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Woodbine, and Analyzing European Dominance
North American Europhiles were probably dancing in the streets Saturday night at the sweep by European shippers in the three big stakes races at Woodbine earlier in the afternoon. No, it's more likely they celebrated with a smashing scone or two. Either way, while proponents of European racing have every right to be proud of what happened at Woodbine Saturday, let's put a lid on the notion that this was some sort of referendum on how far North American racing has fallen.
This all started before Saturday's Woodbine races were even run. It began with the offering that the ratio of European to North American starters in these races, especially in the 1 1-2 Pattison Canadian International and the 1 1-4 mile E. P. Taylor, was some sort of proof that North Americans can no longer produce a horse capable of running a step beyond six furlongs anymore. For the record, while three of the 12 in the Nearctic were European shippers, eight of 10 in the E. P. Taylor and four of nine in the Canadian International were European-based horses.
All of this would mean something if it weren't for one very important fact that seemed to be totally overlooked: Woodbine's big day of racing Saturday came only THREE WEEKS before the Breeders' Cup. What North American trainer with a legitmate prospect for the 1 1-2 mile Breeders' Cup Turf or 1 3-8 mile (this year) Breeders' Cup Filly & Mare Turf would, in this day and age when four weeks is considered running back quickly, run a horse in these long Woodbine races and then come back in only three weeks in the Breeders' Cup? The answer is very, very few.
Moreover, despite their status this year as "Breeders' Cup Win And You're In" races, it is fair to question if the Canadian International and E. P. Taylor aren't really more stand alone events than stepping stones to the Breeders' Cup.
Since 2002, when three horses came out of the Canadian International to run in the BC Turf when there was a four week gap between races, only two have taken the Canadian International - BC Turf route: One in 2004 when there was also a four week gap between races, and one in 2006 when there was a six week gap between races.
There is even a bigger question about the Taylor. In the 11 year history of the BC Filly & Mare Turf, only five of the 129 who have competed in the F&M Turf came out of the Taylor, and two of those did so when there was a four week break between races.
This underscores that for whatever reason, the Canadian road to the BC Turf and F&M Turf was never all that popular. It figures to be even less so in today's climate with only three weeks between races. Obviously, the best North American turf horses (and admittedly there aren't a lot of them) are going to find more suitable, trendier (meaning more time between races) ways to get to the Breeders' Cup. That leaves the door open for other types of horses to populate the Canadian International and E. P. Taylor. So using these races as prime examples of the decline of the North American sport is shaky business, indeed.
Now, let's consider for a moment what actually happened on Saturday. Despite being severely outnumbered, despite facing a far better brand of European shipper than she handled in last month's Canadian Stakes, and despite going a distance at which she was a question mark, North American-based Miss Keller was an excellent second to Reggane in the E. P. Taylor.
In the Canadian International, European horses ran one-two-three. But I, and anyone else who really watched this race, can make a very strong case that U.S.-based Al Khali, who was beaten a head, a nose, and a half-length in finishing fourth, easily could have won. Al Khali, who was a Grade 3-type perfomer at best until overcoming serious trouble to win the Bowling Green last month, had a brutal trip again Saturday. He was squeezed back and blocked behind a wall of horses in upper stretch, was a clear last of nine with less than a furlong to go, and yet still mustered a strong late run once angled to the extreme outside for a clear run.
And if European shippers are supposed to be so much better than Americans, then what happened at Keeneland Saturday in the Q.E. II Challenge Cup? Zagora's European running lines were strong enough for her to be third betting choice in the strongest field of 3-year-old filly turf performers assembled on this continent this year. But Zagora was flat out crushed by California's Harmonious.
Look, I have been a big proponent of the European shippers this year and have been since early last July when Chinchon came over from France with mediocre running lines and dominated the United Nations. I have been saying here and in other places that the Europeans will be formidable in the Breeders' Cup. I still believe that, because considering some of the European names that have been bandied about in a Breeders' Cup context, the Europeans who have been so successful here so far this year aren't even close to being as good as what we might see in Louisville. Yet even if I believe this, I also believe that after really analyzing what happened Saturday, the state of the North American sport isn't nearly as hopeless and pathetic as some would have you think.
I don't believe for a second that Al Khali would have won that race. He ran very well for a furlong but the engine was already sputtering 30 yards before the line. Make no mistake, these European horses are hardly group 1 quality at home. North American turf racing is just very moderate. This is worrying, as almost all emerging racing markets have chosen either turf and synthetic as their surface of racing. I think only 20% of the world's top 50 richest races are run on dirt these days.
