At Breeders’ Cup, a storybook win and questions for horse racing’s past and future
ARCADIA, CA. – The 40th Breeders’ Cup closed Saturday night in a setting California sun at Santa Anita Park, and this is what was left behind: Choices. A choice as to whether intense, hyper-cautious veterinary scrutiny is worth rankling trainers, owners, and bettors, if the outcome is fewer horse breakdowns. A choice as to whether to cry all the tears for a 17-year-old boy with a terrible illness whose bond with a 5-year-old horse is life-affirming in a sport riven by far too much death – or to save some for the weddings and funerals and other emotional moments in one’s own life. And whether 10 years in equine jail is enough to let a man have his moment, and his life, untethered to suspicion, or to extend his sentence into infinity, just because. And most of all, whether to find hope in racing’s future.
The Breeders’ Cup, the self-titled “Super Bowl of Racing,” with 14 races over two days worth $31 million in purses, last ran at Santa Anita in 2019, just as the current narrative arc of the sport was taking hold. Thirty horses had died the previous winter and spring at the track, Mongolian Groom broke down in the climatic Classic and was euthanized at his barn. Since then, the irresolvable truth that some horses will be lost in racing has been the battleground between insiders who accept that reality and outsiders (mostly) who have brought the sport under strenuous ethical and regulatory scrutiny, even to the point of threatening its existence. Even when there is common ground – both parties want horses to live – there is also sparring. And while numbers have improved significantly, it has been a rough year, with high-profile breakdowns on the visible days.
Also: this event did not start auspiciously. Classic contender Geaux Rocket Ride broke down last Saturday and was euthanized four days later, one day after mile contender Practical Move died on the track of an apparent cardiac event. Two days, two deaths.
But a sport is not righted instantly; there are still concussions in college and professional football, which does not demean the effort to eliminate them. In the days approaching Friday’s and Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup races, the patient seemed to slide just off the critical list, at least temporarily. On Friday morning, seven teams of two veterinarians each, with a backup team of three vets, scratched at least nine horses entered that day, including Juvenile Turf favorite River Tiber, who is trained by the widely respected and successful Aiden O’Brien; and Givemethebeatboys, from the Juvenile Turf Sprint, trained by Jessica Harrington, who told NBC’s Nick Luck, “I know they’ve got to be careful, but being careful and being totally over the top are two different things.”
The scratches were reminiscent of last year’s Kentucky Derby, when favored Forte was scratched by a Kentucky state veterinarian on the morning of the race, angering owner Mike Repole and trainer Todd Pletcher. (“It was upsetting,” Repole said this weekend. “But I think the system is trying to get better.”). Notably, earlier in the week, trainer Jena Antonucci had scratched Belmont Stakes and Travers winner Arcangelo and said, “We’ll do what we always do by putting him first.” However, there was more to it than just a trainer’s decision. One veterinarian who observed Arcangelo during that week said, “It was a collective decision, which is the way it should be.”
And. And, and and… the 14 races unfolded without a catastrophic breakdown or death. Bear Mountain was pulled up after the Juvenile Turf, but is expected to survive. Another horse, Bus Buzz, was pulled up in the last race on Friday’s card, not a Breeders’ Cup race, and is reportedly expected to undergo surgery Sunday.
None of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races moved racing from the mind back to the heart more forcefully than the Dirt Mile, contested half an hour before noon on Saturday. The favorite was Cody’s Wish, the five-year-old colt who had lost just one race in eight tries since March of 2022, but who had become the sport’s touchstone, because of the story of his bond with Cody Dorman, who was born with Wolf-Hirschhorn syndrome, a rare genetic disease that often leaves its victims unable to move or speak. Cody’s Wish won last year’s Dirt Mile at Keeneland and brought tears in the winner’s circle, a moment that rivaled Flightline’s transcendent win in the Classic.
A year passed, in which Cody’s Wish ran four times, losing only in the Whitney. On Saturday he lagged early and then collared Preakness winner National Treasure at the top of stretch and held him off for a victory (after an inquiry into the stretch run). Jockey Junior Alvarado dismounted and kissed Cody’s Wish on his dirt-splattered neck.
