12/03/2010 4:31PM

World's Richest Dirt Races Lack Appeal


With a purse of $3,015,521, Sunday's Japan Cup Dirt rates as the second richest dirt race in the world after only the Breeders' Cup Classic (when it is run on dirt), which was worth $4,545,000 this year. Yet of the 28 horses that competed in the two races, only one-Espoir City in the Classic- was trained in a foreign country.
Both races are billed as international championship contests, as are their turf counterparts the $6.1 million Melbourne Cup, the $5.6 million Japan Cup, the $5.5 million Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, the $5 million Dubai Duty Free, the $5 million Dubai Sheema Classic, and their synthetic counterpart, the $10 million Dubai World Cup.
One of the reasons these races have such good prize money is to attract the best horses from around the world. To that extent, the richest turf and synthetic races succeed. The Melbourne Cup included seven foreign-trained horses and was won by the French-trained Americain. The Japan Cup had eight foreign runners, the Arc had 11 foreign-trained horses from six different countries and was won by a British trainee with a Japanese horse second. And the large majority of the horses in the three big races in Dubai were trained in foreign climes. Next Sunday, 30 of the 55 horses entered in the four big races on Sha Tin's Hong Kong International card will be foreign invaders coming from Australia, England, Ireland, France, Japan, Singapore and even the United States.
The failure of Breeders' Cup Ltd. and the Japan Racing Association to attract more than one foreign runner to the world's two richest dirt races provides some insight as to what the world at large thinks of dirt racing. America's surface of choice appears to be out of favor in most countries. Even in Japan, dirt racing is takes a back seat to turf racing. In Argentina, the ratio of dirt stakes to turf stakes is about 50:50. In Chile and Brqazil, turf stakes outnumber dirt stakes by about 2-to-1. There are no group races run on dirt in Britain, Ireland, France, Germany, Italy, Australia, New Zealand, South Africa or Dubai.
In 2009 when the Breeders' Cup Classic was run on Santa Anita's Pro-Ride, it included two foreign entries in Twice Over and Rip Van Winkle. The year before at the same track on the same surface, it was won by the British-trained Raven's Pass with the Irish-trained Henrythenavigator second. As such, both of those Classics rated first-class international cache.
In this day and age, the quality of a championship race is determined in no small part by the number of top class foreign entries it contains. That the Japan Cup Dirt has failed to attract a single foreign runner may be a bit of an embarrassment to the Japan Racing Association, but it is not a really big deal, since most of the best Japanese horses run on turf. That the Breeders' Cup Classic on dirt failed to attract a single foreign runner is cause for concern, simply because a race consisting of all domestic runners can hardly fulfill the concept of the Breeders' Cup as the World Thoroughbred Championships.
On a similar note, there have been many hurrahs sounded on the reinstallation of a dirt course at Santa Anita. The change from Pro-Ride back to dirt will certainly be a boon to California horsemen preparing 3-year-olds for a tilt at the Kentucky Derby or the Kentucky Oaks, but what happens to all of those horses running on dirt when the scene shifts to Hollywood Park's cushion surface after April 17?
And after the Hollywood spring/summer meeting there is the Del Mar meeting on Polytrack. And if Santa Anita gets the Oak Tree Meeting next year, California horses must all switch back to dirt for six weeks before returning to the Hollywood cushion track in November. Even if Hollywood retains the Oak Tree Meeting, the dirt track at Santa Anita is still the odd man out in California, given the vagaries between dirt and synthetic form.
Could it be that many of California's best dirt horses will hightail it to the East Coast in search of dirt surfaces after Santa Anita closes in April? Viewed in that light, the switch back to dirt at Santa Anita may not be quite the great thing it has been trumped up to be.