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BC Countdown - Turf: O'Brien and Stoute lead the charge
ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - One trainer has been a six-time champion in England and has won the Breeders' Cup Turf twice. The other won 22 of Europe's 78 Group 1 races in 2001 and is expected to win training titles in England and Ireland this year.
The presence of horses trained by Michael Stoute and Aidan O'Brien have not made it easy on the American team in Saturday's $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf at Arlington Park.
Between the O'Brien-trained High Chaparral, the winner of the English and Irish derbies in June, and, from Stoute's barn, Golan, widely considered one of the top older horses in England, the betting for America's richest turf race will have a distinctly foreign flavor.
For Americans, it is a familiar, and losing, theme. Stoute ran one-two in the 1996 Turf at Woodbine with Pilsudski and Singspiel and won the race in 2000 at Churchill Downs with Kalanisi.
"We like this race," Stoute deadpanned.
O'Brien is seeking his first win in the Turf, having finished second last year with Milan on the same day his Johannesburg was an eye-catching winner of the Juvenile.
With those two trainers leading the assault, the European invasion on the Breeders' Cup Turf shows no sign of relenting. At the least, Americans can take comfort knowing that it could be worse. The Maktoum family's Godolphin Racing is a surprising no-show this year in the Turf, after winning in 1999 with Daylami and last year with Fantastic Light.
High Chaparral and Golan have been two of the top horses in Europe this year. They face an American group trying to become the first domestic-based runner to win the race since Buck's Boy at Churchill Downs in 1998.
Powerful Derby win at Epsom
High Chaparral has only lost once in five starts this year for owners Michael Tabor and Susan Magnier. After winning two minor stakes in Ireland in the spring, he was a commanding winner of the English Derby at Epsom, powering away from the field in the final, uphill furlong to win by two lengths over stablemate and Breeders' Cup Classic hopeful Hawk Wing.
High Chaparral faced a weaker field in the Irish Derby, went off at 1-3, and led an O'Brien sweep of the first three positions with a comfortable win by 3 1/2 lengths. Third-place finisher Ballingarry will start in the Turf, but for new connections. Following his win in the Canadian International at Woodbine on Sept. 29, Ballingarry was sold to a partnership and turned over to California trainer Laura de Seroux.
After the Irish Derby, High Chaparral seemed to be a world-class candidate to face older horses, but the plan quickly went wrong. The O'Brien stable, based in Ireland, was hit by a coughing virus that put much of the entire barn on the sidelines in August, including High Chaparral.
"When he ran against 3-year-olds, he was in great form all year," O'Brien said. "He got very sick in the summer and we didn't get to do much with him."
As autumn neared, the new goal for High Chaparral became the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe in Paris in early October, but even that idea was hindered by the lack of a prep race. Regardless, High Chaparral was the 2-1 favorite against 15 others in the Arc. Ridden by Mick Kinane, High Chaparral was rated behind the leaders early, made a run in early stretch, but failed to keep pace with Marienbard and Sulamani in the final furlong, finishing third by 1 1/2 lengths.
"Mick thought he was relaxed in the Arc - too relaxed," O'Brien said. "And when the first two just ran by him quick and got away from them, it happened very quick and his mind just wasn't in gear. It was probably my fault that I didn't have him mentally sharp.
"He's in good form and didn't lose too much shape."
The three weeks between the Arc and the Breeders' Cup Turf will give High Chaparral a chance to be in top form or could create the opportunity for a letdown.
Kinane has ridden High Chaparral in four races and won three times, including the Irish Derby. After the Arc, he was left with the impression that High Chaparral could improve.
"He is a laid-back individual and needed the race," he said. "I think the Arc has put a nice edge on him."
Through his eight-race career, High Chaparral has shown the versatility to come from off the pace and win - as he did in the Epsom Derby - or rate close to the pace - as he did in the Irish Derby.
A split with his rival
Golan has shown the same characteristics. The winner of the 2000 Guineas at Newmarket, England, in 2001, he has had only two starts this year. When he made his seasonal debut in the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes over 1 1/2 miles at Ascot on July 27, he rallied from the back of a nine-horse field to beat the highly rated Nayef by a head after a thrilling stretch duel.
A month later, in the Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes at York over 1 5/16 miles, Golan raced closer to the pace, challenged Nayef in the final furlong, but lost by a half-length.
"We beat him a narrow margin in the King George and he beat us at York," Stoute said. "They are two very special horses."
Since that race, he has been prepared with the Breeders' Cup and next month's Japan Cup as late-season goals.
"We've been happy with the preparation," Stoute said. "We think he's in a good shape. We only have had two races and we're hoping to fit these two in."
Jockey Kieren Fallon fully believes Golan may be hitting his best stride at the ideal time.
"He's a very versatile horse with a great temperament," Fallon said. "He's been training well for the race. He's had an easy year and he's right on target for this race and the Japan Cup.
"He is not like a lot of these horses that had a hard year. He's one of these horses that has trained up for the race. Everything looks as if it's going his way."
While the pair represent different countries, together they offer a difficult challenge for the Americans. Denon and With Anticipation not only have each other to contend with, but they will have to run the races of their lives to beat two of Europe's finest colts.
Stoute turned 57 on Tuesday. O'Brien turned 33 on Oct. 16. One of them may get a late birthday present on Saturday.