Top 12 Breeders’ Cup Thrillers at Santa Anita

Johar, far, and High Chaparral, near, provided the Breeders Cup World Championships with its only dead heat for first to date in the 2003 Turf. (Blood-Horse Library/Dave Harmon)

For horse racing fans living in the East and Midwest, the Breeders’ Cup World Championships is annually one of the high points of early fall, mixing in with football, political campaigns, and the spooky rituals of Halloween as a harbinger of seasonal shift.

So when the event is held at Santa Anita Park, which has been very often in recent years, it seems a bit incongruous to those familiar with autumn’s chill to hold a slate of fall championship races amidst sun-splashed festivities and a laid-back SoCal atmosphere. The enveloping haze over the San Gabriel Mountains coupled with the bright colors and welcoming architecture of Santa Anita’s facility evoke a feeling of endless summer and easy vibes no matter what time of the year you’re there.

Sunshine and warmth aside, the fact remains that the nine Breeders’ Cups held at Santa Anita have produced some of the most startling, heart-pounding finishes in the event’s history, worthy of a last-second field goal or a throng of Trick-or-Treaters suddenly appearing at your door wearing 'Scream' masks. So, in honor of the season, here are 12 of the most thrilling Breeders’ Cup finishes from Santa Anita to enjoy once again and get the blood pumping for what will hopefully be several new ones when the event is held at “The Great Race Place” for the 10th time on Nov. 1-2.

2016 Filly and Mare Turf

A briefly deflating chapter in a tale of ultimate triumph. Lady Eli had established herself as one of the most popular racemares of the 21st century, brilliantly capping an undefeated season by winning the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and then taking her first three starts of 2015 before stepping on a nail and developing laminitis, which kept her away from racing for more than a year and nearly ended her life. She returned in summer 2016 and took her first loss, but then won the Flower Bowl Stakes and was sent off as the 8-5 favorite in a loaded Filly and Mare Turf.

Patiently ridden by Irad Ortiz, Jr., Lady Eli rated well off of a hot pace set by Avenge and swung four wide into Santa Anita’s stretch for her patented closing kick. She was joined on her outside by European invader Queen’s Trust under Frankie Dettori, and the pair of fillies moved past a game Avenge close to the finish and crossed the finish line in tandem. Queen’s Trust had her nose in front in the photo, denying Lady Eli a second Breeders’ Cup victory, but Lady Eli would go on to win three out of her five 2017 starts and be honored as champion turf female before moving on to a well-deserved retirement.

1993 Juvenile Fillies

In the 1993 Juvenile Fillies, a gripping stretch duel between Phone Chatter and Sardula turned into a crossroads. Sardula, sporting the green and pink silks of Jerry and Ann Moss, led nearly the entire way under a smooth Eddie Delahoussaye ride. Phone Chatter, a gigantic filly trained by Santa Anita maestro Richard Mandella, moved up on the far turn under Laffit Pincay Jr., and then the battle was enjoined.

Sardula would not be intimidated by her bigger rival, but Phone Chatter was relentless, and inched ahead just before the finish line. She was honored with the Eclipse Award as champion 2-year-old filly, but 1993 was her peak. Sardula would go on to win the 1993 Hollywood Starlet Stakes and three of five stakes races in 1994, including the Kentucky Oaks in another very close finish.

2009 Juvenile

From that brief, almost-forgotten chapter in Breeders’ Cup history known as “the Synthetic Era,” when California racetracks all switched to artificial surfaces and European-based horses once largely relegated to the turf started appearing in – and winning – races previously dominated by North American horses. The 2009 Juvenile was one such event, and featured the sort of cavalry charge finish common in many synthetic races.

Eventual champion 2-year-old male Lookin At Lucky was favored at 2.20-1 and came flying at the end on the outside, but he was outfinished by unheralded European invader Vale of York, who angled in from the rail, split horses, and won by a head. The top four finishers were separated by less than a length.

1993 Sprint

Keanu Reeves, Sandra Bullock, and typically unhinged Dennis Hopper would rule summer multiplexes seven months hence with the ultimate high-concept movie (“Die Hard on a bus”), but a truer encapsulation of “Speed” unleashed was on display by the filly Meafara in the 1993 Sprint, as she went for broke in attempt to attain what she had almost accomplished in 1992 at Belmont Park.

In that year’s Sprint, Frank Muench’s filly set a blistering pace (opening fractions of 21 3/5, 43 3/5) only to fall short by a neck to Thirty Slews. One year later, Meafara went 21 flat and 43 4/5 and rebuffed both Thirty Slews and Gilded Time in deep stretch, but she could not withstand a five-wide rally from Cardmania, losing by a neck once more.

2014 Classic

Mixed emotions will always accompany any reviewing of the 2014 Classic. Bayern’s roughhousing of Shared Belief and Moreno leaving the starting gate completely changed the predicted pace scenario for the race, since Moreno was an avowed front-runner and 5-2 favorite Shared Belief typically stayed within close striking distance of the lead as well. With little company up front, Bayern settled into a high-cruising speed and had just enough left under Martin Garcia’s urging to hold off Toast of New York and a four-wide California Chrome to win the three-horse photo.

