08/19/2010 11:59AM

Slim pickings atop U.S. turf division

Barbara D. Livingston
Gio Ponti will face three European invaders when he attempts to defend his title in the Arlington Million.

ARLINGTON HEIGHTS, Ill. − What a season Gio Ponti had in 2009.

Four straight wins in Grade 1 turf races, from the Kilroe Mile at Santa Anita to the Manhattan and Man o’ War in New York to the Arlington Million here in Chicagoland. Not only was Gio Ponti named champion turf horse at year’s end, he also garnered an Eclipse as the best older horse, surface be damned.

On Saturday, Gio Ponti has returned to Arlington, trying to become the first horse to win consecutive editions of the track’s signature race, the Arlington Million.

But, the proverb goes, in the land of the blind, the one-eyed man is king.

Not to demean Gio Ponti, a wonderful horse – with vision intact – but the pickings at the top of the U.S. turf division have grown slim the last couple of years. The eight foes who finished second and third behind Gio Ponti during his four-win Grade 1 skein in 2009 have a record of 7-7-4 from 39 starts since losing to the champ. The class of Ventura, Gio Ponti’s victim in the Kilroe, never was in doubt, and she went on to win two more Grade 1 turf races. Marsh Side was victorious in the Northern Dancer, a Canadian Grade 1, last fall, but has failed to finish as high as third in six more races. None of the others has since come close to Group 1 or Grade 1 success.
Many 2010 graded turf results also have felt ho-hum. In last weekend’s Grade 1 Sword Dancer, Telling was victorious – his first win since a shocking upset in the 2009 Sword Dancer. In the Man o’ War last month at Belmont, Gio Ponti won by a neck over Mission Approved, who in his previous start had finished second while racing for a $35,000 claiming price. General Quarters, making his turf debut in his 18th career start, won the Grade 1 Turf Classic on Derby Day.

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Three-year-old filly Harmonious, fresh off a half-length win in an entry-level allowance, won the Grade 1 American Oaks over six foes. Acclamation started his career 2 of 18 without a stakes win. Then he won the Grade 2 Jim Murray by more than seven lengths and the Grade 1 Whittingham by almost two. Blues Street was a high-end turf claimer before he twice shipped to New Orleans and dominated the Fair Grounds Handicap and the Mervin Muniz. The Usual Q. T. has hit triple-digit Beyer Speed Figures twice in his career. He is the leading turf horse in California and would’ve been second choice to Gio Ponti had he come for the Million.

“There definitely were better grass horses in the United States 10 or 15 years ago,” said Barry Irwin, whose Team Valor racing syndicate owned one.

Star of Cozzene won six times in 1993, including Grade 1’s in the Man o’ War and the Million. He twice earned Beyer Speed Figures of 117 and also earned a 116 and a 115 that season. Lure, the 1993 Breeders’ Cup Mile winner, nearly matched him speed figure for speed figure that year, earning Beyers of 115, 114, two 112’s, and a 111. Since 2006, only one horse in one race, Irish-bred and England-based Conduit in the 2008 BC Turf, has earned a turf Beyer higher than 113. Lure and Star of Cozzene both were bred in this country and sired by U.S.-based stallions. Oh – and neither won the 1993 Turf Eclipse. That went to California-based Kotashaan, whose five Grade 1 grass wins included the BC Turf.

A brittle U.S. turf division has been more susceptible to unexceptional foreign invaders. Take the United Nations Stakes at Monmouth, among the most storied grass races in the country. This year, a French shipper named Chinchon – at best a Group 3 back home – mowed down the rest of the U.N. field with a last-to-first run.
“It has always been the case that a Group 3 horse in Europe has an excellent chance to become a Grade 1 horse in America,” Irwin said. “Now Europeans realize that they can send over listed horses and run in our Grade 1 races.”

If that statement holds true in Saturday’s Million, the three Euro invaders all have a shot. Six-year-old Tazeez’s four wins include a maiden, two handicaps, and a Group 3. Six-year-old Summit Surge, a seven-time winner, has twice captured Group 3 races and comes off a win in the Group 2 York Stakes. Debussy, the third overseas Million runner, was fourth in the York Stakes and won the Group 2 Eugene Adam last summer at Maisons-Laffitte.

