10/23/2014 12:18PM

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

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.

:: Click here to purchase a copy of “Long Rein: Tales from the World of Horse Racing,” a collection of columns and features by Jay Hovdey

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.

mark heck More than 1 year ago
to bad this story wasn't a DRF+ only...then I wouldn't have to read it!
TRacingLifeMore More than 1 year ago
It wouldn't be fair to dirt horses if all races were on synthetic and turf. Over the years, many connections figured out that synthetic runs closer to being a third surface that is kind to turf horses, so if the Breeders' Cup still ran on synthetic, there would be turf horses filling nearly every race.
FESTUS ELROY More than 1 year ago
The bottom line is ,The Breeders Cup is not that big of deal to the Europeans.How many Americans ship to Europe for the Arc,Epsom Derby,Etc.?Usually the 2nd tier ship in,thus avoiding the big guns back home.And those that come are frequently rewarded.
Kyri Freeman More than 1 year ago
Why don't more horses come from Asia to the BC? They race on dirt there at a high level. Something to do with the timing of their racing season, maybe -- but Japanese horses run in the Arc.
Héctor Lebrón More than 1 year ago
The euros come and compete in the USA way more often than the other way around. They should be applauded!
Gunner More than 1 year ago
USA hasn't breed for distance on the turf for years, except by accident. Actually, they imported horses that had proven staying power on turf and adapted them for the dirt. The distances got shortened and the breed is now gasping for air after a mile. Why would the USA ship to Europe for anything other than a one-turn sprint?
Gunner More than 1 year ago
I for one like the acknowledgement of high stakes bluffing that exists while 5 of the last 7 Breeder's Cup events have been at Santa Anita with only the first two of those offering races on the fake stuff; thereby causing Euro's to fore-sake the faraway journey to La-La Land just to put on the Ritz. (vive la difference) Oh, and the history lesson was enjoyable. (Anyone?)
Joel Firsching More than 1 year ago
Now you can write an article on how many American horses go to Europe for their big event in the prix del arc de triumphe stakes races. What do you think the results will be in the last twenty years ?
scott More than 1 year ago
"The boycott is in keeping with last year’s Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita"...... I didn't know foreign connections were boycotting the dirt. Hadn't read or heard that anywhere over the last few years. Assumed they mostly ship for grass races because they only race on grass/synth. Frankly, I just don't like this article. A euro just missed in the classic last year and a filly just shipped over and won on the Kee dirt but had to withdraw from the BC Juvy Filly. And the reference to Tiznow as "a mere Cal bred"...... I guess I am not sure what this article is supposed to do. Is the argument that top class connections should ship their top class talent half way around the world to "take a shot" on a surface they 90% on the time will not like? The world doesn't revolve around the BC.