A Beginner’s Guide To The Breeders’ Cup

By Kevin Martin

Based on TV ratings and attendance, millions of people watch the Kentucky Derby every spring. If you are one of the many tuning in for the famed race every year, you might think racing begins and ends there in Kentucky. However, there is so much more. If you would like to take another step into the world of thoroughbred racing, a good place to start is this weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, a series of races run every fall.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup comprises thirteen races on Friday and Saturday at Santa Anita Park in California. The Breeders’ Cup started in 1983 and has been hosted at a variety of racetracks over the course of its history. The races are dubbed the World Championship of racing and the large purses attract horses from around the world, yet it’s still primarily a North American event with a majority of competitors based in the U.S.

MORE>> Breeders’ Cup Classic Preview: California Chrome Favored

Trainers and owners who have an elite horse will map out a schedule at the beginning of the year that hopefully leads to a Breeders’ Cup race. If runners from the Kentucky Derby and other Triple Crown races stay healthy, you can almost guarantee to see them run again on Breeders’ Cup weekend. Of course, there is racing in between the Triple Crown series in the spring and the Breeders’ Cup weekend in the fall, but these events stand as the most anticipated and talked about of the U.S. racing calendar.

Breeders’ Cup races are run at a variety of distances over either grass or dirt courses. Seven of the thirteen races are restricted to female and/or 2-year-old horses. The remainder of the races are open to any horse (male or female) three-years old and over. The division of the races aligns closely with the different divisions of the Eclipse Awards, which are the most prestigious awards in thoroughbred racing voted on by a cadre of racing journalists, broadcasters, and professionals at the end of each year. Horses that win Breeders’ Cup races have earned a good number of Eclipse Awards in the last three decades. A win in the Breeders’ Cup does not guarantee an Eclipse but it does guarantee a huge payday and all of the prestige that goes with winning a Breeders’ Cup race.

Here is quick description of the thirteen races on this year’s Breeders’ Cup schedule:

Breeders’ Cup Classic

The Classic is the biggest race of Breeders’ Cup weekend with a $6,000,000 purse and major implications for who will win the Eclipse Award for Horse of the Year. It is always the headlining and final race on Breeders’ Cup Saturday. It is open to all horses 3-years old and older and run at 1 1/4 mile on dirt (the same distance and surface of the Kentucky Derby). It is the richest race in North America and, arguably, the most important race in the United States. Last year, Triple Crown winner American Pharoah won the Breeders’ Cup Classic. One of the favorites this year, California Chrome, won the 2015 Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes.


Breeders’ Cup Distaff

The headlining racing on Breeders’ Cup Friday is the premier race restricted to fillies and mares in the U.S. While truly elite fillies and mares sometimes enter the BC Classic, it is more common to see the best of the division enter the Distaff. The 2016 Distaff will include the undefeated 3-year-old filly Songbird going for her twelfth straight win. There has only been two other undefeated winners of the Distaff: Personal Ensign in 1988 and Zenyatta in 2008.

Breeders’ Cup Turf
Breeders’ Cup Mile
Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf

The three marquee turf races run over the grass course typically draws talented horses from Europe where turf is the common racing surface (the opposite is true in the U.S. where dirt races are more common). The Filly and Mare Turf is restricted to female runners. The BC Turf and BC Mile are open to all horses and have had a number of female winners in recent years including an unprecedented three straight wins (2008-2010) by the French mare Goldikova in the BC Mile. A filly from Europe named Found won last year’s BC Turf. She is entered to try and make it two in a row this year.

Breeders’ Cup Juvenile
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf

Four of the weekend’s races are restricted to 2-year olds on both dirt and turf and two are restricted to fillies. The turf versions of the 2-year old races favor colts based in Europe while American-based runners dominate the dirt races. The colts and fillies that run in the juvenile races could be the stars of next year’s Triple Crown races. This year’s Kentucky Derby winner, Nyquist, won the 2015 BC Juvenile.

Breeders’ Cup Sprint
Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Sprint
Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint
Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile

Sprinters are a whole class of horses that run best at distances of one mile and under. The Breeders Cup has three races at sprint distances topped by the six furlong (3/4 mile) BC Sprint open to all horses 3-years old and up. The Filly and Mare Sprint is at seven furlongs and is restricted to female runners. The Turf Sprint is the shortest at 5 furlongs on the grass course and always proves to be one of the fastest and most exciting races of Breeders’ Cup weekend. Finally, the BC Dirt Mile isn’t technically a sprint but provides a middle ground for sprinters and distance runners that would be over-matched in either the BC Sprint or BC Classic.

Here is the schedule for the 2016 Breeders’ Cup:

Friday, November 4, 2016
All times Eastern Standard Time

5:25 – Juvenile Turf
6:05 – Dirt Mile
6:50 – Juvenile Fillies Turf
7:35 – Distaff

Saturday, November 5, 2016

3:05 – Juvenile Fillies
3:45 – Filly & Mare Turf
4:21 – Sprint
5:05 – Turf Sprint
5:43 – Juvenile
6:22 – Turf
7:01 – Filly & Mare Sprint
7:40 – Mile
8:35 – Classic

If you would like to learn more about the Breeders’ Cup and thoroughbred racing, check out Hello Race Fans.

Kevin Martin is the founder of the thoroughbred horse racing history site Colin’s Ghost and a contributing editor at Hello Race Fans.

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