclipse Sportswire

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships provides an exclamation point to the racing season at the end of each year. Huge purses, top-class horses, and large fields promise the crowning of champions and cashing of big winning bets.

But just what is the Breeders’ Cup, and why is it so important? With the 2019 edition just two weeks away, here’s a primer on the sport’s biggest weekend and why it’s a yearly highlight for racing fans.

The connections of Beholder celebrate their 2016 Distaff win.
The connections of Beholder celebrate their 2016 Distaff win. (Eclipse Sportswire)

What is the Breeders’ Cup?

The Breeders’ Cup World Championships is a year-end event that features the best Thoroughbreds in every division of racing, competing in 14 different races for beaucoup bucks. Breeders’ Cup runners often win year-end championship honors at the Eclipse Awards. This year, the Breeders’ Cup will be held at Santa Anita Park in Arcadia, Calif., outside of L.A.

How long has it been around?

The Breeders’ Cup organization, Breeders’ Cup Ltd., was formed in 1982, and the first Breeders’ Cup was held on Nov. 10, 1984 at Hollywood Park. This year marks the 36th edition of the series.

Where did the Breeders’ Cup name come from?

The Breeders’ Cup was the brainchild of John R. Gaines, a horseman and leader in the Thoroughbred industry. It is so named because it was and is largely funded by Thoroughbred breeders, who pay fees to register their stallions and foals so that the foals have the option to run in the Breeders’ Cup when they are of age (if they have the talent, of course). The fees breeders pay go toward the event’s purses and organizational expenses, and breeders get a hefty award if a foal that they nominated wins a Breeders’ Cup race or certain races throughout the year leading up to the Breeders’ Cup.

Is it always at Santa Anita?

Nope. The Breeders’ Cup moves around throughout the country, similar to the Super Bowl of the NFL. Santa Anita has hosted a record 10 times, but Churchill Downs, Belmont Park, and Gulfstream Park have all hosted the Breeders’ Cup multiple times, and tracks like Arlington Park, Lone Star Park, and Woodbine have hosted as well. Keeneland (2020) and Del Mar (2021) are each slated to host for the second time in coming years.

How much money are the races worth?

Purses and awards for the 2019 event total $30 million for 14 championship races. The Breeders’ Cup Classic alone carries a $6 million purse.

Why are there so many races?

Because there are so many types of racehorses. Like human athletes, horses have talents or preferences that make them better suited to certain distances and surfaces, so there are races to accommodate each “category.” For example, the Turf is for horses that excel at longer distances (in this case 1 1/2 miles) on the grass while the Sprint is for speedy types on the dirt at six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile). There also are five races restricted to 2-year-olds since they generally don’t compete outside of their age group.

Why is the Classic so important?

The Breeders’ Cup Classic is the marquee race at a banner event. The race is held over the “classic” American distance and surface of 1 ¼ miles on the dirt, and it generally attracts the best 3-year-old and older horses in training. For these reasons, it carries the aforementioned $6 million purse.

The Classic also is the race that horses that were successful in Triple Crown races earlier in the year are most likely to compete in, and because of all the top talent in the race, the outcome of the Classic very often weighs heavily in Horse of the Year voting. 

Do the 2-year-old races really matter? The horses have raced only a few times.

While 2-year-old horses may be lightly raced, the TVG Breeders’ Cup Juvenile usually helps determine who will be named champion 2-year-old male each year, an important honor in any horse’s career. Plus, the Juvenile winner is often considered an early favorite for the next year’s Kentucky Derby, just as the Juvenile Fillies winner is an early choice for the Kentucky Oaks.

How do horses qualify for the races?

Horses have to be nominated for the races, usually as foals, and then, if there are too many horses entered to run, they have to be selected for a given race using three different qualifications. One of those is through the series of races throughout the year, called the Breeders’ Cup Challenge Series, in which the winning horse automatically earns a berth in a specified Breeders’ Cup race, another is a points system based upon a horse’s performance in graded stakes throughout the year, and the third is the judgment of a panel of experts.

Do horses run in it more than once?

Oftentimes the answer is yes. Though a horse has only one opportunity to compete in the 2-year-old races, the other races all can be contested as many times as a horse’s owner and trainer want, and 2-year-old competitors can contest other Breeders’ Cup races when they’re older. In fact, famous French racemare Goldikova won the Mile a record three times, and 20 other horses have won more than one Breeders’ Cup race, including 2019 Turf Sprint contender Stormy Liberal, who won the race the last two years.

Mike Smith celebrates his Classic win aboard Arrogate in 2016.
Mike Smith celebrates his Classic win aboard Arrogate in 2016. (Eclipse Sportswire)

How many champions have actually been crowned after their Breeders’ Cup performance?

A lot. In the last 10 years alone, eight of 10 equines later named Horse of the Year ran in the Breeders’ Cup the same year, as well as eight of 10 older female champions and eight of 10 champion 2-year-old males. The 2018 Eclipse champions that ran in the Breeders’ Cup include Jaywalk, Game Winner, Shamrock Rose, Stormy Liberal, Sistercharlie, Roy H, Monomoy Girl, and Accelerate

Why is it called a “world” championship?

Horses come from all over the world to compete in the Breeders’ Cup. In 2018 alone, horses bred in France, Ireland and Great Britain came to compete as well as those from countries like Argentina, Brazil, and Japan.

How much money is bet on the Breeders’ Cup?

Last year $157.4 million was bet on Breeders’ Cup day races at Churchill Downs. A record of more than $173 million was wagered in 2010 when the event featured Zenyatta’s final race.

How many people attend the races?

This is another impressive stat, as tens of thousands of fans show up each year, including 112,672 over two days last year. The record was set in 2016 when 118,484 people packed Santa Anita  for the two-day event.

newsletter sign-up

Stay up-to-date with the best from America's Best Racing!