Trevor Jones

Haskin's Cup Countdown: A Real Rivalry

There is a rivalry in Europe that may very well boil over into the BC Classic.

The main focus of the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) will be the long-awaited showdown between Curlin  and Big Brown . This has been without question the most heated rivalry ever between two horses who have never faced each other. The only time they even shared the same backstretch was when Big Brown took up residence at Churchill Downs for a few days last May. Having had different training schedules during that time it is safe to say that Curlin and Big Brown have never laid eyes on each other.

While this “rivalry” has manifested itself through the frequent and often frivolous comments from the horses’ connections, there is a real rivalry over in Europe that may very well boil over into the Classic.

Right now, there is nothing definite, but from published reports it appears as if Henrythenavigator and Raven’s Pass could face each other for the fifth time in the Breeders’ Cup. Although the Breeders’ Cup Mile (gr. IT) looks like the logical spot for Europe’s top two milers to decide who will wear the crown, it is the Classic, run on a synthetic surface that favors turf horses, that is more appealing to the colts’ connections, despite the presence of Curlin and Big Brown. For the first time, European horses will not be at a disadvantage in the Classic as they have been on a conventional dirt track.

Aidan O’Brien and the Coolmore crew still are determined to win the Classic after their unsuccessful attempts with top-class horses Giant’s Causeway, Galileo, George Washington (twice), Hawk Wing, Hold That Tiger, Black Minnaloushe, and Oratorio. Any of these would have been favorite or near-favorite in the Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) or Mile, yet they were sent over for the Classic. Giant’s Causeway’s game neck defeat to Tiznow  in the 2000 Classic just whet their appetite to take home America’s richest prize. They haven’t come close since, and George Washington’s tragic breakdown at Monmouth last year gives them a cause to go along with the glory. A “Win it for George” battle cry could make them ever more determined.

It was first mentioned that Duke of Marmalade would be Coolmore’s representative, with a possible two-pronged attack along with Henry. There was serious consideration given to running the Duke in a race at Great Leighs or Dundalk over the synthetic surface as prep for the Classic, but it was decided to go for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) instead, despite the good-to-soft going that was borderline for the Duke’s liking. A winner of five consecutive group I stakes this year, he tried hard but could do no better than seventh, although beaten less than four lengths. The question is, was it simply the ground or has the Duke started to tail off following a hard campaign?

Henry, after rattling off four straight Group I stakes at a mile this year, including two gut-wrenchers against Raven’s Pass, has lost his last two, succumbing to Raven’s Pass in his last start, but still seems to be in good form.

Raven’s Pass would be the favorite for the Mile without Henry and possibly even with him, but his trainer, John Gosden, is not too thrilled with having to subject him to a two-turn mile over a tight, blazing-fast course and the possibility of drawing an outside post.

So, that brings us to the Classic. If both Raven’s Pass and Henry run, it would add a whole new dimension to the race and give the English and Irish  possibly their best chance to land their first Classic victory.

Just how intense is the Raven’s Pass--Henrythenavigator rivalry? In their first meeting, the English Two Thousand Guineas (Eng-I), Raven’s Pass was 4-1 coming off a nose defeat in the group III Craven Stakes, while Henry, at 11-1, was making his 3-year-old debut. Henry turned in a gutsy effort to beat eventual Epsom Derby (Eng-I) winner New Approach by a nose, with Raven’s Pass, drawn very wide, running evenly to finish fourth, beaten 4 1/2 lengths.

After beating New Approach again in the Irish Two Thousand Guineas (Ire-I), Henry hooked up with Raven’s Pass in the St. James’s Palace Stakes (Eng-I) at Royal Ascot. Henry got first run and was able to hold off Raven’s Pass’ late charge to win by three-quarters of a length. Their next meeting came in the Sussex Stakes (Eng-I) at Goodwood. Once again, Henry got first run and was fully extended to turn back Raven’s Pass by a nose.

Raven’s Pass took a much-needed break from Henry and won the Celebration Mile (Eng-II) at Goodwood by one length. Two weeks later, Henry ran an inexplicable fifth behind the brilliant French 3-year-old Tamayuz, who had already beaten Raven’s Pass in the Prix Jean Prat.

The three squared off in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I) at Ascot, and this time it was Tamayuz who didn’t show up, leaving Raven’s Pass and Henry to duke it out once again. This time, it was Raven’s Pass who got first run on Henry, flying past Tamayuz with two furlongs to go and then having enough left to withstand his nemesis’ big closing kick. Henry pulled up to Raven’s Pass’s saddlecloth, but the English colt was too strong for him in the final furlong, easing away to win by a length.

Both horses have proven themselves to be tough, resilient, fast, and courageous, and it’s just a question whether they are as effective going 1 1/4 miles on a synthetic surface. Henrythenavigator seems to have the stronger 10-furlong pedigree, but Raven’s Pass has more of a dirt pedigree, whatever good that does, as turf pedigrees have excelled on synthetic. Raven’s Pass gets his toughness from his maternal great-grandsire Verbatim, who had excellent speed and could carry it a distance on any kind of surface against top company. Verbatim is by the resolute Speak John, a major dam-side influence, giving Raven’s Pass vintage Elmendorf Farm breeding. Crossed with Lord at War, who traces to Ribot, we’re talking about an excellent combination of dirt and grass, and speed and stamina. He also gets his speed from his sire, Elusive Quality, who sired Smarty Jones , another who was able to carry his speed classic distances.

