A Guide to the Breeders' Cup Horse Race

For most of its existence, the sport of Thoroughbred racing featured many famous races. But it lacked a unifying event that would bring all of the champions together in one place, at least until the Breeders' Cup. For more than three decades, the Breeders' Cup has represented the ultimate test for horses, as they are guaranteed to go up against the very best in their class to see if they can become a year-end champion.

Begun in 1984, the Breeders' Cup was intended to be horse racing's answer to other culminating events, such as the Super Bowl in football or the World Series in baseball. It was created at a time when the sport had hit a kind of lull in terms of popularity and brand awareness. Although many had doubts about the event at first, it didn't take long for it to become a massive success, drawing both diehard horse racing fans and casual onlookers.

After being held on a single day for the first quarter-century or so of its existence, the Breeders' Cup now spreads over two days. The host tracks change from year to year, and there have been specific races that have come and gone in its history.

Many of the sport's greatest champions in the last 35 years have made their way to the Breeders' Cup to test their mettle. Another great thing about the event is that it puts the spotlight on many different kinds of horses other than the three-year-olds who get all the attention during Triple Crown season. The Breeders' Cup is open to all ages and genders and features races that are tailored to sprinters, milers, and turf horses, among many others.

The History of the Breeders' Cup

Horse racing enjoyed a boom period in the 1970s, thanks to legendary performers like Secretariat, Spectacular Bid, and Affirmed. But as the 1980s dawned and no superstar three-year-olds materialized, the sport needed a boost as other pastimes surged in popularity. The Breeders' Cup served just that purpose.

John R. Gaines, known as a success in the pet food industry but also a Thoroughbred owner and breeder, first proposed the event at a 1982 awards luncheon featuring other industry titans. The first Breeders' Cup was held in 1984 at Hollywood Park in California. There were only seven Grade 1 championships held in that initial event, but the crowds and betting handle were both impressive.

As if to verify that the event had a great future, the final race of that day, the Breeders' Cup Classic with a purse of $3 million, was an absolute classic. Slew o' Gold, who was the favorite, Gate Dancer, that year's Preakness Stakes champion, and Wild Again, a 31-1 long shot, battled through the stretch at the completion of the 1¼-mile race. Wild Again pulled ahead for the win, a win that was only verified after track stewards looked at replays for ten minutes to make sure there was no interference.

How the Breeders are Involved

Starting Gate for the Breeders Cup

One of the ways that the Breeders' Cup was able to secure the huge purses for each race on the program was by including the breeders of the sport in the process. Each breeder who wants a stallion to be nominated for the Cup must pay a fee, along with a fee for each foal that stallion produces. Only horses who have been nominated in this manner are eligible for the races.

Host Tracks

In the beginning of the Breeders' Cup, it was decided that the event would be spread around to different tracks as a way of making it a national event. Still, there are only certain tracks with the facilities to handle the giant crowds and demands that come with the event. Santa Anita, in California, has hosted a record nine times, but that amount was matched when Churchill Downs, home of the Kentucky Derby, hosted the event in 2018.

The Races

As stated above, there have been some races, like the Breeders' Cup Marathon, that are no longer included in the program. Over the years, many others have been added, to the point where there are now fourteen races run over two days. Each is restricted to certain horses and each has a specific distance and surface attached to it, guaranteeing a great variety for fans and bettors alike.

The Breeders' Cup Classic

This is the showcase race of the entire event, with the winner having perhaps the best claim to being the world's greatest race horse. (And it is the entire world that is included in the Breeders' Cup, with international horses welcome to participate.) The classic is 1¼ miles long and is open to all horses aged three years old and upward.

What that means is that, in any given year, you might see horses who have just competed in the Triple Crown races battling it out with horses who are more experienced. It is basically the best against the best at a demanding distance. As a result, it carries the biggest purse of the event, currently sitting at $6 million, and it is always the last race on the second-day program.

The Breeders' Cup Turf

One of the things that casual fans might not realize about American Thoroughbred racing is that there are races held on turf courses just as there are those held on the dirt. The Breeders' Cup Turf celebrates the horses that specialize in racing on the grass. It is contested at a mile and a half, is open to all horses ages three and up, and currently awards a purse of $4 million.

Turf horses tend to be competitive at older ages than dirt horses. As a result, the Breeders' Cup Turf is often populated by horses returning year after year to go for the big money. In addition, this race often hosts many European competitors, since grass racing is extremely popular there.

The Breeders' Cup Sprint

As Thoroughbreds move on in their career, they generally settle into one of two racing styles. They can be distance horses, which means that they race consistently at distances of more than a mile that take them around two turns. Or they can be sprinters, which means they race at less than a mile in races that only encompass one turn.

The Breeders' Cup Sprint celebrates the latter of those two groups. It offers a purse of $2 million, and it is contested at the distance of six furlongs (three-quarters of a mile). Again, three-year-olds and older are eligible to compete here, a race that's particularly thrilling because the horses tend to be going all-out at top speeds the whole way.

The Breeders' Cup Juvenile

In the sport of Thoroughbred racing, horses begin to race competitively at the age of two. Although many are just starting their career and might only have a few races under the belt, the best two-year-olds battle it out in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The Juvenile is 1 1/16 miles long and carries a purse of $2 million.

