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A Beginner's Guide to the Breeders' Cup

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For those who are new to the sport of horse racing and are unfamiliar with the Breeders' Cup, I present A Beginner's Guide to horse racing's signature event in North America.

Q: What is the Breeders' Cup?

A: The Breeders' Cup World Championships are fifteen races held annually over a two-day period at a race track in North America. The fifteen races are worth a total of $26 million in purses, making it one of the richest days in sports. It is essentially the Super Bowl of horse racing in North America and features the highest class of racing on the continent. 

The races that make up the Breeders' Cup encompass the broad spectrum of distances and surfaces a thoroughbred horse might race at during its career. Eleven of the fifteen races are classified as Grade 1, which is the highest designation a race can receive in North America.  Some other Breeders' Cup facts:

-Six of the fifteen races are run on the turf - Turf, Mile, Filly and Mare Turf, Turf Sprint, Juvenile Turf, and Juvenile Fillies Turf

-Four races are at sprint distances (less than eight furlongs): Sprint, Filly & Mare Sprint, Turf Sprint, and Juvenile Sprint.

-Five races are restricted to two-year-old horses: Juvenile, Juvenile Fillies, Juvenile Turf, Juvenile Fillies Turf, and Juvenile Sprint.

The Breeders' Cup races, and the conditions for each, are as follows:


Race Age / Sex Dist. Surf. Purse
G1-Breeders’ Cup Classic 3&up 10.0 f Dirt $5,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Turf 3&up 12.0 f Turf $3,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Ladies’ Classic 3&up, Fillies & Mares 9.0 f Dirt $2,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Mile 3&up 8.0 f Turf $2,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile 2yo, Colts & Geldings 8.5 f Dirt $2,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies 2yo, Fillies 8.5 f Dirt $2,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Sprint 3&up, Fillies & Mares 7.0 f Dirt $2,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf 3&up, Fillies & Mares 11.0 f Turf $2,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Sprint 3&up 6.0 f Dirt $1,500,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile 3&up 8.0 f Dirt $1,000,000
G2-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf 2yo, Colts & Geldings 8.0 f Turf $1,000,000
G2-Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf 2yo, Fillies 8.0 f Turf $1,000,000
G1-Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint 3&up 5.0 f Turf $1,000,000
G2-Breeders’ Cup Marathon 3&up 13.0 f Dirt $500,000
Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Sprint (New in 2011) 2yo 6.0 f Dirt $500,000


Q: Where does the Breeders' Cup take place?

A: The Breeders' Cup rotates between various tracks in North America based on a bidding process that takes place in prior years. Since the inception of the Breeders' Cup in 1984, the event has been held at the following locations:

1984: Hollywood Park (CA)
1985: Aqueduct (NY)
1986: Santa Anita Park (CA)
1987: Hollywood Park (CA)
1988: Churchill Downs (KY)
1989: Gulfstream Park (FL)
1990: Belmont Park (NY)
1991: Churchill Downs (KY)
1992: Gulfstream Park (FL)
1993: Santa Anita Park (CA)
1994: Churchill Downs (KY)
1995: Belmont Park (NY)
1996: Woodbine (CAN)
1997: Hollywood Park (CA)
1998: Churchill Downs (KY)
1999: Gulfstream Park (FL)
2000: Churchill Downs (KY)
2001: Belmont Park (NY)
2002: Arlington Park (IL)
2003: Santa Anita Park (CA)
2004: Lone Star Park (TX)
2005: Belmont Park (NY)
2006: Churchill Downs (KY)
2007: Monmouth Park (NJ)
2008: Santa Anita Park (CA)
2009: Santa Anita Park (CA)
2010: Churchill Downs (KY)
2011: Churchill Downs (KY)
2012: Santa Anita Park (CA)


Q: How many horses can race at the Breeders' Cup?

A: Each Breeders' Cup race is limited to 14 horses in the starting gate, although the Juvenile Turf and Juvenile Fillies Turf have been limited to 12 starters in past events.


