No Zarkava opens the door for American-based runners to defend their Turf.
Although they have dominated the $3-million Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) at other venues, top European imports have not performed especially well when the Breeders’ Cup has been held at Santa Anita, where they must contend with tighter turns, hard turf, and warm temperatures.
Only High Chaparral, who finished in a deadheat with Johar for victory in the 2003 renewal, has brought a superlative record from Europe and run to expectations over the Santa Anita course, which also hosted the BC Turf in 1986 (won by Manila) and 1993 (Kotashaan).
And Europe’s top horse isn’t coming. Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) winner Zarkava’s connections made clear a trip to America was not in the offing for the dominating 3-year-old filly, who has been retired (see page 5029).
New York-based Robert Ribaudo, the trainer of Grand Couturier, could wind up with the favorite. The only “Win and You’re In” qualifier to enter (Spring House entered but has the Marathon as first preference), his 5-year-old horse kicked away in the long Belmont Park homestretch to score a resounding 10 1⁄4-length win in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic Invitational (gr. IT) at 12 furlongs Sept. 27. The British-bred son of Grand Lodge earned a repeat victory in Saratoga’s Sword Dancer (gr. IT) prior to that.
“Everything is right on schedule,” Ribaudo said. “He’s doing very well, and we’re looking for three in a row.”
Grand Couturier will face many of the same obstacles European shippers face in coming to California. His winter coat is coming in and temperatures in Southern California, where the highs were in the 90s in early October, has Ribaudo concerned.
“We’re keeping him under a heat lamp and blankets to help him get ready,” the trainer said. “And we’ll stay at Belmont as long as we can. We’ll take the last Tex Sutton plane out on the Tuesday before the race (Oct. 21). Hopefully by then temperatures will have cooled down into the 70s and he’ll be able to handle it.”
The firm ground and sharp bends can also be a detriment to his horse’s style. But from Ribaudo’s point of view, it could hardly be worse than last year, when Grand Couturier finished sixth on a soft Monmouth Park turf course that he labeled “a mess.”
“Whatever disadvantages we face in going to California, it really just makes it that much more of an accomplishment to overcome those things if we win,” he said.
Todd Pletcher, who won the Turf in 2007 with English Channel, won’t have to worry about adapting with Red Giant. That contender ran a world-record time of 1:57.16 in winning the Sept. 27 Clement L. Hirsch Memorial Turf Championship (gr. IT) by a head going 11⁄4 miles at Santa Anita in only his second start of the year. Red Giant, a 4-year-old son of Giant’s Causeway, has been in California for several weeks.
“The question mark is his ability to get the mile and a half,” Pletcher said. “But we know he likes the track. He likes to fight, and that’s important in a race like this.”
A fresh Soldier of Fortune, who tops the European contingent, still could be favored. Trainer Aidan O’Brien pre-entered the 4-year-old colt for the race following a solid try in the Arc (a deadheat for third), a perfect set-up race for the Breeders’ Cup. It was a terrific effort in just his third start of the year and first race since June 29.
Also coming from Europe are Eagle Mountainand Secretariat Stakes (gr. IT) winner Winchester. Two past Breeders’ Cup Turf winners, Red Rocks(2006) and Better Talk Now(2004), are also in the mix. Phipps Stable’s Dancing Forever, the Manhattan (gr. I) winner, will be on hand for Shug McGaughey.
2008 Emirates Airline Breeders' Cup Turf Pre-Entries: