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Breeders’ Cup

It is not too long ago that, for most Irish and British racing fans, the Breeders’ Cup was just something that happened somewhere in America at the start of the National Hunt season. We knew that some of our good horses went over there at the end of the season, but we didn’t delve too deeply into it, we were usually too busy concerning ourselves with the latest batch of novice chasers.

Clive Brittain sent Sheikh Mohammed’s wonderfilly Pebbles over to land the second running of the Breeders’ Cup Turf in 1985, Dancing Brave got beaten in the Turf in 1986, and the French went on a roll, winning the Turf with Lashkari and In The Wings, and the Mile with Last Tycoon and Miesque (twice) before we really began to figure it all out. Then Vincent O’Brien, Lester Piggott and Royal Academy provided a fairytale end to the Breeders’ Cup Mile in 1990, and we sat up and took note.

Barathea followed soon afterwards, and Ridgewood Pearl and Pilsudski and Daylami and Kalanisi and Fantastic Light. Aidan O’Brien was in Belmont Park as a spectator for Royal Academy’s victory march, and he sent Johannesburg out to win the Juvenile in 2001, and High Chaparral to win the Turf in 2002 and again in 2003, when he dead-heated with Johar. There were near-misses, like Giant’s Causeway and Sakhee and Rock Of Gibraltar and Swain, but there were many more reasons for European celebrations as well, like Ouija Board and Wilko and Red Rocks and Islington. Until last year, however, there were never more than three European-trained winners in one Breeders’ Cup sitting. Last year at Santa Anita, there were five.

There have been calls in some quarters to stage the Breeders’ Cup in Europe every second year, present it as the Ryder Cup of horse racing, and generate all the hoopla that goes with it. But that is to miss the point of the Breeders’ Cup. This is an American affair. The World Championships of Horse Racing, they call it, and that could only be staged in America. This is not the Ryder Cup of horse racing, this is an American party to which we are invited. We are welcome to come, they are happy that we do but, unlike Cheltenham and the Irish, our presence or lack thereof is not a show-stopper. If we choose to stay at home, they will happily proceed without us.

There are a couple of reasons why European horses enjoyed an unprecedented level of success last year. For starters, there were more Breeders’ Cup races last year than there ever were before. There were 14 races in 2008, three more than in 2007 and six more than in 2003. The Marathon was one of the three new races, run, strangely for a marathon, over a mile and a half (it is a mile and six furlongs this year), and won by the Ralph Beckett-trained Muhannak. One up for Europe.

Secondly, Team Europe was probably stronger last year than it ever had been before. In the week leading up to Breeders’ Cup day last year, the bookmakers made a European-trained horse either favourite or joint-favourite for six of the 14 races.

Thirdly and crucially, there is the surface, which also feeds the quality. Last year was the first year that the non-turf Breeders’ Cup races were run on the synthetic surface Pro-Ride. Apparently the surface rides a lot more like Polytrack, the surface that we have at Dundalk and Lingfield and Kempton and Wolverhampton, than like traditional American dirt, and that favours the European horses.

As well as enabling European horses perform to a higher level, Pro-Ride also attracts them. Perhaps Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator would have run in the Classic last year even if it had been run on dirt, but perhaps they wouldn’t. Perhaps they would have finished first and second on dirt, but they may not have. Their chances certainly would have been diminished, and those of the American dirt monster Curlin would have been enhanced. Certainly, earlier in the summer, when John Oxx was thinking about whether or not to allow Sea The Stars take his chance in the Classic this year, he said that it was only up for consideration because the race was going to be run on the artificial surface.

Next Saturday, the Breeders’ Cup returns to Santa Anita. It is the first time in the 25-year history of the event that the same racecourse has hosted the extravaganza in consecutive years, and that is good news for European horses, as the non-turf races will again be run on Pro-Ride. Again, the quality of the European challenge is high. Again, like this time last year, the bookmakers reckon that European horses have favourites’ chances in six of the 14 races, and the back-up team looks even stronger this time.

Rip Van Winkle has a favourite’s chance in the Classic, according to European bookmakers, although if the American filly Zenyatta lines up in the race, as looks likely at this stage, she will probably be favourite on the American Morning Line. Winner of the Ladies Classic last year, Zenyatta has won all 13 of her races to date, she has been odds-on for her last nine, and she is going to be tough to beat, but Rip Van Winkle has a real chance of so doing.

It is almost inconceivable that a European horse will not win the Mile, with Goldikova, Delegator, Zacinto and Gladiatorus on the team, and we are long odds-on for the Turf, with last year’s winner Conduit set to be joined in the race by his stable companion Spanish Moon and by the 2006 winner Red Rocks. Conduit was a really impressive winner of the race last year, when he stayed on stoutly to collar Eagle Mountain deep inside the final furlong, and Sir Michael Stoute has had a repeat bid in mind for him all season. He lost no caste in finishing just over two lengths behind Sea The Stars in the Arc de Triomphe four weeks ago and, as long as that run hasn’t taken the edge off him, he looks set to run a big race again.

Mastery and Father Time in the Marathon, Midday and Dar Re Mi and Visit and Rainbow View in the Filly & Mare Turf, and Mastercraftsman in the Dirt Mile, and suddenly last year’s unprecedented high looks within reach. Throw in the juveniles Viscount Nelson, Buzzword, Lillie Langtry, Alfred Nobel and Beethoven and, you never know, we could just better it.

This time last year, William Hill were betting 12/1 about five or more European winners. Today they go 7/2 about six or more. It’s a measure of how far we have come.

© The Sunday Times, 1st November 2009