Change. Sometimes we fear it, and sometimes we embrace it. President Bill Clinton once said that “the price of doing the same old thing is far higher than the price of change.”
Few major races have had as much change in their history as the Jockey Club Gold Cup. One of those changes began last year with the race moving to the final weekend of the meet at Saratoga. For many years, it was viewed as the centerpiece of the Fall Championship Meeting at Belmont Park. The Gold Cup is a “Win And You’re In” race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, and it will be featured on NBC’s telecast on Saturday, September 3 from 4:30-6:00 p.m. ET. It is one of two qualifying races for the Breeders’ Cup on the telecast, with the other being the Flower Bowl Stakes, whose winner will get into the Filly & Mare Turf.
The Jockey Club Gold Cup has also had significant distance changes over the years. The first two years of the Gold Cup were 1919 and 1920, and it was run at a mile and a half. The 1920 winner was the immortal Man o’ War. From 1921 to 1975, it was run at the marathon distance of 2 miles. This was a glorious time in the history of the race, highlighted by the years from 1960-1964, when it was won five consecutive times by the mighty gelding Kelso. Another major highlight was in 1970 and 1971, when the mare Shuvee defeated the boys. Other legendary winners from this time period included Gallant Fox, War Admiral, Whirlaway, Citation, Nashua, Gallant Man, Sword Dancer, Damascus and the incredible gelding Forego. In 1974, he had a year that will probably never be duplicated. In that year, in addition to winning the 2-mile Gold Cup, Forego won several major stakes as well as the Carter Handicap and the Vosburgh Handicap, both at 7 furlongs. As a result, he was named Champion Sprinter, Champion Older Male Horse and Horse of the Year for 1974.
Because of the growing influence of speed in American breeding, the distance of the Gold Cup was shortened to a mile and a half in 1976. Significant winners at the shortened distance included Exceller, Affirmed, John Henry, two-time winner Slew o’Gold, two-time winner Crème Fraiche and Easy Goer.
In the mid-1980’s, however, change was again in the wind for the Jockey Club Gold Cup. The inaugural Breeders’ Cup was run in 1984, and the mile and a quarter Breeders’ Cup Classic, with its $3 million purse, almost instantly became the most important race at the end of the year for distance horses. The Gold Cup was no longer the most important race for horse of the year and champion older horse, although it was still a prestigious Grade 1 race with a large purse. In 1989, the distance was shortened to a mile and a quarter, which was the same distance as the Classic. In the eyes of many, it made the Gold Cup into a fancy prep race for the Classic, but it was still a vital race with a great history.
What does the Gold Cup tell us ahead of the Breeders’ Cup Classic?
What can we say about the relationship between the Gold Cup and the Breeders’ Cup Classic? In the years since the inception of the Breeders’ Cup, three horses have won the Gold Cup and the Classic in the same year. They were Cigar (1995), Skip Away (1997) and Curlin (2007). In 2019, Vino Rosso crossed the finish line first in both races, but in the Gold Cup he was disqualified for interference in the stretch and placed 2nd.
Our friends at Equibase have provided greater detail on the relationship between the two races. In total, 29 Jockey Club Gold Cup winners have run in the Classic, producing three wins, four second-place finishers, two third-place finishers, and five fourth-place finishers. The most striking part of this mathematical puzzle is that 15 of 29 Jockey Club Gold Cup winners who ran in the Breeders’ Cup Classic have finished 5th or worse in that race. One logical reason for this is that it takes a very special horse to win back-to-back Grade 1 races at the 10-furlong distance. For some, the attempt to win both races could be a reason why they didn’t run so well in the Classic, as they may have fired their best shot in the Gold Cup.
This data led me to look at the results from a reverse perspective. We know about the three horses who won both races in the same year, but what about horses that won the Classic, but did not win the Jockey Club Gold Cup? There are five Classic winners who did not win the Gold Cup but finished on the board in that race as a precursor to a peak effort in the Classic, and some of them yielded good prices at the windows:
2019 – Vino Rosso finished 1st but was placed 2nd by DQ in the Gold Cup. He came back to win the Classic and pay $11.20 for a $2 win ticket.
