08/22/2008 12:00AM

Atlantic crossing needn't be one-way path


NEW YORK - The abandonment of the plan to run Curlin in the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe means that this year's running of the mythical European championship will be without an American-trained participant for the 17th year in succession.

Not since the Billy Wright-trained El Senor missed the break in 1991 and then made up a ton of lost ground to finish ninth behind Suave Dancer has the United States been represented in the Arc. Horses from as far away as Japan and Brazil have made the effort, but American trainers and owners have since fallen into a self-contented policy of remaining at home.

Coincidentally, 1991 was the first and last time that an American-trained horse ever won a flat race of any kind in Europe. Credit for that nearly forgotten victory in the Irish 2000 Guineas belongs to Fourstars Allstar, his owner/breeder Richard Bomze, trainer Leo O'Brien and rider Mike Smith. The closest we have come to a European victory since then came in 2004 when Ken McPeek sent the Brazilian-bred Hard Buck to Ascot for a rather remarkable second-place finish at 33-1 in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes, probably the world's second best 1 1/2-mile race after the Arc itself.

Fourstars Allstar and Hard Buck are proof that American horses can compete with the best of Europe on their home turf, so what's Curlin's problem? And what is the problem with so many other American horsemen who have ignored not only the Arc, but other important European races like the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes and the Prix Jacques le Marois at a mile, or the Eclipse Stakes and the Juddmonte International at 1 1/4 miles? And if American horses are supposed to be such speedy things, why don't we send them to Royal Ascot to run in sprints like the King's Stand Stakes and the Golden Jubilee Stakes, as do the Australians, who have a lot farther to travel?

Until recently, American owners and trainers could always claim that European prize money wasn't worth sneezing at, much less competing for, and they were right. In El Senor's year, the Arc was worth $1,495,830 while the Breeders' Cup Turf was worth $2 million. Hard Buck's King George was valued at $1,374,300, when the BC Turf was still worth $2 million.

Suave Dancer preceded his 1991 Arc triumph with victory in an Irish Champion Stakes that was worth just $231,000. That same year, Festin won a Jockey Club Gold Cup that was worth $850,000. Five years later, Timarida's Irish Champion carried a price tag of $241,080 while Skip Away's Jockey Club Gold Cup was worth $1 million.

But times have changed since then. The Jockey Club Gold Cup purse has shrunk to $750,000 while the Irish Champion is now worth $1.3 million. The Turf Classic, worth $700,000 in 1985, was a $600,000 race last year. By comparison, the 1985 Prix Jacques le Marois went for just $139,034, but its running at Deauville last week was worth $880,380.

Astute management by European jockey clubs and their racecourses, coupled with the rise of both the euro and the pound at the expense of the dollar, have seen European prize money at the Group 1 level surpass that of American Grade 1's, as the accompanying chart illustrates.

One could argue that there has always been greater sporting and breeding value in most of the major European Group 1's than their American equivalents. So why do American horses continue to dodge the best European races while Europeans continue to send their horses to America in droves - witness the European one-two-three in the Arlington Million two weeks ago?

If 20 years ago you had told a Frenchman that Group 1 races in his country would in 2008 be worth more than Grade 1's in America, he would have laughed in your face. But that is exactly what has happened. Since then the French Derby has increased 3 1/2 times to $2,333,550, or $122,000 more than the Kentucky Derby. The value of French Oaks has multiplied 2 3/4 times to $1,261,520, or $665,000 more than the Kentucky Oaks. Meanwhile, this year's Coaching Club American Oaks went for a paltry $300,000, the same as in 1988.

The average value of a French Group 1 will go up next year because this year's Arc has been doubled from 2 million euros to 4 million. Even with the dollar rebounding of late, the Oct. 5 Arc would be worth $5,956,400 at the current exchange rate, making it the richest turf race in the world.

So just why are American horses such stay-at-homes?

One reason is the European ban on raceday medication. Another is that France-Galop, the British Horseracing Authority, and the Irish Turf Club do not provide travel incentives, as does the Emirates Racing Authority, to whose Nad Al Sheba races Americans flock each year. Yet European horsemen have no qualms about sending horses to the Breeders' Cup, Arlington, Belmont, and Hollywood, all venues to which horses and their connections must pay their own way.

But the biggest reason we almost never see American-trained horses in Europe is provincialism, the ugly, inbred attitude that refuses to recognize anything that isn't American as not worth bothering about. It is an attitude that damages the foundation of racing in this country and is long overdue for a solid drop-kick out of park.

There may be light at the end of the tunnel, however. Next time we will review the handful of American owners who are bucking the trend by maintaining successful stables in Europe.