Updated on 11/05/2011 10:11AM

Breeders' Cup: Europeans angry over Churchill's decision to close turf course for training

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Tom Keyser
A dismayed Michael Stoute (right) and trainer John Gosden (baseball cap) walk their horses - Sea Moon and Elusive Kate, respectively - off the track after being refused access to the turf course.

For the second year in a row, European connections have clashed with Churchill Downs officials over turf course policy, with Thursday’s confrontation between three trainers, track maintenance crew, and Churchill outriders coming after Churchill canceled turf training following a short period of morning rain. At the center of the battle was trainer Michael Stoute, whose Breeders’ Cup Turf entrant, Sea Moon, had been scheduled for a five- or six-furlong grass workout Thursday.

In 2010, Stoute voiced concern throughout Breeders’ Cup week about the condition of the Churchill course, and Workforce, who would have been heavily favored to win the Turf for Juddmonte Farms, was scratched the morning of the race.

The problem Thursday began when rain started falling around 9:30 a.m., just a few minutes before Churchill’s turf course was scheduled to open for late-morning training. Minutes after the light to moderate showers began, word came that Churchill had decided not to open the course. Churchill typically cancels turf training as soon as there is any rain. Butch Lehr, track superintendent, said he had made multiple announcements earlier Thursday morning that turf training would be subject to weather conditions.

Sea Moon had come onto the track with race jockey Ryan Moore about 15 minutes before the rain began. The pair walked clockwise from the backstretch to the front-side and visited the paddock, walked back to the gap where they had come onto the track, and were waiting there for the turf to open when the rain came. Two more Europeans who were scheduled to train on turf, Strong Suit and Elusive Kate, soon joined Sea Moon, while 2-year-old Farraaj, another scheduled turf-trainer, was already out on the main track.

The European horsemen, including agents for the International Racing Bureau, seemed to believe that Churchill officials could be persuaded to change their mind and open the grass course. Little rain had fallen, dogs (orange traffic cones) were set up in the middle of the course to protect inside paths, and the inner turf rail has been out all week, keeping the innermost paths on the course pristine for BC races. Considering these factors, the European horsemen – who train all the time in wet conditions, but not on racecourses – strongly felt they should be allowed onto the course.

American trainer Graham Motion had horses to train on turf, too, but he quickly changed plans, letting Aruna, Shared Account, and State of Play gallop on dirt. English trainer Roger Varian soon did the same with Farraaj.

But the others persisted. While Sea Moon, Elusive Kate, and Strong Suit walked back and forth between the three-quarters and five-eighths pole on the backststretch, their human connections spread out across the track, trying to determine a course of action. Eventually, Stoute, Gosden, and a couple others crossed to the inside of the dirt track and went to the part of the rail that opens to allow access onto the grass course, attempting to make their way onto the turf. A Churchill employee came running from the infield across the turf course and adamantly communicated that the group could not pass, and a heated confrontation began. Soon, two Churchill outriders arrived on the scene to block the path of the Europeans. Meanwhile, there still were a couple non-BC horses training on the main track, and as they jogged the wrong way up the backstretch, their way was obstructed by the gaggle of angry humans. Head outrider Greg Blasi, angered at the group’s insistence, shouted them back to the outer rail.

Finally, the Europeans gave up. Strong Suit eventually cantered once around the main track, but assistant trainer Richard Hannon Jr., who said Strong Suit was to have had a serious turf gallop, was very displeased.

“Really, this has ruined our chances,” Hannon Jr. said.

Sea Moon returned to the quarantine barn without training on dirt. Stoute, queried during the stand-off whether he’d consider working Sea Moon on dirt, made a sweeping gesture toward the main track, chewed up after a busy morning training session. “Would you work a horse on this?” he asked, rhetorically?

Still, this year’s tiff should wind up having less dire consequences than the 2010 turf battle: No one was talking – yet, at least – about taking Sea Moon out of Saturday’s $3 million Turf.