Despite being one of the newest and most unique Breeder’s
Cup races, the Marathon carries a memory of what thoroughbred horse racing has
seemingly forgotten in the United States. The 1 ¾ distance on dirt makes the Marathon one of the rarest race types in the sport today. To many racing fans, the Belmont Stakes is known to be one of the few tests
of stamina remaining in dirt racing. The “Test of a Champion” has become modern
US horse racing’s definition of endurance, and as we know, many horses that
race the Belmont will never race that far again.
1975. The last
year that the Jockey Club Gold Cup was ever run at the distance of 2 miles. The 2-mile JCGC was arguably the
premier end-of-year-race of its time that saw many of the all time greats. It established the legacy of a few we
now consider to be the greatest horses to ever set foot on the track. Completing 2 miles on dirt was the
pinnacle of breeding, training, and durability that personified the
thoroughbred. And now, in the finest form of irony, the current 1 ¼ mile Jockey
Club Gold Cup is used as a prep race for some participants of the Breeder’s Cup
Marathon. That thought probably
has Kelso rolling in his grave.
2008. The inaugural running of the Breeder’s Cup Marathon. In true justification of
the modern definition of dirt horses’ stamina, the race was created at the
staying distance of 1 ½ miles.
Santa Anita hosted the Breeder’s Cup that year, and with it came the
synthetic racing surface, and many European turf horses that would not have
been quite as suited to the 1 ½ mile turf race. Muhannak was the first horse to be crowned winner of the Marathon, stopping the clock in a respectable 2:28.24.
2009. The Marathon
extended to the current distance of 1 ¾ miles and was bumped up to Grade 3
status, however was still run on the synthetic surface of the hosting Santa
Anita racetrack. Synthetic dirt,
typically plays forgiving to turf horses, which enticed the participation of
many European stayers that wanted a piece of the $500,000 purse. This was also the year that the stakes
record of 2:54.11 was set in an extremely exciting finish with Man of Iron
edging the long shot Cloudy’s Knight through a stretch long battle to the wire.
2010. The race was given an upgrade to a Grade 2 status, and
was the first time it was run on a natural dirt surface. With the change in racing surface came
the races first non-euro based winner.
Eldaafer, who probably learned quite a bit from competing the previous
year, edged out Gabriel’s Union in another exciting finish of the 1 ¾ mile
contest. It took over 5 seconds
longer than the previous year, with Eldaafer stopping the clock in 2:59.62. Perhaps it can be argued that the 5-second
slowdown from the previous year was due to the lack of distance specializing
European horses, or the cuppy Churchill Downs dirt.
2011. A second consecutive year at Churchill Downs resulted
in the second consecutive year of minimal entries of European horses. In this rendition, the 44-1 Afleet Again mimicked his sire’s late race rally and kicked 3 lengths clear to win in
a pedestrian 3:00.39. Is this time
a sign of things to come, or was the unique texture of Churchill’s surface really
taxing on the competitors?
2012. The race is coming back to Santa Anita, but the
synthetic track surface of old has been replaced with speed favoring dirt. The Marathon retains its Grade 2 status
and continues to carry a purse of $500,000. This year’s race could see the likes of up-and-coming
distance specialists like Redeemed, and maybe even the 4th
consecutive appearance of the 2010 winner, Eldaafer.
The Breeder’s Cup Marathon may not be the marquee event of
the racing card, but it certainly has its place amongst the world championship
races. It represents a tradition that
made the breed what it is today.
It serves as reminder that even amongst a sea of 6-8 furlong
specialists, there are still a few that know how to stretch out. In the coming weeks, I will highlight
the hopefuls and try to handicap a race that may help someone find this year’s
44-1 Afleet Again. But more than
anything, I hope to bring a new sense of respect and excitement for having to
wait 2 minutes for the most exciting minute to start.
Photo credit to The Breeder's Cup (breederscup.com)