For decades, all those competing at the highest levels of North American racing have commenced each new year with their sights set on winning the same three races – the Kentucky Derby, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes. Victories in these classics significantly raise the stature of horses, jockeys, trainers and owners alike and have a lasting impact on one’s legacy, often tipping the scales in one’s favor when it’s time to be considered for the Hall of Fame.
Today, and for much of the last two-plus decades, these same competitors have circled a fourth race on their calendars at the start of each year, the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Trainers with Classic contenders plot their race schedule for the year based on the timing of the Classic, and winning the Classic has proven to deliver all the spoils that Triple Crown races do – a massive payday, Eclipse awards and lucrative breeding potential. Which is why we’re calling the Classic thoroughbred racing’s fourth major.
One of the primary spoils that the Classic often delivers is the title of Horse of the Year, which of course leads to more money in the breeding shed. The effect the Classic has on Horse of the Year voting certainly suggests that it should be considered the fourth major, if not the first. Since the first Breeders’ Cup in 1984, the winner of the Classic has been voted Horse of the Year 11 times. Comparatively, in that span only three Kentucky Derby winners have been named Horse of the Year during their 3-year-old campaign: Charismatic, Spend a Buck and Sunday Silence (who also won the Classic). The Derby winners Alysheba and Ferdinand both earned Horse of the Year honors at age 4 – when they won the Classic. Since 1984, the only other Triple Crown race winners who have been named Horse of the Year without winning the Classic are Rachel Alexandra and Point Given.
Of course, without a Triple Crown-winning horse since Affirmed in 1978, no horse has ever captured all four of racing’s majors over the course of their careers. In the Breeders’ Cup era, only two have won three of the four: Alysheba and Sunday Silence, who each won the Derby, the Preakness and the Classic.
A number of jockeys have won all four of racing’s majors: Jerry Bailey, Pat Day, Eddie Delahoussaye, Chris McCarron, Jose Santos, Bill Shoemaker and Mike Smith. Kent Desormeaux has won all three Triple Crown races but has yet to make it to the winner’s circle in the Classic, and he does not have a mount in this year’s race.
As for trainers, D. Wayne Lukas is the only one to have accomplished this career feat. However, two high profile trainers with possible starters in the Classic have a shot at joining him in this year: Bob Baffert and Nick Zito. Baffert could have two chances with Game On Dude and Prayer for Relief, while Zito could get a shot with Ice Box.
To further the major comparison, just as accomplished players in golf and tennis have bore the burden of being labeled “best player never to win a major,” trainer Todd Pletcher has been saddled with similar baggage. While he has shed much of it: winning his first Triple Crown race with Rags to Riches in the 2007 Belmont, winning his first Derby in 2010 with Super Saver, and in 2004 capturing his first Breeders’ Cup wins after going 0-for-his-first-12, the Classic still eludes him. With Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo both entered in this year’s Classic, Pletcher has a big chance to pick up his third career major and lose the title of “best current trainer never to win the Classic.”
You can count Mike Repole, the owner of both Stay Thirsty and Uncle Mo, as one who would not likely dispute that the Classic is deserving of fourth major status. After Uncle Mo’s win in the Kelso at Belmont earlier this month, the colorful Repole, who at times has been critical of decisions made by the Breeders’ Cup, made the following statements:
“I love the Classic. I want to win the Classic. If Mo was in the Mile and won, and Stay Thirsty was in the Classic and finished third, it would be a decision I would regret for the rest of my life. Why not take two shots at a race everybody wants to win?”
A race that everybody wants to win? I call that a major.