Updated on 09/16/2011 9:31AM

Greatness resides across the Atlantic


ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. - Rock of Gibraltar brings a matchless record to the Breeders' Cup World Thoroughbred Championships. The 3-year-old colt has won seven straight Grade 1 races, unleashing his devastating burst of speed to defeat the best milers in England, France, and Ireland. His brilliance outshines every American horse entered in Saturday's races at Arlington Park.

The presence of dominant runners from overseas has been a regular Breeders' Cup scenario in recent years. Last year the three most accomplished horses on the card were European superstars - Sakhee, Galileo, and Fantastic Light. In 2000, Giant's Causeway proved himself the best horse in the world; after compiling a brilliant record on grass in England, he narrowly missed beating the Americans at their own game on the dirt. In 1999, the European invader Daylami was widely hailed as the outstanding performer on the Breeders' Cup card.

During these same years, not a single U.S.-based runner has merited the adjective "great." American voters have not been able to find a worthy candidate on which to bestow the Horse of the Year title. The last three winners of the top Eclipse Award (Point Given, Tiznow, and Charismatic) each barely put together a half-season of good racing and won their titles by default.

There can no longer be any debate about the hierarchy of the world's Thoroughbreds. Europe reigns supreme. Just as America became No. 1 in the postwar years by importing great European stallions such as Nasrullah and Princequillo, Europe has acquired America's best bloodlines over the past two decades and the pendulum has swung back again.

The decline of American Thoroughbreds was an almost imperceptible process. During this nation's decades of superiority, dynastic families owned the best stallions and racehorses, and rarely sold them. But eventually, most of the dynasties - the Whitneys, the Vanderbilts, the Bancrofts, Darby Dan Farm, Calumet Farm - either scaled down their operations or left the sport entirely. Commercial breeders began to dominate the business, and they were willing to sell regal pedigrees at auction to the highest bidder.

Foreign buyers began to dominate the U.S. yearling sales around 1980. Owner Robert Sangster and the legendary Irish trainer Vincent O'Brien recognized that an American horse, Northern Dancer, was the great stallion on earth - one who would transform the Thoroughbred species - and they were prepared to pay unprecedented sums to acquire these prepotent genes. In recent years, Coolmore Stud of Ireland and the Maktoum brothers of Dubai have been the principal buyers at U.S. auctions; nine of the 10 most expensive yearlings sold in 2001 went to one of these two bidders.

These buyers spent lavishly not only because they had abundant capital, but because they were taking a long view. Pedigree consultant Bill Oppenheim observed, "Coolmore is trying to develop stallions, and they're willing to buy 20 $1 million yearlings to try and produce one $30 million stallion. So they've consistently been right there to buy the best pedigrees. Many of the best American racehorses are the $100,000 yearling types who develop into really good runners, but they've been mostly bought to be racehorses."

Many American buyers prefer horses likely to be fast and precocious, rather than ones who will develop into classic performers on the world stage. Ray Paulick, editor-in-chief of The Blood-Horse, observed that buyers at this year's fall sales were eager to acquire speed-oriented young sires such as Forestry, Exploit, and Hennessy. But he noted, "You could barely give away yearlings by Swain." Swain was a tough, durable, versatile runner whose specialty was running 1 1/4 miles or more. His offspring need time to develop, and Americans aren't willing to wait.

Another factor in America's decline has surely been the extensive use of medications while Europeans stick with the traditional hay, oats, and water, banning even the use of Lasix. American horses can compile good records with the aid of drugs, go to stud and presumably pass on infirmities to their offspring. While U.S. horses used to be regarded as much tougher than their coddled European counterparts, they are demonstrably less durable than they used to be.

The gradual shift in the balance of power in Thoroughbred breeding can be seen in the pedigrees of the European stars who come here for the Breeders' Cup.

One of Northern Dancer's sons who went to Europe in the early 1980's was Sadler's Wells. He became a champion racehorse and one of the world's great stallions, standing at Coolmore. He is the sire of leading contenders in three of Saturday's races - Beat Hollow and Gossamer in the Mile, Islington in the Filly and Mare Turf, and Ballingary and High Chaparal in the Turf.

Northern Dancer also begat the brilliant Danzig, who has been one of America's great stallions for two decades. Danzig's son Danehill went to Europe to race, and now stands at stud at Coolmore, too. There he was bred to the mare Offshore Boom, a granddaughter of Northern Dancer. The result of this inbreeding was Rock of Gibraltar.

The colt made seven starts as a 2-year-old, winning five, establishing himself as one of the leading talents of his generation and convincing trainer Aidan O'Brien that his forte was going to be running one mile. So O'Brien mapped out a campaign that included the major mile races on the continent, and Rock of Gibraltar won all five of them with a powerful finishing kick. He beat the 4-year-old filly Banks Hill, a daughter of Danehill who ran away with last year's Breeders' Cup Filly and Mare Turf, and Landseer, a son of Danehill who subsequently came to the U.S. and won the Keeneland Turf Mile over some of America's best grass runners.

Rock of Gilbraltar's appearance in Saturday's Breeders' Cup will presumably be the last of his career. He is expected to go to stud in Ireland and sire more of the formidable runners who will perpetuate Europe's domination of America in world racing.

(c) 2002, The Washington Post