09/18/2008 11:00PM

Synthetic surface strong lure for Europeans


NEW YORK - A Breeders' Cup on a synthetic surface was always going to be interesting, if not downright controversial, but this year's inaugural edition on the brave, untried new world of Pro-Ride has some horses running in every direction but Santa Anita.

Curlin, Pyro, and Proud Spell all appear to be skittish about running on Santa Anita's new synthetic surface. Not so the Europeans, who are lining up for what have always been dirt races since the first Cup in 1984.

Breeders' Cup commitments from European trainers are usually thin on the ground until after Arc weekend. This year, however, there are already at least two dozen foreigners sniffing the Cup waters, despite the fact that horses from Europe don't particularly care for the move from the cool and wet European autumn into Southern California's summerlike, late October climate.

Many of them are aiming at the Classic, the Marathon, and other synthetic-track races. The Classic at this early stage has four European candidates and one from Japan.

Aidan O'Brien has two of those. Duke of Marmalade, still an Arc possible, could be redirected to Great Leighs, the new British Polytrack course near London, for a 1 1/8-mile, 50-yard allowance race worth $72,000 billed as the Thoroughbred Open Classic. It is one of four so-called Breeders' Cup preps being run on Sept. 27 at the one-mile, left-handed oval that opened in May. If the Duke does skip the Arc, O'Brien will discover whether his five-time Group 1 winner can handle a synthetic surface at Great Leighs.

Henrythenavigator, himself a four-time Group 1 mile winner, will use Ascot's one-mile Queen Elizabeth II Stakes on the same day as his final Cup prep, after which O'Brien will decide between the Classic and the Mile.

Arlington Million winner Spirit One will use Santa Anita's Goodwood BC Stakes as his Classic trial, while the Jim Bolger-trained New Approach, winner of the Epsom Derby and the Irish Champion Stakes, will go in the Oct. 5 Arc as a prelude to either the Classic or Newmarket's 1 1/4-mile Champion Stakes on Oct. 18. Casino Drive, the handy winner of Belmont's Peter Pan who missed his intended date in the Belmont Stakes due to a foot bruise, returns from Japan on Oct. 1 aiming for an allowance race on the Santa Anita Pro-Ride as his Classic trial.

If all goes according to plan for the foreigners, three of them - Duke of Marmalade, Spirit One, and Casino Drive - will have had Classic preps on synthetic surfaces. The Classic would be the first start on a synthetic track for America's leading hope, Big Brown, as well as for Curlin, if his connections change their minds and point him for the race.

O'Brien could have a second runner at Great Leighs in Rip Van Winkle, an undefeated 2-year-old Galileo colt who has been freshened since his July 25 victory in the Curragh's Group 3 Tyros Stakes. He would go in the seven-furlong Thoroughbred Open Juvenile in anticipation of the Breeders' Cup Juvenile. O'Brien is also aiming Westphalia, winner of last Saturday's Group 2 Champagne Stakes at Doncaster, to the Juvenile Turf. He could be joined by Shaweel, the Mark Johnston-trained winner of the Group 2 Gimcrack Stakes who ran leading European 2-year-old Mastercraftsman to a short head in the Curragh's Group 1 National Stakes.

The versatile and talented Jim Bolger trainee Lush Lashes will use the 1 1/4-mile Prix de l'Opera on Arc Day as a prep for either the Mile or the Filly and Mare Turf. Those two races are also under consideration for the Freddy Head-trained Goldikova, a two-time Group 1 winner at a mile who may run in the seven-furlong Prix de la Foret at Longchamp on Oct. 4. Head also has his Prix Jacques le Marois winner Tamayuz pointed at the Mile after a prep next Saturday in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes, where he will clash with Mile hopefuls Henrythenavigator and Raven's Pass.

The BC Marathon is a synthetic affair attracting a great deal of European attention. The exciting filly Unsung Heroine, second in the St. Leger Stakes last Saturday, is a candidate, as is the Dermot Weld-trained Winchester, the seven-length winner of Arlington's Secretariat Stakes. Hattan and Illustrious Blue, first and second in the 1 1/2-mile, Group 3 September Stakes on the Kempton Polytrack on Sept. 6, are Marathon possibles, as is Sixties Icon, who is also being aimed at the Canadian International along with Doctor Dino, Quijano, and Zambezi Sun.

The BC Turf picture will remain unclear until after the Canadian International and the Arc, but three O'Brien trainees - Irish Derby winner Frozen Fire, Arc second favorite Soldier of Fortune, and Septimus, who is more likely to go for the Melbourne Cup - have already been mentioned, as has Winchester.

An ill-conceived idea

The British newspaper industry has long had a custom of planting an April Fool's story in its April 1 editions. In 1992, when in Liverpool for the Grand National Steeplechase, I was hoodwinked by the old racing daily The Sporting Life when I fell for their story that stated the Canal Turn fence would be dolled off for the great race because naturalists had discovered a species of rare bird nesting there and the dear things were not to be disturbed.

Since chastened to the point of cynicism, I could be forgiven for thinking that last Wednesday was April Fool's Day when I read in the world's racing press that a horse that wins what amounts to an allowance race on the Kempton Park Polytrack would automatically qualify for the Kentucky Derby.

Then I realized that the Run for the Roses had been stricken with Win-and-You're-In-itis.

Guaranteeing a place in the Kentucky Derby for winning a trumped-up conditions race in England is not the way to attract qualified European runners to America's greatest classic. Winning such a race is not a patch on finishing second or third in the Wood Memorial, Blue Grass, Santa Anita Derby, or Florida Derby. What happens if a horse placing in one of those distinguished races is bumped out of the Derby lineup by a Kempton allowance winner? Moreover, all of the best European 3-year-olds will be aiming at one of the many guineas or derbies at their disposal.

Churchill Downs should get used to the idea that the Derby is not an international race. It is the Belmont Stakes, usually run on the same day as the Epsom Derby, that should be striving to get foreign horses as its distance and timing are ideal for Europeans. If Churchill Downs really wants to attract European horses to the Derby, let management install a synthetic surface like Santa Anita, where this year's Breeders' Cup Classic could be chock full of foreigners.