It is interesting to see which of the two-year-olds can handle that distance, as most young horses start out in sprints before stretching out to longer races. The Juvenile winner is often stamped as an early favorite for the following year's Kentucky Derby, America's most famous horse race, which is earmarked for three-year-olds. Yet a Juvenile winner didn't win the Derby until 2006, when Street Sense performed the feat.

The Breeders' Cup Distaff

The Distaff is a chance for the female Thoroughbreds to shine. Although fillies and mares are eligible to race in male-dominated events like the Classic, the Turf, and the Sprint, most of them are compartmentalized into races that are held specifically for female horses. The Distaff is the most illustrious of those races, as it is held at a distance of 1 1/8 miles. The current purse stands at $2 million.

Other Breeders' Cup Races
Race Eligibility Distance Surface Purse
Juvenile Turf Two-year-olds 1 mile Turf $1 million
Juvenile Fillies Turf Two-year-old fillies 1 mile Turf $1 million
Juvenile Turf Sprint Two-year-olds 5 ½ furlongs Turf $1 million
Dirt Mile Three-year-olds and up 1 mile Dirt $1 million
Filly and Mare Sprint Three-year-olds and up fillies and mares 7 furlongs Dirt $1 million
Turf Sprint Three-year-olds and up 5 furlongs (varies depending on track) Turf $1 million
Mile Three-year-olds and up 1 mile Dirt $2 million
Juvenile Fillies Two-year-old fillies 1 1/16 miles Dirt $2 million
Filly and Mare Turf Three-year-old and up fillies and mares 1 3/8 miles (varies depending on track) Turf $2 million

Top Performers

There have been countless outstanding performers over the years at the Breeders' Cup, horses who have used the races to leave their imprint on the sport of Thoroughbred racing. What is interesting about the races is that, unlike the Triple Crown, horses can compete for more than a single year. As a result, some of the most memorable horses in Breeders' Cup history are those who have been repeat winners.

Perhaps that is why Tiznow could be considered the greatest of all Breeders' Cup champions. After all, he is the only one to win the Breeders' Cup Classic twice. He performed that amazing feat in back-to-back years, 2000 and 2001.

But he may have been trumped by the mare Zenyatta, who won the Distaff in 2008 and then followed it right up by winning the Classic in 2009. As a result, she has earned the most purse winnings of any horse in Breeders' Cup races alone, over $4.6 million.

Goldikova is the only horse to win the same Breeders' Cup race three times, with victories in the Mile for three consecutive years from 2008 to 2010. Beholder also has won three Breeders' Cup races, but she managed it in two different classes. She won the Juvenile Fillies as a two-year-old in 2012 and followed that up by capturing the Distaff the following year. Three years later, she returned to win the Distaff again.

Perhaps the most unique feat in Breeders Cup' history, however, was accomplished by American Pharoah. In 2015, he became the first horse to win the Triple Crown (Kentucky Derby, Preakness Stakes, and Belmont Stakes) in 37 years. Since the Breeders' Cup was first enacted in 1984, that meant that American Pharoah would be the first Triple Crown winner with the opportunity to also add a Breeders' Cup victory in the same year. He did just that, winning the 2015 Classic before retiring.

How to Bet on the Breeders' Cup

As we mentioned earlier, the Breeders' Cup moves from track to track, which means that at some point, it could stop at a race track near you. That means that you might get the chance to attend the event and wager in person. Barring that, you can take advantage of the many other ways to wager on the event.

For example, you can visit any location, be it a simulcast area of a race track or an off-track wagering facility, that broadcasts and takes remote wagers on the races. Otherwise, you can easily partake of one of the many websites which caters to the Breeders' Cup specifically, like TwinSpires.com for the 2018 event at Churchill Downs, or find some of the other top notch horse racing betting sites online. This generally requires you to sign up for an account to fund your wagers, from which you can withdraw any winnings you might accumulate.

In terms of the wagers on the Breeders' Cup available to you, there are many specialty bets that are included in addition to the traditional straight and exotic wagers typically available. Pick 6 and Pick 5 wagers spread throughout the two-day card give prospective bettors the chance to win a lot of money for a small amount of scratch.

Breeders' Cup FAQ

How are horses selected for the races?
Only the best performers are invited to be part of the 14-horse fields. A point system based on past performances is utilized, and there is also a panel of racing experts who weigh in on the choices. In addition, a horse can punch a ticket by winning special qualifying races held around the world at different times throughout the year.
Who is the most successful jockey in Breeders' Cup history?
Mike Smith has rolled up a big advantage in that category. As of 2017, Smith has amassed 26 Breeders' Cup wins, 11 more than his closest rival in the standings.
Who is the most successful trainer in Breeders' Cup history?
D. Wayne Lukas dominated the sport as a trainer in the '80s and '90s and has an incredible 20 training wins to show for it. Bob Baffert, who has 14 Cup wins and is still among the top trainers in the world today, could easily narrow that margin in the next few years.
What were the longest odds for a winner in Breeders' Cup history?
Arcangues came to the 1993 Breeders' Cup Classic given little chance to win, as he had never raced on dirt during his time in Europe. Going off at 133-1, Arcangues rallied with jockey Jerry Bailey to pull off the stunning upset, paying off $269.20 on a $2 wager.
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