Man o' War winner Doctor Dino, part of the initial European invasion.

Man o' War winner Doctor Dino, part of the initial European invasion.

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Steve Haskin's BC Countdown: The Invasion Begins

A Spanish owner and a British trainer are overheard conversing in French following a grade I victory on turf. Welcome to the Belmont Park fall meeting. It is here that the best American grass horses and their trainers and owners get their annual reality check from Europe’s advance guard, sent to America for a chance at big bucks and grade I glory, and to get a line on the home force’s strengths and weaknesses.

Following this initial invasion will be the Euros’ main attack force that has on so many occasions humbled the Americans on their own turf in the Breeders’ Cup World Championships and other prestigious events. From what we saw on Sept. 8, nothing is about to change this year. While the defenders as a whole performed admirably, they failed to prevent the invaders from taking home both grade I turf stakes – the $500,000 Man o’ War Stakes for 3-year-olds and up, won by France’s Doctor Dino, and the $250,000 guaranteed Garden City Stakes for 3-year-old fillies, won by Ireland’s Alexander Tango.

This year, the main European forces will be landing on an unfamiliar beach, the Jersey Shore, and if they receive little or no resistance, it’s only a short march from there to the Monmouth Park winner’s circle. But before we cower and hide as if General Howe and the British fleet were landing, it is best to remember that the horses sent here for Saturday’s grass stakes stacked up well with Europe’s best, and they had to earn their narrow victories against what was mainly America’s second tier.

Alexander Tango was coming off a second to English Derby (Eng-I) runner-up Eagle Mountain, who also was third in the Irish Derby (Ire-I), in the group II Royal Whip Stakes at the Curragh. Prior to that, she was a close fourth in the Irish 1,000 Guineas (Ire-I), a nose behind budding superstar Peeping Fawn. The French-trained Missvinski was coming off a second in the group I Prix d’Astarte, beaten a half-length by Darjina, who came back to beat top-quality colts in the group I Prix du Moulin at Longchamp on Sunday. And Juddmonte Farms’ Costume was fourth behind Darjina in the French 1,000 Guineas (Fra-I) as a maiden.

Alexander Tango had to rally from far back off a slow pace in the Garden City to sweep past Bit of Whimsy and Sharp Susan in the final yards. Both are solid grade II and grade III fillies, but America still has its big guns – Wait a While, Honey Ryder, Nashoba’s Key, My Typhoon, Citronnade, Panty Raid, and Rosinka, among others, waiting in the wings. So, let’s hold off before waving the white flag.

In the Man o’War, Doctor Dino, who had placed in group or grade I stakes in France, Singapore, and the United States, also had to work hard to wear down a stubborn Sunriver. The American male turf horses, however, are not as strong as the fillies, and they likely will be facing far better European horses in the Breeders’ Cup than Doctor Dino, who is more of a solid mile and a quarter specialist.

One powerful European they are likely to meet  in the John Deere Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) is the Aidan O’Brien-trained Dylan Thomas, who was a bust on the dirt in last year’s Jockey Club Gold Cup (gr. I). But with his repeat victory in Saturday Irish Champion Stakes (Ire-I), he has now won the group I King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, two Irish Champions, the Irish Derby, and the Prix Ganay, and has placed in the group I English Derby, Juddmonte International, Prince of Wales’s Stakes, and Tattersalls Gold Cup.

With his third-place finish in the one-mile Prix Moulin Sunday, stablemate George Washington looks like a fascinating prospect for the Breeders’ Cup Classic Powered by Dodge (gr. I), at least in one person’s opinion, based on the reasons given in a previous column. Now that he’s good and sharp and running consistently, the feeling here is that he would fare much better in this year’s Classic than he did in his troubled trip last year against a stronger, deeper field than he’ll face this year. He’s been a notch below the best milers and mile and a quarter horses in Europe this year, so there isn’t much more you can do with him other than return here for another crack at the Classic. If he runs the same kind of race he did last year, and gets a smoother trip, he can be awfully tough to beat. And speaking of the Classic, as mentioned earlier, beware of the Andre Fabre-trained Manduro, who is as good as any horse in Europe this year.

