10/23/2014 11:18AM

Hovdey: Euros don't want to get their hooves dirty

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Andrew Watkins/Dubai Racing Club
UAE Derby winner Toast of New York is one of the few Europeans who will try the dirt in the Breeders' Cup.

They weren’t bluffing, those Euros. When they threatened several years ago that Santa Anita’s switch back to a dirt main track would stick a fork in half of the Breeders’ Cup program, at least in terms of European participation, they definitely meant what they said.

The seven Breeders’ Cup races to be run on dirt next Friday and Saturday have exactly two Europeans entered as first-choice participants. One of them is Toast of New York for the Classic, a colt last seen in the United States running second to Shared Belief on a synthetic surface at Del Mar. The other is The Great War, who so far has earned $85,000 on his million-dollar price tag and must have done something terribly inappropriate back home at Ballydoyle to be thrown to the young American wolves in the Juvenile.

The boycott is in keeping with last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita, where eight of the 14 races were run on damp, sandy loam and only three Europeans gave the dirt a whirl. London Bridge won the Marathon, a race now gone, while Declaration of War finished a close third, sandwiched between Mucho Macho Man and Will Take Charge, at the end of the Classic. Apparently, that wasn’t good enough.

As far as the 2012 renewal at Santa Anita was concerned, avert your eyes. The nine races on dirt featured only three Europeans. The colt in the Juvenile Sprint finished last. The two Irish runners in the Marathon failed to finish at all.

In contrast, the Breeders’ Cup races presented on a synthetic Santa Anita surface worked out better than the Marshall Plan. Europeans finished 1-2 in the 2008 Classic and won the 2009 Juvenile, in addition to their usual haul in the grass races. There were justifiable complaints that the artificial track – neither fish nor fowl – rendered the results hopelessly skewed from the quarter century of Breeders’ Cup history that had gone before. On the other hand, our European friends enjoyed those runnings immensely, but they knew it wouldn’t last. Traditional order had to be restored.

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More than ever before, the Breeders’ Cup has become two distinct events. Unable or unwilling to contend on dirt in serious numbers, Europeans will be leaving $14.5 million on the table next weekend, unless Toast of New York or The Great War jumps up with a life-changing effort.

There was a time when it wouldn’t have mattered. Many of the best American-trained horses could roam back and forth between turf and dirt while barely batting an eye. Foreigners were welcomed but unnecessary, as long as there were giants like Round Table, Kelso, Bald Eagle, Ack Ack, Cougar II, Secretariat, Typecast, Exceller, Waya, Sangue, Perrault, and Lemhi Gold on the job, full-service creatures who seem barely related to the older American runners of today.

:: BREEDERS’ CUP: Pre-entries, comments, and odds

That’s why it is a shame the Europeans can’t seem to pick up the slack and give dirt a try, yet there seems to be no inclination to change ingrained habits. They are grass horses – first, last, and forever.

London Bridge aside, the most recent European runner to win a Breeders’ Cup race on a dirt track – any dirt track – was in 2004 at Lone Star Park near Dallas, where Wilko beat Afleet Alex in the Juvenile over a drying-out surface that took a ton of rain the night before. Before that, it was Johannesburg in the 2001 Juvenile at Belmont Park, a result that sent New York’s Irish into a frenzy. Before that, it was the unlikely Arcangues, at 133-1, in the 1993 Classic at Santa Anita. And before that, it was the European 1-2 punch of 1991, when Sheikh Albadou won the Sprint and Arazi romped in the Juvenile at Churchill Downs.

Even the near misses should inspire some kind of crossover. A step here or there, and the Breeders’ Cup Classic could easily have gone to Ibn Bey (who lost narrowly to Unbridled), Giant’s Causeway (beaten in a thriller by Tiznow), or Sakhee (Tiznow again). Such a record in America’s richest race should be encouraging, but the opposite seems true. If monsters like Giant’s Causeway and Sakhee cannot overcome the obstacles of dirt racing well enough to handle a mere California-bred, then why bother with lesser beasts?

If ever there was a year to run something – anything – in either the $5 million Classic or the $2 million Distaff, this was it.

The Classic has boiled down to a Final Four of sorts among the 3-year-olds Shared Belief, California Chrome, Bayern, and Tonalist, with V. E. Day now added to the mix for spice. Since there is not an older American horse within five pounds of the youngsters, how about England? Ireland? France? Bueller?

As for the Distaff, there is a Beholder-size hole where the heavy favorite used to be, so now the race belongs to yet another 3-year-old, Untapable, unless the New Yorkers Belle Gallantey or Close Hatches can bring their best form West. Such a scenario can hardly be called intimidating for an accomplished European mare to make the dirt scene.

Instead, the Europeans have conceded, resulting in two separate and somewhat equal Breeders’ Cups spread over the two days. One of them will feature American dirt horses, the other will offer grass horses from far and wide, their various chances balanced by the effects of travel, weather, firm ground, and the use of legal American medications.

Enjoy them both.