European stars heading to Breeders’ Cup

| July 13, 2011

With the Churchill Downs Spring Meet behind us and the Fall Meet and the return of the Breeders’ Cup World Championships a little more than 100 days away, many racing fans are starting to focus on the historic track in autumn.

More specifically, American racing fans are trying to identify candidates to derail an approaching European juggernaut, while the European horsemen and punters are licking their chops in anticipation of a Euro blitz of the two-day Breeders’ Cup championships on Nov. 4-5.

The results of major races run last week were a mixed bag for American horses and hopes.

The $500,000 Man O’ War at Belmont Park, run at 1 3/8 miles on turf, loomed as another preview of what’s likely to come at Churchill Downs in November when Irish-based Cape Blanco denied American star Gio Ponti an unprecedented third consecutive win in the race.

The 4-year-old son of Galileo from the powerhouse stable of Irish training king Aidan O’Brien, won under jockey Jamie Spencer in the colt’s first visit to the U.S. He did so despite losing a shoe during the race.

The winner of the Group One Irish Derby and Irish Champion Stakes at three, Cape Blanco is expected to return to the U.S. for the Arlington Million at Chicago’s Arlington Park in mid-August. He could be pointed to the Breeders’ Cup Turf, but he is likely not the best distance horse in his barn. O’Brien trains Australian export So You Think, who defeated 2010 Epsom Derby and Arc de Triomphe winner Workforce in a recent showdown in the Coral-Eclipse Stakes at Britain’s Sandown.

But So You Think could opt to take on North America’s top dirt horses, a shaky group at best this season, in the $5 million Breeders’ Cup Classic. He is more accomplished at the Classic’s 1 1/4-mile distance than the 1 1/2 miles of the Turf. And, as we’ve discussed earlier in this corner, Churchill Downs’ natural dirt surface has proven very kind to horses that have pedigrees and racing records that point to preference to grass or synthetic courses.

Kentucky Derby winner Animal Kingdom and Stephen Foster Handicap winner Pool Play, who had raced exclusively on synthetics and turf in all of his 27 races prior to his 36-1 triumph in the Foster, should serve as recruiting posters for European horsemen looking to try their horses on the Churchill Downs dirt in this fall’s Breeders’ Cup races.

The Mile on turf has three-time winner Goldikova bidding for an unprecedented fourth straight victory in that Breeders’ Cup race, and major players such as multiple Group 1 winner Canford Cliffs and unbeaten 3-year-old star Frankel waiting to take their turn in the November spotlight at Churchill Downs. The Mile has always appeared to be a European domain, and the win by Cape Blanco only underscored the superiority of grass horses from that continent.

Returning to the Classic division, trainer Bob Baffert ran 1-2 in Hollywood Gold Cup with First Dude and Game On Dude, who finished a nose apart in an exacta that surely thrilled fans of “The Big Lebowski” who’ll flock to Louisville for this weekend’s 10th annual “Lebowskifest.”

Truly, the Dude – and Baffert – did abide at Hollywood Park, but neither figures to be a major contender in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.

Twirling Candy, viewed as a major Classic hope by some, could not hold off the onrushing Dudes in the stretch in a performance that left most observers wondering if the mile and a quarter was a tad beyond his best distance.

There were two very good performances for U.S. forces over the weekend, and both were delivered by improving fillies.

One was delivered by St. John’s River, the longshot runner-up to Plum Pretty in the Kentucky Oaks, who overcame a slow pace to get up for a narrow win in the Delaware Oaks. The form of the Kentucky Oaks has held up much better than the form offered by the colts in the Derby and this lightly-raced filly trained by Louisiana veteran Andy Leggio might prove to be the best 3-year-old filly of them all.

And then there is Sassy Image, the star of the weekend after a thrilling win in Grade I Princess Rooney in Calder’s “Summit of Speed.” The Dale Romans-trained filly, an upset winner in the Grade I Humana Distaff at Churchill Downs on Kentucky Derby Day, rallied from last to score a narrow victory.

She was such a distant trailer in the Princess Rooney that it’s amazing that Calder announcer Bobby Nuemann could find her, but she was a rocket once she started rolling and found a way to get the job done. And along the way Sassy Image, a filly owned by Romans’ brother Jerry, stamped herself as America’s best female sprinter.

Sassy Image already has four stakes victories at Churchill Downs and might be the strongest American favorite when the world returns for the Breeders’ Cup.

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