Updated: Wednesday, November 8, 2006 11:06 AM
Posted: Wednesday, November 8, 2006 10:58 AM
By Bill Nack(Article appears in the Nov. 11, 2006 issue of The Blood-Horse)
Photo: Anne M. Eberhardt
Bill Nack leans against the rail on Breeders' Cup Day at Churchill Downs.
In one swift, bold stroke coming off the turn for home, in the brief stitch of time that it took Frankie Dettori to swing her outside and set her down for her inexorable drive to victory in the Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf (gr. IT), the dark bay mare who answers to the name of Ouija Board thus became the uncontested queen of the Breeders' Cup.
Two years earlier, as a 3-year-old, Lord Derby's filly had won the very same race at Lone Star Park in Texas, and last year, at Belmont Park, she traveled five wide around two turns and fell 11/4 lengths short of catching Intercontinental, finishing second. So the 5-year-old daughter of Cape Cross came to the Nov. 4 renewal of the race not only as the betting favorite, at 7-5, but as clearly the sentimental choice of the 75,132 patrons at Churchill Downs who ended up embracing her longevity as much as her talent and tenacity. Moments after she bounded home to win the race by 21/4 lengths, a kind of unbridled exuberance unto delirium settled over the racetrack, all of it expressed with accents unmistakably English.
There was Edward Dunlop, the mare's trainer, wandering as if in a London fog along the crown of the track, waiting for Dettori to bring her back, half-muttering in the din, "This is unbelievable. What a great racehorse she is!"
And suddenly, bursting through the crowds, there was the 19th Lord Derby, Ouija Board's owner, snapping pictures here and there with his digital camera, finally pointing it to the big screen on the infield as it showed the stretch run of Ouija Board's race. And there was Lanfranco Dettori, the Italian-born munchkin with the flying dismount, riding the mare toward the winner's circle and spreading his arms heavenward as he approached Dunlop and Lord Derby.
"Oh, Frankie, Frankie, you did fantastically!" the Lord exclaimed. "We did it again! Well done! Thank you, Frankie, thank you!"
Finally, as the mare and her entourage swept into the winner's enclosure, there was the former president and an original founder of the Breeders' Cup, D.G. Van Clief Jr., beholding the bedlam of the unfolding scene and noting to a fellow observer, "This is European impact! This is their impact on the Breeders' Cup."
Indeed, this 23rd edition of the Breeders' Cup World Championships had a decidedly international flavor, and as such it went a furlong or two toward fulfilling what Van Clief described as founder John Gaines' "original concept and vision for the Breeders' Cup: he called for it to be a global event." And global it truly was.
Four races after Lord Derby danced with his digital onto the track, a son of Vodafone Epsom Derby (Eng-I) winner Galileo, the Irish-bred but American-owned Red Rocks -- a bay colt who was coming off a third-place finish in the Ladbrokes St. Leger Stakes (Eng-I) at York -- ran down the leaders in the final 100 yards and drove to a half-length victory in the 11/2-mile John Deere Breeders' Cup Turf (gr. IT). Once again Dettori stole the show as he walked the winner home to get his picture taken, first pulling petals off the yellow flowers on the victory blanket and tossing them in the air, then throwing orchids to pretty women in the nearby clubhouse crowds.
Nor was that the end of the international show. Less than an hour after the finish of the Turf, the two leading contenders for Horse of the Year -- Bernardini, owned by Sheikh Mohammed, and Invasor, owned by Sheikh Mohammed's brother, Sheikh Hamdan -- battled it out to the wire in the Breeders' Cup Classic - Powered by Dodge (gr. I), with Invasor collaring Bernardini at the eighth pole before drawing off to win by a length. Invasor (meaning "Invader" in Spanish, it is properly pronounced een-vah-SOR) brought yet another foreign dimension to the mix. Bred in Argentina, he was bought as a yearling by Uruguayans, won that country's version of the Triple Crown in 2005, and only arrived on these shores this spring, where he ripped off three straight victories in grade I races. So, on a racetrack where the foreign accents that afternoon had featured an English lilt mixing with an Irish brogue, there were suddenly all these visiting Uruguayans standing around chanting the name of the horse they used to own: "Een-vah-SOR! Een-vah-SOR!"
