Nicholas Godfrey on the Breeders' Cup

    Nicholas Godfrey, a leading writer on US racing, analyses the four Breeders’ Cup turf races for older horses with an eye on the European record and what’s lying in wait in North America ahead of the big meeting at Churchill Downs.
  • Thursday 11 October 2018
  • Blog

In focus: turf races for older horses

Reflecting on the significance of a shock 23-1 victory from Next Shares in last weekend’s $1million Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland, hugely respected US pundit Mike Watchmaker offered a straightforward viewpoint.

“I know it seems like I say this every week,” he wrote in the Daily Racing Form, “but I can’t recall ever seeing our male turf division in such a state of disarray, and more vulnerable to the taking by European shippers of any account.”

But can it really as simple as that? After all, many of us recall the likes of Dancing Brave, Zilzal and Mark Of Esteem with a shiver – or more recently Montjeu, Hurricane Run, The Fugue and Ribchester.

Race Replay: Dancing Brave finishes fourth in the 1986 Breeders' Cup Turf at Santa Anita.

However clear-cut things may appear on paper, it is usually foolish to expect anything like an easy ride. How many times have you heard a European trainer rueing that it is “the end of a long season” after a downbeat effort in the States? Remember, this is their championship; we’ll have had ours, and for a proportion of horses, the Breeders’ Cup is merely an afterthought. Throw in alien terrain, transatlantic travel, home-field advantage for domestic runners and the vagaries of post position and Lasix, and maybe we should be rather less than surprised at seemingly huge form turnarounds.

Although the Breeders’ Cup Challenge ‘Win-and-You’re-In’ series ended on Wednesday at Keeneland, we still cannot be entirely sure of the precise make-up of the European contingent. What we do know, however, is where we’ve done well in the past – and also which American horses are likely to provide a threat this time around.

As for trainers, well, it is blindingly obvious who offers the biggest stumbling block. You might have heard of him. His name’s Chad Brown, he’s about to complete a hat-trick as US champion trainer and he won four Grade 1s last weekend. He largely established his reputation on turf, his Breeders’ Cup record is already noteworthy (10-for-71) and he is preparing a veritable armada for Churchill Downs.

Be that as it may, here’s a quick jog-trot through the four turf races for older horses with an eye on the European record and what’s lying in wait in North America; the two-year-olds will be covered next week.

TURF

Euro record: 21 wins from 34 runnings (61.8%)

Enable is odds-on here but perhaps the record of similar short-priced superstars at Churchill Downs urges a degree of caution: Montjeu and Hurricane Run are among those beaten in this race at the celebrated Louisville venue.

Notoriously, no Arc winner has ever won the Turf in the same season – and before you ask, eight have tried. Enable hasn’t had the most orthodox preparation, mind you, and even when Arc winners fail, they tend to be beaten by fellow Europeans. There will be a few to choose from, even if they don’t include Enable’s stablemate Roaring Lion, with Andre Fabre in particular having an array of possibles in the race he won for the fourth time last year with Talismanic. Four-time winner Sir Michael Stoute is hovering as well, and Aidan O’Brien has to be feared in a race he has won six times.

But what about the home team? Well, it does look lacking in lustre, with a different horse winning a Grade 1 every week. Bill Mott-trained Channel Maker made all for a 4 1/2-length win going away from several potential Cup rivals in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont over 1m4f; soft ground there may have helped and he’s by a previous winner of this race (English Channel).

Favoured at Belmont was Arlington Million winner Robert Bruce, who paid the price for making up a stack of ground mid-race. Beaten only twice, he represents Chad Brown, who is yet to win this race. One-time claimer Glorious Empire, a Grade 1 winner at Saratoga who started life with Ed Walker, is also likely to show up but Mike Watchmaker is bang on the money here.

An away win looks by far the most likely outcome, even if Enable were to come unstuck.

Race replay: Channel makers collects the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont in September.

MILE

Euro record: 13 wins in 34 runnings (38.2%)

While there aren’t any Wise Dans or Tepins lurking among the home team, Europe’s past record also suggests a degree of wariness in a race that can be severely affected by post position as 14 horses hurtle around a tight turf track.

Truth is, you don’t always need to be a world-beater to win what can be a crapshoot, which makes Goldikova’s hat-trick all the more remarkable. Karakontie is the only other visitor to score in the last decade, embellishing a fine French record (ten wins altogether, many of them representing the Niarchos outfit, recently under their company name Flaxman Holdings). Moulin victor Recoletos and Polydream, who got no run in the Prix de la Foret, are likely suspects; the latter appeals as the sort of 7f performer who used to thrive in this race.

