10/26/2008 11:00PM

Never underestimate Euros, Baffert, or Gomez

Email

There were several obvious, and not so obvious, lessons learned from the 14 Breeders' Cup races run at Santa Anita on Friday and Saturday.

After European invaders won five Breeders' Cup races, including the $5 million BC Classic, we are certain to see more top European horses return to this venue for the 2009 Breeders' Cup.

As explained by John Gosden, trainer of BC Juvenile Turf winner Donativum and BC Classic winner Raven's Pass, the success of the Euro invasion was not merely due to good horses in good form. According to Gosden, it was directly related to the absence of steroids for the first time in Breeders' Cup history and the change from a dirt main track to a synthetic racing surface.

"We knew we would be playing on a level playing field this time," Gosden said. "Many of us felt it would bring us closer together with a better chance to win."

Watching 2007 Horse of the Year Curlin struggle to keep his momentum in the final furlong of the 10-furlong Classic, confirmed fears expressed by Curlin's owner Jess Jackson and his trainer Steve Asmussen that Curlin might not be as strong on Pro-Ride as he has been on conventional dirt.

Curlin did train well over the track and moved smoothly into contention while looping several rivals on the final turn, but he did not sustain that run all the way to the wire. This was in contrast to the way the two high-class European milers, Raven's Pass and Henrythenavigator, showed such strength powering through the stretch on the Pro-Ride despite racing a full quarter-mile beyond their usual distance. Even Tiago, a notorious purse nibbler, was able to outfinish Curlin for third in the final yards.

Trainer Steve Asmussen summed it up succinctly: "It looked like a turf race, not a dirt race," he said. "I think we know that Curlin is not a turf horse and I don't believe he's at his best on a synthetic track either."

Nothing has been firmly set in stone, but Curlin probably left the stage with a $10 million bankroll from a great career and with a shaky claim to repeat as Horse of the Year for 2008.

That honor could, or should go, to the amazing 4-year-old filly Zenyatta, who won all seven of her races this year, including a seemingly effortless score over last year's champion filly Ginger Punch in the Apple Blossom on the main dirt track at Oaklawn Park in April and an equally dominating triumph over five Grade 1 winners in the $2 million BC Ladies' Classic on Friday.

"Curlin is a great horse, but Zenyatta was undefeated and beat such a strong field, she should strongly be considered for that title [Horse of the Year]," trainer John Shirreffs said.

No stain on Curlin, but I concur.

We also learned - or were reminded at least - that Bob Baffert still knows how to identify and train really good horses, especially sprinters and promising 2-year-olds.

"Midnight Lute is the best horse I ever trained," said the man who trained 2001 Horse of the Year Point Given, among other champions.

Fact is, while Baffert was dealing with Midnight Lute's recent hoof injury, he took a page from his own training book, reprising the shrewd mix of patience and fast workouts that helped him win his first Breeders' Cup with Thirty Slews in the 1992 BC Sprint.

With the 2-year-old Midshipman, Baffert steadily improved upon the colt's very good form in three prior races with two speed drills and two stamina moves at six furlongs following Midshipman's close second to Street Hero in the Sept. 20 Norfolk Stakes on the Pro-Ride track.

The aggressive training regimen helped the son of Unbridled's Song make an early run to the lead from a tough outer post position en route to a victory in the same BC race his sire won in 1995. Fact is, the victory was even more impressive than it may have appeared, given that no other front-runner won a BC race on dirt or turf this year.

We also had a few reminders that jockey Garrett Gomez has become the best money rider in contemporary American racing, while Mike Smith's Breeders' Cup form also cannot be faulted any more than American observers can take lightly the flare for greatness that Frankie Dettori brings to the saddle in world-class events.

Gomez won four BC races over the two days, including two for Baffert. Smith handled Zenyatta with supreme confidence, rallying past the entire field in the Ladies' Classic and he used the identical approach to guide the exciting 2-year-old filly Stardom Bound to victory in the Juvenile Fillies. While Gomez has eight BC wins, Smith now is tied with retired Pat Day with 12 in his career, just three behind the all-time leader, retired Jerry Bailey.

Dettori, a top international talent with considerable flare, made an authoritative statement in this Breeders' Cup with two of the finest rides of the two-day event.

With the 2-year-old Donativum, Dettori had to work out a trip from tight quarters turning into the stretch before he knifed his way through a narrow opening to get Donativum into full stride to edge a sharp Westphalia and a hard-trying Coronet of a Baron in a tough contest from start to finish.

In the Classic, in which Dettori earned his eighth BC win, he settled Raven's Pass toward the rear of the pack and followed Curlin all the way around until he moved into the clear for the surge he needed to take the lead in midstretch.

Even Gosden wasn't sure Raven's Pass would handle the Classic distance and he specifically gave Dettori credit for the way Raven's Pass finished in full stride.

"He's truly a master," Gosden said.

The two-day Breeders' Cup had no breakdowns, no lame horses, no horses that seemed to completely dislike the Pro Ride, although as noted, some, such as Curlin, did not perform at their very best on the new surface. If there was any criticism of the racing surfaces, it was the ultra fast condition of both tracks. Frankly, I doubt there have been many half-mile fractions on dirt or turf clocked in 41.81 seconds, or six furlongs in 1:05.32. Those were the fractions for the 6 1/2-furlong BC Turf Sprint won by 36-1 shot Desert Code, who came from far back under Richard Migliore to catch Dettori aboard Diabolical, who had opened a two-length lead with his surge to the front 60 yards from the wire.

The three highest-rated New York jockeys - John Velasquez, Cornelio Velasquez, and Edgar Prado - failed to win a BC race, as did Southern California's leading rider this year, Rafael Bejarano.

With the exception of Hall of Famer Jonathan Sheppard and relative newcomer Chad Brown, no other Eastern-based trainer won a BC race this year. Sheppard's Forever Together took the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf with Julien Leparoux aboard, and Brown won the BC Juvenile Fillies Turf with undefeated Maram, ridden by New Jersey-based Jose Lezcano. At Monmouth Park in 2007, New York-based trainers dominated the BC races.

Europe's Aidan O'Brien, who is chasing trainer Bobby Frankel's all-time record for the most Grade 1 stakes wins in a season, failed to win a BC race, although he did get three seconds, including a tough beat with Westpahlia in the Juvenile Turf, Henrythenavigator in the Classic, and Heart Shaped in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. We should expect him to be back in full force next year along with many other European-based horsemen.

Some in this country may argue about the sudden transition to synthetic track racing, but the 2008 Breeders' Cup results certainly proved that Euros with high-class turf form can win any race on the BC card.