Q. What makes the Breeders' Cup so great?

A.  To put it bluntly, the Breeders' Cup is the best event for wagering on horses in the world.  No other event has as many races, as many top-class horses, as big of fields, with as large of wagering pools as the Breeders' Cup.  Consider the following numbers:

  • Over the entire history of the event, the average payout on a $2 win bet at the Breeders' Cup is $21 (9/1 odds), with a median payout of $11 (9/2)
  • The average $2 Exacta pays $273 (median of $108)
  • The average $2 Trifecta pays $2,318 (median of $1,060)
  • The average $2 Superfecta pays $30,526.70 (median of $8,155)
  • The average $2 Pick 3 pays $2,277 (median of $1,126)
  • The average $2 Pick 4 pays $22,108 (median of $10,000)
  • And finally, the average $2 Pick 6 pays an IRS-attention-grabbing $787,227 (median of $321,813)

Simply put, you can't find two days of racing anywhere in the world that combines the class of horses, the size of the fields, the amounts of the purses, and the value in the wagering pools.  It's that good.

Of course, the Breeders' Cup is also one of the hardest events to handicap in horse racing. Big-priced horses win Breeders' Cup races year-after-year because the fields are highly competitive; there are very few "throw outs" on Breeders' Cup day.  Playing the Pick 3, 4 or 6 requires a player to be both well-financed and a very good handicapper... and a little luck doesn't hurt.


Q. Is the Breeders' Cup really the "World Championships" of thoroughbred horse racing?

A. "Yes" and "No."

If you are talking about any race run on the main track (dirt), the Breeders' Cup provides the highest level of competition in the world.  There are a few top quality dirt horses outside of North America that don't ship over for the event (mainly from Japan or Hong Kong), but they are in the minority.  Most of the top class dirt runners will come to Breeders' Cup to compete.

For races on the turf (grass), the answer probably lies more towards the "no" side.  The best turf racing in the world takes place in Europe, bar none.  The Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in France on the first Sunday in October is the premier grass race in world run on the flat. Along with other top class races in France, England, Ireland, and Germany, the very best grass horses in the world tend to stay in Europe and don't travel to the Breeders' Cup.  Every year horses that run in the Arc come to the U.S. to run in the Breeders' Cup Turf, but often times the winners and the big names stay at home.  And even when the winner does come to the Breeders' Cup, the Turf is usually more of an afterthought; the singular goal of European classic horses is the Arc.

The horses that do come over from Europe tend to do very well in the races run on the turf, even if they are not top-caliber European runners. This is due to the fact that European grass racing tends to be run at a higher level than those in North America.

The Breeders' Cup Mile tends to bring over a higher class of European horse (on average) than the other turf races, but there still tends to be big names that stay on the other side of the Atlantic.  We've been fortunate to witness the mare Goldikova (IRE) run at the Breeders' Cup three years in a row (with a fourth scheduled for this year).  Sadly, we won't get to see the brilliant Frankel (GB) in 2011.

While the Breeders' Cup is still short in bringing every big name horse to North America, the reach of the event is growing every year.  Horses travel from Australia, South America, Asia, Dubai, and Europe to run in the Breeders' Cup, and those numbers are growing with each passing event. While it may be doubtful that the Turf will ever eclipse the Arc as the top grass race in the world, the Breeders' Cup itself continues to try and become a true "Wold Championship."


Q. How much money is wagered on the Breeders' Cup?

A. The 2010 Breeders' Cup attracted an all-sources handle of over $196 million, which included exchange wagering in the United Kingdom.


Q: Has a horse ever won multiple Breeders' Cup races?

A: Yes, several horses have won two Breeders' Cup races since the event's inception in 1984. However, only one horse, the brilliant mare Goldikova (IRE), has ever won three Breeders' Cup races, an achievement Goldikova accomplished in 2010 by winning the Breeders' Cup Mile for the third year in a row. Goldikova will be back in 2011 to try for an unprecedented fourth consecutive win in the Mile.