The British and Irish record here is abysmal, and in any case this may not be the gimme it seems with the estimable Oscar Performance heading the home team. Pulled up as favourite for the Arlington Million, this four-year-old put that memory behind him with a decisive victory in the Woodbine Mile.

True, he was able to dominate with an unchallenged lead, but time and again he looks as if he won’t get the necessary set-up, and time and again he wins – four times at the top level so far, including the Juvenile Turf two seasons ago when he overcame a wide draw to beat Lancaster Bomber.

Race replay: Oscar Performance stars in the Ricoh Woodbine Mile in September.

FILLY & MARE TURF

Euro record: 8 wins from 19 races (42%)

Even with Enable running elsewhere and Sea Of Class not running anywhere, the European team should look formidable. But be warned: the same sentiments applied in 2010 and 2011, the last two occasions on which the Cup was hosted by Churchill Downs. In 2010, even-money favourite Midday was beaten by 33-1 shot Shared Account, while 20-1 shot Perfect Shirl prevailed 12 months later over well-fancied pair Nahrain and Misty For Me

Indeed, this prize has stayed at home five times in the last half-dozen years, with Chad Brown responsible for the winners in 2012, 2013 and 2015. He’s been in dominant form in all the middle-distance Grade 1s for females on the turf on the east coast this year, winning four and often providing the second (and sometimes the third) for good measure. It is like watching Aidan O’Brien in Ireland.

Placed in last season’s Prix de Diane for former trainer Henri-Alex Pantall, Sistercharlie has long been identified as the stable’s premier hope for the Filly & Mare Turf; she led home a 1-2-3 for Brown on her most recent outing when landing the Beverly D at Arlington.

However, she missed any final prep with a minor foot bruise and, in any event, there is not a massive amount on the book between her and six-year-old stable companion Fourstar Crook, whose record this year reads 12121 (with the 2s both coming in defeat to Sistercharlie). She ran a sneakily good race for an odds-on success in the Flower Bowl at the same venue, drawing away after being brought from last off a pedestrian gallop that could have compromised her.

Vasilika took her winning streak to seven when stepping up to the top level in the Rodeo Drive (former Yellow Ribbon) at Santa Anita last month. She would need to be supplemented.

Race replay: Fourstar Crook captures the Flower Bowl at Belmont on Sunday.

TURF SPRINT

Euro record: 0 wins from 10 races (0%)

As no European-trained horse has made the first three since Godolphin’s Diabolical in the inaugural running in 2008, our record in this race is nothing short of, well, diabolical.

I can’t help thinking we’ve never taken it seriously but even if one of our proper top-class sprinters shows up, you could not be confident. The same goes for Godolphin’s Japanese hope Fine Needle, who has never won below 6f; this year’s race is a blistering 5 1/2 f. The draw will also be a factor.

Last weekend helped to sort out the home team, where contenders include New York-based Disco Partner (third in 2017), who recorded a repeat win in the Belmont Turf Sprint, plus Bucchero (good fifth in the King’s Stand) and Will Call, the principals in the Grade 3 Woodford Stakes at Keeneland.

With a scorching pace a certainty at Churchill Downs, Will Call appeals at a decent price after an eyecatching effort to almost run down the winner after challenging out wide from off the pace; Kentucky-based Brad Cox is an up-and-comer in the US training ranks.

Race replay: Disco Partner lands the Belmont Turf Sprint on Saturday.

EUROPEAN-BASED TRAINERS WITH MORE THAN ONE BREEDERS' CUP WIN

NameWinsRunsStrike RatePrize Money
Aidan O’Brien121249.7%$22.0m
Sir Michael Stoute73918.0%$10.7m
Andre Fabre54910.2%$10.8m
John Gosden43312.0%$6.8m
Freddy Head*3837.5%$4.1m
Jonathan Pease3837.5%$3.0m
Pascal Bary3837.5%$2.6m
Brian Meehan31127.3%$3.8m
Francois Boutin31915.8%$1.7m
Saeed Bin Suroor3515.9%$9.0m
Charlie Appleby2366.7%$1.7m
Ed Dunlop*2633.3%$2.1m
*all wins with one horse (Goldikova and Ouija Board)

Nicholas Godfrey will be appearing on Stateside on At The Races on Saturday night featuring the Canadian International at Woodbine.


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