09/30/2011 3:12PM

Will America’s best be good enough in Breeders' Cup Turf?


The idea that an American-based racehorse could win the Breeders’ Cup Turf this or any other year in the foreseeable future has become one of those goofy, off-the-wall notions that has grown men holding their sides and falling off barstools.

In the dozen runnings since that fighting Illini Buck’s Boy towed a large field around Churchill Downs to win the 1998 BC Turf, there have been only three Yanks get the money. Johar ran the best race of his life to dead heat with High Chaparral at Santa Anita in 2003. Better Talk Now, the longest price in the field, took advantage of a gooey Lone Star course and flaky ride by Jamie Spencer on Powerscourt to win in 2004. And in 2007, over a washed out Monmouth course only a Smart Strike could love, English Channel won by a silly seven lengths.

In the meantime, Europeans have had their way, blissfully experimenting with precisely how much horse is required to get the money. Sometimes a true classic winner such as Conduit or High Chaparral is the answer. In other years, all it takes is a modestly accomplished club fighter, typified by the likes of Red Rocks or last year’s winner, Dangerous Midge. The outcome is the same, and as a result, the race has become a free spot for foreign interests who have come to see the Breeders’ Cup Turf as their own.

Europe’s built-in advantage of cultivating nothing but turf horses is sort of obvious. But Americans used to think they at least had a shot. Manila was not intimidated by Dancing Brave in the 1986 BC Turf, even though he should have been. Great Communicator and Sunshine Forever, first and second in 1988, turned back the fabulous European mares Indian Skimmer and Triptych. When Prized won his BC Turf in 1989, the 2-3-4 finishers were all continental invaders. And in 1992, Allen Paulson’s homebred Fraise thumped a pair of Epsom Derby winners, Dr. Devious and Quest for Fame.

Such ancient history emanates from a time when the best North American grass races were as competitively testing as their European counterparts. Never more. As market breeders began producing more horses aimed for early development on dirt – as in “Kentucky Derby or bust” – the pool of potential long-distance American turf runners began to go dry. For a time, the division was propped up by imports bought by American owners or by foreign stables like Juddmonte with a strong American presence. Such trends have ebbed, though, taking with them what used to be a robustly funded schedule of major grass stakes. Now, beyond the Breeders’ Cup and the Arlington Million, the richest North American turf races take place in Canada.

With races honoring the two Hirsches on tap – Joe in the East and Clement out West – this weekend’s major action on grass figured to isolate the best American challengers for the Breeders’ Cup Turf next month at Churchill Downs. Problem is, the best turf horse in the East this season is Cape Blanco, who lives full time in Ireland. And the best turf horse in California is Acclamation, who suffers a meltdown every time he journeys east. Both of them were scheduled to run.

Giving chase to Acclamation in Sunday’s Clement Hirsch will be Champ Pegasus, a son of Fusaichi Pegasus who won the race last year when it was contested at Hollywood Park. Champ Pegasus went on to give Dangerous Midge a run for his money in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, then earlier this year traded desperate decisions against Bourbon Bay over the Santa Anita course. A trip to Dubai for the Sheema Classic in March put the brakes on his 2011 campaign.

“He came back sore from that race and lit up on X-ray with a possible problem in a cannon bone,” Mandella said. “It wasn’t a fracture, but it had a little bit of gray area that scared us. Given that, it could have been a very bad day in Dubai. As it was, we gave him a couple months off, he X-rayed clean, and he’s been real good ever since.”

Champ Pegasus returned in the Del Mar Mile on Aug. 27 and finished fifth of six, two lengths behind the victorious Caracortado.

“I was experimenting a little bit to see how he’d go in the mile fresh like he was,” Mandella noted. “He didn’t have as perfect a trip as he could have, and he didn’t run bad. We’ll just call that a practice swing.”

The purse for the California Hirsch has shrunk to $150,000, compared to an enticing $500,000 for the New York Hirsch, a fact that would elicit the drollest of observations from Joe himself were he available – something along the lines of, “Well what do you expect, the housing market being what it is.”

“You can only take so much out of the purse structure for stakes,” Mandella offered. “That’s what we’re faced with now, but everything seems to go up and down. For the money, though, this is a pretty classy race.”

With the prep under his belt, Champ Pegasus comes back with Garrett Gomez replacing Joel Rosario and another run at the Breeders’ Cup on the line, which would be consistent with the stable policy. Mandella (Kotashaan and Johar) and Bill Mott (Theatrical and Fraise) are the only American trainers to have won as many as two runnings of the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

“He made us awful proud last year,“ Mandella said. “I’m just hoping his race on Sunday is good enough to make us want to go again.”