2012 – Fort Larned was 3rd in the Gold Cup. He won the Classic and delivered a $20.80 win price.
2011 – Drosselmeyer followed up a 2nd in the Gold Cup with a Classic score that paid $31.60 to win. How did a Bill Mott-trained horse get let go at such a big number?
2010 – Blame was the best older male horse that year, but sentiment in the Classic pointed in the direction of a repeat win by the beloved mare Zenyatta. Blame defeated Zenyatta and paid $12.40 to win.
1992 – After stumbling at the start, A.P. Indy finished 3rd to Pleasant Tap in the Gold Cup. He turned the tables in the Classic, finishing 1st as Pleasant Tap was 2nd. A.P. Indy returned $6.20.
So, do we view the Jockey Club Gold Cup as a prestigious Grade 1 race at a classic distance, or, at least to some extent, is it equally important as a prep race for the Breeders’ Cup Classic? There is no definitive answer to that question, as history has shown that it is a race that can actually be both of those things.
Storylines to watch in 2022 Jockey Club Gold Cup
The long-range significance of this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup depends greatly on two horses who will not be in the race. Life is Good and Flightline are, respectively, No. 1 and No. 2 in the NTRA’s Top Thoroughbred Poll at this point. Both horses, however, present question marks at the mile and a quarter distance. Life is Good, while proven at a mile and an eighth, had the weakest performance of his career when he tried 10 furlongs in the Dubai World Cup and finished 4th. The undefeated Flightline has never gone beyond a mile. Both horses are scheduled to test their distance limitations prior to the Classic. Life is Good is probable for the mile and an eighth Woodward at Aqueduct on October 1. Flightline will be tested for distance in the mile and a quarter Pacific Classic at Del Mar, which will be run a few hours after the Gold Cup.
But what about the horses who will actually be in this year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup? The headliner is Olympiad, from the barn of Bill Mott. He had won four in a row, including the Stephen Foster Stakes at Churchill Downs, when he entered the July 2nd Whitney Stakes. The aforementioned Life Is Good was sent off as the favorite in the Whitney, but Olympiad was the 2nd choice at just under 2-1 odds. It was not his day, however, as Olympiad couldn’t work out his usual stalking trip, and he finished 4th, beaten by over nine lengths. This race is his chance for redemption and to prove that he belongs in the upper echelon of horses for this year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic.
The Gold Cup occupies an unusual place in the career of trainer Todd Pletcher. His only win in the race came in 2020 with Happy Saver. From his 25 lifetime starters in the race, however, he has also finished 2nd a remarkable eight times, and he’s been 3rd three times.
This year, he could have as many as four starters, headlined by Americanrevolution and Dynamic One. Americanrevolution was 2nd to Olympiad in the Stephen Foster, and he won the Grade 1 Cigar Mile in early December at Aqueduct. Performances of that type prove that he definitely can be a factor in this race. Dynamic One scored in the Suburban Stakes at Belmont in his last start, which proved his ability at the Gold Cup distance of 1 ¼ miles. He’s won his last two starts, and he could be rounding into his best form approaching the Gold Cup. The other Pletcher possibles are Untreated, who was 3rd in the Suburban Stakes and Pimlico Special, and Keepmeinmind, who was 2nd in last year’s Jim Dandy Stakes and posted an Allowance win at Saratoga in his only start this year.
The other major contender to look at is the Shug McGaughey trainee First Captain. He won the Pimlico Special and was 2nd by a nose to Dynamic One in the Suburban Stakes. He has posted some eye-catching workouts since that race, and he could be peaking at just the right time.
Despite the dominance of Life Is Good and Flightline in the Thoroughbred poll, neither is a certainty to either run in or win the Breeders’ Cup Classic. For the time being, the trainers of horses in the Gold Cup would be best off to forget about those two and focus on the mile and a quarter Grade 1 race that will be contested at Saratoga on Saturday. A win in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, as always, will be a major achievement on a horse’s resume and could set him up perfectly for the Classic.