10/28/2011 2:16PM

Crist: European dominance in turf races won't end soon

Shigeki Kikkawa
British-bred Dubawi Heights was 0 for 6 in Europe, but is California’s best turf filly.

It’s not exactly a newsflash that European grass horses are superior to American grass horses. They’ve been illustrating that since the Breeders’ Cup began in 1984, when there were only two Cup races on the grass and Irish-bred Royal Heroine won the inaugural Mile while English-bred Lashkari and French-bred All Along ran 1-2 in the first Turf.

So it’s no surprise that Europeans will be favored in four or five of this year’s six Cup grass races, ineligible for a sweep of favoritism only because they don’t have a runner in the Turf Sprint. What is more surprising is not only that America has failed to close the talent gap in the last 27 years, but also that the gap may in fact be growing even wider.

It’s not just a year-end phenomenon anymore. It took a while, but Europeans are sending their grass horses here earlier and earlier each year to pick off the best so-called Grade 1 North American grass races before the Breeders’ Cup with clockwork regularity, and usually with turf runners a cut below their very best. Irish-bred Cape Blanco came over here in June and beat Gio Ponti, America’s grass champion for the last two years, in both the Man o’ War and Arlington Million. French-bred Stacelita was an easy winner of the Beverly D. and the Flower Bowl. Even further down the class ladder, British-bred Dubawi Heights was 0 for 6 in Europe, but is California’s best turf filly, a Grade 1 winner of the Gamely and Yellow Ribbon.

It’s gotten to the point where we are so starved for American turf horses of quality that a lot of people now consider these Europeans the “home team” if they run here before the Cup. Some have cast this year’s Filly and Mare Turf as a showdown between the “Americans” Stacelita and Dubawi Heights against the Euro invaders Announce, Misty for Me, and Nahrain. In fact, the five favorites for the race are all foreigh-bred horses who began their careers in Europe.

And that doesn’t even include Sarafina and Midday, either of whom might be favored in the Filly and Mare Turf but who instead are running against males in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, largely because the Turf is so incredibly weak on American runners. Sarafina and Midday’s main competition is likely to come from other Europeans shippers Await the Dawn, Sea Moon, and St Nicholas Abbey. Every one of these horses is a cut or two above overmatched Americans such as Brilliant Speed, Dean’s Kitten, and Stately Victor, whose biggest triumphs have been against second-raters on synthetic tracks.

The likely European dominance of this year’s grass Cup races is all the more remarkable given the absence of the continent’s very top-rated horses. Not one of the six highest-ranked Europeans on the International Federation of Horseracing Authorities’ world rankings – Frankel, Cirrus des Aigles, Danedream, Canford Cliffs, Nathaniel, and Rewilding – is running at Churchill Downs next weekend.

American racing has tried to raise the profile of its turf runners in several ways – by running more and more grass races, especially for 2-year-olds; promoting turf stakes races to ever-higher grades whether they deserve them or not, and jumping the number of Breeders’ Cup grass races from two to six – with very little to show for it.

The focus of horsemen and fans remains main-track racing, because both the public imagination, and the home run stallion-making aspirations of owners and breeders, are primarily fired by dirt racing and the quest for classic victories in the American Triple Crown. Our horses are bred, trained, and raced to be dirt stars and usually sent to the grass only after they have failed on dirt.

American racing offers 19 Grade 1 races for 2-year-old and 3-year-old males on the main track, including the Triple Crown races, the various preps and Derbies leading up to them, and rich summer near-classics such as the Haskell and Travers. There are only four such Grade 1 races on the grass – the Breeders’ Cup Juvenile Turf for 2-year-olds and the Secretariat, Jamaica, and Hollywood Derby for 3-year-olds – and this year’s Secretariat and Jamaica have already been won by European imports making their American debuts.

In some ways, racing has become a more global sport, with Americans showing more interest in top foreign races and international handle increasing yearly on the American classics and the Breeders’ Cup. At the same time, America and the rest of the world are as far apart as ever. Our best horses run on the dirt, Europe’s run on the grass, and the twain ain’t meeting any time soon, if ever.