What makes a great story? Interesting, compelling characters are a key ingredient. A setting with high drama helps, too.
But perhaps most important of all is when those characters use that setting to overcome a previously-insurmountable obstacle.
The Breeders’ Cup races, America’s year-end championship series for Thoroughbred racing, have produced some great stories over the decades.
Let’s reminisce over a few of them, and you can look at the whole list of Breeders’ Cup winners by TwinSpires here.
American Pharoah, the two-year-old champion male of 2014, parlayed his early success into a truly masterful three-year-old season.
The bay colt, a son of Pioneer of the Nile and the Yankee Gentleman mare Littleprincessemma, entered the Triple Crown series with impressive victories in the Oaklawn Derby preps.
He exited the series a Triple Crown winner- the first in 37 years- before adding the Grade I Haskell Stakes for fun.
Then, in the Grade I Travers Stakes, American Pharoah did something few thought possible. He lost.
As Saratoga Race Course is nicknamed, the Graveyard of Champions claimed another monumental win streak. It wasn’t Pharoah’s only loss- he had fallen short in his debut a year earlier- but it made his backers, and those invested in his stud career in particular, nervous.
Would American Pharoah be able to redeem himself with a Classic victory against not only his elders but his conqueror, Keen Ice?
The question only hung in the air until the gates flipped open. American Pharoah tore through the stretch to a decisive win. In doing so, he added an unprecedented fourth jewel to his Triple Crown, becoming the first (and, as of 2022, the only) horse to win Thoroughbred racing’s Grand Slam.
Da Hoss, a son of Gone West, had attempted to make his mark as a dirt sprinter, but it was at the slightly longer mile distance on the grass that he really shone.
He was switched to that surface as a four-year-old in 1996, and he achieved a great deal of success. His victories that season included the Pennsylvania Governor’s Cup Handicap, the Grade III Fourstardave Handicap, and a 1 ½ length win in the Breeders’ Cup Mile.
Fans had every reason to expect another great season from Da Hoss in 1997, as he was a gelding and thus was likely to have a much longer racing career.
However, before he could make his 1997 debut, he was felled by an injury. So the fans waited.
And waited. And waited.
Indeed, it wasn’t until October 11th, 1998- nearly two full years later- that Da Hoss was loaded into another starting gate, this time for an allowance race over the outer turf course at Colonial Downs.
His return was a winning one, but the conditions of the race were so inauspicious that some wondered if he had lost a lot of his caliber in the layoff.
It boggled many minds, therefore, when trainer Michael Dickinson entered Da Hoss in the 1998 Mile. By conventional wisdom, there was no way that Da Hoss was fit even if he still had the talent he’d featured two years before.
Horses know nothing of human wisdom, however. Da Hoss came out of the far turn in front, was headed by Hawksley Hill, and fought back to push his own head in front. Race caller Tom Durkin announced that it was the “greatest comeback since Lazarus.”
There’s quality, consistency, and luck. Then there’s perfection.
Perfection does not come along often in racing, particularly when paired with a multi-season career, but it was something fans got a glimpse of in the late 1980s.
It arrived in the form of a bay mare by a Private Account that carried the name, Personal Ensign.
Her seasons at two and three were comparatively brief, but high in quality. In only her second career start, she took the Grade I Frizette Stakes before being sidelined by injury.
At three, after two allowance wins, she scored in the Grade II Rare Perfume Stakes as well as the Grade I Beldame Stakes, the latter against older mares.
It was at four, though, that she really made an impact. Coming into that year’s Breeders’ Cup Distaff, she had amassed five Grade I victories, including the Whitney Handicap against males.
So far, her career consisted of twelve starts and twelve wins.
This last start, however, had two important factors: front-running Derby-winning filly Winning Colors, and mud. Lots and lots of mud.
Into the stretch, Personal Ensign was slipping and sliding, struggling to make any sort of progress. Winning Colors, for her part, seemed unbothered by the track conditions.
Personal Ensign’s heart, however, was as rare a find as her win streak. On and on she pushed, cutting into Winning Colors’s lead, until finally, a single stride before the wire, she pushed her nose in front, retiring from racing as an undefeated champion.
No list of Breeders’ Cup stories would be complete without Tiznow.
Tiznow was a late-blooming three-year-old in 2000. After breaking his maiden at the end of May, he won the Grade III Affirmed Handicap and placed in the Swaps Stakes and the Pacific Classic, both Grade I.
A win in the Grade I Super Derby at Louisiana Downs ensured his talents were not limited to his home state of California.
After a follow-up win against older horses in the Grade II Goodwood Breeders’ Cup Handicap, he was given a reasonable chance in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
It paid off. Tiznow battled European champion Giants Causeway, a fellow three-year-old, and stretched his neck across the line in first. He was named Eclipse Champion Three-Year-Old Male and Horse of the Year.
2001 started off strong for Tiznow, as he won the Grade II San Fernando Breeders’ Cup Stakes and the Grade I Santa Anita Handicap.
However, a back injury sidelined him after the latter race, and when he returned six months later, his third-place performances in the Goodwood and the Grade I Woodward Stakes seemed dull.
The United States of America had also changed since Tiznow’s 2000 Classic victory. The 9/11 terrorist attacks had profoundly impacted the entire country, especially New York, which was home to Belmont Park.
Belmont Park was where the 2001 Breeders’ Cup races were held. Indeed, the still smoldering remains of Ground Zero were easily visible from the track itself.
America needed a win. It didn’t look likely as the field pounded toward the finish.
Sakhee, the European winner of Group I Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe in France, was full of run and looked to have put away Tiznow and fellow American Albert the Great.
However, whatever luster Tiznow may have lost after his layoff was back, it was blinding. Tiznow refused to be defeated, and all who saw the race agreed when Tom Durkin declared, “Tiznow wins it for America!”