09/24/2006 11:00PM

American juveniles haven't impressed


Taken on their own, the victories by King of the Roxy in the Grade 2 Futurity Stakes and Meadow Breeze in the Grade 1 Matron Stakes on Saturday at Belmont Park were good performances. King of the Roxy settled nicely off a multi-horse battle for the early lead, raced a very promising prospect in Incriminate into defeat inside the final furlong, and then held another promising prospect in C P West safe in the drive to the wire. As for Meadow Breeze, although a lot of people are still scratching their heads over her win in the Matron, in which she went off at 34-1, she did the dirty work of keeping Featherbed honest through early fractions that were significantly faster than the ones in the Futurity, and she was tenacious enough to take a three-way photo despite drifting out.

But races like this are not run in a vacuum. This is the time of year when almost every stakes race is judged more by its Breeders' Cup implications than by the race itself. In that context, the Futurity and Matron were found wanting. Neither race was particularly fast - the winning Beyer Speed Figure in the Futurity was 92; the Matron's was a modest 83 - and both races lacked the "wow factor." King of the Roxy and Meadow Breeze are still very young horses with every license to improve, but nothing they showed Saturday made you feel strongly that you just saw the Breeders' Cup winner or a divisional champion.

The Futurity and Matron were consistent with the way the 2-year-old male and 2-year-old female divisions have unfolded this year, which has been somewhat uninspiring. Oh, there have been a handful of immensely impressive debut winners, but we have all fallen into the trap of falling in love with 2-year-olds who win big against maidens first time out, only to see them come a cropper when they face winners. Experience teaches you to become a little more reserved and plenty more demanding before you start building the bandwagon.

We do have a couple of clear-cut 2-year-old divisional leaders: the undefeated Circular Quay among the males and Point Ashley among the fillies. I like both quite a bit, especially because both have been very successful in sprints despite having pedigrees that shout they won't truly blossom until they try a distance of ground. But to be candid about it, one reason they are clear-cut divisional leaders is that no one else has sufficiently stepped up. And neither Circular Quay nor Point Ashley is exactly bulletproof.

As impressive as Circular Quay was when he won the Hopeful, it is a concern that he lost contact with his field through the first half-mile. If this is an indication of a habit, then Circular Quay might be in for a shock when he goes longer, since the pace in longer races is more deliberate and less conducive to whirlwind finishes. And as eye-catching as Point Ashley was when she won the Del Mar Debutante, there is real doubt about the quality of the competition she dominated.

Given this scenario, this might be a year to pay a little extra attention to the European participants in the Breeders' Cup 2-year-old races, particularly the Juvenile. Ever since Arazi became the second European-based horse to win a Breeders' Cup race on dirt when he romped in the 1991 Juvenile, European horsemen have supported the Juvenile with the same verve as they have the Breeders' Cup Classic, only with better results. That success, however, is largely due to Tiznow, who narrowly denied Europeans Giant's Causeway and Sakhee in his consecutive Classic wins in 2000 and 2001.

From 1992 on, 21 European-based horses competed in 11 of the 14 Classics and won one, that being the infamous Arcangues in 1993 at 133-1. During that same period, 20 European-based horses competed in 12 of the 14 Juveniles and won two: Johannesburg in 2001 at 7-1 and Wilko in 2004 at 28-1.

There is evidence that European-based horses have outperformed their relative chances in the Juvenile. The average odds of the winners of the Juvenile since 1992 is a touch over 9-1, yet the average odds of the 20 European horses who started in the Juvenile since 1992 was 27.90-1. With that in mind, consider that the 20 European horses who competed in the Juvenile since 1992 represented 13.4 percent of the total of the 149 horses who started. Yet, their two wins from the 12 years they competed in this race results in a win rate of 16.7 percent.

I know we are talking about a relatively small sample, and this is not to say that this year, for sure, a European-based horse will win the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. Heck, most European horsemen don't actually commit their horses to specific Breeders' Cup races until after the weekend of the Arc de Triomphe, so no one really knows yet which European horses will run. But unless, or until, the American 2-year-old division starts making the collective progress you would like to see, this is something to keep an eye on.