The last couple seasons have seen the Breeders' Cup trim its number of races. The last couple weeks have seen this year's event lose two of its biggest stars.
Regardless, the lure of the two-day World Championships is as strong as ever with a record 201 horses including 38 from overseas being pre-entered for the 2014 edition at Santa Anita Park Oct. 31 and Nov. 1.
This year's total surpasses the previous record of 194 pre-entries in 2011 when the Breeders' Cup offered 15 races as opposed to the 13 races being run now. The Breeders' Cup is being hosted by Santa Anita Park for the third consecutive season.
A total of five Breeders' Cup winners from 2013 — Goldencents (Dirt Mile), Ria Antonia (Juvenile Fillies), Magician (Turf), Secret Circle (Sprint) and Dank (Filly & Mare Turf) — are pre-entered for this year, but two of the biggest names are sidelined. Wise Dan, the two-time defending Horse of the Year and two-time Breeders' Cup Mile winner, is recovering from a slight fracture at the bottom of the cannon bone of his right front. Champion Beholder, winner of the 2012 Juvenile Fillies and 2013 Distaff, was declared out of this year's Distaff after spiking a fever Sunday.
The absence of Wise Dan in the Mile particularly opened the flood gates as 25 horses were pre-entered in that race including Group I winner and leading European hopeful Toronado.
Of the 13 Breeders' Cup races, only the Dirt Mile, Distaff and Filly & Mare Sprint were not oversubscribed. A maximum of 14 starters is allowed in each race with the exception of the Dirt Mile which allows 12.
"I think our racing department has doubled and tripled their efforts to stay in close contact with trainers and owners not just in the U.S. but elsewhere to make sure they know how appreciative we are of their interest," said Craig Fravel, president and CEO of Breeders' Cup Ltd. "I think that's been a big factor. This year, too, Santa Anita has done a lot of work on their racing surfaces and I think there is a lot of confidence going in that ... it is playing fair, seems to be consistent. I think that's certainly a factor."
Wise Dan's absence has left the race for Horse of the Year as contentious as ever with its outcome probably hinging on the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic.
The 11/4-mile Classic drew 15 pre-entries with the on-paper balance of power clearly in favor of the seven 3-year-olds in that group. Coming off back-to-back Grade I wins against older horses, unbeaten champion Shared Belief figures to be the favorite over a bunch that includes Kentucky Derby and Preakness Stakes hero California Chrome, Belmont Stakes and Jockey Club Gold Cup winner Tonalist and Haskell Invitational victor Bayern.
Big Cazanova, most recently eighth in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, is a Classic pre-entrant who needs a defection in order to get in.
"I really think California Chrome on his good days is as good as any of them and Shared Belief, we know what he can do," said Hall of Famer Bob Baffert, who trains Bayern and has six horses total pre-entered for the Breeders' Cup. "This is what it's come down to. Wise Dan, now that he's out, it's going to have to come down to what happens in the Classic. With Wise Dan out, it (the Classic) became even more important."
Chad Brown leads all trainers with 11 horses pre-entered, including multiple Grade I winner Stephanie's Kitten in the Filly & Mare Turf for Nicholasville-based owners Ken and Sarah Ramsey.
The 38 pre-entrants from outside North America represent an increase over the 24 pre-entered a year ago. This year also marks the second season that Breeders' Cup has given a travel stipend of $10,000 to all non-California starters in North America and a $40,000 award to all starters outside North America.
"I think it's a big factor," Fravel said. "It's an invitation to the world to show up here."
Though there were few surprises among the potential entrants, one mild shocker was the fact that an all-time Breeders' Cup record of 29 horses were pre-entered for the Turf Sprint.
"The Turf Sprint was a bit of a surprise honestly," said Tom Robbins, chairman of the Breeders' Cup racing directors/secretaries panel. "You can imagine that race took as much time as the Mile did with 25 pre-entries. We know there are a lot of dreams on the line with horses getting into these races and we really wanted to do a thorough job trying to get the right horses in these races."
Entries for all 13 Breeders' Cup races take place the morning of Oct. 27 with the post-position draws later that day.