As he rocked down the backstretch toward the half-mile pole, sitting quietly on the front-running Bertrando, jockey Alex Solis reckoned that the only thing looming between him and his first victory in a Breeders' Cup race was the remaining 900 yards of empty racetrack that led to the wire at Churchill Downs.
"I was running so easy coming to the half-mile pole," Solis would recall. "He was floating under me out there."
Through the first half of the 1[1/16]-mile Breeders' Cup Juvenile, the fifth of seven Cup races run at the Downs last Saturday, events could not have unfolded more beautifully for Solis and his dark bay colt out of California. Bertrando was undefeated in three starts, and in his last race, the Grade I Norfolk Stakes at Santa Anita on Oct. 13, he had simply pulverized the best West Coast colts, winning by nine lengths and thus announcing himself as the finest 2-year-old in the land. Since the New York colts were all suspect, Solis figured that the Breeders' Cup Juvenile was his for the taking.
He only vaguely feared the contender from France, a sporty, diminutive chestnut named Arazi, the winner of five graded stakes in France—including the Grade I Grand Criterium, that country's most important race for 2-year-olds—who had arrived in Louisville with a reputation as the most brilliant juvenile to race in France in more than a decade. "Perhaps the best 2-year-old I've ever seen," said Arazi's veteran trainer Fran‚Äö√†√∂‚àö√ºois Boutin. "Certainly the best I've ever trained."
The colt's manager and American co-owner, aerospace executive Allen Paulson, was bucking the winds of history in bringing Arazi to these shores. No champion 2-year-old in Europe had ever crossed the water to take on this country's finest youngsters. It seemed too much to ask of an unseasoned racehorse. Arazi had never raced on the dirt—grass is the medium in France—and he had done his racing clockwise, the reverse of American courses. He would not only have the unfamiliar hands of an American jockey, Pat Valenzuela, guiding him, but last Wednesday, in a development that appeared to doom whatever chance he might have had, Arazi had also drawn the far outside post position in the unwieldy 14-horse field. It was the worst post imaginable, since there is only 420 feet from the start to the first turn at Churchill Downs and almost no room to dash for position without getting hung out to dry on the bend.
"I had all the advantages," said Solis. Indeed, Bertrando broke on top from the five hole and had an easy 1½-length lead going around the first turn. Meanwhile, Valenzuela, wrapped up on Arazi, dropped toward the rail and had only one horse beat going into the turn. As the field raced off the bend into the backstretch, Arazi had fallen at least 15 lengths behind and was looking hopelessly beaten. So there was Solis, floating on the lead toward the far turn, cruising along with speed and room to spare.
Just as he began thinking that the race was surely his—just as the whole afternoon of races seemed about to turn into the dullest, most anticlimactic series in the eight-year history of the Breeders' Cup—something extraordinary happened at Churchill Downs, something so rare and close to art in this sport that 19 years of history seemed to vanish in the din, and 1972 was suddenly as new as yesterday. Arazi took off running, recalling no less than Secretariat on his most memorable afternoons as a 2-year-old. Down the backstretch, riding Onlooker, Jerry Bailey was galloping along in ninth when Arazi exploded and swept past him.
"He went by me like he was breaking off for a work," Bailey says. "It was devastating. He went by me as fast as any horse I've ever seen."
Around the far turn, Arazi ducked inside five horses and sprinted between two others. At the three-eighths pole, midway on the last turn, the colt scooted past jockey Craig Perret on Pine Bluff, who was lying third. "I was in front of him at the three-eighths, and he came by me and saw daylight, and he was gone," said Perret.
Bertrando never had a chance. Solis was ready to set him down at the [5/16]-pole, right off the turn for home, when Arazi charged to his outside flank, making the corner so fast that his momentum carried him wide. Solis saw him coming and blinked, but it was too late. Bertrando was floating no more. Arazi ran past him into the straight. "Wow!" Solis said. "He was five wide! I can't believe he went by my horse like that. It was incredible. He just drew away from me." Arazi opened daylight quickly—two lengths, three, four. "He has the greatest turn of foot I have ever experienced," said Valenzuela.
By the time Arazi hit the eighth pole, five lengths in front, the crowd at the Downs was on its feet and roaring him home, and Paulson was chanting: "Come on, Arazi! Come on, Arazi!"
On he came. The final 70 yards, Valenzuela put a dab of mustard on the hot dog of the day, first glancing behind him and, seeing no shadows, standing up to slow the colt down. Arazi won it in a common canter, closer to a walk than a run, and still beat Bertrando by 4¾ lengths in 1:44[3/5]. It was a magnificent performance, and it left a host of witnesses rummaging through their memories for valid points of reference. "My horse is no quitter," said a disappointed Bruce Headley, Bertrando's trainer. "Arazi just ran by him. I've only seen Swaps and Secretariat do something like that."
No Breeders' Cup afternoon needed elevation more than this one. A week earlier, the 1¼-mile Classic had loomed as a showdown battle for Horse of the Year honors between In Excess and Farma Way, two speed horses. But by Wednesday morning Farma Way had been withdrawn with a minor ankle injury, and Bruce Jackson, the trainer of In Excess, had opted to duck the Classic and enter his colt in the Breeders' Cup Mile on the turf, saying that In Excess would not last 10 furlongs over the tiring Churchill Downs racing strip. Any chance Jackson's colt had to be voted Horse of the Year, compromised when he pulled out of the Classic, collapsed entirely when In Excess faded badly in the Mile to finish in a dead heat for ninth, beaten seven lengths by Paulson's Opening Verse. Black Tie Affair, with no one seriously challenging him early, got loose on an easy lead and led all the way in the Classic to win by 1¼ lengths. He will undoubtedly draw support for Horse of the Year, as will the Canadian Triple Crown champion, the filly Dance Smartly, whose victory in the Distaff was her eighth straight this year without defeat.
Though there is no consensus on Horse of the Year, there should be, because one horse certainly deserves it above all others. Secretariat is the only horse in the modern era to have been unanimously voted Horse of the Year as a 2-year-old, and last Saturday millions witnessed a performance reminiscent of his brilliance and style. The Breeders' Cup is designed to be the ultimate battleground for champions, and this year it served its purpose well. The champion did not come out of the Classic, as most expected, but blew like a high wind right out of the Juvenile. Arazi is the best racehorse in America in 1991, and he is the Horse of the Year.