Euros, Euros, Euros. Everyone's had to endure this pre Breeders Cup lecture for almost three decades now. It gets old. They're the greatest, we're crap. We're coming to take the cash and give you all a few weeks of condescending kindergarten lessons about everything you do wrong. Does anyone want to compile a list of transatlantic stars who've shown up and performed with absolute ineptness? It would be lengthy. The Euro's had a particularly good year at Monmouth in 2007. Every time they get beat there's a bevy of excuses. The turns were to tight, the ground was horrible etc. etc. I've got an idea. Show up, run, win or lose, do either without a jingoistic orgy and be done with it. All that said it's obvious how good their best really are, and I've considered it a privilege to see many of them over the years. You just get tired of getting your nose rubbed in it.
Still in a daze of this race at woodbine. Take a look at the replay. I did 7 times. Al Kali shoudl nto have lost that race. it was a terrible ride for Garcia to have him bumped and squeezed on a turf course like this. my bet was 400 win and place with a 50 exactor box with the winner and a 5 triactor 5,7,all.. I was lookign at box cars yet got smoked and nothign to show for. I don't mind getting beat cleanign but I have a bad taset in my mouth after this race. look at the reply and let me know if you feel the same way...the horse lost 2 -3 lengths at the 1/8 pole.
Sir, i am not the type of handicapper who is a one-track minded person. I always read your articles and tvg's, too, particularly your show with Matt C. I do my best and take the time to look at all angles. I look at your picks and even though i do not see any likeable angle i give them a lot of thought. You are definitely right about the implications of last weekend races at Woodbine. I strongly believe none of those winners, should they try the Breeder's Cup, would end up winning against the likes of Midday, Goldikova, and even Gio Ponti for that matter who are very well rested by now and well prepared for the Breeders Cup.
Mike, I completely agree with your comments particularly as they pertain to the Canadian International. As one of the owners of Al Khali I am still trying to get over the fact that he didn't win. Clearly, he was the best horse in the race on Saturday after his nightmare of a trip. But, that happens in horse racing and we move on. The International was not our first choice. We had planned to run in the Joe Hirsch as our prep for the BC Turf. But, when the course came up soft (and make no mistake it was soft) we had to go to Plan B. We could have just trained up to the BC, but as Bill Mott told me "the waters get deep" in the BC Turf. So, we didn't really know where we stood in relation to the Euro runners even though we felt we might have the best N. American distance turf horse. If we couldn't compete against the group in the International then we certainly didn't belong in the BC Turf because as you point out although these particular Euros (Chinchon and Redwood having dominated our N. American brothers in their prior races) were not the best Europe has to offer. After Saturday, I truly believe we can compete against the European horses in a race like the BC Turf. True there are others across the pond that I wouldn't want to see but I'd take my shot against the "B" team again without hesitation. Whether we'll come back in the BC on 3 weeks rest remains to be seen. That'll be up to Mott's determination on how much this race took out of him. I'm hoping that the fact he really only got to run hard for about a furlong will still leave him with enough in the tank to be back to 100% in 3 weeks. If not, we'll see the Euros again another time and maybe our long striding, big giraffe of horse will show them that we have some horses over here that can compete on the big stage too.
Adam, Al Khali is one of my favorite horses. Ever since last year at Saratoga I've been trying to make a score on him, I just love his running style, like a great big athlete. I thought for sure the Hollywood Derby last year was his spot but it just didn't set up right, pace was just SLOW. I don't want to blame Alan Garcia, this is a tough game and jocks deserve respect, I just thought he would get a nice free run on that wide sweeping course at Woodbine but again it wasn't to be. Anyway Good Luck I hope he makes the BC Turf. At 1 1/2 miles on firm he can run with ANYONE! ken
Zagora ran a great race on Saturday. Harmonious just got first run. Zagora came from the clouds and would have been much closer on a softer track. That being said, Midday is still head of the class in the F&Ms by a long way. However, it would be interesting if Midday decided to go for the BC Turf Classic.
mike alan garcia that race horrible ride what were motts comments
MW you forgot to say GIO PONTI
The Al Khali ride was awful. 1 1/2 miles on a gigantic turf course and Garcia still finds trouble. Did the guy watch the previous race? Balcony move mows em' down. The infuruiating thing is that the horse has endured so many questionable rides. He has a huge stride yet they insist on putting him down inside under a hammerlock. I feel like Mott knows he has a monster just a matter of figuring him out and getting him the right course and ride. If the BC was at Belmont and the course firm I'd be making a huge play on him. At Churchill with 3 tight turns I doubt it will be his day and that's if he even shows up.