European invaders have won eight of the 27 Arlington Millions. Sulamani in 2003 (who won via Storming Home’s disqualification) was a proven Group 1 horse overseas, as was Powerscourt, who won in 2006. Far more lightly regarded was Spirit One, the French horse who spirited away the 2008 Million while racing on the lead. But there are always Euros in for the Million, and their overall race record, 8-6-10 from 97 starters, is far from dominating

Still, the 2010 Euro trio appears to have a better chance at taking down Gio Ponti than his U.S.-based rivals, who include the aforementioned General Quarters and Just as Well; Rahystrada, a $50,000 claimer at this time last summer but winner of the Arlington Handicap in his Million prep; Tajaaweed, a one-time winner in 2009-2010 who has never taken anything higher than a Group 3; and Quite a Handful, whose 21 career starts include no stakes wins of any sort.

Are there no top grass horses in the land any longer? Sure, there are. Gio Ponti is a legitimate Grade 1 animal. English Channel had a very nice 2007 on his way to an Eclipse Award. But there is not nearly enough depth among U.S. turf horses to legitimately populate the 18 Grade 1’s contested for males at one mile and up. In 2009, including races for females, there were 35 Grade 1 turf races in the U.S. Gio Ponti won four of them, the Californian Magical Fantasy (5th in the BC Filly and Mare Turf) three more. That means 28 horses won the other 30 such races, suggesting a free-for-all atmosphere in the grassy Grade 1’s.

“It seems like they’re thinning out a little bit,” said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, known for grass horses more than anything during his career. “You just don’t have the depth we had before.”

So what is going on here?

First and foremost, we are a dirty country when it comes to Thoroughbred racing. The bulk of top-class U.S. racing history has been conducted on dirt tracks, and it really was not until the mid-20th century that American runners with high-end talent would focus at all on greener pastures. Jonathan Sheppard, another Hall of Famer whose résumé includes multiple champions on the flat and over jumps, traces the ascendancy of American turf racing to the late 1950s, when Round Table won three Turf Eclipses in a row.

“I think turf racing has got increasingly stronger and stronger since Round Table ran on the turf,” Sheppard said. “It used to be almost demeaning for a good prospect to run on the turf. I don’t think that’s any longer the case.”
Sheppard, in fact, is among those who don’t believe that U.S. turf stock has significantly declined in recent seasons. He does, however, point out that what constitutes a Grade 1 race here and in European countries is something entirely different.

“Our graded stakes program is not like the European one, because our racing isn’t controlled by one central body,” Sheppard said. “We can have three almost identical Grade 1 races on the same weekend, which doesn’t happen in Europe. Here, you can almost back into one.”

Some believe the spare upper ranks of the turf division fall into the natural cycling of equine talent. In 2000, for instance, 9-year-old John’s Call – not exactly Round Table – was as good a long-distance turfer as could be found in the land.

“There were days when we were loaded out here in California, and it seems like it might be a little light right now,” said trainer Richard Mandella, who trained Kotashaan. “But I’m not sure. It might just be a natural cycle, the way things go up and down. Who knows? In a year or two, we might have them coming out our ears again.”

Mandella also pointed out that the advent of synthetic racing surfaces in recent years has siphoned some horses away from major turf events. A turf horse, common thinking goes, can more easily transfer form to a synthetic track than dirt.

And Ron McAnally, lord of lords among trainers of U.S.-based turf champions (four-time champ John Henry, plus champs Tight Spot and Northern Spur), is not alone in broadening the discussion of top grass horses to include top horses of any kind campaigning in the U.S.

“It’s not only grass horses, but dirt horses, as well,” McAnally said. “Quality Road, I thought he was for real after his previous race, and here he comes up and gets beat, too.”

Said Sheppard, “I think maybe the turf angle is oversimplified. Maybe our top horses in general aren’t as good as they were.”

Turf races are more prominently featured on day-to-day American race cards than ever before. To take one example, during the period 1999-2000, the three major New York tracks conducted 833 grass races. Compare that with 2008-2009, when the NYRA tracks ran 1,409 races on turf. However, statebred-restricted races have come into great prominence, as have turf sprints, which were considered exotic not many years ago. Left out are proving grounds for horses who could grow into top-class grass runners.

