Breeders’ Cup Fantastic Finishes: Japanese Outsider Stuns Stacked 2021 Distaff Field

Breeders’ Cup Fantastic Finishes: Japanese Outsider Stuns Stacked 2021 Distaff Field

The 38th Breeders’ Cup World Championships at Del Mar lived up to expectations in many ways. The year prior, fans were prohibited from attending the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland due to the COVID-19 pandemic, and the crowds that made it to the 2021 event at picturesque Del Mar in California were more than ready to celebrate as NBC Sports chronicled the festivities. As for the talent level on the track, several races were absolutely loaded with top-class contenders – and the $2 million Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff was one of them.

The Distaff featured an 11-horse field that included five Grade/Group 1 winners and five Grade 2 winners, headlined by a pair of fillies that would go on to be named champion older dirt female and champion 3-year-old filly, respectively, at the Eclipse Awards in Letruska and Malathaat. The only entrant in the field without a graded or group stakes win was, appropriately, a 30-1 longshot on the morning line.

Five-year-old Marche Lorraine shipped to Del Mar from Japan with a solid race record of eight wins in 20 career starts, four of those coming in stakes races. However, all of her stakes wins came at second-tier tracks in her home country and were not categorized in the same racing class as stakes conducted at tracks such as Tokyo or Hanshin – and the competition at those major tracks in Japan was, and is, considered to be inferior to the best dirt racing circuits in the U.S. That made the daughter of Japanese Triple Crown winner Orfevre an afterthought to most bettors, especially compared with stablemate Loves Only You, the 2019 Japanese Oaks winner who also shipped to Del Mar as one of the favorites for the Maker’s Mark Breeders’ Cup Filly and Mare Turf.

Both fillies were trained by Yoshito Yahagi, who had enjoyed success in his home country with wins in the Japanese Derby, Japanese St. Leger, and numerous other top races but was a complete unknown in the U.S. After a spectacular Saturday at Del Mar, however, the dapperly-attired Yahagi and his translated expressions of gratitude would be one of the lasting memories of Breeders’ Cup 2021.

It started in Race 7, when Loves Only you won a thrilling renewal of the Maker’s Mark Filly and Mare Turf by a half-length as the 4.30-1 second betting choice and a throng of Japanese connections swarmed the winner’s circle. Three races later, the field went to post in the Distaff with Letruska favored at 1.70-1 odds, Malathaat the second betting choice at 3.60-1, and U.S.-based Royal Flag and Shedaresthedevil backed at 5-1 and 8.40-1, respectively. Marche Lorraine, meanwhile, was a 49.90-1 outsider when the gate sprung, carrying the third longest odds in the field. Irish jockey Oisin Murphy was aboard Marche Lorraine for the first time after having ridden several of Yahagi’s horses overseas, and the champion jockey in Britain was seeking his first win in the Breeders’ Cup after 10 previous appearances without hitting the board.

California-based Grade 2 winner Private Mission took the early lead from the rail post position, and Letruska – who entered the race having won four graded stakes in a row leading at every point of call – raced right behind her as the field made their way through the first turn of the 1 1/8-mile Distaff. The first quarter-mile went in :21.84 and the half in :44.97, blazing fractions even for elite-caliber horses, and neither front-runner was slowing down as they hit the six-furlong marker in 1:09.70, with Letruska moving alongside Private Mission. Marche Lorraine was 10 lengths behind the leaders at the half-mile point, but she and the rest of the field were about to capitalize on that suicidal pace, and the race scenario shifted dramatically on the second turn.

2020 Longines Kentucky Oaks winner Shedaresthedevil was first to move from her stalking spot, and she took the lead on the turn but was quickly joined by Royal Flag to her outside and, splitting that pair, a runner few expected to be a factor.

Seizing command at the quarter-pole, Marche Lorraine was ridden hard by Murphy throughout a dramatic stretch drive as she swung out about five paths wide of the rail. Royal Flag floated out six wide, and Grade 1 winner Clairiere rallied even farther out. Grade 2 winner Dunbar Road and Malathaat both steamrolled into contention along the inside and, with less than 100 yards remaining, Dunbar Road took the lead for couple of strides under Jose Ortiz. But Marche Lorraine simply would not quit, and when the photo finish was posted she had prevailed by a nose to score one of the biggest upsets in Breeders’ Cup history.

“I tried to ignore her odds and just give her every chance in the run and hopefully she could finish off,” Murphy told BloodHorse. “And to be honest, we were obviously a hostage to fortune. I sat out the back, and [the leaders] went quite quick. We needed them to do that, but it was a brilliant performance.”

If possible, an even more joyous group of Japanese connections than earlier in the day assembled at Del Mar’s winner’s circle following Marche Lorraine’s win. Her victory coupled with Loves Only You’s triumph confirmed Japan’s ascension as the story of the 2021 World Championships as they became the first two horses based in that country to earn Breeders’ Cup victories (Japan-bred Karakontie, who won the 2014 Breeders’ Cup Mile, raced in Europe). Marche Lorraine made one more start in early 2022, finishing sixth in the $20 million Saudi Cup, and was then retired to Northern Farm in Japan, her birthplace, to start her broodmare career.