The Best Without a Cup: by John Piassek

The Best Without a Cup

The Best Horses in the Breeders’ Cup Era to Not Contest the Cup

by John Piassek

June 19, 2017

Two weeks ago, the racing world was saddened by the death of 1994 Horse of the Year Holy Bull. The Bull has a compelling case as the best horse of the 1990s. In sixteen starts, he won thirteen races, including six grade 1s, and defeated older males twice as a three-year-old.

What makes his career interesting, however, is that he never ran in a Breeders’ Cup race. Because he was not nominated for the Cup as a foal, Holy Bull’s owner, Jimmy Croll, would have to have paid a hefty supplemental fee to run in either the 1993 Juvenile or the 1994 Classic. While Holy Bull didn’t need any Breeders’ Cup wins to collect multiple Eclipse Awards or a Hall of Fame induction, it nevertheless stands out as an unusual quirk of a great career.

Ever since it was founded in 1984, the Breeders’ Cup has been a ubitquious year-end championship for virtually every major horse. Finding great horses who did not run in the Breeders’ Cup since 1984 is a difficult task, and inspired this article. Here, you’ll find, in my opinion, the ten best horses of the Breeders’ Cup era who, for whatever reason, never got to run in the Cup.

Before we get started, there are two ground rules:

  • The horse must have started their career in 1984 or later. When I pitched the question on facebook, a lot of people proposed John Henry as one of the best to never run in the Cup. It’s true that John Henry was pointing towards the 1984 Breeders’ Cup Turf before suffering a career-ending injury. However, he never had the opportunity to run in the Breeders’ Cup for the majority of his career. Given that he was a multiple graded stakes winner four years in a row, it’s likely he would have run in at least one Cup somewhere along the line.
  • The horse must have been based in the United States for at least a few months. Horses like Frankel, Black Caviar, and Deep Impact, to name a few, were undoubtedly all-time greats, but it’s doubtful the Breeders’ Cup was ever taken seriously as a year-end goal for them.

So without any further ado, here’s the list:

1. Holy Bull

His career accomplishments were described above. Considering the top two finishers in the 1994 Breeders’ Cup Classic–Concern and Tabasco Cat–were both defeated by Holy Bull, it’s not much of a stretch to assume he would have won the Classic easily if given the opportunity.

2. Rachel Alexandra 

In recent times, it’s likely that no horse ever dominated their division to the extent that Rachel Alexandra did in 2009. She won two grade 1s against three-year-old fillies by a combined 39 1/2 lengths. However, she then branched out beyond her division, winning the Preakness Stakes and the Haskell Invitational against three-year-old males, followed by an unprecedented win in the Woodward Stakes against older males. It’s safe to say that we will not see a three-year-old filly defeat older males in a G1 in September again any time soon. For her accomplishments, she was voted the 2009 Horse of the Year.

Had she tried the 2009 Breeders’ Cup Distaff, she would have been an odds-on favorite, and likely would have won by daylight. If she had run in the Classic that year, she would have been one of the favorites. Unfortunately, that year’s Breeders’ Cup was run over a synthetic surface at Santa Anita Park, and owner Jess Jackson balked at running his filly over that surface. Despite a solid four-year-old season that concluded with an incredibly gutsy second-place finish in the Personal Ensign Stakes, she was retired before the 2010 Cup over a dirt track at Churchill Downs. Like Holy Bull, her career resume does not need a Breeders’ Cup victory to be considered one of the best ever.

3. Mineshaft

In 2003, Mineshaft was as dominant of an older horse as we’ve ever seen. He rattled off four grade 1 wins: the Pimlico Special, the Suburban, the Woodward, and the Jockey Club Gold Cup. As icing on the cake, he won two other graded stakes that year, and finished second in the grade 1 Stephen Foster. He was voted the 2003 Horse of the Year for his accomplishments, and was the most deserving candidate that year by a mile.

A week after his Jockey Club Gold Cup victory, he was discovered to have two bone chips in his ankles, forcing his retirement. Given the lackluster Classic that ensued that year (Pleasantly Perfect scored at 14/1), Mineshaft would have been a huge favorite to score his fifth grade 1 victory of the year. Combined with his head loss in the Stephen Foster, he came the closest of anyone in the stretch between Cigar and American Pharoah to have six grade 1 wins in one year.

4. Risen Star

He had a brief career, but he was one of the best horses in the time between 1978 and 2015 to not win the Triple Crown. Sent off at 5/1 in the Derby, he had a brutally wide trip, losing tons of ground, and could not catch the front-running winner, Winning Colors. Seeking revenge in the Preakness, he rallied up the inside to pass the dueling Forty Niner and Winning Colors, and won by a length and a half.

It was in the Belmont Stakes that this son of Secretariat established himself as one of the best three-year-olds of the 1980s. He dominated the Test of the Champion by more than fourteen lengths, in a lightning-fast 2:26 2/5.

Not long after the Belmont, Risen Star was discovered to have some ankle issues. The slow progress of healing, coupled with a tempting syndication deal, made retirement before the Breeders’ Cup inevitable. Even though Risen Star’s career was more of a shooting star, with a better trip in the Kentucky Derby, he would have been racing’s twelfth Triple Crown winner.

5. Thunder Gulch 

Over the past 25 years, only three horses have pulled off the Kentucky Derby-Travers double: Sea Hero in 1993, Thunder Gulch in 1995, and Street Sense in 2007. In that timespan, The Belmont-Travers double is a little more common: Thunder Gulch, Lemon Drop Kid in 1999, Point Given in 2001, Birdstone in 2004, and Summer Bird in 2009.

Still, as you can see, it takes a special horse to be able to win both a Triple Crown race and the Travers. Thunder Gulch fits that bill.

