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Breeders’ Cup

The thing about the Breeders’ Cup is that it is an American thing. Talk of making it the Ryder Cup of horse racing, alternating between continents on alternate years, is exactly that: idle banter by Europeans with absolutely no audience Stateside.

Unlike the Ryder Cup, this is not an event that is jointly hosted by Europe and America. Rather, it is an American event to which we are invited, the World Thoroughbred Championships, as the they like to call it, set to be staged next Friday and Saturday at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

The temptation, of course, is for us to focus exclusively on the European horses, concentrate on what we know. And it is easy, upon perusal of the list of probable European runners, to think that it is going to be all about Europe, the Oakland Hills Ryder Cup all over again. When you have horses like So You Think, Goldikova, Strong Suit, Sarafina, Byword, Midday and Misty For Me on your team, it is difficult to think otherwise.

History tells us, however, that it doesn’t work out like that. European horses have to overcome three major obstacles when they race in the Breeders’ Cup. Firstly, they have to travel. It is a home game for the Americans, an away game for the Europeans. As well the actual physical act of travelling to a different continent, European horses often have to race under different conditions to those that they encounter in Europe, different temperature, different humidity-level, different type of track, a flat, tight, left-handed oval as opposed to a straight track or a galloping track or an undulating track.

Secondly, the Breeders’ Cup is a major target for most American horses. For Europeans, by contrast, it is often an after-thought. European horses usually follow the European Pattern, target the big European races, and then, often at the end of a long and arduous season, as long as they indicate that they are up for one more joust, they get on the plane for America.

Thirdly, and most importantly, there is the surface. The majority of Breeders’ Cup races are run on American dirt, and that is a surface that is alien to most European horses. It is completely dissimilar to anything we have over here, it is not like the Polytrack that we have at Dundalk or Kempton or Lingfield, and racehorses who are top class on turf or on synthetics can often be left floundering on dirt.

Admittedly, there were five European-trained winners at the Breeders’ Cup in 2008, and there were six in 2009, but both of those meetings were held at Santa Anita in California, a venue at which European horses have historically performed well and, in 2008 and 2009, where the non-turf races were run on Pro-Ride, a surface that is much more similar to Polytrack than to traditional American dirt. Therefore, the European raiders were at a significant advantage in those two years.

Two of the five European victories in 2008 and two of the six victories in 2009 were in races run on Pro-Ride. It is highly unlikely that they would have prevailed if the non-turf races had been run on traditional dirt. In the last 10 years, there have been just two European winners on dirt, and both of those horses, Wilko and Johannesburg, were American-bred.

The Breeders’ Cup has been run at Churchill Downs seven times since its inauguration, and European horses have won a total of just 11 races there. That’s an average of 1.57 per year. They have never won more than three races at Churchill Downs in any one sitting and, in 1998, Europe had no winners from 15 attempts. Also, remarkably, there has never been an Irish-trained winner of a Breeders’ Cup race at Churchill Downs.

On top of all of that, some of the horses that lit up the 2011 flat racing season in Europe are not making the trip. Frankel, Canford Cliffs, Dream Ahead, Excelebration, Immortal Verse, Cirrus Des Aigles, Rewilding: all absent.

There are many positives, however. For starters, the home defence is not as strong as it usually is. Last year’s Breeders’ Cup Classic winner and runner-up, Blame and wondermare Zenyatta, were retired at the end of the season, as was the Classic fourth and champion three-year-old Lookin At Lucky.

This year’s American three-year-olds appear to be an unremarkable bunch. Animal Kingdom was a surprise winner of the Kentucky Derby, but he was beaten in the next two legs of the American Triple Crown, the Preakness Stakes and the Belmont Stakes, and he misses the Breeders’ Cup through injury anyway. Also, the winners of the second and third legs of the Triple Crown, Shackleford and Ruler On Ice, have both been exposed since as being some way short of top class.

The evidence that we have this season to date suggests that the American turf horses are particularly vulnerable. The Aidan O’Brien-trained Cape Blanco has run in three races in the States this season, and he has won all three, all of them Grade 1 races on turf. O’Brien has also won Grade 1 races Stateside with Together and Treasure Beach, and in the Canadian International at Woodbine two weeks ago, European horses filled the first five places.

The Europeans could run riot in the turf races. If Goldikova fails in her attempt to land the Mile for an unprecedented fourth time, it will probably be fellow European Strong Suit or compatriot Byword who beats her. Sarafina, Sea Moon, Midday, St Nicholas Abbey and possibly Await The Dawn make a European victory in the Turf a long odds-on shot, while Nahrain, Misty For Me and Announce make up a formidable assault on the Filly and Mare Turf, even if Sarafina and Midday both go for the Turf instead.

Elusive Kate has a big chance of landing the Juvenile Fillies’ Turf, and Caspar Netscher and possibly Daddy Long Legs are strong contenders for the Juvenile Turf, while Meeznah and Harrison’s Cave are not without chances in the Marathon, even though it will be run on dirt.

Then there is So You Think in the Classic. The Aidan O’Brien-trained antipodean has never run on dirt, but, as long as he can cope with the kickback, his galloping style of racing could well be suited to the surface. The fact that the best of the Americans, Uncle Mo and Havre De Grace, fall a little short of the usual standard that the best of the home defence usually sets in the Classic gives the son of High Chaparral a chance.

Without being myopic about this, signs are that Aidan O’Brien can notch a first win for Ireland at Churchill Downs, and that it could be a good night for the Europeans. The 6/1 that William Hill are offering about four European winners or more is probably too big.

© The Sunday Times, 30th October 2011