“As far as a program to develop those type horses, we’re eliminating those races,” Mott said. “The mile and an eighth, mile and three-sixteenths races, those aren’t there in maiden and allowance company. Unless you can jump from a maiden race to a Grade 1 stakes, there are fewer races in between to develop them. People find that’s easier to get a horse that runs five and a half on the turf.”

Mott said he has “a few clients” who don’t mind owning grass runners, but that “some want to run strictly on dirt, especially if they want to have stallions.”

“The game changes all the time,” said trainer John Gosden, who happens to be shipping two horses from his home base in England for the Million. “A lot of those great old owner-breeders that bred that type of horse, they aren’t around anymore.”

Gosden spent 10 years in California, 1979 to 1989, working for Charlie Whittingham and training on his own. Those were the days when the sons of the great sire Northern Dancer – such as Danzig, Nijinsky, Lyphard, Nureyev, and Sadler’s Wells – came into their prime as stallions. Year after year, overseas owners came to the Kentucky sales and loaded up Northern Dancer stock. And back then, a greater array of overseas owners also seemed willing to send their horses for U.S. campaigns.

“When I was in California some very good horses came across, and there’s less movement now,” Gosden said. “There’s more of a divergence between the two styles. People from all over used to go to the Kentucky sales and find all kinds of turf horses there. There was far more crossover with all the Northern Dancer horses.

“I think the other factor is that trying to breed turf horses is not a commercial venture,” he said. “Quite frankly, the commercial market always is looking for speed. Those types of turf stallions aren’t going to get enough play in the States. It causes a thinning out of the ranks, for sure.”

Nick de Meric runs de Meric Thoroughbred Sales, which is among the leading consignors of 2-year-olds sold at breeze-up auctions, usually after de Meric has purchased horses as yearlings.

“Two-year-old sales traditionally have been about speed, and turf horses are kind of late in maturing,” de Meric said. “Turf horses do have a place in my commercial operation, but the emphasis would be light. I think that any of us who have made a living with this know turf horses can be sold, but as buyers of yearlings, we would have a definite bias to the precocious dirt-type horse. Buying big, rangy, late-maturing horses is not a good business plan.”

Owner-breeder Arthur Hancock said he believes more permissive medication rules in the U.S. have had an effect on turf performance.

“I said 25 years ago that people would be buying their horses at Newmarket and Deauville,” Hancock said, referring to major horse sales in England and France. “We’re on about the sixth generation of drugged horses over here. We have a lot of chemical horses that are propped up. You see horses coming from all kinds of places: South American horses, German horses. Those studs over there, they don’t allow performance-enhancing medication. They’re breeding a more durable and stronger horse. For these grass races, you need strong, durable horses. When you’re not breeding a durable horse, they’re not going to make it long enough to develop to run in races like the Arlington Million.”

Irwin said he believes a combination of factors has led to a decline in U.S. grass performance.

“We have fewer horsemen capable of developing grass horses, and the pool is continuing to shrink,” he said. “The raw talent itself in horses also has shrunk and continues to decline because of a loss of top-class bloodlines. Just look at the list of leading grass sires. It has become pathetic. As one who has high-quality mares covered to offer at public auction, I used to be able to find suitable stallions for my mares that would attract Japanese, British, and European buyers. Right now the number of viable stallions standing in the United States with foreign appeal is at an all-time low in the last three or four decades.”

Of course, it’s human nature to prize past over present. “Back in my day . . .” stories tend to start.

“Maybe these turf horses are kind of like old men’s stories,” Mandella said. “They get a little bigger as they grow older.”

Still, Gio Ponti has a chance to do something Saturday that even John Henry, the turf horse most familiar to American race fans, never did: win two Arlington Millions in a row. In so doing, he would also enhance his chance of capturing a second straight Turf Eclipse award while solidifying his reputation as the best grass horse in the country. But it may take more than that to shake off the sense that Gio Ponti, compared to old-timers such as John Henry, is doing more because he is racing against less.