One of the former Uruguayan owners, Pablo Hernandez, summed up this Gulliver's world travels: "He is the invader. After being born in Argentina, first he invaded Uruguay. And then he invaded Los Estados Unidos. Comprende?"
Comprende or no, somewhere John Gaines was surely smiling at it all.
The involvement of foreign-based horses in the Breeders' Cup has been so vital a part of its enormous success that it is impossible to imagine the series without them, though there was a time when European participation was viewed somewhat skeptically in America. Sam Sheppard, the chief executive of the European Breeders' Fund and an original organizer of the Breeders' Cup, said that there was some early resistance in America to the very idea of European involvement in the Cup. "The attitude was, 'Keep 'em outta here. This is an American show,' " recalled Sheppard.
Of course, with the immediate inclusion of two races that catered to the needs of all those European grass-cutters -- the Breeders' Cup Mile (gr. IT) and the Breeders' Cup Turf -- it was evident that Gaines' vision had ultimately prevailed. Many European horsemen were simply staggered by the whole idea -- particularly that so much money was being handed out in a single day of racing.
Recalled Lord Derby: "When the Breeders' Cup first started back in the mid-1980s, for us sitting around in England, this talk of million-dollar prize pools just sounded quite incredible. It was way ahead of anything that we in England could do and so the prospects of coming here were quite tempting for British horses."
There were many horsemen across the water who looked askance at the idea of traveling so far to run in a horse race -- especially to the balmy climates of California and South Florida, with horses already wearing European winter coats. But they came anyway, lured by the fact that their seasons were over and there were all those U.S. dollars to be converted to francs and pounds. John McCririck, the mutton-chopped British television personality and longtime observer of the Turf, saw immediately that the sport would never be the same.
"The concept was so brilliant that it revolutionized racing and I never thought that would happen in my lifetime," McCririck said. "The first Saturday in May was the Kentucky Derby (gr. I). The first Wednesday in June was the English Derby (Eng-I). And the first Sunday in October was the Arc (Fr-I). The international racing season was built around those events. Suddenly somebody comes up with the idea of having a championship at the end of the season. A brilliant idea. I loved international racing. The Washington, D.C., International really began it. But the thought of horses coming from around the world to compete in a world championship was not even considered possible. Many of the old-fashioned trainers wouldn't do it! Wouldn't travel that far to run in a horse race. But there were pioneers!"
Could European horses travel that far, enduring the rigors of transatlantic flight and changing time zones, and still have enough to win? Fortunately for the Breeders' Cup, a son of Mill Reef winged all the way from France to Southern California in 1984 and won the Breeders' Cup Turf.
"Lashkari's victory at Hollywood Park, in the first Breeders' Cup, was very important," said English trainer John Gosden. "He showed it could be done."
And, said McCririck, so was the day in 1985 when the English first wrapped their hands around a Breeders' Cup trophy -- the year Clive Brittain saddled a 4-year-old filly, Pebbles, to win the Turf at Aqueduct. "Clive was a true pioneer," McCririck said.
With the 2006 victories by Ouija Board and Red Rocks included, 30 European-based invaders have won Breeders' Cup races since 1984. They have won the Breeders' Cup Turf 12 times, the Mile nine times, and four out of eight runnings of the Filly & Mare Turf. They have won three Juveniles, one Sprint, and one Classic. The only two races they've not yet won are the Distaff and the Juvenile Fillies. With the eventual switch to artificial surfaces, to be sure, foreign-based horses will no doubt be filling in those blanks soon enough. In the early years, Sheppard said, the Breeders' Cup was viewed by European horsemen as a take-it-or-leave-it affair, an afterthought.
"Initially," said Sheppard, "people thought, 'Well, it's the end of the season; let's have a go.' That has changed. Now it's much more programmed into people's thoughts. The French always came over better than we did. They'd run their horses up till June or July and give them a bloody good rest before they came here.
They seemed to get it more right than we (the British) did. Now everybody is thinking along those lines. It is more targeted now."
Ouija Board had been targeting the Breeders' Cup all year, not incidentally, and she's the queen of the Breeders' Cup now.
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