WILL FLIGHTLINE WIN THE BREEDERS’ CUP CLASSIC?

After 4-year-old Flightline demolished the competition in the 2022 Pacific Classic by nearly 20 lengths, with a 128 speed figure, the superlatives deservedly flowed.  Comparisons to Secretariat were forthcoming.  The closest another horse has finished behind him in a race is 6 lengths and his average winning margin is just over 12 lengths. The Longines World’s Best Racehorse Rankings have Flightline at a 139 rating, the second highest ever given to a racehorse that competes on dirt surfaces. 

While Flightline is undefeated and dominating, he has had only five career starts owing to injury setbacks.  Even so, he will go off as the prohibitive favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic at Keeneland on November 5, 2022.

Is he a surefire winner in the Breeders’ Cup Classic?  The history of horse racing says no.

Arguably, the greatest upset in sports history, and certainly one of the most astonishing, occurred at the 1980 Winter Olympic Games in Lake Placid, New York, when a USA hockey team composed of amateur college players defeated the world’s best team from the Soviet Union.  Similarly, horse racing has had many startling upsets, such as:

  • 1919: Man o’ War suffered his only loss to a colt appropriately named Upset.
  • 1953: Native Dancer’s only career blemish came in the Kentucky Derby at the hands of Dark Star.
  • 1973: Onion defeated 1-10 favorite Secretariat in the Whitney Handicap.
  • 2015: Keen Ice, previous loser of eight straight races, defeated Triple Crown winner and 1-5 favorite American Pharoah in the Travers Stakes.

There are sundry reasons, well known to horse bettors, why Flightline could lose the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Among them: 

  • Like a human athlete, he may get up feeling poorly on raceday. 
  • The time differential between his home-base in California and Kentucky could affect him.
  • He may not take to the Keeneland track surface or heavy rain would make the track muddy.
  • His jockey might err.
  • He might be the victim of poor racing luck.
  • An injury.
  • A horse without the innate ability of Flightline might run an off-the-charts career-best race.

Will Flightline win the biggest race of his short career?  Likely, but not a lock.  The ultimate shocker would be if Rich Strike were to repeat his Kentucky Derby win and take down the Breeders’ Cup Classic.  Impossible?  Remember Lake Placid 1980.

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LOOKING BACK ON THE INAUGURAL BREEDERS’ CUP

As we approach the 39th running of the Breeders’ Cup, I retrieved my copy of the program from the first edition in 1984 and looked through it.  The very thin front cover of the program had the word Inaugural printed in black fifteen times from top to bottom with the only lettering being Breeders’ Cup in gold and Hollywood Park, November 10, 1984, also in gold lettering.  The outside of the back cover was a cigarette ad that said “Come to Marlboro Country” and pictured a cowboy and horse.  One of the placing judges listed in the program was Hall of Fame jockey William Hartack; he and Eddie Arcaro are tied with the most Kentucky Derby wins with five each.

Five of the seven Breeders’ Cup races had sponsors: Chrysler, DeBeers, First Jersey Securities, Michelob, and Mobil Oil.  The seven Breeders’ Cup races were all Grade I and had total purses of $10 million, as compared to the $28 million that will be paid out over 14 Breeders’ Cup races in 2022.  Both cards had a couple of additional graded stakes races.

The seven Breeders’ Cup races were:

  • BC Juvenile
  • BC Juvenile Fillies
  • BC Sprint
  • BC Mile
  • BC Distaff
  • BC Turf
  • BC Classic

The first five races had purses of $1 million each, with the BC Turf at $2 million and the BC Classic at $3 million. 

The 1985 Kentucky Derby winner Spend A Buck finished third in the BC Juvenile behind Chief’s Crown and Tank’s Prospect.  The 1982 Kentucky Derby winner Gato Del Sol was eighth in the BC Turf.  The first BC Classic was won by Wild Again and trained by Vincent Timphony.

The list of owners, trainers, and jockeys in the program included many of the truly greats of both American and European racing.  A sampling:

  • owners Leslie Combs, Robert Sangster, the Aga Khan, Frank Stronach, Starvos Niarchos, Fred Hooper, Eugene Klein, and Allen Paulson
  • trainers Robert Frankel, John Gosden, John Nerud, Jack Van Berg, Francois Boutin, Carl Natzger, Charles Whittingham, and D. Wayne Lukas
  • jockeys Pat Day, Lafit Pincay Jr., Craig Perret, William Shoemaker, Angel Cordero Jr., Eddie Maple, Chris McCarron, and Eddie Delahoussaye. 

Many of the participants in the 2022 Breeders’ Cup were yet to be born in 1984.  They are following in the shoes of racing giants. A few of those giants will be competing in Breeders’ Cup number 39 at Keeneland.

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PRIVATE EQUITY COMES TO HORSE SPORTS

To my knowledge, a private equity company has never invested in the horse industry, at least as not as aggressively and as extensively as Vodskov, Denmark-based Global Equestrian Group (GEG), which was founded in 2021.  Its stated mission is to be the largest equestrian company in the world.  Currently, it has 250-plus employees and annual revenues of about EURO 175 million. 

GEG has “activities in dressage, show jumping and events, jewelery…equestrian accessories and apparel, as well as other equestrian sports investments.”  Some of its acquisitions are:

Wellington International (Palm Beach County, FL)
Helgstrand Dressage
Ludger Beerbaum Stables
Ruxbury
Riesenbeck International
Chronicle of the Horse magazine

GEG is a subsidiary of Waterland Private Equity, which was started in the Netherlands in 1999 and now has 12 offices in 10 countries.  Waterland has previously invested in 900 companies.  Its goal is to “enhance long-term value” in its portfolio companies.

In my view, the jury is out on whether even such a large-scale equine portfolio can generate the magnitude of monetary returns that investors in private equity normally expect.  Only time will tell. 

To date, GEG has not invested in horse racing and has not publicly indicated any plans in this respect.  If it decides to do so that could be the most significant development in the sport since the innovation of racing partnerships.

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