How To Find The Biggest Surprise Winners On Thoroughbred’s Biggest Day – The Breeders’ Cup

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As a thoroughbred racing handicapper, there is nothing quite as rewarding as coming up with a winner that nobody else seemed to see coming. It is a true testament to handicapping ability if you can spot something, either in the program or by watching a particular horse race, that goes unseen by everybody else placing their bets.

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The monetary rewards of such a pick can be great, but it is also a point of pride if you can pull it off. Now imagine doing that in a race where the whole world is watching, where the betting interest is the most intense. That multiplies that rewarding feeling exponentially.

Well, the Breeders’ Cup, the annual championship weekend event for horse racing in America, gives you even more chances to find that unsung champion. With 14 races stretched out over two days, you can certainly find a few sleeper picks that sneak in under the larger radar but have the potential to score big. Placing your bets on these sleepers and having them come out on top can make a year’s worth of program ink on your fingers all worth it.

This year’s Breeders’ Cup will be held on November 2 and 3 and it takes place in one of the most hallowed settings for the sport in America: Churchill Downs in Louisville, Kentucky. That makes this year’s Cup even more special for horse racing fans. But it all comes down to picking winners, and, if you’re looking to make some real cabbage, you need to know how to diagnose which horses could come out on top without a lot of betting attention behind them.

Spotting Sleepers

We are still about a month away from the 2018 edition of the Breeders’ Cup, and there is a lot of buzz around the sport of horse racing once again this year. Even though he won’t be competing in the Breeders’ Cup as he has already been retired to stud, Justify’s Triple Crown run has drawn casual fans to the sport. Look for the excitement generated by 14 Breeders’ Cup races and $28 million in purses to add to that immensely.

For those who might be coming to the sport for the first time, perhaps drawn in by the exploits of Justify, The Breeders’ Cup stands as the ultimate determiner for the finest horses in the nation and world. The horses are separated by gender, age, surface and distance into distinct classes.

Here is a look at the schedule:


Race Age Distance Surface Gender Purse
Tito’s Handmade Vodka Juvenile Fillies Two 1 1/16 miles Dirt Fillies $2 million
Juvenile Fillies Turf Two 1 mile Turf Fillies $1 million
Juvenile Turf Sprint Two 5 ½ furlongs Turf Either $1 million
Juvenile Turf Two 1 mile Turf Either $1 million
Sentient Jet Juvenile Two 1 1/16 Dirt Either $2 million


Race Age Distance Surface Gender Purse
Mile Three and up 1 mile Dirt Either $2 million
Turf Sprint Three and up 5 ½ furlongs Turf Either $1 million
Filly and Mare Sprint Three and up 7 furlongs Dirt Fillies and Mares $1 million
Maker’s Mark Fillies and Mares Turf Three and up 1 3/8 miles Turf Fillies and Mares $2 million
Twinspires Sprint Three and up 6 furlongs Dirt Either $2 million
Dirt Mile Three and up 1 mile Dirt Either $1 million
Longines Distaff Three and up 1 1/8 miles Dirt Fillies and Mares $2 million
Longines Turf Three and up 1 ½ miles Turf Either $4 million
Classic Three and up 1 ¼ miles Dirt Either $6 million

You’ll notice that the opening day is earmarked for the young horses who are just working their way up in the sport, yet are already competing for huge purses. Saturday features established stars, many of whom have competed in Breeders’ Cups past.

So how is it that any sleepers can be found when you are dealing with the best of the best among all of these classes? Well, there are so many great horses in each class that there are bound to be one or two horses that fall through the cracks.

Don’t believe me? Check out some of the upsets that we’ve seen in the Breeders’ Cup in past events.

1984: Wild Again (Classic): There were some huge names in the initial Breeders’ Cup Classic, but Wild Again, who went off at 30-1, wasn’t really one of them. Nonetheless, he won a highly contested stretch battle, one that led to the track judges taking a long look at the replay to make sure there was no interference. That thrilling race helped to implant the Breeders’ Cup in the imaginations of racing fans everywhere.

1993: Arcangues (Classic): You could make a case that this was one of the greatest upsets not just in Breeders’ Cup history, but in the history of horse racing as a whole. Arcangues was used to riding in Europe on the grass, but his trainer (Andre Fabre) decided to give him his first dirt start against the toughest field in the world. Nonetheless, jockey Jerry Bailey guided him to a furious stretch rally as he passed a bunch of stunned competitors. Final odds for Arcangues: 133-1.

2000 Spain (Distaff): Sometimes an upset is made more impressive by the kind of field that a horse beats. That was certainly the case with Spain, who was in the midst of a solid but undistinguished career when she won in 2000 against the best distaff horses at 55-1. She beat Riboletta, who came in with a monster record, and Beautiful Pleasure, who had won the same race the previous season. Oddly enough, Spain nearly did it again the next year, losing by just a head.

2002: Volponi (Classic): For whatever reason, the Classic seems to draw more head-scratching upsets than any other race on the card through the years. Much like Arcangues before him, Volponi had proven more successful as a turf horse in years past. Among the horses that he would surprise that year was War Emblem, the Bob Baffert-trained powerhouse who had won two of the three Triple Crown races. Not only did Volponi win at 43-1, but he romped by 6 ½ lengths.