Cup of Punch

On the Emirates Airline Breeders’ Cup Distaff (gr. I) front, there is one giant out there even The Giant Killer can’t knock off. Her name is Ginger Punch, who, with her victory in the $300,000 guaranteed Ruffian Stakes Sept. 8 is the horse to beat, along with undefeated Nashoba’s Key, in the battle for championship honors in the older filly and mare division. But Nashoba’s Key looks to be headed back to the grass, leaving Ginger Punch as the leader of the division.

Ginger Punch has now won three straight graded stakes, and of the six fillies who finished second and third to her in those races, five of them are trained by The Giant Killer, Allen Jerkens. In her last two victories, the Ruffian and Go For Wand Handicap (gr. I), the second- and third-place finishers were the Jerkens-trained Miss Shop and Teammate. In between, Miss Shop managed to upset the Todd Pletcher-trained pair of Unbridled Belle and Indian Vale in the grade I Personal Ensign Stakes, and she must be commended for coming back in two weeks, dropping back from 1 1/4 miles to 1 1/16 miles, and turning in such as powerful performance in a race run in a rapid 1:40 1/5.

Ginger Punch, a 4-year-old daughter of Awesome Again, has emerged as a star since having laser surgery early in the year to remove growths in her throat that were restricting her breathing. The daughter of Awesome Again has now won the grade II First Flight Handicap at seven furlongs, the grade I Go For Wand at 1 1/8 miles, and the Ruffian at 1 1/16 miles in her last three starts.

Johnny V Spa postscript

John Velazquez’s meet at Saratoga, like that of his main client, Todd Pletcher, was statistically below expectations. Pletcher is set to bounce back big-time with Rags to Riches, Any Given Saturday, Lawyer Ron, Wait a While, and several other major stars primed for the big Belmont stakes.

You can bet Velazquez will bounce back with him. What must be remembered is that Velazquez was thrown from his mounts on five separate occasions during Saratoga, most of them in gate mishaps. Despite riding with nagging aches and pains that most people were not aware of, he still managed to win three graded stakes – the grade I Whitney and Woodward and grade II Sanford -- and five overnight stakes.

Velazquez is one of the toughest riders in the country, both physically and mentally, and he demonstrated that toughness by never missing a beat during a Saratoga meet that took its toll on him. Look for him to return to the success he had prior to Saratoga, when he won the grade I Belmont Stakes, Coaching Club American Oaks, United Nations Handicap, Acorn, and Mother Goose.

In other Breeders’ Cup news:

-- Discreet Cat, who still may be the most brilliant horse in the country, looked sensational working five furlongs in :59 4/5 on Saturday, with his final quarter clocked in about :22. He reportedly lost a good deal of weight following his ordeal in the Dubai World Cup (UAE-I), a race in which he shouldn’t have run, but after being hand-walked for six weeks following his arrival back in America, he has bounced back beautifully, as evidenced by his last work. The two long-range options are the TVG Breeders’ Cup Sprint (gr. I) or the new BC Dirt Mile (and 70 yards). If he chooses the latter, he’ll be worth the price of admission alone on that Friday.

-- Another horse looking to get in the Dirt Mile is the hard-knocking pride of Monmouth, Park Avenue Ball, who has won five stakes at the Jersey Shore track and placed in four others. The son of Citidancer is coming off a huge second-place finish to Smokey Stover in the Icecapade Stakes at six furlongs, a distance well below his best.

There isn’t a major stakes at Monmouth in which he hasn’t won or placed. He’s won the Philip H. Iselin BC Handicap (gr. III) at 1 1/8 miles, the Long Branch Breeders’ Cup Stakes (gr. III) and Skip Away Stakes at 1 1/16 miles, the Frisk Me Now Stakes at a mile and 70 yards, and the Tyro Stakes at 5 1/2 furlongs. He’s placed in the Haskell Invitational (gr. I), Salvator Mile (gr. III), Sapling Stakes (gr. III), and Icecapade Stakes, and also has a victory in Belmont’s Futurity Stakes (gr. II) and second-place finishes in the grade II Hutcheson Stakes and Richter Scale Sprint Championship at Gulfstream and the Withers Stakes (gr. III) at Aqueduct.

He’s earned over $1 million, and if there is one horse who deserves to be in a Breeders’ Cup at Monmouth it is Park Avenue Ball. If he doesn’t get in on points, it will be up to the selection committee to make matters right and put him in the Dirt Mile. He belongs in the race.