The 21st running of the Breeders Cup is this year being staged at the little Texas track of Lone Star Park, but do not expect cactus, spurs or sizzling branding irons. Heavy rain in the early part of the week has provided the kind of conditions to suit European horses in the autumn.
But fears that the ground would be riding too soft for the eight Grade One races on the card, were receding yesterday as the Texas skies cleared. And that was good news for Britain's main hope in the world thoroughbred championships Ed Dunlop's long-striding filly Ouija Board, who has never won on ground softer than good.
Ouija Board's connections had thought seriously of taking on the boys in the $2m (£1.1m) Turf but will instead contest the Filly & Mare Turf for a $1m less tonight. Never run away from one horse, the old racing saying goes. But few will blame owner Lord Derby, whose only horse in training she is, and her trainer Dunlop for settling on the Filly & Mare. In the Turf, over her best distance of 12 furlongs rather than the furlong shorter Filly & Mare race, Ouija Board would have faced the formidable finishing speed of America's Kitten's Joy. Trainer Dale Romans says of Kitten's Joy, winner of eight of his nine races on grass, that he gets chills just watching him, he has such a turn of foot when he is asked for an effort.
Dunlop admits that although he is confident of Ouija Board's speed over the shorter distance: “Plenty of good horses have gone to the Breeders Cup and got stuffed” and there is always the danger of a bad draw with the fillies' race starting on a bend.
Ouija Board, Dunlop said, had come out of her last race, the Prix de L'Arc de Troimphe, well and was three kilos heavier than when she ran in the French race, still with a good summer coat on her: “She is leaving for America in as good a condition as we've ever had her in.”
Jockey Kieren Fallon, he said, had ridden her work the previous Wednesday for the first time since her win in the Irish Oaks in July, and had commented how much stronger she had become. “What he likes about her is the way she can quicken.” And Fallon had no worries about her being able to handle the sharp track at Lone Star Park. “After all, she's been round Epsom.”
Did he have any doubts that Fallon was the best man to partner her after losing his jockey's title to Frankie Dettori? None at all. “He's as good as there is and he's done a fantastic job on her.” A week's break in North America before the Breeders Cup would help. “I think that mentally it will do him the world of good.” Mind you, even the best of jockeys can lose their heads in the cauldron of a Breeders Cup. Remember Mick Kinane on Rock of Gibraltar in 2002 or Dettori on Swain in 1998?
After Europe's successes in last year's Breeders Cup, when they won all three turf races, it seems strange that Britain is sending only a two-horse contingent this year, Ouija Board's travelling companion being Jeremy Noseda's two-year-old Wilko, who will stay on to complete his career in the US after running in the Juvenile.
Despite their huge success in Britain this year, Godolphin have sent no runners. But from France the Niarchos family's Six Perfections will defend the Mile title she won last year, though she might have trouble this year coping with her compatriot Whipper and with America's Special Ring. Andre Fabre's Nebraska Tornado goes in the Distaff. From Ireland, Aidan O'Brien sends Powerscourt, Antonius Pius, Yesterday (third in last year's Filly & Mare), Mona Lisa and Scandinavia.
In the big race, the Classic, last year's winner Pleasantly Perfect will face strong opposition from Roses in May and the beloved Funny Cide, who bounced back to form in a Grade One at Belmont earlier this month. Expect big support too for Azeri, America's Horse of The Year in 2002, and who won last year's Distaff.