03/09/2011 3:05PM

What Is the World's Greatest Race?


Is there such a thing as the greatest race in the world? Can a single race be placed above all of the others? And if so, what are the criteria to determine which is the greatest?

Let's start with last question first. Obviously, the world's greatest race much be a championship event of the first order, one that determines a national champion, if not a world champion, in a majority of its renewals. In other words, it must be an absolutely first class contest.

Secondly, the race must be set upon the highest stage, at a racecourse which conjures up some notion of glory, through both the memory of past championship events and the natural setting provided by the racecourse itself. To put it more plainly, the race must provide viewers with a spectacle. And it must produce in the memory a "look" that is firmly imprinted on the collective memory of the sporting world.

Some highly perceived races fulfill one or another of these criteria. The Breeders' Cup Classic generally produces the American champion, if not the world champion, but as it is run at a different location most years, it fails on the second count. The greatest race in the world must possess a certain look year-in and year-out, like the Epsom Derby or the Kentucky Derby.

The Dubai World Cup always had that look when it was run at Nad Al Sheba. It is now in the process of building a new reputation for itself at Meydan. But while there have been some truly great runnings of the World Cup like Cigar and Dubai Millennium, there have been too many runnings of the world's richest race taht have resembled low-end Group 1 contests.

Historically speaking, the Epsom Derby, or the Derby Stakes to use its official name, qualifies as a strong candidate for the title. Run in a magnificent amphitheater packed with up to 100,000 people on what is unquestionably the most difficult racecourse in the world, the Epsom Derby laid the foundation for the Thoroughbred breed from its inception in 1780 through the early 19th Century. It even has its own nickname, the Blue Riband of the Turf. The turn for home, Tattenham Corner, is so famous they named the nearby train station after it. But while it has remained a great race since the middle of the 20th Century, world demographics have seen other races restricted to 3-year-olds equal and even surpass it.

One of those Epsom Derby rivals is the Kentucky Derby. With a nickname of its own, the Run for the Roses, with its memorable start tucked away in the upper corner of the track, and a turn into the stretch that is still guaranteed to send chills down the spine, the race well deserves its title of "the most exciting two minutes in sports." But like the Epsom Derby, its reputation for producing national or world champions has waned in recent years with the increasing accent on races for older horses.

For sheer popularity, the Melbourne Cup can hardly be topped. The two-mile marathon at Flemington has long been dubbed as "the race that stops a nation," and for good reason. Melbourne Cup Day, always run on the first Tuesday in November, is a holiday in the state of Victoria. And just like the World Series used to do in America, it provides an excuse for kids throughout Australia to skip school, or office workers to take extended lunches, to see the race on television. On the other hand, it is a handicap that is probably not even the best race in Australia, that honor going to either the Caulfield Cup or the Cox Plate.

We might here mention some other very good races with a look all their own that fail to qualify because of the lack the history or quality required: the Irish Derby, the Prix du Jockey-Club (French Derby), the 2000 Guineas, the Travers Stakes, the Preakness Stakes, the Belmont Stakes. All of these have a distinctive look that adds luster to their inherent quality, as do the Jockey Club Gold Cup, the Arlington Million and, until this year, the Champion Stakes, which, sadly, will be transferred from the highly distinctive straight 10 furlongs of Newmarket to the right-handed course at Ascot this year.

That leaves us with the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, a race that not infrequently produces the world Thoroughbred flat champion, and is run in the glorious setting of Longchamp Racecourse a stone's throw from the world's most beautiful city, Paris. The Eiffel Tower peaks over the tops of the trees of the Bois de Boulogne, creating a leafy backdrop on the backstretch. The race begins in the far corner of the track in front of an 17th Century mansion. And the turn into the stretch after coming off what is known as the "false straight" is every bit as exciting as those at Churchill Downs or Epsom.

So the nod for the world's greatest race goes to the Arc. Or does it? While the Arc may well be the world's greatest flat race, it places no better than second when the world's best jump races are taken into account.

Is there a horse race that better fulfills the criteria for sheer specatacle than Aintree's Grand National Steeplechase? Probably not. While Aintree Racecourse is surrounded by some nondescript Liverpudlian homes, the difficulty of the 30 fences that must be manouvered through its grueling 4 1/2 miles make it "A Race Apart", the title of a 1987 Grand National history by Reg Green.

But as a Grade 3 handicap, the Grand National falls at the first in terms of quality, not only when compared to the best flat races, but to another steeplechase as well.

That is the Cheltenham Gold Cup. Run since 1924 at Cheltenham, a magnificently appointed racecourse set in the foothills of the picturesque Cotswolds, the Cheltenham Gold Cup stands alone as the supreme test of jumping quality. Its multiple winners Golden Miller (five times), Cottage Rake, Arkle and Best Mate (three times each) reverberate through history. Other winners like Easter Hero, Dawn Run, Desert Orchid and The Fellow have helped confirm the Gold Cup as an event that more than lives up to the third criteria required of any truly great race: the ability to produce a great story year after year without fail.

On Friday, March 18, they will line up for the 83rd running of the Cheltenham Gold Cup, which is run over 22 fences at a distance of 3 5/16 miles around the most beautiful ground this observor has ever witnessed- in any sport. The backdrop is provided by Cleeve Hill, an impossibly green swathe studded with rocky outcrops, a church steeple here, a farmhouse there, and off to the side a flock of sheep just beginning to fatten up on early spring grass. They go 'round the New Course twice in the Gold Cup, and so must make the arduous climb into the country twice, followed each time by the breakneck race down the hill heading into the stretch, where they will be greeted by a thunderous ovation not heard at Epsom, or Longchamp or Churchill Downs.

The 20th Century's most accomplished trainer Vincent O'Brien saddled four Gold Cup winners, Cottage Rake's triple from 1948 to 1950 plus Knock Hard in 1953. Michael Dickinson made history in 1983 when he trained the first five home. Their names were Bregawn, Captain John, Wayward Lad, Silver Buck and Ashley House. Dawn Run became the only horse to win both the Champion Hurdle and the Gold Cup with her 1986 triumph. In 1989, with the hopes of the British nation riding on his shoulders, the wildly popular gray Desert Orchid battled through rain and snow over a watterlogged course to achieve godlike status. In 1992, Cool Ground, The Fellow, Docklands Express and Carvill's Hill produced a seismic eruption in the grandstand by jumping the final fence in tandem, Cool Ground ultimately prevailing by a short head from The Fellow.

Next Friday, Kauto Star will attempt to make history as he goes after his third Gold Cup title. The 11-year-old is going about it the hard way, however, as he seems to win the race in odd-numbered years only. Successful in 2007 and 2009, he will be challenged by the 2008 winner, his Paul Nicholls-trained stablemate Denman, and the 2010 winner Imperial Commander, who is everyone's antepost favorite. That is the thing about the Gold Cup. It is a race that can produce three different winners of its last four runnings.

As usual, about 70,000 jumping mad racegoers will flock to Cheltenham on the day for the privilege of paying up to $100 just to walk through the gates in what is very often the most miserable weather imagineable. They will travel from London, 120 miles to the east. From across the Irish Sea they will come in droves, all for the honor of being present at the world's greatest horserace: the Cheltenham Gold Cup.