2011: Court Vision (Mile): Coming into the 2011 Mile event, the highly-decorated Goldikova seemed like he was poised for a fourth consecutive victory in the race. Never before had a horse even won three Breeders’ Cups in a row, so it seemed like a foregone conclusion that he would win it again. Court Vision, meanwhile, came into the race without even having hit the board in his four starts that year. Yet traffic problems hindered Goldikova, and Court Vision came out on top at stunning odds of 64-1.

The Characteristics Of A Breeders’ Cup Sleeper

So now that we know upsets can happen, even on horse racing’s grandest stage, the question becomes how to find them. Well, it’s still a bit difficult considering that the fields haven’t even been set yet, although the futures bets could provide an indication. We’ll get to those in a moment.

Anyway, what you’ll find with the horses that turn out to be surprise winners in the Breeders’ Cup is that they usually have some indicator of success somewhere in their lines. Maybe those indicators are buried beneath a lot of mediocre results and lesser efforts, but they are usually there. Let’s take a look at a few of them that could indicate which horses should turn up on your betting tickets on that first weekend in November.


No matter how great a horse might be, the type of trip that it receives will be a big determiner in the outcome. That’s why you have to study the entire field and note the different styles of the horses in the race. It will help you to visualize how the race might play out.

For example, if you have a race filled with speed horses, it likely means a fast pace and a good setup for the closers in the race. By contrast, a race where there aren’t a lot of horses who like to leave means that those few who do could get to an easy lead. Try to diagnose all of the different styles in the race before you decide upon any possible upsetter.


This might be the best way to find a diamond in the rough in one or more of the Breeders’ Cup races this November. No matter how great the equine talent, it ultimately takes some human excellence to make a victory happen. That means not only the jockeys making the split-second decisions during the course of the race, but also the trainers who are in charge of conditioning the horses and having them at the top of their games.

Look at some of the upsets that we mentioned above. Arcangues was ridden by Jerry Bailey, one of the all-time greats, while Jose Santos, who was then one of the top jockeys in the world, guided Volponi to victory. Meanwhile, the legendary D. Wayne Lukas was the trainer for Spain when she scored her shocking win.

What those examples demonstrate is that some jockeys and trainers just have a knack for getting a horse to peak at the absolute right moment. While everybody else is focusing on the horses’ past performances, you can zig while they zag. Focus instead on the jockeys and trainers and you can find some excellent value plays.

Trending Horses

Horses are funny in that it often only takes them one start to really find form that could have been missing all year long. That’s why you should be looking at the totality of their performances when you’re strategizing about the top sleepers in the Breeders’ Cup. It takes a trained eye, but you can usually find some good bargains this way.

For example, there might be a horse who has a so-called “high ceiling,” which means that its potential is impressive. That doesn’t mean the horse can reach that level each and every time out. But it does mean that they can get there when it counts the most.

Don’t worry so much if a horse like that was struggling months or so ago. And you shouldn’t even worry if they didn’t win their last start or two. As long as they showed some signs of life, it could be an indication that their handlers have them poised for a big effort.

Looking Overseas

It can be easy to get locked into the American horses, since that’s what most Breeders’ Cup watchers have likely been watching all year long. The fact is that the Breeders’ Cup is an international event. And Europe’s racing scene is just as thriving as the one that persists in the USA.

As a result, you might be able to find European horses who don’t get a lot of attention on this side of the pond yet are just as capable as their American counterparts. This is especially true in terms of turf races, since most of the racing in Europe takes place on the grass. Be sure to include the European contingent in your reckoning for sleeper picks.

Using The Future Pool Wager

Did you know that you can get an early start on your Breeders’ Cup handicapping and wagering? You can do it by taking advantage of the futures pool. The futures pool can help you spot underrated horses and also maybe even make an early wager.

The Breeders’ Cup futures pool allows you to wager on horses to win only, as opposed to some of the other types of bets you’ll be able to make on race day. There is no guarantee that the horse on which you bet will even be in the race come November. But that also means that the odds will be much more beneficial to you if you take the chance.

So far, there have been two rounds of Breeders’ Cup futures wagering, and they’ve encompassed the Classic, the Distaff, and the Juvenile. Coming up on October 5, you’ll have a chance to wager ahead of time on the Classic, for a second round, and the Turf.

If you look at the odds of the races that have already been through a round of futures bets, you can start to see how certain horses are regarded. For example, in the Classic, Gunnevara, at 29-1, and Thunder Snow, at 23-1, represent a pair of horses with that high ceiling that we mentioned before. They might be inconsistent, but they have reams of talent.

When the second round of the Classic futures comes up next weekend, you can take a shot at one of those. Or, at the very least, you can file that information away for when the actual Classic race takes place. Then, if one or both of those aforementioned sleepers are in the field, or someone else that you’ve diagnosed is in there, you can hop on board and expect beneficial odds to come your way.


The Breeders’ Cup is still a month away and a lot can change between now and then. But it is certainly not too early to do some handicapping. Start finding those sleepers now, and they’re bound to pay off for you later.

Jim Beviglia

Jim Beviglia joined as a staff writer in 2018, parlaying his years of freelance writing into contributions on a number of different topics. He handles the sport of horse racing for and the intersection between the worlds of cryptocurrency and online gambling in a weekly blog. For his full-time job, Jim handles the television and track announcing duties at a h ...

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