Breeders' Cup: Common threads in unlikely contenders' stories

Main Sequence, left, held off the challenge of Twilight Eclipse to win the $500,000 Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. on July 6.
Main Sequence, left, held off the challenge of Twilight Eclipse to win the $500,000 Grade 1 United Nations at Monmouth Park in Oceanport, N.J. on July 6. AP Photo/Equi-Photo

They share a common goal of trying to claim victory five days from now in the $3 million Breeders' Cup Turf. Dig a little deeper and the parallels between Grade I winners Main Sequence and Hardest Core become even more pronounced.

Each is unbeaten in three starts this year, boasting victories over some of the same rivals they will face going 11/2-miles on the Santa Anita Park course Nov. 1. One has a trainer with primarily steeplechase roots. The other's conditioner came up under one of the great hurdle trainers in the game.

There is also the fact that both spent time this winter with their lives in jeopardy.

To say the top American hopefuls in this year's Breeders' Cup Turf are a pair no one would have predicted at the start of 2014 doesn't do justice to the unlikely rise of Main Sequence and Hardest Core.

With three Grade I wins in as many stateside outings since coming over from England, Graham Motion-trainee Main Sequence is likely to vie for Turf favoritism over defending race winner Magician and can make a compelling case to nab the Eclipse Award for champion turf male with a Breeders' Cup triumph.

Contrast that against where the gelded son of Aldebaran sat this time a year ago. After winning his first four career outings, the Flaxman Holdings homebred lost ten straight races in Europe, prompting trainer David Lanigan to suggest that a change of scenery in the U.S. might kick-start the chestnut.

Motion agreed and knew if he could get Main Sequence back to the level he was at when he ran second in the 2012 Epsom Derby, he would have a thoroughly useful runner in his string. What Motion was faced with instead, however, was a patient, as Main Sequence got sick while in quarantine in December and spent about a month in a New York clinic.

Having a patient hand is a cue Motion takes from his early days working under Hall of Fame trainer Jonathan Sheppard. Once Main Sequence was healthy, Motion's initial instinct was to gently ease the 5-year-old back into competitive mode — that is, until his charge convinced him otherwise.

"He got really sick. He basically got pneumonia. So we had to leave him up there for a while before we could ship him over to Fair Hill (in Maryland)," Motion said. "So I never really had an agenda with him. Once we got to June, I felt like we were starting to get close to having him race fit and we started looking around for options.

"I originally picked out a race — we were going to run him at Arlington, find a nice, easy spot. Then when I started looking at his form ... that's when I thought, 'You know, if he comes back anywhere close to the form he had in Europe, he'll be a top quality horse.' That's what gave me the encouragement to take a shot in the United Nations (at Monmouth Park on July 6)."

Main Sequence ended his losing skid and immediately became a Breeders' Cup contender when he rallied under jockey Rajiv Maragh to win the Grade I United Nations by a head.

For those who missed it the first time, he duplicated that outing in his next two starts, capturing the Grade I Sword Dancer by a head over Imagining at Saratoga on Aug. 17, then besting United Nations runner-up Twilight Eclipse again by a neck in the Grade I, 11/2-miles Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont Park on Sept. 27.

The rejuvenated Main Sequence appears unaffected by distance or pace. Unfortunately, he will not have Maragh in the irons for the Breeders' Cup as the jockey is currently sidelined with a broken arm.

"It's a shame not to have Rajiv because he really has had an amazing rapport with him since day one and has been a big part of his success," said Motion, who will give the mount to John Velazquez in Maragh's absence. "I knew he was a top quality horse, but I also knew he was quirky. I think my jaw dropped honestly after the United Nations."

On past performances, Hardest Core wasn't in the same zip code as his six challengers — including the aforementioned Magician — when he entered the gate for the Grade I Arlington Million on Aug. 16.

He ended up having no peer in terms of backstory or form that day as the gelded son of Hard Spun recovered after bobbling slightly while swinging out en route to an emotional one-length win.

The sight of the 4-year-old gelding in the winner's circle tugged the heartstrings of all with knowledge of what it took to get him there. Gregory Bentley purchased the horse for $210,000 at the 2013 Keeneland November Breeding Stock sale and gifted him to his son Andrew — who has Down syndrome — as a 30th birthday present.

While the Bentleys initially thought the dark bay horse could have a future in steeplechase racing, all plans shifted when Hardest Core suffered complications upon him being gelded and had to have nearly 18 feet of his intestines removed at New Bolton Center in Pennsylvania.

"When we first started jogging he could barely jog up the hill, but eventually more and more he became like a real athlete," said trainer Edward Graham, a former steeplechase rider who had never saddled a horse in a graded stakes before the Arlington Million. "Three days after the operation, he was banging the feed tub. He's tough."

Hardest Core has not lost since he nearly lost his life. Previously trained by Kiaran McLaughlin for his first eight starts, the gelding convinced his people he had something left in terms of a flat racing career when he returned to win a 11⁄16-miles allowance turf test at Parx on June 28, then scored a similar three-length triumph in the Cape Henlopen Stakes at Delaware Park on July 12.

Both Motion and Graham fear the jinx too much to openly talk about what may transpire for their geldings on Nov. 1. It will be the first time their two horses will face each other, yet both can already claim victory.

"I just try and stay focused on the horse and not what is going on because it's pretty overwhelming right now," Graham said. "It's just a humbling and very appreciative experience."