Steve Dennis remembers the 1991 Breeders' Cup Juvenile hero
First published on November 4, 2011
Seeing isn't always believing.
Ask Tom Durkin, seasoned racecaller and the voice of the Breeders' Cup, who was talking his way through a hitherto uneventful Breeders' Cup Juvenile in 1991.
As Arazi moved up to challenge longtime leader Bertrando on the home turn, Durkin's measured chatter rose an octave, rose into the blue Louisville sky even as his jaw dropped in disbelief. "And Arazi runs right by him!" he called, as if it was something new, something beyond the bounds of human experience.
It was. Arazi was not quite a wonderhorse, not nearly the greatest ever, but in the space of a short breathless minute 20 years ago on Wednesday he produced one of the most extraordinary performances ever seen on a racecourse. What Arazi did at Churchill Downs on that bright November afternoon will live in legend forever.
Little Arazi, a washy chestnut colt with a blaze and three white feet. He looked unremarkable at rest, diminutive and almost uninspiring. When he ran he made grown men forget their worries, made their hearts beat faster, made their eyes shine.
He was already a champion before he came to Churchill Downs. His violently swift ascent to immortality had begun in a small way, with his purchase by Gulfstream aviation tycoon Allen Paulson for $350,000 as a weanling in July 1989. Paulson offered the little colt at the yearling sales the following year but no-one wanted him, so he kept him, named him after a radio navigation checkpoint deep in the Arizona desert, sent him to France to be trained by Francois Boutin.
That was something Paulson did a lot with his two-year-olds because, as he once said, "they seem to get the two-year-olds going faster over there". Boutin, the leading exponent of his art in France and, arguably, Europe, got Arazi going.
The son of Blushing Groom made his first appearance at now-defunct Evry on June 12, a precocious prodigy dipped into the deep waters of a Listed race on his debut. He beat his three rivals easily; it would become a habit.
Boutin sent Arazi down a well-trodden pathway, victories in the Prix du Bois and the Prix Robert Papin prefixing his elevation into Group 1 company in the Prix Morny at Deauville where, partnered as usual by Gerald Mosse, he displayed a scintillating change of pace to cut adrift his three rivals in the space of 100 yards.
He was the best two-year-old in France; his win in the Prix de la Salamandre underlined his status and his thrashing of the opposition in the Grand Criterium crowned him champion of Europe. Afterwards, someone asked Paulson whether Arazi was the best horse he had ever owned. He answered: "He's the best horse anyone has ever owned."
The brash hyperbole was good for the headline-writers, although pinches of salt were passed round in private. Before another month had passed, though, there were plenty of people ready to take Paulson's words as gospel.
Between times, Paulson had cashed in on his colt's soaring reputation when selling a half-share to Sheikh Mohammed for a reported £5 million. He then instructed Boutin to send Arazi for the Breeders' Cup Juvenile on dirt, a surface upon which no European runner had hitherto managed even a place. Such a tall order for even such a champion.
Stateside, they had their own Arazi in the shape of Bertrando, a dark bay bullet from the California coast who had annihilated his rivals by nine lengths in the Grade 1 Norfolk Stakes on his most recent start. Unbeaten in three for trainer Bruce Headley, he was considered more than a match for the French colt even before Arazi was hung out to dry in stall 14 of 14, wide on the outside.
Many believed that initial disadvantage to be a terminal one, given the short run to the first turn. Other factors conspired against Arazi - the left-handed circuit, the unfamiliar racing surface - and there was a wellspring of confidence among the locals that the favourite would be beaten.
That confidence did not look misplaced with half a mile gone. Pat Valenzuela - local man for a local job, went the thinking of Arazi's connections - took Arazi back after leaving the stalls and he had only one behind him as the field barrelled into the clubhouse turn.
Heading into the backstretch, Valenzuela angled Arazi towards the rail. He had one horse behind him. Fifteen lengths ahead, the white-blinkered Bertrando had secured an easy lead and was loping along in a relaxed demonstration of power and grace. Arazi passed one horse, then another. Bertrando rolled on like the muddy Mississippi, Alex Solis sitting up on his neck without a care in the world.
But behind him, something was happening.
Without any discernible sign of encouragement, Valenzuela steered Arazi to the outside, and the little colt begun to run. He went past three horses and Valenzuela took him back to the rail. And then Arazi did what he did, what no horse did before or since.
Reach for the superlatives, dust down your imagination. One observer described Arazi's move as being like a motorcycle despatch rider weaving his way through rush-hour traffic. Portray it as you wish, but in less time than it takes to say or write it Arazi had overtaken five horses at a flat-out rush along the rail, bullying his way into fifth place.
Then Valenzuela steered him between Pine Bluff and Bag in the manner of a man steering a car without brakes, simply pointing him at the gap between slow-moving obstructions and letting him coast through it. Three strides later Arazi breezed past second-placed Agincourt and took dead aim at Bertrando, Solis still unhurried, incognisant of what miracles had been going on behind him.
Racealler Durkin intoned with a practised calmness: "And now the stage is set as they move towards to the top of the stretch ..." and was then undone as Arazi's rivals had been undone, able only to mirror the disbelief that rippled like a shiver through the grandstands as Arazi did indeed run right by Bertrando, right by him and on down the stretch to glory.
Valenzuela pushed him out as the rest of the racing world struggled to keep up with recent events, easing him down to a hack-canter in the last half-furlong. As they crossed the line four and three-quarter lengths clear, Valenzuela's face upturned to the stands and wearing a rictus of half-stunned triumph, Durkin finished the job he'd started: "Here indeed is a superstar! Absolutely sensational!" Ah, if it had only ended there. Arazi – US champion juvenile, but denied Horse of the Year honours by a curious and parochial sympathy for the unexciting Classic winner Black Tie Affair – was the horse of a thousand years, the distillation of a million daydreams. He, though – and we – would never have it so good again.
Shortly after his transfiguring win Arazi was operated on for bone chips in his knees. He took his unbeaten record to eight with an easy success in a minor event at Saint-Cloud on his three-year-old debut, but on his return to Churchill Downs for the Kentucky Derby he flopped as the hottest favourite for decades.
He made another mid-race move almost as audacious as his Breeders' Cup tour de force but could not sustain it, dropping back to finish eighth. We need not concern ourselves with the remainder of Arazi's career.
History has treated him well. Arazi is still the highest-rated two-year-old on Racing Post Ratings, his mark of 134 leaving him one jump ahead of Celtic Swing. Boutin called him the best two-year-old he'd ever trained, Valenzuela is unflinching in the belief that Arazi was the best he ever rode, and then we return to Paulson's averral that no man had ever owned better than he.
Well, we can't go quite that far. But few horses anywhere, ever, have left such an indelible visual impression as Arazi did at Churchill Downs 20 years ago on Wednesday. That run offered him up to the ages, his performance now a point of reference every time another brilliant horse pushes the envelope of possibility.
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