10/17/2013 1:31PM

Jay Hovdey: Pool of talent deep on the other side of the pond


As the Breeders’ Cup nears, the winnowing continues, with retirements and regrets coming left and right. Camelot, Kettle Corn, Include Me Out, Dullahan, and Liaison recently were sent off to the breeding barn. Honor Code and Cluster of Stars will remain in New York, while Bajan and Distinctiv Passion will find better things to do out West.

It happens every year, though, so there’s no reason to panic. Besides, the potential cast for the 2013 Breeders’ Cup does not feature a make-or-break box office draw – on the order of Cigar, Zenyatta, or the Sunday Silence-Easy Goer showdown – which means the event itself will be the attraction, as it was always meant to be, with added lift from nine winners of 2012 Breeders’ Cup races intent on doing it again.

At the same time, the pool of quality runners continues to be tempted in directions other than the Breeders’ Cup. The most jarring of them all occurs on Saturday at Ascot Racecourse, some 30 miles west of London, where four significant races closely mirroring four Breeders’ Cup grass events will offer purses large enough to keep the locals focused at home rather than abroad.

Dubbed “British Champions Day,” this third presentation of the Ascot festival is funded by the Qatar Investment & Projects Development Holding Company (QIPCO), a private firm owned by chief executive Sheikh Hamad bin Abdullah Al Thani and his five brothers. Their cousin Sheikh Tamim bin Hamad bin Khalifa Al Thani is Emir of the State of Qatar.

At Ascot, they will be running six furlongs in the British Champions Sprint Stakes for $558,000, a mile and a half in the British Champions Fillies & Mares Stakes for $797,000, a straightaway mile in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes for $1,595,000, and a mile and a quarter in the British Champion Stakes for $2,074,000.

There is also a two-mile race for $319,000 that has no serious Breeders’ Cup equivalent, but it does feature the most popular horse on the card. Estimate, winner of the Ascot Gold Cup earlier this year, is owned by Her Majesty Herself, Queen Elizabeth II.

Otherwise the list of notables includes such stalwarts as Cirrus des Aigles, Dawn Approach, Dalkala, Ruler Of the World, Maarek, and Olympic Glory. Good horses all, but none of them in the ballpark with Frankel, whose presence dominated Champions Day in 2011, when he won the Queen Elizabeth II, and in 2012, when he concluded his unbeaten career with a victory in the Champion Stakes.

“Certainly it doesn’t have quite the same spark without Frankel,” said John Gosden, who intends to run five on the program, including Pomology in the Fillies & Mares and both Elusive Kate and Gregorian in the QEII. “But then, without him around at least you give yourself a chance.”

Gosden and his fellow European horsemen are faced with a bounty of riches this time of year, with Champions Day flanked on one side by the Arc de Triomphe and its supporting features and on the other by the Breeders’ Cup, all in the space of 27 days.

“Two weeks is a pretty sharp turnaround between Champions Day and the Breeders’ Cup,” said Gosden, who won three Breeders’ Cup races at Santa Anita in 2008 and 2009. “The timing really does force you to choose between them.”

Last year only two horses who ran on Champions Day in England came back two weeks later to compete in Breeders’ Cup events. Excelebration, who won the Queen Elizabeth II, finished fourth in the BC Mile, while Fame and Glory, fifth in the Long Distance Cup at Ascot, was eased well before the end of the Breeders’ Cup Marathon. Both were trained by Aidan O’Brien.

Gosden might have won a fourth Breeders’ Cup race at Santa Anita last year if The Fugue had not spent the better part of the Filly and Mare Turf trapped like a rat. She finished third, beaten a length and a quarter by Zagora, with enough run left in her to come back at the end of the day, if asked.

The Fugue had a banner September when she had her way with fillies and mares in the Yorkshire Oaks and then beat the boys in the Irish Champion Stakes. Lately, though, she’s been lolling about, staring at the heavens while her trainer waited for dry ground somewhere, anywhere. Bred and owned by Andrew Lloyd-Webber, The Fugue would have been among the favorites for the Champion Stakes.

“With the ground soft at Ascot and more rain on the way, she’ll be staying home,” Gosden said. “We encountered the same situation in the Arc this year, but what can you do? There’s no sense in wasting a race with such a nice filly on ground you know she can’t handle.”

The good news is that the Breeders’ Cup always promised firm, dry ground in California, where Gosden trained champions Royal Heroine and Bates Motel before returning to his native England in 1989. The trainer is still debating between running The Fugue in either the Breeders’ Cup Turf – against Little Mike, Big Blue Kitten, Point of Entry, and Indy Point – or the Filly and Mare Turf, where she would face Marketing Mix, Laughing, and fellow British invader Dank.

“Perhaps it’s a blessing in disguise that she had to miss the other races this month and come in fresh,” Gosden said. “Whichever way she goes, the key is still the trip. As long as we’re not boxed in like last time around she’ll give a good account.”