Countdown to the Cup: European Onslaught Begins; 3-Year-Old Filly Field in Disarray

The countdown to the 2003 Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships began this past weekend, and the only things we really learned are that the American turf horses are going to have to pull a rabbit out of the hat to hold off the Europeans in the Turf once again, and the 3-year-old fillies now look totally overmatched by the trio of "Wonder Women" -- Azeri, Sightseek, and Wild Spirit.

Although Storming Home, who obviously was the best horse in the Arlington Million, is now considered an American-trained horse since being sent to Neil Drysdale, he was bred in Great Britain and has made 19 starts in Europe, compared to only three in the United States.

Sulamani Bursts in Through the Back Door

As we said, Storming Home should have won the Arlington Million, but that doesn't mean Sulamani wasn't a deserving winner under the bizarre circumstances. The 4-year-old son of Hernando is not a 1 1/4-mile horse, having come into the race off eight consecutive races at 1 1/2 miles, winning five, with two seconds. Of those closest to him at the finish, Storming Home has proven himself equally adept at 10 and 12 furlongs, winning the 10-furlong Champion Stakes at Newmarket last fall and coming into the Million off a victory in the 10-furlong Whittingham Handicap. Paolini and Kaieteur, are both 1 1/4-mile specialists. The Canadian challenger, Perfect Soul, has done the majority of his racing this year at 1 1/8 miles.

Despite the shorter distance and having to swing 7-wide at the head of the stretch, Sulamani still unleashed his powerful closing kick and was flying at the end, along with Kaieteur and Paolini. All three were about to hit the wire together for second when Storming Home wiped them all out.

As for what this race means in regard to the Breeders' Cup Turf, it's simply that the Europeans once again will have the upper hand as they try for a fifth straight victory in the 1 1/2-mile event. If you've embraced Storming Home as an American horse and feel a victory by the son of Machhiavellian at Santa Anita will be a victory for the U.S., then the stars and stripes will be well represented. But at 1 1/2 miles it would seem as if the Aga Khan's Alamshar and Sulamani are the standout horses in the world, along with last year's BC Turf winner and grass champion High Chaparral, who recently made a winning return in the Royal Whip Stakes.

Sulamani is more likely to come to Santa Anita than the 3-year-old Alamshar, and boasts victories in the French Derby and Dubai Sheema Classic and second-place finishes in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe and King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, compared to Storming Home's 1 1/2-mile victories in the listed Godolphin Stakes and Jim Murray Handicap.

The leading true-blue American turf horse at 1 1/2 miles right now looks to be the New York-bred Whitmore's Conn, winner of the Sword Dancer Stakes and Bowling Green Handicap.

The one horse everyone had their eyes on in the Million was Perfect Drift, who was just establishing himself as one of the leading dirt horses in the country after defeating Mineshaft in the Stephen Foster and running off with the Washington Park Handicap. In the Million he was simply too one-paced for these quick-footed Europeans. Trainer Murray Johnson said he may return to the dirt in the Hawthorne Gold Cup or shorten up on the turf in the Atto Mile, hoping for a quicker pace. One race he will not be pointing towards is the Breeders' Cup Classic, as Johnson said he has no desire to run the horse on the Santa Anita dirt track. He added that while the big guns are knocking themselves out in the Classic he may freshen Perfect Drift up for the Clark Handicap at Churchill Downs.

Azeri and Company Holding All the Cards in Distaff Division

Unless Island Fashion continues to improve in leaps and bounds and Bird Town and Spoken Fur make a dramatic comeback, it looks almost certain that the Breeders' Cup Distaff will belong to the older fillies and mares, most notably Azeri, Sightseek, and Wild Spirit. And Take Charge Lady always runs her race and is capable of bouncing back into the picture.

With Azeri following the exact same path she took last year, beating up on lesser foes in California, a good deal of support is growing for Bobby Frankel's dynamic duo of Sightseek and Wild Spirit who have both been running lights out in the East. But the competition they've faced really hasn't been any better than that of Azeri.

We will say one thing about Azeri and leave it at that, as her record certainly speaks for it self. The only time we have seen her in the flesh was at last year's Breeders' Cup. There have been times over the years, and they have been rare, when we have felt we were in the presence of greatness. It's not anything that can be explained. You just feel it. Although we have been in the presence of a number of truly great horses over the past 35 years, we can't remember any one horse emitting that feeling of greatness more than Azeri did.

We'll never forget Laura de Seroux's words that day at the barn at Arlington. After talking to her about Azeri, de Seroux asked, "Would you like to come in and meet her?" Not see her, meet her, as if she were referring to the Queen of England. When we went in, we understood her choice of words. You don't just see Azeri, you do meet her, as she comes to the webbing to greet you. Her eye, her engaging demeanor, and her charisma all shone through in the first few seconds. When she went out and destroyed her field in the Distaff with those smooth, powerful strides, it came as no surprise. That race was over after a half-mile.

Basically what we're saying is that, regardless of whether she runs against colts or not, Azeri is one of the all-time great fillies and she should be enjoyed every time she steps foot on the track. Regardless of how good Sightseek and Wild Spirit have looked (and yes, Wild Spirit has unlimited potential and could be a superstar in her own right), it's going to be a whole new ballgame when they face Azeri. Of course, anything can happen in any particular race, but they better be prepared to run the race of their lives if they're going to have any hope of beating the champ. And if one of them does, it still will not change our opinion of Azeri.

Frankel said Wild Spirit "may be the best filly in the country," and that was before he ever ran her, as she was going to the post for the Shuvee Handicap. So, this no doubt is an exceptional filly. Frankel also points out that Azeri's speed sheets number in the Apple Bloosom was well off that of Medaglia d'Oro, who won the Oaklawn Handicap the same day. But Azeri is not about numbers, she is about winning. So, bring on the Distaff, which has all the makings for a sumptuous first course on Breeders' Cup Day.

As for the 3-year-olds, Island Fashion looked to be in control of the Alabama as early as the five-eighths pole, and Spoken Fur never looked as if she were in the race. The biggest surprise was Bird Town's sudden retreat. She obviously is a much better filly than that. It should be noted that the track changed after the fourth race, when a brief rain shower hit, and turned very deep and tiring. So, the final time of 2:05 for the Alabama is not quite as dismal as it seems, especially considering top-quality older horses went in 2:03 2/5 in the Saratoga Breeders' Cup. Last year's Classic winner Volponi, in finishing second, ran the 1 1/4 miles in a hair over 2:04.

Island Fashion has now put back-to-back runaway victories together. She has beautiful action and a high cruise control, and looks like she is going be a major force for Barclay Tagg.