Breeders' Cup Classic notable for the horses that aren't running

In this image provided by Benoit Photo, Arabian Knight, right, with Flavien Prat aboard, wins the Grade I $1,000,000 Pacific Classic horse race Saturday, Sept. 2, 2023, at Del Mar Thoroughbred Club in Del Mar, Calif. (Benoit Photo via AP)
Arabian Knight, with Flavien Prat aboard, holds on to win the Pacific Classic on Sept. 2 at Del Mar. The 3-year-old is the 3-1 morning-line favorite in the Breeders' Cup Classic on Saturday at Santa Anita Park. (Associated Press)

The richest race held annually in this country is the $6-million Breeders’ Cup Classic. It’s been the home of some of the most memorable races in the sport. Who can forget Zenyatta’s last-to-first run in 2009? Or Triple Crown winner American Pharoah’s win in 2015. And then there was Arrogate running down California Chrome in the stretch in 2016. Last year, Flightline stamped his place as a horse of a generation with a dominating victory.

And then there is this year.

There is not one horse in the Classic that has won a Triple Crown race. The field of 12 has a grand total of five Grade 1 or Group 1 wins this year. Five of the horses have never won a Grade 1 race.

Maybe NBC was clairvoyant when, for the first time in 40 years, moved the Classic from the prestigious last race on Saturday's card to third-from-last so it could cut away to a college football pregame show that leads into the Michigan-Purdue game.

Arcangelo, winner of the Belmont and Travers stakes, was supposed to be in the race but scratched and retired on Tuesday because of an issue with his left hind foot. Mage, winner of the Kentucky Derby, never made it to Santa Anita and was pulled from the race on Sunday after developing a fever. National Treasure, winner of the Preakness Stakes, will be running in the Dirt Mile.

Read more: A shaky start, but Breeders' Cup aims to shake trend of high-profile horse deaths

Geaux Rocket Ride was getting some attention after winning the Haskell Stakes and taking second in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar, but he suffered a catastrophic injury last Saturday and was euthanized on Wednesday after the colt did not respond to surgery.

Forte, the Kentucky Derby favorite until he was scratched on race day, was pulled from the Classic last month after developing a quarter crack. He, too, has been retired.

Of the last six winners of the Classic, three were immediately retired and the other three ran only one more race in January just before the start of breeding season.

Racing doesn't like to celebrate its stars, but instead retires them.

Read more: Breeders' Cup Classic champion Flightline retired to stud

The role of favorite at 3-1 in the 1 1/4-mile race has been assumed by Arabian Knight, a 3-year-old who missed the Triple Crown races and has won three of four lifetime starts, including the Pacific Classic.

His trainer, Bob Baffert, is most concerned with the pace and the hope that his horse doesn’t get involved in a speed duel with the Brad Cox-trained Saudi Crown (12-1).

“Arabian Knight and Saudi Crown are both one-dimensional,” Baffert said of their styles of just running on the lead. “I need [jockey] Flavien [Prat] to slow him down during the race or somebody is going to come get us.”

Cox pushes back against it being a poor field but chose a non-racing metric.

Read more: Bob Baffert finds peace at home as he pursues a Breeders' Cup record

“People say it’s not really a very good Classic,” Cox said. “But time will tell. A few years from now you might look as these horses becoming pretty good stallions. Time will tell you how good of a group this was.”

There are two horses that were made second favorite at 4-1.

Ushba Tesoro, who mostly runs in Japan, has only raced twice this year, winning both, including the Dubai World Cup.

There is also White Abarrio, winner of last year’s Florida Derby. Saffie Jospeh Jr. was his trainer until he was suspended after two of his horses died during the spike in fatalities at Churchill Downs around the Kentucky Derby. The horse was moved to Richard Dutrow, who was coming off a 10-year suspension for medication and administrative violations after syringes of unauthorized medications were found in his barn.

“We’re very happy with our horse,” said Chip Dutrow, Richard’s brother and assistant. “He’s doing everything right at the right time, right now. Anything else that is going on around us, I’m not listening to or reacting to.”

Regardless of the quality of the race, the winner will earn around $3.12 million. Then it’s a question of if he will ever run again.

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This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.