Countdown to the Cup: No Joy For Euros This Year?

Countdown to the Cup: No Joy For Euros This Year?
Photo: NYRA/Adam Coglianese
Kitten's Joy made a Euro-type late move to win the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic.
Following this past weekend's stakes extravaganza, the field for the Breeders' Cup Classic – Powered by Dodge (gr. I) is pretty much firmed up...America has a budding superstar who can finally end the Europeans' five-year reign in the John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT)...and the Nextel Distaff (gr. I) has found another gem.

Before we get to the Classic, it must first be noted that with the retirement of The Cliff's Edge due to an ankle fracture, the 3-year-old crop has now lost four grade I winners – Smarty Jones, Lion Heart, The Cliff's Edge, and Friends Lake -- to injury and retirement. And all four ran in the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). Other Derby starters who have not run since and are through for the year are Read the Footnotes, Limehouse, Castledale, Master David, and Action This Day.

The only Derby starter who has gone on to fame and fortune is Birdstone, the least physically imposing horse in the field. Trainer Nick Zito has thrown the book away with his conservative training of the horse they call "Little Man," and as a result, Birdstone is one of the favorites for the Classic, and likely will be the only 3-year-old in the field.

The Cliff's Edge in all probability suffered his injury – a condylar fracture of the right, front ankle – on the far turn or shortly after turning for home. The sight of him pinning his ears and digging in determinedly the length of the stretch to be beaten less than two lengths will be more everlasting than any of his victories. "Cliff" has been a hard-luck horse all year, but he never knew what quit was. Even in the Derby, he ran his heart out over a terrible track to finish fifth, despite losing two shoes – one of them just a few strides out of the gate. This indeed was a warrior.

For now, let's put the Classic and the emotionally stirring victory of Funny Cide in the Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I) on hold and get right to the horse with who made the biggest impact on the Breeders' Cup picture this past weekend, and that is the remarkable Kitten's Joy. The son of El Prado has become the "Great American Hope"; the one who can finally put an end to the ignominious domination of the Europeans over the Americans in grass races on their home tracks. For five straight years, Euro invaders crossed the Atlantic and won the Breeders' Cup Turf, stealing the Eclipse Award right out from under our noses. At least, Johar managed to dead-heat with the Ballydoyle-trained High Chaparral last year. But it was the Irish colt who walked off with his second straight Eclipse Award.

The Europeans' main weapon each year has been their turn of foot, or acceleration, or closing kick, or whatever one wants to call it. The Americans simply have not been able to outkick the Europeans...until now. Anyone who witnessed former European Magistretti's spectacular stretch run in the Man o'War (gr. I) had to be awestruck when Kitten's Joy turned on the afterburners and inhaled him in the blink of an eye in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (gr. IT). And it was no optical illusion, as evidenced by his final quarter in under :22 2/5. This was a European-run race, and it was won in European style...by an American, who defeated four group I Europeans that had won or placed in the Irish Derby, St. Leger, Juddmonte International, Grand Prix de Paris, Dubai Sheema Classic, Hong Kong Vase, and Prix Exbury.

And remember, when Kitten's Joy put the same kind of beating on his fellow 3-year-olds in the Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT), his time of 1:59 3/5 for the 10 furlongs was two-fifths of a second faster than the Arlington Million (gr. IT) the race before. Also, anyone who saw Artie Schiller's last two devastating victories will find it hard to believe that Kitten's Joy just swallowed him up in the Virginia Derby (gr. IIIT). The main question now is, if Kitten's Joy beats the best America and Europe have to offer in the Breeders' Cup Turf, will Eclipse voters be willing to venture out of the realm of "turf" and consider Kitten's Joy for 3-year-old champion or even Horse of the Year? It should be interesting if it comes down to that.

Cide Show
Although the Jockey Club Gold Cup did not draw one of its better fields, the dramatic victory by Funny Cide certainly adds a new dimension to the Classic field. The race gets a Kentucky Derby (gr. I) and Preakness (gr. I) winner and one of the most popular horses of recent years. Funny Cide, as he did in the spring of 2003, brought down the house with his improbable triumph after looking hopelessly beaten at the five-sixteenths pole. Whether you believe he's capable of beating the best horses in the country at Lone Star, you have to admire the gelding's consistency and toughness. If ridden correctly and allowed to do his thing, he still can compete with anyone.

Runner-up Newfoundland, who is a solid mile-and-a-quarter horse on his best day, also will head to Lone Star for the Classic. The $3.3 million yearling purchase does not like getting dirt kicked in his face, and is at his best when kept on the outside and up close to the pace.

The Classic is shaping up this way: The definites are Pleasantly Perfect, Ghostzapper, Roses in May, Birdstone, Funny Cide, Saint Liam, and Newfoundland. Freefourinternet, who upset the Hawthorne Gold Cup (gr. II) is a possibility, as is runner-up and beaten favorite Perfect Drift. Trainer Murray Johnson said he and owner Dr. William Reed are upset and frustrated over yet another second-place finish, and felt Pat Day waited too long before asking the horse to run. "(Perfect Drift) put those two horses away without being asked, but there was another horse to put away, and that horse was past him before he had a chance to get going. We needed to be running at that point," Johnson said.

