The Breeders’ Cup World Championships success last year of five European-trained horses at Santa Anita Park really made everybody sit up and take notice.
While the wins of Conduit and Goldikova in the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Turf and TVG Breeders’ Cup Mile, both grade I turf events, respectively could have happened at any U.S. venue, coming on grass, the victories of Raven's Pass, Donativum and Muhannak were less expected outside of Europe.
This is because American-trained horses have traditionally dominated the dirt events at the Breeders’ Cup. No surprise really, because there are no dirt tracks in Europe and it is the main U.S. surface.
However, a 20-year history of racing and training on artificial surfaces in Europe meant that the first Breeders’ Cup run on such material at Santa Anita in 2008 was bound to make the competition more even.
No longer were overseas horses racing in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) and the other traditional "dirt" races disadvantaged.
From the European viewpoint, it was a level playing field at last on the Pro-Ride surface. After all, in more years than not, the best horses in the world race in Britain, France, Germany, Ireland and Italy rather than America.
Yet only Arcangues, trained by Andre Fabre in France, had managed to win the Classic at huge odds in 1993 at Santa Anita before Raven’s Pass came along and went past another European, Henrythenavigator. Curlin ran fourth.
Some American commentators were swift to say the pendulum had swung too far in the European’s favor, with artificial surfaces at U.S. racetracks still outnumbered by dirt tracks.
There will be more evidence this year with the Breeders’ Cup returning to the same racecourse in consecutive years for the first time.
There were a record 31 European-trained raiders in 2008 and the number is set to be matched or even surpassed this year.
The Classic is the target of Ireland’s champion trainer Aidan O’Brien who is intending to be double handed with Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman, both owned by Coolmore partnerships, while master British handler Henry Cecil will saddle Twice Over for owner Prince Khalid Abdullah, whose U.S. horses race under the Juddmonte Farms banner.
Rip Van Winkle is ante-post favorite with British bookmakers for this the most valuable of all Breeders’ Cup races and his market position is justified by success in Ascot’s Queen Elizabeth Stakes (Eng-I) sponsored by Sony over a mile -- the same path successfully followed by Raven’s Pass. Mastercraftsman has tried to pass Europe’s Horse of the Year, the retired Sea The Stars, three times without success in 2009 but has won his other three starts, while Twice Over took the Emirates Airline Champion Stakes (Eng-I) at Newmarket more easily than the half length margin suggests. A formidable trio indeed.
Conduit returns to the Breeders’ Cup Turf after victory last year and he will be hard to beat again, while Spanish Moon, also trained by Sir Michael Stoute, is due to line up along with 2006 winner Red Rocks and probably the filly Dar Re Mi, who has the alternative option of the Filly & Mare Turf.
It is a similar story in the Mile, with the 2008 winner Goldikova after a second triumph. The 4-year-old filly, trained in France by Freddie Head, was impressive in three European group I races at a mile over the summer, but things went awry in the seven-furlong Prix de la Foret (Fr-I) in early October when the normally dependable Olivier Peslier changed tactics and had her prominent all the way only to be caught close to home. This looks like a one-off blip but there is a very strong European challenge for the race, with the Godolphin pair of Delegator and Gladiatorus set to line up along with the progressive Zacinto.
Slow starting and soft turf have cost Fleeting Spirit a few races but the sprinter is out to put all that behind her in the Sentient Jet Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) on Pro-Ride. She missed the break when fourth in last year’s Turf Sprint and also had a troubled start on her latest run when the neck second in the Qatar Prix de l’Abbaye de Longchamp (Fr-I) over five furlongs. Frankie Dettori, two from three on the filly as a 2-year-old, has been recalled to the saddle.
Other European possibles are Marathon (Mastery, Father Time and Muhannak), grade I Emirates Airline Filly & Mare Turf (Midday), Turf Sprint (Strike The Deal), Dirt Mile (Famous Name ),Sentient Jet Filly & Mare Sprint (Sweet Hearth & Only Green) and Ladies Classic ( Rainbow View), while the four Juvenile races could be the target of Viscount Nelson, Beethoven, Alfred Nobel, Radiohead, Pounced, Vale Of York, Buzzword, Junia Tepzia, Oasis Dancer and Champagne Style.