By Julian Muscat
Two decades ago, those who championed the cause of an annual world championship foresaw a golden horizon. Breeders’ Cup Day was established, the Japan Cup welcomed foreign-trained runners to restrictive shores, and France developed the Arc weekend into Europe’s championship festival. The future looked bright.
Doubtless because of their success, these poineering landmarks were soon abetted by others. The two-month Dubai Racing Carnival culminates with the Emirates World Cup (UAE-I), Australia started promoting its Spring Carnival, headlined by the Emirates Melbourne Cup (Aus-I), and Hong Kong joined in with international races in April and December.
The consequence is that today’s top-class horses are spot lit for choice. And the spate of lucrative opportunities, coupled with Meydan’s synthetic surface, means that the concept of a defining world championship is further away than ever–and receding into the distance.
It’s a crying shame, of course, and a look at major racing events beyond North America in 2011 underlines the point. There is no unifying theme, no sane way to knit these races together. They have become single entities whose significance fluctuates annually on the whim of connections of the best horses.
Japan’s horses are devillishly difficult to beat on home soil, and so it proved once again in that country’s feature race. Buena Vista (Special Week-Biwa Heidi, by Caerleon) atoned for her disqualification in last year’s Japan Cup (Jpn-I) by landing the spoils Nov. 27, in the process leading a home-trained sweep of the first five places.
It was Buena Vista’s first victory in 13 months. Over that time the mare ran consistently in every race except the March 26 Dubai World Cup, in which she finished well behind another Japanese runner, Victoire Pisa (Neo Universe-Whitewater Affair, by Machiavellian). However, the tables were turned in Japan, where it was Victoire Pisa’s turn to disappoint.
The first non-Japanese-trained horse to finish in Tokyo was Danedream (Lomitas-Danedrop, by Danehill), previously a surprise but record-breaking winner of the Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) Oct. 2. The German-trained filly finished sixth from a wide draw, which resulted in a wide trip, and she could never summon the potent acceleration she showed in Paris.
Although Danedream defeated a strong field, it marked a quantum form-leap forward that she was unable to sustain in Japan. The antidote to the difficulty in assessing her true merit is that she is due to race again in 2012.
Danedream wasn’t alone in that respect. Two Japanese raiders trained specifically for the Arc both failed to make an impact. Hiruno D’Amour and Nakayama Festa trailed home in 10th and 11th places, respectively, to emphasise the discrepancy between the performance of Japan’s Thoroughbreds at home and those on the road. For this reason, they remain the hardest group of horses to gauge.
Travelling horses between continents has always introduced an element of the unfathomable. A case in point is Snow Fairy, who is perennially transformed when she boards a plane.
Trained by Ed Dunlop, Snow Fairy (Intikhab-Woodland Dream, by Charnwood Forest) posted a pair of notable triumphs in the Far East last fall and returned to Japan to double up in the Queen Elizabeth II Commemorative Cup (Jpn-I) Nov. 13.
However, her bid to win the Dec. 11 Cathay Pacific Hong Kong Vase (HK-I) was thwarted by an injury that denied us the chance to see how she matched up to Dunaden. In the event Dunaden (Nicobar-La Marlia, by Kaldounevees) landed the prize from locally-trained Thumbs Up, with Red Cadeaux, another from the Dunlop stable, back in third place.
Six weeks earlier Dunaden, trained by Mikel Delzangles in France, had beaten Red Cadeaux by a scant nose in the Emirates Melbourne Cup, in the process spearheading a challenge that saw European horses fill seven of the first eight places.
No surprise there: Australia’s breeders have long deserted stamina in pursuit of speed. So complete has been the process that Australia’s top races over 12 furlongs and beyond are now easy pickings for Europe’s second-tier runners.
Conversely, antipodean sprinters are a cut above those found in Europe, and in Black Caviar, Australia has a horse of which to be proud. Black Caviar (Bel Esprit-Helsinge, by Desert Sun) is unextended in 14 starts to date, most recently in the six-furlong Patinack Farm Classic (Aus-I) at Flemington Nov. 5.
It’s hard to know how talented is Black Caviar until she fulfils her intended engagement at Royal Ascot in 2012. Until then, and in the absence of any significant reference points on the international scene, the ruminations of a panel of global racing secretaries provide food for thought via the World Thoroughbred Rankings they publish periodically.
On the latest chart they rate Frankel seven pounds superior to Black Caviar, who shares her platform with Danedream and Cirrus Des Aigles. One pound further adrift follow Canford Cliffs, Nathaniel, and Rewilding, who in turn are rated one pound ahead of Dream Ahead, Excelebration, and So You Think.
Black Caviar is the only non-European-trained horse in the top 10. The top-rated U.S. horse on the chart is Tizway in 15th place, one pound ahead of Cape Blanco, whose hat-trick of grade I turf triumphs cannot mask the fact that he failed to hit the board in three group I starts prior to his American sojourn.
Frankel’s exploits require no further amplification, and while Pour Moi (Montjeu-Gwynn, by Darshaan) won the Derby Stakes (Eng-I) with a dramatic late flourish, injury prevented him from further advancing himself.
The bare bones of Pour Moi’s victory are far from compelling. The colt prevailed by a head from Treasure Beach (Galileo-Honorine, by Mark Of Esteem), himself a narrow winner of the Dubai Duty Free Irish Derby (Ire-I) but well beaten in all his subsequent starts bar his triumph in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT). None of the next four to follow Treasure Beach home at Epsom won again in 2011.
Whether all the best horses raced in Europe in 2011 is open to conjecture. What did become clear, however, was that the haphazard, unstructured, series of global racing festivals served only to confuse the quest to identify the world’s best horse.
To have to turn to the pronouncements of the World Thoughbred Rankings casts the sport in a poor light. These things should be settled on the racecourse, not in hotel conference rooms.
By Julian Muscat