09/10/2010 2:20PM

Import stock not what it used to be

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One of the undocumented trends of racing during the last few years has been the decline in quality of European imports to the United States.

Until recently it was commonplace to see eight or 10 group-race winners relocate each year to American stables, accompanied by at least as many listed-race winners, plus any number of untested but improving types who were either stakes-placed or allowance winners. Nowadays, most of the European imports we see on these shores are either rejects, or cheap things with a bit of all-weather form whose owners are looking for a quick return on investment.

True, outfits like Juddmonte, the Wertheimer brothers, and George Strawbridge still send us horses capable of competing in stakes races, as does Godolphin, and the number of overall European imports in recent years has remained largely unchanged. But the quality of former European horses bought by Americans to continue their careers has been dropping steadily for at least five years.

Let us make a distinction between horses who are sent from a foreign country for a single race, liked the Breeders’ Cup or Arlington Million, examples being Goldikova, Conduit, Debussy, or United Nations winner Chinchon. These are properly termed “invaders” or “raiders.” As soon as their American target race is over, they are put back on the plane for Newmarket, the Curragh, or Chantilly. There has been no drop in their quality.

The others, properly termed “imports”, can be divided into two groups. First are the Juddmonte/Wertheimer/Strawbridge types like Champs Elysees, Rainbow View, or the Niarchos Family’s recent Saratoga winner Aruna, who are seeking greener pastures Stateside. Second are those purchased privately or at sales by their new American owners through bloodstock agents.

It is in this last group where the quality has declined markedly, and there is no better evidence of this than the Oceanside Stakes, an ungraded turf stakes that has long served as Del Mar’s opening-day feature.

For years through the 1990’s and the early part of this decade, the Oceanside had to be split into two, and sometimes even three, divisions, in no small part to accommodate the influx European winners at the allowance or listed-race level. The last two runnings of the Oceanside, however, have not needed splitting, largely because there are so few European newcomers of potential arriving in southern California of late.

Del Mar, Santa Anita, and Hollywood have always been the recipient of the majority of European imports in America. With turf racing the year round, it was natural for local owners to search through European barns for improving types who liked firm ground. They are still looking for them, but not necessarily for the sort who can compete in stakes races.

There are two reasons for this change.

One is that such horses cost a lot more nowadays than they did 10 years ago. European owners saw that the horses they were selling to Americans were winning over here, and so prices rose. Moreover, the weak dollar of recent years further increased the price of European horseflesh. For a while the British pound was worth a prohibitive $2.06, and while it now stands at a more reasonable $1.54, many American buyers dropped out of the European bloodstock market.

A second reason is the improved program for fillies and mares throughout Europe. Since 2000, Britain, France, and Ireland have added numerous stakes races for females that either didn’t exist before the turn of the century, or were merely conditions races. Likewise, many listed races for fillies and mares have been upgraded, while some Group 3’s have become Group 2’s. Races like the Group 1 Prix Jean Romanet, a 1 1/4-mile race for fillies and mares run at Deauville in late August, didn’t even exist before 2004.

The idea was to encourage European owners to keep their fillies at home. When there were fewer black-type races for them to be won, European owners could be tempted by the prices offered by prospective American owners. With the increased chances of a European blacktype victory or placing, that is no longer the case.

Nearly half of the horses American owners have been buying out of England in the last three or four years have synthetic form, which is not very good to begin with. And we are not necessarily speaking of winning synthetic form. Sometimes a single decent effort on the Polytrack surface at Lingfield, Kempton, or Wolverhampton is enough to attract the attention of an American buyer.

And while the number of South American imports has increased in recent years, due in no small part to the weakness of South American currencies, we do not see nearly as many horses from Argentina, Brazil, or Chile capable of winning graded stakes. America may still be the land of opportunity for foreign imports, but many of those opportunities are now being sought in the claiming and optional claiming games.