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BabyTalk #30

Ten Most Desirable Races to Win

by Tom Carley

 Tom Carley in front of the  Twin Spires at Churchill Downs
Tom Carley in front of the Twin Spires at Churchill Downs

The other day while at a coffee shop I overheard two young people in their twenties discussing American Pharoah’s exciting Triple Crown win. I listened to one of them ponder aloud,  “Now that he has won the Triple Crown, what other races are there for American Pharoah  to win? I guess he just will be retired.”

That got me thinking. As a former owner of thoroughbred racehorses, if I had to put together a list of races I would find the most desirable to win, what would they be? I started to jot down some races on the back of an envelope. Soon I had exceeded a dozen. However, in order to put this column together, I developed the following criteria for races I’d hope to win. They would be:

  1. Limited to the United States 
  2. Open to all types of horses  (male, female, dirt, turf, etc.)
  3. Of any Grade and purse amount

Let’s look at the ten best races I focused in on, based on the hypothetical criteria that I made up.

1. The top of this list was a very easy choice. The Kentucky Derby is the horse race best recognized by most Americans. Whether known for ladies wearing large hats, Mint Juleps, the roses, the singing of “My Old Kentucky Home”, or being the first jewel of the Triple Crown, the race is almost a can’t miss event. Those outside of Louisville have house parties known as Derby Parties and while the race last only two minutes, the festivities last all day. 

Whenever I tell people that I’ve been in the horse racing business, the first thing they ask is “Have you ever raced a horse of yours in the Kentucky Derby?” In addition to the notoriety, winning the Kentucky Derby would mean that you have done what only 140 others have ever done. 

The history of Churchill Downs sends chills up one’s spine the first time they look up and see the Twin Spires soaring in the air symbolizing the history and excellence of the Kentucky Derby. Simply put, you win the Derby and you find instant, life long fame. You never will have to buy a drink again in the bar, just as long as you are willing to share the events of that First Saturday in May.

 with jockey  Pat Day , who has ridden at least three Kentucky Derby winners and is the all time leading jockey at Churchill Downs. He is also active in the Jockey Chaplain service.
with jockey Pat Day , who has ridden at least three Kentucky Derby winners and is the all time leading jockey at Churchill Downs. He is also active in the Jockey Chaplain service.

2. The Metropolitan Mile made the #2 spot on my list. This race is known for making a stallion’s career.  The list of past champions reads like a “Who’s Who” of the breeding world.  Held annually at Belmont Park (and now on the BELMONT STAKES undercard), the race brings together an All Star field of horses. Despite being located on the East coast, horses travel from around the country to try to compete in this race. Most of these are older horses that were either too undeveloped to perform well in the Triple Crown, or improved substantially with age.

A little known fact for those who do not follow racing except on Triple Crown days is that older horses have to “give weight” to 3-yearolds when they compete. The older steeds carry an extra three to seven pounds to offset their advantage of age and experience. What adds to the allure of the METROPOLITAN MILLION is that the race is a one turn mile. This combines the one turn look of a sprint with the longer distance of an 8-furlong race, allowing a horse to close from off the pace. When I look to make my horse a champion stallion to carry on the sport for another generation to see, I want to win the MET MILE. 

3. For spot #3, I will turn from dirt to turf and select the ARLINGTON MILLION. The mile and a quarter race was the first $1 million race in the country, and because of that hefty purse, it brings together a talented field of turf horses from around the world. John Henry won the inaugural race in 1981 under the saddle of Willie Shoemaker, and it has just grown in popularity ever since. 

Arlington Park had a fire in 1985. But instead of cancelling the race, the park ran it 25 days later with tents serving as the temporary grandstand. Because of the international flavor of this competition, the winners are not household names like victors of Triple Crown races. But when you look at the winners on a worldwide basis, you realize the status of this race. 

The ARLINGTON MILLION is held in August, which not only allows time for the American stars to have prepped for most of their season, but also affords European horses time to travel to the US before their winter costs begin to accumulate. Horses that run well in this race have a couple of good options: they can either remain in the United States and prepare for the BREEDER’S CUP TURF, or they can elect to run in the ARC d’ TRIOMPHE in Paris. Not bad company to be mentioned in, and you would be the toast of Chicago if you could win the MILLION.

4. Race #4 on the list is the BREEDER’S CUP CLASSIC. This race is run to culminate the two-day BREEDER’S CUP which brings together the best horses from around the world. The $5 million purse is the largest in the United States. The winner of this race is typically named Horse of the Year. What I like is that this meet is run at the classic distance of 1¼ miles. Additionally appealing is that the race serves as the meeting point for the three- year-old champions of the Triple Crown, those who late Summer races restricted to 3-year-olds, and the achievers of the older handicap division. 

Think of the historic matchup between Alysheba and Ferdinand, then current-year Derby winner and the Derby winner from the year before. The race typically is a horse’s final chance to shine, and the equines turn in special performances. Zenyatta, the only female winner, turned in her best race in suffering her only career defeat to Blame at Churchill Downs. Her participation and performance answered the critics who thought her race schedule was hand-picked to assure that she over matched her opponents. 