Going into the 1995 Blue Grass, Thunder Gulch had a powerful case as the best three-year-old in the country. At two, he won the Remsen Stakes, and was second in the Hollywood Futurity. He started his sophomore campaign with victories in the Fountain of Youth and the Florida Derby, and was a deserving 6/5 favorite in the Blue Grass. Unfortunately, he didn’t fire, finishing fourth behind 30/1 winner Wild Syn.

The defeat caused a lot of bandwagon-jumping, and Thunder Gulch was dismissed at 24/1 in the Kentucky Derby. He won it by 2 1/4 lengths, defeating stablemate Timber Country. Timber Country got his revenge by winning the Preakness, as the Gulch finished third, behind Maryland-bred hopeful Oliver Twist.

With both of the Preakness top two out of the Belmont, Thunder Gulch bounced back with a decisive score in New York, winning the Belmont Stakes by two lengths. That race kicked off a four-race winning streak, including the Travers. Unfortunately, he was injured while challenging the great Cigar in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, thereby ending his underrated career.

6. Smarty Jones

Arguably no horse went into the Belmont Stakes looking more like a certain Triple Crown winner than Smarty Jones did back in 2004. In fact, the night before calling the Belmont, legendary announcer Tom Durkin went onto the track and measured how far 31 lengths was from the finish line, because he thought that Smarty might win by as many lengths as Secretariat did.

The reason for the excitement of racing fans all over the country was understandable. The Pennsylvania-bred won the first eight races of his career, including the Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes in dominant style. He took advantage of a bonus Oaklawn Park offered that year, giving out $5 million to any horse who could win all of their Kentucky Derby prep races, plus the Derby itself. Smarty was up to the task, sweeping through the Southwest Stakes, the Rebel Stakes, the Arkansas Derby, and the Run for the Roses.

Of course, Smarty was not up for the task of the Belmont. He had a big lead rounding the far turn, but was run down by 36/1 longshot Birdstone. Smarty had a wide variety of physical issues after the Belmont, and never raced again.

7. Criminal Type

In his illustrious career, D. Wayne Lukas had trained three Horse of the Year honorees. Criminal Type was the second of those. He began his career in France in August of 1987 under the training of Pat Biancone. Following five tries on grass, with one victory, he was shipped to the United States to run under Lukas.

He was a slow developer; he did not clear his n/w1x condition until October 1989, and didn’t clear his n/w2x until two months after that. Once he started winning, however, he almost couldn’t stop. He started 1990 with two graded stakes victories, followed by two runner-up scores. He finished fourth in the Oaklawn Handicap, off just a thirteen day layoff, before rebounding with a victory in the Pimlico Special, then with a breakthrough win over Easy Goer in the Met Mile.

After two more grade 1 victories, Criminal Type looked well on his way to being the odds-on favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. Unfortunately, he was injured while finishing sixth in the Woodward Stakes, and was subsequently retired. He didn’t win his HOTY award in an easy year, either. The runner-ups were Kentucky Derby and Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Unbridled, and the brilliant three-year-old filly Go For Wand.

8. Mom’s Command

Mom’s Command is unique, in that all sixteen of her starts came in stakes races. Trained by Massachusetts-based Peter Fuller, and ridden by his daughter, Abby, Mom’s Command debuted by scoring a 45/1 upset in the Faneuil Miss Stakes at Rockingham Park in July 1984. After another stakes win at Suffolk Downs, she was sent southward to pursue greater opportunities. She won two stakes, including the grade 1 Selima Stakes at Laurel, but was not entered in the inaugural Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies.

It was as a three-year-old that she truly blossomed. She won her sophomore debut, in Pimlico’s Flirtation Stakes, by nineteen lengths. After two more graded stakes races, she moved into the realms of the historic, sweeping NYRA’s “Filly Triple Crown”: the Acorn Stakes, the Mother Goose Stakes, and the Coaching Club American Oaks. Although initially criticized by some in the racing media for being too slow, she had won over her doubters by the time of the CCAO; she went off at 1/2 in that race. Mom’s Command also helped Abby Fuller gain the distinction of being the first female jockey to win multiple grade 1 races in one year.

Mom’s Command wasn’t quite done yet. She finished second in the Test Stakes, behind fellow Hall of Famer Lady’s Secret, then scored a victory in the Alabama Stakes. An injury in a workout prevented her from tackling the Breeders’ Cup Distaff, and she was sent off to be a broodmare. She was voted the champion three-year-old filly of 1985 (and probably deserved Horse of the Year) and was inducted into the Hall of Fame in 2007, the same year she died.

9. I’ll Have Another

This spot was a toss-up between I’ll Have Another and 1991 three-year-old champion Hansel, who won the Preakness and the Belmont. I’ll Have Another gets the edge, however, through his wins in the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, along with scores in the Santa Anita Derby and the Bob Lewis Stakes (at 43/1)! He only missed the board once in his career, with a distant sixth-place finish in the Hopeful Stakes. Of course, he was denied a try at the Triple Crown due to an injury sustained before the Belmont, becoming the first horse since 1936 to win the first two legs of the Triple Crown but miss the third one.

10. Cape Blanco

Althought primarily based in Europe, Cape Blanco put together a fine string of grade 1 wins in the summer and fall of 2011. After varying degrees of success in Europe, including two grade 1s in Ireland as a three-year-old, Cape Blanco invaded the United States for a victory in the Man O’War Stakes at Belmont Park. He followed that up with a score in the Arlington Million, followed by a victory in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic. He was injured in that affair, and had to miss the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Had he won that race, he would have had a legitimate case as the Horse of the Year for 2011.

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