Below is a list of every horse to win multiple Breeders' Cup races, and the races that they won:

Bayakoa: Distaff (1989, 1990)
Conduit (IRE): Turf (2008, 2009)
Da Hoss: Mile (1996, 1998)
Goldikova (IRE): Mile (2008, 2009, 2010)
High Chaparral: Turf (2002, 2003)
Lure: Mile (1992, 1993)
Midnight Lute: Sprint (2007, 2008)
Miesque: Mile (1987, 1988)
Ouija Board (GB): Filly & Mare Turf (2004, 2006)
Tiznow: Classic (2000, 2001)
Zenyatta: Ladies' Classic (2008), Classic (2009)


  • Zenyatta is the only horse to win two different Breeders' Cup races. 
  • No horse that won a Breeders' Cup Juvenile race has ever come back to win a Breeders' Cup race in the future.
  • Ouija Board finished 2nd in the Filly & Mare Turf in 2005, narrowly missing three straight wins in that race.
  • Better Talk Now won the Breeders' Cup Turf in 2004, and then finished 7th, 2nd, 4th and 8th the next four years in the same race.

Q: How does a horse become eligible to race at the Breeders' Cup?

A: How much time you got? 

The eligibility requirements for the Breeders' Cup can be very complicated, even if you follow the sport on a day-to-day basis.  The (somewhat) short and sweet answer is as follows:

In order to run in a Breeders' Cup race, the horse in question must be what we will call "Breeders' Cup Eligible."  This can happen in one of several ways:

1] The sire of the horse in question is a Breeders' Cup nominated sire and the horse itself was nominated at some point in their career. (With fees varying greatly depending on when the horse is nominated.)  This occurs when the owners of the specific sire pay a nominating fee to the Breeders' Cup during the year of the birth of the foal.  For example:

The breeders of Kentucky Derby champion Street Sense pay a $1,000 fee to nominate the stallion for the 2008 breeding season.  All foals born in 2008 are considered to be by a Breeders' Cup nominated stallion.

A foal sired by Street Sense and born in 2008 will cost their owners $500 (standard) or $1,500 in order to become Breeders' Cup eligible for its entire career.  To nominate that same horse after it has turned two-years-old will cost $100,000. 

If a horse was sired by a non-nominated stallion, the fee is $200,000 to become Breeders' Cup eligible.

*Note: In 2011, the Breeders' Cup added what they called an "open enrollment period", which allowed non-nominated horses to become Breeders' Cup eligible through a greatly reduced fee structure during a specified period that ended on June 30th, 2011.

2] Once a horse has been nominated, they then have to be pre-entered into the specific race for which the connections are choosing to run. The entry fee is 2% of the purse for the race in question and a horse can only be pre-entered into a maximum of two races.


Q: How are the fields determined for the Breeders' Cup?

A: Let's first assume that the horse in question is eligible to run the Breeders' Cup through the nominating mechanisms described above. 

The Breeders' Cup Challenge Series provides a "Win and You're In" opportunity for horses that win specific races during the year. Should a horse win a Breeders' Cup Challenge Race (and they are BC nominated) then they receive a place in the corresponding Breeders' Cup race.  Entry fees are paid for by the Breeders' Cup and a travel allowance is given to the owners.

The Win and You're In races for 2011, and the winners, can be found in the document (via Google Docs):

2011 Breeders' Cup Challenge

The downside to the Win and You're In series is this: if the horse that wins an event is not Breeders' Cup eligible (by a nominated stallion and/or fees paid during open enrollment) that horse would have to be supplemented in order to run.  Supplemental fees, as noted above, can be as high as $200,000.

Horses that don't win a Breeders' Cup Challenge race can still race at the Breeders' Cup, but they are chosen by a commitee based on prior wins and earnings.


Q. Does the apostrophe really go after the "s" in Breeders' Cup?

A. Yes, it does. 


Q. How can I bet on the Breeders' Cup?

A. If you can't be at Churchill Downs for the Breeders' Cup, you can still wager on the races at your local track, OTB, or on-line with a licensed and legal Advanced Deposit Wagering ("ADW") company like TwinSpires, TVG, ExpressBet, DRFBets, and many, many others.

If you want to know more about handicapping and making bets, check out the New Student Orientation post