He’s more known for talkin’ smack than for hangin’ at the track, but on Saturday sports talk-show host Jim Rome steps away from the mic and into the owners’ box as his championship filly, Mizdirection, looks to defend her title as best turf sprinter in the world at this year’s Breeders’ Cup World Thoroughbred Championships at Santa Anita Park in SoCal. The radio host, who refers to his radio show as “entering the jungle” is one of several sports celebrities hoping to enter the winner’s circle in what is considered the Olympics of horse racing.
Among the 13 challengers to “Miz” in this year’s Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint—one of 14 championship races scheduled for Friday and Saturday—will be Caracortado, a filly co-owned by New Orleans Saints quarterback Drew Brees.
“A lot of changes in the 30 years (of the Breeders’ Cup) but one thing has remained the same, and that is it is a first class championship event,” says NBC Sports host Tom Hammond, who will be hosting the Cup for NBC this weekend.
Besides Rome and Brees, two other sports icons seek to hoist a trophy in their respective divisions. Legendary New York Yankees manager Joe Torre’s Game on Dude, after finishing a disappointing seventh in last year’s BC Classic, seeks redemption in what is the richest race in North America. Louisville basketball coach Rick Pitino, co-owner of Goldencents, hopes to bring a Dirt Mile trophy back to Kentucky.
As if determining the world’s best horses in various divisions, surfaces, and distances on the track didn’t offer enough storylines, the celebrity owners add a little extra drama to already drama-drenched event.
“I think anytime you have a crossover from one sport to the other, no matter which direction it goes in, I think it’s interesting to the fans,” says Hall of Fame jockey Jerry Bailey, now an NBC Sports horse racing analyst. “Because I’m a sports fan in general, I like to know the interest of the athletes and other sports that they participate and are at least interested in.”
The celebrity aspect is one of several BC sidebars that are likely to also include several dramatic finishes at the wire, lots of head-scratching by bettors, as well as plenty of big-winning tickets to be cashed at the window. Considered the pinnacle of horse race wagering, handicappers will spend countless hours pouring over hundreds of sheets and hours of video looking for that one golden needle in a massively congested haystack of opportunities. But for those who don’t have time to read the Racing Form but still want to turn a $2 hunch into a dinner for two at the Palm, the formula is simple: Avoid the favorites.
“From a handicapping perspective, you always get longshots at the Breeders Cup,” says NBC Sports horse racing analyst Randy Moss. “That’s what makes it so attractive to bettors around the country. This is something that bettors salivate over all year long.”
Another intriguing twist to the Rome-Brees matchup involve the riders aboard both horses—a pair of Hall of Fame riders who are kicking dirt in the faces of anyone questioning their age. Eight-time Breeders' Cup-winning jockey Gary Stevens, who turned 50 in March, returns to the BC after a seven-year absence and will be aboard Caracortado, one of nine races he’ll be riding this weekend. Piloting Mizdirection will be 48-year-old Mike Smith, the all-time winningest jockey in Breeders’ Cup history with 17 titles and is scheduled to ride in 13 of the 14 championship races. At an age in which most athletes would’ve hung up their cleats or gloves years ago, Stevens and Smith are still riding as if they’re in the prime of his career, not in the golden years of their lives.
“Now you’re seeing two guys [Stevens and Smith] who in any other sport would’ve been retired a long time ago, pretty much, if not dominate, certainly compete on equal terms with guys half their age. I find that equally compelling,” Bailey says.