The status of Dynever and Toccet will be decided in Friday night's Meadowlands Cup (gr. II). If Dynever runs a big race, he could be the dark horse for the Classic, especially being the only starter who will have run (and won) at Lone Star Park. Another horse to watch at Meadowlands is Balto Star, who likely will be cross-entered in the Classic and Turf if he runs a big race.

And then there is Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) winner Bago, who has been pointing for the Classic since his victory in the 10-furlong Grand Prix de Paris (Fr-I). The son of Nashwan, who is owned by the Niarchos family, was being hailed as the next super-horse last year as a 2-year-old, and trainer Jonathan Pease has been telling anyone who would listen that this was the best horse he's ever trained, by far, and that includes Breeders' Cup winners Tikkanen and Spinning World. After winning his first six career starts, he suffered a pair of losses, but his third in the Prix Niel – his first try at 1 1/2 miles – was good enough to set him up for a huge performance in the Arc, in which he knifed his way through the field to run down a tough foe in Cherry Mix.

The colt's connections want to wait a few days before making any final decision on the Classic. If he does come, he will be a horse to reckon with. This no doubt is a very gifted horse. Although Bago is sired by a European turf horse, the classic-winning Nashwan, and his broodmare sire is Nureyev, his dam is a half-sister to Snake Mountain, a multiple stakes winner on dirt in New York. There also are plenty of dirt influences in his female family, with the presence of Mr. Prospector, Halo, and Hoist the Flag, and she is inbred to Native Dancer. His second dam, Coup de Genie, defeated colts twice in group I company in France at two, and was third in the English One Thousand Guineas (Eng-I) at three.

Frankel's Forces
With Light Jig's powerful victory in the Yellow Ribbon Stakes (gr. IT), trainer Bobby Frankel pretty much has his Breeders' Cup roster set. Ghostzapper, who Frankel says is training better than he ever has, will be favorite or second favorite in the Classic; Light Jig will be his sole representative in the Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT); Cajun Beat, who should improve dramatically off the Vosburgh (gr. I), and Midas Eyes head to the Sprint (gr. I); and Nothing to Lose will run in the NetJets Mile (gr. IT) if he performs well this weekend in the Shadwell Turf Mile (gr. IT) at Keeneland.

As mentioned earlier, if Toccet turns in a big effort in Friday night's Meadowlands Cup (gr. II), he probably will try the Classic. Frankel said his Goodwood winner, Lundy's Liability, likely will skip the Classic and point for the Japan Cup Dirt. When asked about the possibility of Sightseek running in the Nextel Distaff (gr. I) if she runs big in Saturday's Beldame (gr. I), Frankel said flat out, "She's not running."

Freaky Fashion
Will there be any horse in this year's Breeders' Cup who has had a stranger career than Island Fashion? Don't think so. After having won big stakes for three different trainers; running her eyeballs out in the Santa Anita Handicap; taking a bizarre trip to Japan to run in a one-mile race right smack in the middle of the year; and winning the Lady's Secret (gr. II) under unheralded jockey Kerwin John, a native of St. Croix, Island Fashion somehow has made it to the Distaff, and with a big chance to win.

This is truly an amazing filly, who has run some monster races in her career. For her to return from that fiasco in Japan back in June to win the Lady's Secret, after getting in a dogfight with the tough Elloluv, shows just how exceptional she is. Although naming an unknown jockey like John to ride her is yet another weird move, it's hard to imagine anyone riding her better. John has an excellent seat on a horse, and he always had a nice relaxed hold of her. He timed her move perfectly and rode her brilliantly down the stretch. It will be interesting to see if he remains on for the Distaff. With the Lady's Secret under her belt, it's going to take a big effort to beat her on Oct. 30.

Juvenile Jumble
Roman Ruler has taken some knocks for his victory in the Norfolk Stakes (gr. II), mainly due to being rank early and not winning by the length of the stretch against a small and vastly overmatched field. The rankness has to be of some concern, the way he was running with his mouth open around the first turn. And he certainly could have been smoother and more professional in the stretch. But Bob Baffert is well aware of all this. He intends to shave back the blinkers to allow the colt to see more, and he feels horses tend to relax better the second time they go two turns. For some reason, these four-horse fields can be killers when you have an overwhelming favorite.

The bottom line is that Roman Ruler is an extremely talented colt, and is still the horse to beat in the Bessemer Trust Juvenile (gr. I), especially with no other horses, with the exception of Afleet Alex, asserting themselves so far in top company. Afleet Alex will attempt to remain undefeated when he runs in the Champagne Stakes (gr. I) this weekend. But he, too, must show more professionalism than he did in the Hopeful Stakes (gr. I).

On the Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) front, if Sense of Style wins the Darley Alcibiades (gr. II) on Friday, Oct. 8, then we have a super East vs. West showdown in store following the powerful performance of Sweet Catomine in the Oak Leaf Stakes (gr. I), in which she blew her opponents away with one sweeping move at the quarter pole.

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