Was it the track bias?
Was it the nasal strip?
Was there any logical explanation whatsoever for the victory of Cat Thief--heretofore regarded as an underachiever--in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic?
Thoroughbred racing isn't always easy to understand, but the nation's most important stakes event, in which the merits of all the horses are well-known, is supposed to produce rational results, not a 692,907-1 superfecta payoff.
Not only did Cat Thief have a 1-for-11 record as a 3-year-old, but he lost many of those races despite optimal racing luck. He would get into a perfect position stalking the leaders, or he'd take an unpressured early lead, yet he regularly would find a way to lose. He never passed anybody in the stretch. So how does one account for his remarkable performance at Gulfstream Park Saturday? Cat Thief raced inside of Old Trieste and fought head-and-head for the lead, blazing the first half mile in 45 3/5 seconds. He dropped back, then surged again to take the lead. On the turn, Budroyale drew abreast of him and Golden Missile launched a powerful, four-wide move that looked like a winning move. But Cat Thief gamely repulsed the challengers and was drawing away at the finish.
This uncharacteristic performance might be more understandable in the context of the other Breeders' Cup races on the dirt, which suggested that horses racing on the lead and near the rail had a definitive advantage at Gulfstream.
Distaff: Beautiful Pleasure led all the way to win, and Banshee Breeze rallied along the rail to finish second, though this was a completely logical result.
Juvenile Fillies: Cash Run, a one-dimensional speed horse who had faded badly in her only distance race, hugged the rail and fought off the three-wide challenge by the undefeated favorite, Chilukki.
Sprint: Artax dueled for the lead and prevailed over Kona Gold, who rallied up the rail to finish second. Well-regarded horses who broke from outside post positions never got into contention; the favorite, Forestry, appeared to be well-placed, but when he turned into the stretch five-wide he couldn't threaten.
Juvenile: Anees was the only horse to rally and win on the main track, and his trainer Alex Hassinger proclaimed, "He annihilated the [track] bias." But the performance of most other colts in the field was consistent with the bias. Chief Seattle and High Yield, who started from posts 1 and 2, finished second and third, respectively. Talented horses such as Kiss A Native and Dixie Union were trounced after breaking from outside posts and getting hung wide on the first turn.
The existence of unfair conditions has been an all-too-frequent phenomenon in the Breeders' Cup. Insuperable rail-favoring biases at Woodbine in 1996 and Santa Anita in 1986 produced fluky results and kept the Breeders' Cup from being the definitive championship event. Track superintendents evidently have a tendency to give their racing strip special treatment for the special day, and Gulfstream Park--after being perfectly normal on Friday--developed this bias overnight. The conditions surely helped Cat Thief.
But the aspect of Cat Thief's victory that will most pique the interest of horsemen and bettors is the nasal strip that he was wearing. In the last few weeks, some trainers have begun to experiment with the strips, similar to the Breathe Right strips employed by human athletes, that widen the nostrils to allow more air to flow into the nasal passages. Cat Thief's trainer, Wayne Lukas, equipped all of his Breeders' Cup runners with them. "Using the nose strips was a no-brainer for us," he said Sunday. "They couldn't hurt, and they might help."
The Lukas horses were lightly regarded going into the Breeders' Cup--most of the prerace attention was directed toward Bob Baffert's powerful contingent--but they performed exceptionally well. Lukas trained Cash Run, the winner of the Juvenile Fillies, and his other entrant in that race, Surfside, gave an outstanding effort to rally and finish third after being parked five-wide at the first turn.
The other Breeders' Cup victor equipped with a nasal strip was Anees in the Juvenile. Thus, the strips accounted for wake-up winners paying $67, $62.60 and $41.20. Could such a small device make a big difference? It may seem implausible, but a sizable percentage of modern horses suffer from respiratory problems--accounting for the popularity of drugs such as Lasix and clenbuterol--and the strips may help such horses. Lukas wasn't sure how much difference they made. He said it was premature to give them credit for helping horses until thorough, controlled studies are undertaken.
Yet even if the success of Saturday's nasal-strip runners was coincidental, it is probably safe to predict that most trainers are going to try using them on most of their horses. If they can help Cat Thief summon up courage in the stretch, maybe they are magical.