Ghostzapper set the record for fastest BREEDER’S CUP CLASSIC (1:59.2), matching Secretariat’s Kentucky Derby time) in his last race. Past winners of this race include Cigar, Curlin, Tiznow (twice), and A.P. Indy. When you combine the purse, prestige and history of the BREDDER’S CUP CLASSIC, it is easy to see why this race makes the top 5.

5. For the list’s race #5, we look to a meet held early in the year called the DONN HANDICAP at Gulfstream Park in Florida. What appeals to me about this race is that it is early in the year, but also is in the handicap division for four-year-olds and upward. The Racing Secretary assigns the weights for each horse based on ability. This assures a level playing field. Winning this late January/early February race sets a horse up for a solid campaign. The race has recently become the premier North American prep for the DUBAI WORLD CUP. 

While most of America is shivering, what is better than Miami’s climate and the chance to test your older horse against foes? Cigar, Skip Away and Saint Liam all began their Horse of the Year campaigns with the DONN HANDICAP. The race has recently begun being the season premier broadcast for Fox Sports Horse Racing telecast.

 6. Race #6 on the list, the SANTA ANITA HANDICAP, takes place each March at the town of that name in California. This handicap race, also known as THE BIG ‘CAP, is considered by many to be the most important Winter race for older horses in the country. Seabiscuit won this handicap, as well as Tiznow, Alysheba, John Henry, Spectacular Bid, and Triple Crown winner Affirmed. Adding to the prestige of winning this race would the possibility of campaigning an older horse in a season that would start here with the Big ‘Cap and could end here if the BREEDER’S CUP CLASSIC was being held at Santa Anita. 

7. In race #7 on my imaginary list I would turn to the sprint division. The KING’S BISHOP is held at historic Saratoga in upstate New York each year on the TRAVERS STAKES day undercard. This sprint race is run at the challenging distance of 7 furlongs, not the traditional sprinting distance of 6. However, the extra distance forces a champion to increase his performance. 

Because of its history in the sport, Saratoga is the race track at which I would most like to win if I were an owner. 

Others might focus on the TRAVERS STAKES or a competition for 2- year-olds, but I look at this race as being one of the most prestigious sprint races in the country. Combine winning the most challenging and elite of American sprint races with being victorious at Saratoga, site of the sport’s Hall of Fame, makes the KING’S BISHOP a must on the list of races I would hope to win.

8. Race #8 on my list is the BREEDER’S CUP DISTAFF. This race has been dubbed the LADIES CLASSIC in recent years, but I continue to look at this race as it was originally named. This race is important. At 9 furlongs, it really tests a female’s endurance. It is open up to all female horses 3 years and older. So to win this competition, you must beat out the class of the division. Appealing to me is that by winning this race, you would establish credibility as broodmare and be able to enhance your value as you enter the breeding shed. Past champions include Royal Delta (twice), Beholder, Azeri, Lady’ Secret, Zenyatta, and Inside Information.

  Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta Owners   from  (courtesy Getty images/Bill Frakes)
Jerry and Ann Moss, Zenyatta Owners from (courtesy Getty images/Bill Frakes)

9. Race #9 on the list is the PACIFIC CLASSIC STAKES. The venue for this race is historic Del Mar Racetrack, which was started by Bing Crosby and sits just off the beach in San Diego. Not a prettier racetrack exists than Del Mar. While some might question the surface, you can’t question the history of this race. The PACIFIC CLASSIC annually attracts the most talented horses on the West Coast, making it one of the most premier annual events for older horses. This is the stake in which Cigar was beaten trying to equal Citation’s record of 16 consecutive wins. The race is a part of the “Win and You’re In” Challenge, and by winning your horse is automatically entered into the BREEDER’S  CUP CLASSIC.     

10. For race #10 on my list, I would look to another historic racing venue: Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky. The QUEEN ELIZABETH II CHALLENGE CUP is a turf race for 3-year-old fillies held each Fall. While Keeneland has many other stakes races, this is the only one that is named after royalty. It started as a listed race in 1984 and 1985 and has risen from Grade III to Grade II to its current Grade I status over the recent years. Many horses have used this race to prep for the BREEDER’S CUP FILLY and MARE TURF. 

When limiting the list to ten, there are going to be some omissions. Since I positioned the KENTUCKY DERBY at the top of the list, I didn’t feel the need to include any Derby prep races, because you don’t have to win a Derby prep to earn a spot in the DERBY starting gate. I am surprised that I did not select a race from Oaklawn’s Racing Festival of the South or the Fairgrounds in Arkansas, as both tracks do sport a long history of having prestigious races. 

I also did not identify a turf sprint race that would make my Top Ten list. I could set up a list of honorable mentions, but I limited myself to the Top Ten, and the column started as an exercise to identify races other than Triple Crown races that are desirable to win.

I welcome your comments as you review this list. 

I can be reached via email at         


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