If you ask Thoroughbred owners what race they most want to win, they will almost always say the Kentucky Derby. But getting one extraordinary 3-year-old animal, healthy and whole, to peak on the first Saturday in May takes phenomenal luck.
Whereas winning a Breeders' Cup race, one of the sport's fall championships, is the work of a lifetime for a breeder.
Juddmonte Farms, one of the most successful Thoroughbred operations in the world with walls of silver and crystal honoring more than 30 years of victorious horses, has made it to the Breeders' Cup more than 60 times. Juddmonte has won four races and come close more than anybody else.
The trophies tell just one side of the story, said Garrett O'Rourke, farm manager of Juddmonte's Kentucky farms.
Each one represents the will of iron that it takes to keep going. Nobody is lucky all the time.
"There have been an awful lot of heartbreaking stories over the years — horses breaking legs, mares aborting. A lot of late, cold nights," he said. "This is something you have to really, really work at. ... It's not just having the talent. It's developing the talent and doing it year after year after year."
Frankel, Juddmonte-bred champion miler, epitomizes that. Undefeated in 14 races, Frankel makes winning — even when he beat Breeders' Cup Turf winner St. Nicholas Abbey — look effortless.
But Frankel was literally decades in the making, the product of several generations of Juddmonte breeding.
So does the fact that the top horse in the world today is skipping the Breeders' Cup mean it doesn't matter anymore?
No, O'Rourke said, but it might hold some clues to what the sport needs to do to stay relevant, particularly in an international market.
Frankel doesn't need the Breeders' Cup, which will be Nov. 2 and 3 at Santa Anita Park this year; he already is the acknowledged world-beater. And Frankel's trainer, Sir Henry Cecil, is currently undergoing treatment for cancer, another reason not to make the long trip to California.
"I think it would have been great for horse racing," to have Frankel at the Cup, said Tom Ludt, Breeders' Cup board chairman. "But there's no doubt in my mind that it is the greatest two days of racing in the world."
Still, with millions of fans clamoring for a chance to see him run just once in the U.S., he might have come if Santa Anita still had a synthetic track surface.
Instead, racing there would have meant running for the first time in his life on something other than turf. The risk didn't seem worth it in the estimation of his owner, Prince Khalid Abdullah, who announced after Frankel's win Saturday that the horse would be retired from racing.
It's difficult to expect top European horses, who compete on grass, to run on dirt, O'Rourke said.
"If we had more synthetic surfaces, I really think we'd have a much better chance of building competition on the international circuit," he said. "Dirt is just a different ball game."
It's a lesson learned the hard way: Juddmonte's Chester House was a winner in England before coming to the U.S. to train under Bobby Frankel. His first start on dirt was the 1999 Breeders' Cup Classic; Chester House stumbled at the start and trailed the field dead last for most of the race before climbing back to finish fourth, just 3 lengths behind winner Cat Thief.
That didn't lessen Juddmonte's desire to win a coveted Breeders' Cup race: Two years later, they finally won the Filly & Mare Turf with Banks Hill. And in 2005 Judd monte repeated that with Intercontinental. In 2008, Ventura won the Filly & Mare Sprint, and in 2009 Midday won the Filly & Mare Turf again for Juddmonte. In all, Juddmonte has bred a record 65 horses that have raced in the Breeders' Cup and won $7.9 million.
And Juddmonte probably won't go unrepresented at the 29th championships: The stable's Dundonnell is a candidate for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile Turf.
That would be a feather in the cap for his young sire, First Defence, who stands at Juddmonte in Kentucky. That's the kind of achievement that can put a stallion on the map.
"Maybe you have to be a breeder to understand the pleasure," O'Rourke said. "It's the equivalent to having your child play basketball for the University of Kentucky."
And if Dundonnell does race, he will be part of Breeders' Cup history — the first class of 2-year-olds mandated to race without the anti-bleeder medication furosemide, known to most race fans as Lasix. Next year, the Breeders' Cup will extend the policy to all horses in 2013.
That decision by the Breeders' Cup board is part of a sea change in the sport of racing, to do away with all raceday medication. (So far, Kentucky is the only state to pass rules against Lasix; beginning next spring, 2-year-olds in Kentucky stakes races, the top tier of racing, will have to run without it.)
While most American horses use Lasix on raceday, the rest of the world doesn't. The Jockey Club and other industry groups have called it "performance-enhancing," a controversial label.
Now breeders are worried that U.S. bloodlines will be shunned because they include "bleeders," or horses whose wins depended upon Lasix, which is also a potent anti-diuretic.
"That's exactly why the Breeders' Cup matters more than any event," O'Rourke said. "The Breeders' Cup is trying to make it the most relevant, to make it a drug-free event."
And the Breeders' Cup, dreamed up by the legendary John Gaines as a way to enhance the sport for owners, for breeders, and for fans, has taken all those missions seriously.
The cup, now a two-day championship series with a week of related events, has become "a fan experience at least on par with the big sporting events like the Super Bowl or the NCAA championships," O'Rourke said. "It's not just the races, it's the experience. ... It's a changed market. It has completely changed in the last 10-15 years. People will pay the higher end ticket prices, but they want the flash and the whole spectacle."