Volponi turns odds on heads with Classic win

43-1 shot demolishes field in $4M Breeders' Cup race

Breeders' Cup

October 27, 2002|By Tom Keyser | Tom Keyser,SUN STAFF

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - A horse most people didn't even know was in the race until the eighth pole charged to a shocking - and shockingly easy - victory in the $4 million Breeders' Cup Classic yesterday at Arlington Park.

At the end of a day of thrilling achievement and stomach-wrenching tragedy, the unheralded Volponi overpowered his better-known opponents as he registered a 6 1/2 -length triumph at 43-1 odds.

His $89 win payoff was the fifth highest in the 19-year history of the Breeders' Cup and second highest in the Classic, topped only by Arcangues' $133.60 in 1993.

The New York-based Volponi, a 4-year-old colt who has split his career between turf and dirt, was the longest shot in the Classic's 12-horse field. He attracted practically no pre-race attention.

The spotlight, instead, shined on War Emblem, winner of the Kentucky Derby and Preakness, and the supposedly superior group of 3-year-olds challenging their elders.

Philip G. Johnson, 77, a member of racing's Hall of Fame despite his low profile, trained Volponi for the Classic, but didn't fear War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro, Came Home or even the Irish invader, Hawk Wing.

"I didn't like the 3-year-olds in there at all," Johnson said.

Johnson proved a better handicapper than the millions who made Medaglia d'Oro the 5-2 favorite and War Emblem the 4-1 second choice. Medaglia d'Oro, who finished fourth in the Kentucky Derby, eighth in the Preakness and second in the Belmont, finished second in the Classic, but never threatened the 23-race veteran Volponi.

War Emblem didn't make the lead, as his trainer Bob Baffert promised he would, and finished eighth. The other 3-year-olds finished seventh (Hawk Wing), ninth (Harlan's Holiday), 10th (Came Home) and 12th (Perfect Drift).

"As soon as the gates opened, and Victor had to nudge him, I knew the race was over for us," Baffert said, referring to War Emblem's jockey, Victor Espinoza. "I said to myself: `Son of a gun, he figured it out.' When horses get older, they get smarter. He's come to realize he doesn't necessarily have to do what you want him to do."

War Emblem's realization came at a timely moment as this was his last race before retiring to stud in Japan.

War Emblem, Came Home or, probably, Medaglia d'Oro could have clinched Horse of the Year with a triumph in the Classic. That honor now might go to the mighty filly Azeri, who overwhelmed a high-powered field in the Distaff.

The 4-year-old Azeri, who has won 10 of 11 races and finished second in the other - all against fillies and mares - would be the first female to win Horse of the Year without beating males.

"She's just an amazing filly," said Mike Smith, her jockey. "She might be the best filly ever."

The eight Breeders' Cup races at chilly Arlington, 25 miles northwest of Chicago, provided disappointment (the Maryland filly Xtra Heat's sixth-place finish in the Sprint), near-unbelievable performances (Storm Flag Flying's resurgence in the Juvenile Fillies and Rock of Gibraltar's near-comeback in the Mile) and tragedy (Landseer was euthanized after breaking down in the Mile in front of 46,118 patrons at the track and millions of television viewers).

The most baffling outcome was, clearly, Volponi's. He entered the race with six wins in 22 races and earnings of $668,976, lowest in the field. He earned $2,080,000 for 2 minutes, 1.39 seconds' work in the 1 1/4 -mile Classic.

Johnson bred, trains and co-owns Volponi, a 4-year-old son of Cryptoclearance. The colt's biggest win had been the Grade II Pegasus Handicap one year ago at the Meadowlands.

"Maybe we caught a bunch of horses that were going the other way or something," Johnson said. "But he did what he was supposed to do. He was strong."

Volponi settled into fifth, tracking leaders E Dubai, War Emblem, Medaglia d'Oro and Perfect Drift, and then, simply, blew by them on the final turn. He flew between E Dubai and War Emblem as if he were Secretariat.

Several losing trainers attributed their horses' poor performances to a racing surface rated "fast" but drying out from two days of rain. Conversely, Jose Santos, who rode the winner, said Volponi relishes ground with "a little moisture."

Bobby Frankel, trainer of runner-up Medaglia d'Oro and third-place finisher Milwaukee Brew, said the answer to the one-word question - Volponi? - was the surface.

"That's racing," Frankel said. "My two ran good, both of them, but somebody freaked out on an off-track."

That somebody, of course, was Volponi.

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