So, before you get too carried away with Curlin and Big Brown meeting on an unknown surface, or any of the California synthetic specialists, keep an eye on Europe. There could be others looking at the Classic. But for now, let’s hope the Henrythenavigator--Raven’s Pass rivalry continues at Santa Anita. It’s the only real rivalry we’ve got.

Queries and quandaries

-- Can anyone provide a relatively logical explanation where Carriage Trail’sperformance in the Spinster Stakes (gr. I) came from? A winner of one grade III stakes in her career, this 5-year-old mare just happened to win the Spinster by 7 3/4 lengths, blazing the 1 1/8 miles in a “track”-record 1:46 3/5, closing her final eighth in :12 flat while drifting across the track and finishing closer to the outside rail.

And was it a mere coincidence that Unbridled Belle, the only grade I winner on dirt, never picked up her feet up at any point in the race, finishing next-to-last in the 10-horse field and getting beat 15 lengths as the 2-1 favorite. She dropped back to ninth early and just stayed there the entire race, with no inclination to run at any point. Physically, she came out of the race in good shape.

All conclusions drawn from this race are gladly welcomed. Notice the word Polytrack was never mentioned once.

Also, was it merely a coincidence that Arson Squad, once one of the top horses based in California, went into a deep freeze once the tracks out there turned to synthetic, finishing out of the money in all seven of his races over it, and then finally was sent east and won the Meadowlands Cup (gr. II) by daylight in his first start back on dirt?

-- Bobby Frankel said he is seriously considering wheeling Champs Elysees, third in the Canadian International (gr. IT), back in three weeks in the Breeders’ Cup Classic. The son of Danehill, out of mega mare Hasili, came from 26 lengths back to finish third, beaten 3 1/2 lengths, in the Santa Anita Handicap (gr. I) in his only start on a synthetic surface, and could be a live longshot. Champs Elysees ran well in the Canadian International to finish third, beaten two lengths, after dropping back to last and having to rally widest of all.

Frankel also said that his grade I Hopeful and Champagne winner, Vineyard Haven, will head to California, but not to run in the Breeders’ Cup. Frankel wants to check out the Pro-Ride surface before deciding whether to stable the colt at Santa Anita or Hollywood Park. He feels this is a classic horse and wants to start preparing him for next year’s Derby trail. As Frankel said, “These were the preliminaries; next year is the main event.”

Vineyard Haven twice now has run his field into the ground and kept going. His Champagne victory was a powerful effort and stamped the son of Lido Palace as one of the early Derby favorites. Not bad for a Calder purchase.

Paul Reddam also appears to have found a gem in Square Eddie, who devastated his opponents in the Lane’s End Breeders’ Futurity (gr. I). Although this was not a strong field, the son of Smart Strike showed off that patented European acceleration after changing leads and burst clear of the field in a flash. This looks like an extremely professional horse who appeared to be in complete control of the race even down the backstretch. The question now is, will he fall victim to the dreaded Euro bounce, coming back in three weeks? If he takes to the Pro-Ride as he did Polytrack, he could bounce all the way to the winner’s circle.

With Futurity (gr. II) winner Charitable Man out for the year, Square Eddie's main opposition in the Juvenile looks to be the first three finishers of the Norfolk Stakes (gr. I) -- Street Hero, Midshipman, and Believe in Hope. Should Square Eddie win the Juvenile, Eclipse voters will face an interesting dilemma. Do you vote for a horse off two major victories over a synthetic surface or do you go by tradition and vote for a horse off two equally impressive victories over dirt in the two most historic 2-year-old stakes in America?  The result will be a good indicator as to what the mindset is regarding the merits and importance of both surfaces.

-- Remember when this year’s Wood Memorial (gr. I) was looked at with disdain by speed gurus as being nothing more than a pitifully slow race? At the time it was, but 3-year-olds often develop over the course of the year. The winner, Tale of Ekati, won Sunday’s Jerome Handicap (gr. II) over a stellar field. Third-place finisher Court Vision won Saturday’s Jamaica Handicap (gr. IIT) on grass. And fifth-place finisher Anak Nakal finished a fast-closing second against older horses in the Meadowlands Cup after winning the Pennslyvania Derby (gr. II) on Sept. 1.

Of these, only Tale of Ekati looks to be a Breeders’ Cup possible, and could go for the Dirt Mile if his connections feel so inclined. Nick Zito, trainer of Anak Nakal, said he will not be sending anyone to Santa Anita, including his star older horse Commentator. Court Vision likely will await the Hollywood Derby (gr. IT).

-- There was no need for past performances or speed figures to find a live horse for the Frizette Stakes. All you had to do was be around the paddock and watch the powerful chestnut filly Sky Diva dragging her groom and her van driver around. It was so difficult holding on to her and keeping up with her that they both had their toes stepped on by the filly.

Sky Diva, a daughter of Sky Mesa  – Swift Girl, by Unbridled, then went out and released all that pent up energy, blowing by her rivals at the head of the stretch and drawing off to a 3 3/4-length victory over even-money favorite Persistently at odds of 5-1. The Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Fillies (gr. I) could be quite a matchup of powerhouse fillies, with Sky Diva taking on the gray Amazon Stardom Bound, this year’s version of Halfbridled and Sweet Catomine.