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Breeders’ Cup Classic: Does Age Matter?

By Laura Pugh

Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Classic (GI) at Santa Anita didn’t draw the full field that was expected, after 14 pre-entered, but the names of the 10 who did pass the entry box still make for a very elite field.

One very noticeable thing about the entries, however, is the stark lack of 3-year-olds. In the 2015 Classic, three of the eight entries were 3-year-olds, and the year before that half of the 14-horse field was comprised of sophomores. In 2016, there is only one 3-year-old representing the crop of 2013, the Travers Stakes (GI) winner, Arrogate.

While sophomores have taken the last two runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Classic – Bayern in 2014 and American Pharoah in 2015 – it isn’t overly typical for a 3-year-old to best their elders, even in late October/early November. In fact, only 11 sophomores have taken home the top prize in 32 runnings of the race, which equates to roughly 34%. On the other hand, horses aged four and five seem to have a decided edge over their lesser-developed counterparts, winning the Classic at a 65% clip.

If these statistics prove anything it’s that the age-old saying that, “a great older horse will always get the better of a great 3-year-old,” is still true. At ages four and five, a horse is never more physically mature. They have finally grown into their bodies, normally putting on weight in muscle and bone mass, and are more mentally mature as well.

Arrogate Works for Breeders' Cup

Travers Stakes winner Arrogate works at Santa Anita for the Breeders’ Cup Classic on October 18, 2016
Photo: Jim Safford

This year’s Classic features Arrogate, who has all the looks of a great 3-year-old, pitted against the now 5-year-old version of California Chrome. The latter is noticeably bigger, stronger and faster than what he was as a sophomore, and the improvement has been on display all year as he has had a picture-perfect season.

Could Arrogate still upstage California Chrome? It is possible, as 3-year-olds have won the Classic before but in years where there wasn’t a dominant older male that had been just as dominant in his division, as the 3-year-olds had been in theirs. The only year where making a case for a 3-year-old besting a “great” older male was 2008, when Ravens Pass won the Classic over Henrythenavigator, Tiago and eventual Horse of the Year, Curlin. However, that year the race was run over a Pro-Ride synthetic surface not conventional dirt.

When there have been true meetings of great 3-year-olds versus older horses of “similar” ability, the older horses have demonstrated their dominance. First in 1987, the 4-year-old Ferdinand denied the 3-year-old Alysheba. In 1996 Alphabet Soup bested Preakness Stakes (GI) winner Louis Quatorze. Then came Saint Liam beating Flower Ally in 2005.

However, 2006 was the year we truly may have witnessed a great, even match-up. Bernardini, runaway winner of the Preakness Stake (GI), Travers Stakes (GI) and Jockey Club Gold Cup (GI), came into the race looking unbeatable, only to be taken down by the Argentine-bred Invasor, who had only ever felt the sting of defeat once.

California Chrome

California Chrome. Photo: Chelsea Durand, Coglianese/NYRA

This year most closely resembles 2006, with California Chrome coming into the Classic off a perfect season, with his last victories looking as dominant as ever, pitted against an incredibly fast and talented sophomore in Arrogate. Arrogate doesn’t have the resume of Bernardini, but his raw speed and ability are very similar.

Who will win in this match-up of ages? Statistics give the edge to the 5-year-old California Chrome.