10/17/2010 12:28PM

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.