This Weekend’s Breeders’ Cup, in Cocktails

While each of the Triple Crown races has a signature cocktail, the tradition has somehow eluded the Breeders' Cup. Peter Fornatale takes a look back at the history of booze and racing, and offers three drinks from his book Brooklyn Spirits for 2014's race.

The sport of horse racing has existed since ancient times, and was formalized as early as the Greek Olympics of 648 B.C. Though specific accounts don’t exist, it’s hard to imagine that drinking wasn’t involved from the very beginning. Racing evolved as a way for agrarians—and later royalty—to prove whose horse was fastest, not for money but for sport. What better way to celebrate your horse’s victory than to hoist a celebratory tankard of mead, ale or wine? 

Through the centuries, the connection between racing and drinking has remained strong. In fact, the original one-day Oktoberfest—held in 1810 to celebrate the marriage of Bavarian King Ludwig I to his wife, Theresie—centered on a horse race. The race eventually faded from Octoberfest tradition as it expanded into two weeks of music, dancing, sausage and beer. Yet, the fact remains that one of the world’s great drinking festivals began with a horse race.

These days, most Americans know racing via the Triple Crown—the Kentucky Derby in Louisville, the Preakness in Baltimore and the Belmont Stakes in New York City. However, this country’s most important race day is none of the above. It’s the Breeders’ Cup, a two-day extravaganza of 13 races offering $23 million in prize money that attracts horses from around the globe. This year, it’s held on Friday, October 31, and Saturday, November 1, at Santa Anita Park in Los Angeles.

When it comes to drinking, though, the Breeders’ Cup can use a little help. But before we get to that, it’s instructive to take a further look at the Triple Crown races. The Derby, Preakness and Belmont Stakes are more than just racing days—they are cultural celebrations beyond the track where people who see each other once a year met and raise a glass. It only makes sense that each race has a signature cocktail.

The Derby is, of course, known for the Mint Julep, an American classic that predates the existence of the cocktail. Since 1938, it’s been the official drink of the Derby, doubling as an advertisement for the region’s proudest export: bourbon.

Since the early 1970s, the Black Eyed Susan—an ever-changing recipe of vodka, rum and pineapple and orange juices—has been the signature drink of the Preakness. It’s named for Maryland’s state flower—hundreds of which are woven together into a yellow-and-black blanket to be draped over the race’s winner in the Preakness’s answer to the Derby’s rose garland.

The Belmont Stakes was late to the signature cocktail game. For many years, New Yorkers were more apt to drink beer or wine, perhaps Champagne. That changed in the 1990s. In an effort to keep up with Churchill Downs and Pimlico—the homes of the Derby and Preakness, respectively—Dale DeGroff, a founding father of the craft cocktail movement, was tasked with making a signature drink for the Belmont Stakes. A combination of rye (traditionally New York’s whiskey), sherry and fresh fruit juices, the drink never quite caught on, because, as DeGroff says, “Nobody at Belmont ever took the care to make it right.”

Recently, Belmont’s marketing folks tried again with the Belmont Jewel—a blend of lemonade, pomegranate juice and bourbon. It’s a drink that would’ve been better off if it followed Henry Watterson’s classic recipe for the Mint Julep, which, after a flowing description about picking the choicest mint directly from its dewy bed, he prescribes, “Throw the other ingredients away and drink the whiskey…”

Successful or not, while each of the Triple Crown races has at least attempted a signature drink, the Breeders’ Cup has not. The reason why may be a simple matter of geography. The race’s venue rotates—Santa Anita this year, Keeneland in Lexington, Kentucky, next year, Del Mar in San Diego, the year after next—so a regional hook is out of the question. But maybe that’s as it should be. After all, the event is so varied that any one drink would have a difficult task in representing its complexity.

So, in lieu of a Breeders’ Cup signature drink, here are three cocktails (adapted from Brooklyn Spirits) representative of four competing horses—all with good chances—gunning for a place in racing history this weekend in Santa Anita.

Peter Thomas Fornatale is a co-author, along with Chris Wertz, of Brooklyn Spirits. He lives—where else?—in Brooklyn, New York.