An epic pace meltdown produced the biggest upset of Breeders’ Cup weekend Nov. 6, as Japan-based Marche Lorraine held off Dunbar Road by the slightest nose to win the $2 million Grade 1 Longines Breeders’ Cup Distaff.
It was the second win on the day for Japan-bred and Japan-based horses, just three races after Loves Only You became the first Japanese horse ever to win a Breeders’ Cup event in the Grade 1 Maker’s Mark Filly & Mare Turf. Both are trained by conditioner Yoshito Yahagi.
U Carrot Farm’s Marche Lorraine paid $101.80 for a $2 win bet, the second-largest mutuel in Distaff history behind the $113.80 that Spain paid in 2000.
Japan has become increasingly ambitious and competitive in the biggest international events. Deirdre’s surprise win in the 2019 Group 1 Nassau Stakes at Goodwood was a coming out party of sorts, the nation’s first group 1 in 19 years. That set off a new wave of interest in shipping for the sport’s biggest prizes, such as the Dubai World Cup Carnival, where Loves Only You was a close third in the $5 million Group 1 Dubai Sheema Classic in March. The country has long targeted the Group 1 Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, with Triple Crown winners Deep Impact in 2006 and Orfevre, sire of March Lorraine, in 2012 being the biggest chances that came up short.
Today’s two-bagger for Japan goes down as the nation’s greatest day against the best from across the globe. British champion jockey Oisin Murphy rode Marche Lorraine and also rode Deirdre to her Nassau win. He became a booster of Japanese horses after riding there for two winters in 2018 and 2019.
“I didn’t know a whole lot about Marche Lorraine,” admitted Murphy, who secured his first Breeders’ Cup win. “I ride a lot for Mr. Yahagi in Japan and a fair bit overseas. I’ve ridden for him in Dubai and Hong Kong. And he doesn’t travel unless they have a chance.”
Marche Lorraine won three times in 2021 but without leaving her home county. She won the $477,000 Breeders Gold Cup by a half-length at Mombetsu in August to go with two other rich stakes, the $556,000 Empress Hai and the $360,000 TCK JO O Hai. Whether that form would translate to America’s most important race for older females was anyone’s guess, and most bettors guessed wrong.
“I tried to ignore her odds and just give her every chance in the run and hopefully she could finish off,” Murphy said. “And to be honest, we were obviously a hostage to fortune. I sat out the back, and they went quite quick. We needed them to do that, but it was a brilliant performance.”
The preponderance of speed in the race resulted in an impossible situation for the early leaders. Private Mission ran the opening quarter-mile in :21.84, eliciting an audible, collective gasp from the Del Mar crowd. A second, even louder chorus of gasps and guffaws followed when the half-mile time of :44.97 flashed on the tote board.
Favored Letruska, a Horse of the Year candidate off four grade 1 wins this season, raced in second through the backstretch run but keeping up with Private Mission was never going to end well.
“They went too fast,” jockey Irad Ortiz Jr. said. “They didn’t want her to be on the lead. They went after her. She wants to run and I tried to slow her down as much as possible but it didn’t work out.”
Trainer Fausto Gutierrez concurred: “When it’s :21 and :44 it’s very difficult. It’s impossible to run with these fractions.”
Private Mission held on through three-quarters in 1:09.70. Around the three-eighths pole Private Mission backed out first but when Letruska assumed the lead it was already clear her hopes had also been cooked. Those two would finish last (Private Mission, 11th) and second-last (Letruska, 10th).
At the top of the stretch the race was now wide open, with the more patient runners closing from every direction. Marche Lorraine had intentionally settled behind Dunbar Road early on.
“Jose Ortiz (jockey of Dunbar Road) is someone I look up to and he knows the dirt a lot better than I do,” Murphy said. “He wasn’t going and I thought, well, best probably to follow him, and I just took my time behind him. I tried to be up close to him as possible to get less kickback and she traveled nicely. And maybe I moved a little bit too early. I thought if I didn’t move early, I would get pushed wide around the turn and I had a choice to make whether to go wide or make a move.”
Marche Lorraine surged to the lead past the three-eighths pole but would have to hold off a slew of challengers, including 2021 Longines Kentucky Oaks heroine Malathaat coming from eighth and Grade 1 Cotillion Stakes winner Clairiere from last.
Dunbar Road could have gotten the win if not for a tough trip under Ortiz. She got shuffled back trying to find her way through the chaos on the far turn and bumped with Malathaat straightening into the lane. Malathaat and Dunbar Road matched strides to the wire and the photo was too close to call both live and on slow-motion replays.
“It’s probably the toughest loss I’ve ever had,” trainer Chad Brown said after. “It’s just a shame because it’s two years in a row where she really should have won the Distaff. She got a bad trip last time too. No one can convince me otherwise. She had some trouble down the backside and she ended up on the inside where I really didn’t want her. The track is better outside. It just happened that way. Jose did the best he could and she gave a valiant effort. I’m really proud of her. It’s a shame her career ended this way. I thought she was a deserving winner of this race.”
Malathaat was attempting to cap off a year that already included Grade 1 wins in the Kentucky Oaks and the Alabama. Todd Pletcher decided to train up to the Distaff from the Alabama, a 77-day gap between starts.
“We got a great pace setup,” said Pletcher, trainer of Malathaat, who ended up third, a half-length behind the win photo. “She was getting a smooth trip. At the top of the stretch, she kind of got squeezed in between horses and had to fight her way through and looked like she was just a little intimidated and kind of cocked her head a little bit. Once she got clear she was closing back again and gaining ground. It was a huge effort. I’m very proud of her. I just hate to ever see her lose. She’s a superstar and she lost nothing in defeat.”
Clairiere raced wide while trailing around both turns, including a seven-wide run into the stretch that didn’t help her cause.
“It’s about three-quarters of a length from where we wanted to be,” said Steve Asmussen, trainer of Clairiere. “She was farther back than I was hoping early, but Ricardo (Santana Jr.) said she wasn’t running into this dirt right away. When he got her out, she made a good run. It looked like she got fanned out in the stretch.”
The race had been up for grabs in the final quarter-mile but the day belonged to Japan and to Marche Lorraine’s 400 shareholders.