We've been warned. If it weren't for Tiznow, America's top 3-year-olds and older horses would be waving a white flag right now. While America narrowly escaped the ignominious fate of dropping back-to-back Breeders' Cup Classics to European invaders, we're not out of the woods by any means.
Across the Atlantic, there are at least three or four talented Classic hopefuls who are poised for another major strike at America's richest race. To show how strong the Europeans could be this year, the most questionable of their top four is Sakhee, last year's Arc de Triomphe winner who was beaten a nose by Tiznow in the Classic only 20 days after the Arc. Sakhee hasn't been the same horse since, but if he should rekindle the flame of last fall and escape retirement, he'll no doubt take a lot of beating again.
But his owner, Godolphin, already has quite an arsenal of Breeders' Cup Classic horses lined up, so Sakhee's fate may depend not only on how he rebounds from his defeat in the group III Prix Gontaut-Biron, but how his fellow boys in blue fare over the next month. Sakhee has not exactly been tearing up the track in training, so his future right now seems a bit tenuous. Still, imagine getting anything even close to the Sakhee of last year at 25-1 in the Breeders' Cup Future Bet. Not a bad coup if it works out.
The more solid Godolphin horses right now are the U.S.-trained Street Cry, who runs next in the Jockey Club Gold Cup, and E Dubai, who may run in next weekend's Woodward Stakes if he's ready. In Europe, there is Grandera, whose best races have been at 1 1/4 miles. After winning the Singapore Arlines International Cup in May, he was brilliant winning the Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot by five lengths. He finished a well-beaten fifth in the subsequent King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, but 1 1/2 miles is not his best distance. His biggest effort going that far was a third, beaten a half-length in last year's French Derby. But Chantilly is not considered one of Europe's tougher staying courses. Although Grandera is by the European stakes winner Grand Lodge and has never run on dirt, his two grandires are Breeders' Cup Juvenile winner Chief's Crown and Breeders' Cup Classic winner Alysheba. That alone could make him worth his 60-1 odds in the Future Bet.
The powerful Ballydoyle stable of Aidan O'Brien, who missed by a neck in the Classic two years ago with Giant's Causeway, has a top-class 1 1/4-mile horse in Hawk Wing, winner of the 10-furlong Eclipse Stakes in his most recent effort. The son of the American stallion Woodman was not quite quick enough to beat stablemate Rock of Gibraltar in the one-mile English 2,000 Guineas, losing by neck, and was not quite up to beating stablemate High Chaparral in the 1 1/2-mile English Derby, losing by two lengths but finishing an amazing 12 lengths ahead of the third horse. But 1 1/4 miles looks to be right up his alley. Losing to Rock of Gibraltar, winner of six straight group I stakes, and High Chaparral, winner of the English and Irish Derby, is certainly no disgrace. His 21-1 odds in the Future Bet look about right, considering he has not yet committed to the race.
Ballydoyle also another interesting 3-year-old colt in Sholokhov, who finished second to High Chaparral in the Irish Derby as the stable's 200-1 pacesetter, then came right back only five days later and finished second as Hawk Wing's pacesetter in the Eclipse.
The Eclipse Stakes is one of the better barometers in searching out true 1 1/4-mile horses. It also shows which potential Breeders' Cup Turf horses have the speed to go along with their stamina. Perhaps no one race has ever produced more top Breeders' Cup horses than the 2001 Eclipse. The winner was Giant's Causeway, who lost the Classic that year in a photo. Second was Kalanisi, who would go on to win that year's Breeders' Cup Turf and be named Eclipse champion. Fourth was Sakhee, who would lose the Classic by a nose the following year. And fifth was Fantastic Light, who would win the Turf the following year and also be named Eclipse champion.
And now for the colt who may be the one Americans should fear the most. His name is Nayef, owned by Sheikh Hamdan, and he's a very attractive prospect at 30-1. The son of Gulch is a half-brother to superstar Nashwan, winner of the English Derby, 2,000 Guineas, King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, and Eclipse Stakes. His second dam, Highclere, won the 1,000 Guineas and French Oaks.
Last year, Nayef began a five-race winning streak, in which he captured group III stakes at Haydock, Goodwood, and Ascot, at 1 1/4 miles, 1 5/16 miles and 1 1/2 miles, before winning the 1 1/4-mile group I Champion Stakes at Newmarket in October and the group I Dubai Sheema Classic at 1 1/2 miles this past March.
The heavy, soft going at the Curragh didn't suit him, and he could only finish third in the group I Tattersalls Gold Cup, then was soundly beaten into fourth by Grandera in the Prince of Wales's. But his last two have been super efforts. He battled back tenaciously, only to be beaten a head by Golan in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. Dropping back to 1 5/16 miles, he gained his revenge on Golan, beating him a half-length in the Juddmonte International at York, a left-handed, relatively flat course.
This is a classy, brilliant colt with good tactical speed, who like Giant's Causeway loves a good battle.
The question now is, which of these horses will be coming for the Classic. Ballydoyle has High Chaparral for the Turf and Rock of Gibraltar for the Mile, but remember, they ran Galileo last year in the Classic instead of the Turf, in which they finished second with Milan. This year, however, they have horses who suit each race perfectly, if all are being considered. Godolphin could opt for the Turf with Grandera if they get Street Cry and E Dubai to the Classic, and who knows what they'll do with Sakhee.
Nayef could also go for the Turf if Sheikh Hamdan is happy to go Godolphin all the way in the Classic. So, as of now, the Classic picture is still a bit cloudy, but the possibility for a powerful European invasion is all too real.