“It’s a breakthrough Breeders’ Cup for young and old at Santa Anita”
Such is the size and significance of The Breeders’ Cup with thirteen Group 1 races and the best racehorses in the world assembling from all over America and Europe, not to mention a couple from Japan and South America, there is no shortage of great human and equine interest stories.
California Chrome v Arrogate in the Classic; The unbeaten Songbird taking on her illustrious elders in the Distaff; the soap opera that is Runhappy in the Dirt Mile; the O’Brien brothers bidding to become both the youngest trainer and youngest jockey to win at the Breeders’ Cup; and O’Brien senior’s continuing bid to break Bobby Frankel’s Group 1 winning record, are just some of the great stories of Breeders’ Cup 2016.
So it’s not surprising that one human interest story appears to have gone pretty much uncovered, which is very much in keeping with the low-profile nature of the man concerned.
Tale of Seamie Heffernan is some story
Seamie Heffernan will this year have five Breeders’ Cup mounts over the two-day meeting. Make no mistake, this is a breakthrough moment of immense significance for a 44-year-old jockey who has plied his trade at racing’s top table for over twenty years, yet has only ever had one solitary mount at a Breeders’ Cup before.
He made his belated and long awaited Breeders’ Cup debut last year on Shogun in the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf, finishing unplaced.
Yet thanks to Aidan O’Brien being doubly represented in five turf races at Santa Anita, the ultimate number two jockey has suddenly been given his big Breeders’ Cup breakthrough opportunity.
And these aren’t just any old five rides. Highland Reel is just 3/1 to win the Breeders’ Cup Turf. Hydrangea has been well backed into 9/2 second-favourite for the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies Turf and is now a shorter price than stablemate Roly Poly.
Lancaster Bomber is just 7/1 for the Juvenile Turf and Heffernan also rides live longshots Pretty Perfect in the Filly & Mare Turf and Hit It A Bomb in the Mile.
Stepping up to the plate
Coral have priced up Seamie Heffernan’s fortunes at this weekend’s meeting and make him just 11/8 to have one or more winners, and 10/1 to have two or more winners. If ever a man deserved this opportunity, it is Seamie.
Whilst many big name jockeys have come and gone as the retained number one rider at Ballydoyle, Seamie has been ever-present.
Christy Roche, Mick Kinane, Jamie Spencer, Kieren Fallon, John Murtagh, Joseph O’Brien, and now Ryan Moore have all had their spells riding the best of the best.
Throughout this twenty-year period, Heffernan has stepped in when required and done the job asked of him. And what a job that has been.
Seamie Heffernan’s first Group race winning ride was way back on 1st October 1995. The horse was Wild Bluebell trained by Jim Bolger and the race was the “Coolmore Home of Champions Concorde Stakes”, which was almost prophetic given almost every subsequent Group race victory Seamie would ride in the following twenty one years would be for the Coolmore operation.
Heffernan in-form in big races
He rode his first Group One winner on Beckett in the National Stakes in 2000 and since then he’s gone on to win six Irish Classics and one English Classic.
On top of Seventh Heaven’s win in this year’s Irish Oaks, he’s won the Irish 1000 Guineas three times on Misty For Me (2011), Halfway To Heaven (2008) and Imagine (2001).
He’s won two Irish Derbies back to back on Frozen Of Fire (2008) and Soldier of Fortune (2007), and an Epsom Oaks on Was in 2012.
Over the years he’s ridden Group race successes on some of the great racehorses of our era, the likes of Galileo, High Chaparral, So You Think, Dylan Thomas, Mount Nelson and Fame And Glory.
Yet, over the last two years, his career seems to have stepped up another gear again. This year he’s tasted Group One success three times so far on Brave Anna in the Cheveley Park, Caravaggio in the Phoenix Stakes and Seventh Heaven in the Irish Oaks.
Last year, he won Group Ones on Minding (Moyglare) and Highland Reel (Secretariat) but also Group race victories on the likes of Found, Order of St George and Bondi Beach.
“Has ever a jockey been more deserving of this weekend’s breakthrough opportunity?”
When I pointed out that this was a huge weekend for Seamie Heffernan, Aidan O’Brien in his inimitable style played it down.
“Seamus is great. He knows all the horses inside out,” said O’Brien. “He rides them all in their work with Donnacha there. It’s worked out well for Seamus this year.
“He knows Highland Reel very well. He’s run very well for him every time. He knows Lancaster Bomber very well too.” The conversation duly moved on to other horses and other topics.
Seamie Heffernan has been a Ballydoyle ever-present; the ultimate super sub; a loyal, dependable and indisputably top class international big race rider; always understated, rarely in the spotlight.
Has ever a jockey been more deserving of this weekend’s breakthrough opportunity at the Breeders’ Cup? I doubt it. Now here’s hoping he gets the chance to grab the Breeders’ Cup spotlight, they certainly don’t come much brighter.
“Limato has the tactical speed to get the position he wants”
Whilst Seamie has waited an awful long time to get his big Breeders’ Cup chance, it is great to see two young jockeys like Harry Bentley and Donnacha O’Brien getting the chance to shine on two leading European chances at the Breeders’ Cup.
Bentley rides Limato, currently the second favourite in the Breeders’ Cup Mile, and has seemed in a relaxed frame of mind each morning this week at Santa Anita, which is not surprising given the confidence he has in his hugely talented horse.
His father John has been alongside him all week, although when I insisted on getting John in with Harry for a photograph with Limato, Harry played the embarrassed son role down to the tee and tried to wave his Dad out of the photo. He failed and I got the shot.
The Breeders’ Cup has been a tough baptism of fire for many jockeys over the years, just ask the likes of Frankie Dettori and Jamie Spencer to name a couple.
But Limato has the tactical speed to get the position he wants and, with Photo Call certain to give the race the pace it needs, there is no reason to believe Bentley’s inexperience should be a barrier to success in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Mile.
O’Brien family set for Juvenile Fillies Turf battle
It really is incredible to think that first year trainer, Joseph O’Brien, aged just 23, and first year jockey, younger brother Donnacha, aged just 18, are teaming up with a Breeders’ Cup favourite, with their first ever Breeders’ Cup runner, Intricately.
The fact that victory would simultaneously see them become the youngest ever Breeders’ Cup winning trainer and jockey, tells you the significance of this story. Joseph O’Brien cut a relaxed figure yesterday, looking most animated when he admitted that he was so glad he wasn’t riding any more.
When his father, Aidan O’Brien, was asked how he would feel if one of his two runners in the Juvenile Fillies Turf beat his son’s filly by a nose into second, he was very honest.
“I wouldn’t be happy,” O’Brien senior said, before quickly correcting himself slightly, adding: “I mean obviously I’d be happy for the lads (his fillies’ owners) and you win some you lose some.
“Look I’d be delighted if we do get beaten, and he’ll be delighted for us if we win. That’s the way it is.”
All in all, it was pretty clear that such a scenario would see a confusion of emotions in O’Brien senior, but whatever happens it will be invaluable experience for both Joseph and Donnacha.
But the way the Breeders’ Cup tends to play out it is by no means inconceivable that this amazing story gets the happy ending many will crave. We’re only a stone’s throw from Hollywood after all.
Don’t forget, you can place all of your 2016 Breeders’ Cup bets with us at Coral!