With two days of Breeders' Cup races beginning Friday, there are plenty of storylines to follow over the two days of action:
Uncle Mo is the star of the show
A year ago, Uncle Mo was a superstar in the making, capping an unbeaten two-year-old season with a 4¬-length victory in the Breeders' Cup Juvenile and giving the racing world abuzz the prospect of a first Triple Crown winner since 1978.
But the two-year-old champ got sick in the spring and was diagnosed with a career-threatening liver ailment. Uncle Mo made a remarkable recovery, though, re-appearing in late August with a gutsy performance in the King's Bishop Stakes in which he came up a nose short on the finish line.
The brilliant colt moved forward off the tightener, recording a smashing three-length win the Kelso Handicap on Oct. 1 and will likely will be favored in the Classic. The 1¬-mile distance is difficult given his pedigree and lack of experience at the trip, but Mo might be the one-of-a-kind performer that overcomes all obstacles. And his star appeal is second to none.
Goldikova goes for a grand slam in the Mile
The French superstar etched her name in history last year by becoming the only horse to win three Breeders' Cup races, but if she wins a fourth straight in the Mile, she will lay down a benchmark that might never be equaled.
Trained by retired jockey Freddie Head, who rode Hall of Famer Miesque to back-to-back Mile wins in 1987-'88, Goldikova is a rarity for maintaining her world-class ability at the highest level for so long. Two factors have added further drama to her quest: she's lost three times this season, prompting some to wonder if she's lost a step, and she's drawn post 1, which could pose traffic problems on the inside.
Third straight female Horse of the Year?
Since horse racing began honoring its champions in 1936, only seven mares have won Horse of the Year. Twice during that period, females won back to back, including Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta in the past two years. (The other back-to-back were Twilight Tear and Busher in 1944 and 1945).
She's already beaten her male counterparts once, taking the Woodward Stakes at Saratoga in early September, and will enter the Classic off an 8 1/4-length romp in the Beldame Invitational back against fillies and mares.
European domination of the American turf
Besides Goldikova, Europeans have plundered the top turf races in North America. This year, foreign raiders have swept the Man o' War, Arlington Million, Secretariat, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational, Jamaica and Canadian International, and their stranglehold shows no signs of letting up.
Europe, which has won 10 of the last 12 runnings of the Breeders' Cup Turf, has the top five contenders Saturday. In the Filly & Mare Turf, favored Stacelita had been based in Europe until this summer, and three of her principal rivals are shipping in from abroad. Europeans also have taken two of four runnings of the Juvenile Turf.
U.S. runners will do well if they can prevent a total shutout by the Europeans.
Early Kentucky Derby favorite
The Juvenile determines the early favorite for the Derby. And while the winner doesn't often wear the Roses the following spring, with Street Sense being the only Juvenile-Derby winner in 2006-'07, the race has produced five Derby heroes over the years.
Early Kentucky Oaks favorite
The first running of the Juvenile Fillies saw Fran's Valentine, who crossed under the wire first before being disqualified to second, go on the next year and win the Kentucky Oaks, the biggest race for three-year-old fillies.
In 26 subsequent runnings, nine Juvenile Fillies winners have competed in the Oaks, with two wins and three seconds. Last year's winner and Eclipse Award recipient Awesome Feather didn't run in the Oaks, developing tendon issues that kept her sidelined until early October.
But her former connections (she was sold after last year's Breeders' Cup) will try to make it two in a row when they send out the top Florida-based filly Awesome Belle. Other top contenders who could make it back to Churchill Downs for next year's Oaks include My Miss Aurelia, Grace Hall, Weemissfrankie and Candrea.
4 seek repeats in Breeders' Cup races
Continuity abounds at this year's Breeders' as four 2010 winners are back to defend their titles. Big Drama has the best chance to repeat as he enters Saturday's Sprint in good form. Eldaafer could surprise again in the Marathon at overlaid odds, while Chamberlain Bridge (Turf Sprint) and Shared Account (Filly & Mare Turf) have taken a step backward from 2010.
In addition, 2010 Juvenile winner Uncle Mo is seeking a second Breeders' Cup win, this time in the Classic. The only horse to date that has won two different Breeders' Cup races is the Zenyatta (2008 Ladies' Classic, 2009 Classic).
California-based Bob Baffert and East Coast-based Todd Pletcher, the highest-profile trainers in North America, each has eight entries in the Breeders' Cup. Baffert is the third-leading trainer in Cup history with seven wins, and Pletcher is tied for fourth with six, including three winners last year.
Aidan O'Brien's Classic dream
Irish trainer Aidan O'Brien has had success, winning the 2001 Juvenile with Johannesburg and consecutive runnings of the Turf with High Chaparral (2002-'03), but the Classic has always eluded him. The master of Ballydoyle has endured agonizing moments, from Giant's Causeway's near-miss to Tiznow in 2000, to the fatal breakdown of George Washington in 2007, to the flop of the highly-touted Rip Van Winkle in 2009.
O'Brien is trying again with another turf superstar, the Australian champion-turned-European celebrity So You Think, who hopes his game translates to the dirt. But O'Brien's eyes are not only set on the Classic. He's dispatching a total of 11 horses, a personal record for O'Brien in the Breeders' Cup, and could be on the verge of a banner two days.
O'Brien is long overdue: since High Chaparral, he's had only one Breeders' Cup winner, Man of Iron in the relatively low-key Marathon in 2009.
Watch Garrett Gomez. He's won eight Breeders' Cup races over the last three years, taking home the Bill Shoemaker Award for outstanding jockey in 2008 and 2010, and is third all-time with 12 victories. He has mounts in 13-of-15 races.
Julien Leparoux, based at Churchill Downs, won the Shoemaker Award in 2010 and will ride 10 horses. John Velazquez (11 mounts), Ramon Dominguez (10) and Javier Castellano (10) - the top three jockeys in North America this year based on earnings - are very capable, but don't overlook Mike Smith, who is one spot ahead of Gomez with a total 13 Breeders' Cup wins. Smith has seven mounts lined up.