A father tried to measure all of it. “In a lot of ways, I think that horse probably saved Cody’s life,” said Dorman’s father, Kelly. “I know him and the horse have made a lot of lives better.” Long after it was over, Cody sat in his wheelchair among champagne-drinking adults, with Alvarado’s goggles and two small white flowers from the winning blanket in his lap. The race was Cody’s Wish’s last, and he will be retired to stud in Kentucky, where Cody will visit, and the friendship will endure.
More than four hours later, the Classic, the 1 ¼-mile centerpiece of the Breeders’ Cup, delivered a more complex outcome. The race was won by four-year-old White Abarrio, whose path to the Classic was nearly as circuitous as his trainer’s.
White Abarrio ran in the 2022 Kentucky Derby and finished 16th at 16-1 odds. He was winless in four more starts as a three-year-old, but often competitive for trainer Saffie Joseph, Jr. He started twice in the winter and was scheduled to race on Derby Day at Churchill Downs, but was scratched by Churchill officials, along with all of Joseph’s entrants, (including Derby qualifier Lord Miles) after two of his horses died in the days leading to the Derby. Joseph was also suspended indefinitely by the track, which was honored by the New York Racing Association, where the horse was headed next.
This left White Abarrio without a trainer. His owners went to 64-year-old Rick Dutrow. “I had to make a trainer switch,” said Mark Cornett, one of White Abarrio’s four owners. “I’ve known Rick a long time. I know exactly what he’s capable of. He was on a very, very short list of New York trainers.”
Dutrow, who trained 2008 Derby and Preakness winner Big Brown, is also on another list: Trainers who have been suspended for 10 years. In October of 2011, Dutrow was suspended by NYRA for a decade, citing a long history of malfeasance that included 70 violations at 15 racetracks in nine states, and after hypodermic needles were found in his barn. Dutrow exhausted his appeals and began serving his suspension in February of 2013. He vigorously maintained his innocence throughout his exile, still does (although mainly and pointedly looks ahead) and it’s fair to say that other trainers since have received softer punishments for other serious violations. He did real time, during which, he says, he lost 60 pounds, “Because I didn’t have money to eat.” He says he rarely watched big horse races, the Breeders’ Cup, “maybe two times.” At some point, he waited.
After the Classic, I asked Dutrow if he feels he will be welcomed back, after his long suspension. “I’ve already been getting that,” he said. “I’ve been getting texts, even from people who were my enemies. They say, ‘Rick, I don’t care about the past, I know you were treated wrong.’ I feel that support and I feel good about it.” U.S. culture is generous with second chances and redemption, but sometimes less so in sports: Olympic gold medal sprinter Justin Gatlin was a popular athlete until he tested position for a banned substance (he always claimed innocence), and even after serving a four-year suspension, was viewed with suspicion (in part because steroids can provide long-term benefits, but only in part). Time will earn Dutrow his forgiveness, and clean victories.
One thing was never called into question: Dutrow was good with horses, and his work with White Abarrio would suggest that he still is. (This is where the doping disclaimer goes, although Dutrow said, in 2015, “I never cheated to win a race.”) He saddled White Abarrio first to a third-place finish in the Met Mile at Belmont, before dominating the 1 1/8-mile Whitney and targeting the Classic. He shipped White Abarrio to California two months ahead of the Breeders’ Cup and worked five times over the Santa Anita surface. Dutrow and farrier Ian McKinley fitted White Abarrio with glue-on shoes to protect a sensitive spot and the outcome has been sensational.
Dutrow was unabashedly confident. “Licking my lips,” he said two days before the Classic. He said he called one of his lawyers, who was in Paris, and told him, “Bet all the Francs.” (Dutrow missed the Euro conversion that happened 22 years ago, a measure of his narrow world view: Just horses).
White Abarrio won with relative ease Saturday, sitting behind trainer Bob Baffert’s Arabian Knight for a mile before Eclipse Award-winning jockey Irad Ortiz, Jr. pushed the button and leaped past on the outside. The stretch run was a coronation. “Unbelievable,” said Dutrow on the track, his shirt soaked in his own sweat and the water he sloshed on his horse’s face. “Just unbelievable.”
All of it. A sport wrestles with itself for survival, a horse saves a boy, a man returns after 10 years lost to time. Racing rides toward Kentucky in the spring.