So this is what it comes down to: a purse of $5.12 million ... a mile-and-a-quarter around Churchill Downs ... in the race of the year.
"Maybe," trainer Bob Baffert said, "the race of the decade."
Who can argue with Baffert's assessment of Saturday's Breeders' Cup Classic? The championship race will not only play host to the much-anticipated match-up between horse-of-the-year contenders Skip Away and Silver Charm, but the event also has drawn undefeated Awesome Again, past Belmont Stakes winners Coronado's Quest and Touch Gold, Travers Stakes winner Coronado's Quest, and Gentlemen.
The cast of characters makes the Classic one of the deepest Grade I races in several years. But the Classic will only be one of seven races on the 15th Breeders' Cup Day at Churchill Downs. In other races to be contested:
All fine races, but simply appetizers for the Classic, which took on added significance Wednesday when owner R.D. Hubbard paid $800,000 to supplement Gentlemen into the Classic. Paired with the $480,000 owners Robert and Beverly Lewis paid to supplement Silver Charm into the race, the Classic not only became one of the best races of the decade, but the richest in racing history.
| Skip Away's trainer Sonny Hine hopes his horse can win the Breeders' Cup Classic for a second consecutive year. (AP) |
"Battaglia probably went with the home crowd thing," said Baffert, who added his colt "is kind of a home crowd (Kentucky) horse."
"In New York, Skip Away probably would be the favorite," Baffert added. "There's not much difference. These two horses have done so much for racing. It's what everybody has been waiting for, two big gray horses hooking up."
But when Sonny Hine, trainer of Skip Away, was asked about the long-anticipated match-up of his horse and Silver Charm, he downplayed the idea. "What matchup? You keep mentioning matchup. (Skip Away) will have to run like hell to be second."
He'll also have to do it at Churchill Downs. Although Skip Away has finished first, second or third in 34 of his 37 career starts, one of his worst efforts came over this track in the 1996 Kentucky Derby. Breaking from the No. 16 post, Skip Away finished 12th and didn't appear to have an excuse. But in retrospect, Hine believes there was a reason for Skip Away's poor performance in his only race at Churchill.
"I think I made some mistakes," Hine said. "I think I came too early (to train for the race), and three days before the race he started backing off his feed."
Skip Away is coming off his only loss of the year -- a third-place finish in the Jockey Club Gold Cup over a sloppy track -- but the 5-year-old has trained well for the Classic, his swan song before retiring to stud.
The Classic isn't just about Skip Away or Silver Charm. It's about Victory Gallop coming back from throat surgery. It's about Coronado's Quest making the last start of his career. It's about Awesome Again getting respect, and Touch Gold finally running back to his 1997 form. And it's about Gentlemen.
Gentlemen is a 6-year-old horse trained by Richard Mandella. Hubbard had considered running Gentlemen in the Mile, but after the horse worked a half-mile with blinkers Wednesday in :46 4/5, it was decided to put up the money and run in the Classic. A winner of 13 of 23 races and $3.6 million, Hubbard believes there is a matchup in Saturday's Classic: Gentlemen and Skip Away.
"We've ha a rivalry going with Skip Away for more than a year," Hubbard said. "We beat him twice and he beat us twice. I think these are the two best horses in the country, and we'll find out which one is better Saturday."
Gentlemen assures the Classic an honest pace as well as someone to run with Skip Away early in the race. Silver Charm likely will lay off the pace along with Coronado's Quest and Awesome Again. Victory Gallop and Touch Gold will try to close from well back.
No matter what happens, Hine said, "This is a great race."
The race of the decade.
© 1998 SportsLine USA, Inc. All rights reserved