The resulting roar, equal parts cheers and cries of foul, reverberated across the racetrack grounds and was echoed on social media and in simulcast parlors and living rooms nationwide. And it only grew louder, and more contentious, once the Santa Anita racing officials let the final result stand.

2014 Turf Sprint

NBC’s aerial view brings added excitement in this replay, as Bobby’s Kitten seems to be trailing behind the field from somewhere near Pasadena before launching an extremely wide, explosive rally after crossing Santa Anita’s dirt strip on the downhill turf course.

Ken and Sarah Ramsey’s homebred gets his first call from announcer Larry Collmus just before crossing the finish line and sending the ebullient Ramsey contingent to the winner’s circle. The top five in the 2014 Turf Sprint were separated by one length.

2009 Mile

The second of Goldikova’s three consecutive triumphs in the Mile provided her smallest margin of victory, a half-length over Courageous Cat. The Wertheimer brothers’ superstar settled farther back in the pack than usual – tracking 10th of 11 through the first half-mile – and, as a result, was stuck in traffic for a few heart-wrenching moments through the far turn before angling out.

Olivier Peslier had to tap the brakes for a beat in deep stretch, shifting his charge to the outside of Courageous Cat for running room, but Goldikova regained that powerful stride with an ease befitting a champion and won going away.

2009 Sprint

Without a doubt, one of the all-time best Breeders’ Cup finishes, and a dissertation defense-level test for any track announcer. Trevor Denman juggles names like a street performer at gunpoint as four horses steamroll to the finish line.

Dancing in Silks and master closer Joel Rosario win the photo by a nose, then a head and a nose separate second (Crown of Thorns), third (Cost of Freedom), and fourth (Gayego). Even more exciting for fortunate bettors, the top three all were sent off at odds of 15-1 or greater.

2013 Classic

Mucho Macho Man achieved an endgame worthy of the Breeders’ Cup Classic in 2013, calling on every ounce of resolve to hold off the onrushing Will Take Charge by a nose, with Euro shipper Declaration of War a head behind in third. The storylines for this one made the final result even more satisfying, as trainer Kathy Ritvo reached the sport’s summit five years after receiving a heart transplant, and Hall of Famer Gary Stevens capped a brilliant comeback year that included a Preakness win with his first Breeders’ Cup Classic victory.

Mucho Macho Man, second by a half-length to Fort Larned in the 2012 Classic at Santa Anita, sealed the deal in his second try, his popular name bringing back fond memories for Village People fans worldwide.

2009 Classic

Any list of most thrilling Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita must, by order of the racing gods, include arguably the most popular Thoroughbred of the 21st century. Zenyatta was already a West Coast sensation who had completely dominated the filly and mare division for a year and a half, but her name became etched in the sport’s hallowed lore when she faced males for the first time in the 2009 Classic, and decisively beat them.

Zenyatta’s customary come-from-the-clouds running style meant that nearly every race she ever ran, at one point or another, provided moments of suspense, but on this day, there was only an instant of concern. Once Mike Smith angled Zenyatta outside of the leaders in early stretch, she rolled past the likes of Summer Bird, Colonel John, and the great Gio Ponti to win by a length. This race, and its “Un-be-LIEVE-able” closing call by Denman, are the perfect tonics to rouse emotions in anticipation for the upcoming World Championships at Santa Anita.

2016 Distaff

Talk about a race that lived up to expectations. The 2016 Longines Distaff brought together 3-year-old superstar filly Songbird, who was unbeaten through 11 starts and was on her way to being named a champion for the second year in a row, two-time Breeders’ Cup winner and three-time champion Beholder, and Stellar Wind, a champion herself who had recently defeated Beholder twice. The last of this trio had a troubled trip and finished fourth – but oh, what a race between the other two!

Songbird held a short lead at the top of the stretch when Beholder moved up to engage, and then the two future Hall of Famers put everything on the line all the way to the finish before Beholder prevailed by a nose. Beholder concluded her career with a third Breeders’ Cup win (second in the Distaff) and would be voted champion older female a couple of months later to pick up a fourth Eclipse Award. “What can you say? She was a gift from God,” trainer Richard Mandella recently told Lenny Shulman of BloodHorse when reflecting on Beholder. “She started out great and got greater.”

2003 Turf

Top honors rest with the only dead heat in Breeders’ Cup history. The 2003 Turf brought together a stellar international cast of grass horses, including world travelers Sulamani and Falbrav, who had together won Grade/Group 1 stakes in a total of seven countries by the time they arrived in Arcadia. Back for a repeat bid was High Chaparral, who landed the 2002 Turf at Arlington Park by 1 ¼ lengths.

Coolmore’s High Chaparral took aim on the leaders in early stretch and moved up to engage Falbrav in the final strides, only to be joined by Southern California-based Johar, who rocketed from well back. A three-horse photo could not separate the top two, with a dead game Falbrav only a head back in third. Johar’s win marked the third of an eventual four on the day for Richard Mandella, a Breeders’ Cup record.

Watching the replay brings a renewed appreciation for the patience exhibited by both Mick Kinane aboard High Chaparral and Alex Solis on Johar, and pure enjoyment reliving Tom Durkin’s race call, which gradually ascends into full throttle just like a Boeing leaving LAX.

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