Time for ‘racing’s finest hour’

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John R. Gaines, from Lexington, Kentucky, died this year, not long after the racing series he created, the Breeders’ Cup, had reached its 21-year majority. He used to say of the eight-race festival, which takes place again on Saturday and carries prizes totalling $14m: “It is unquestionably racing’s finest hour. It defines our reason for being and elevates the spirit of the entire industry.”

The event, which is broadcast on television in more than 20 countries, moves around appropriate US tracks such as Churchill Downs, Arlington Park, Santa Anita (California) and Belmont Park, New York. It is back at Belmont this year for the first time since the terrorist atrocities of 9/11, when many winning owners dedicated their prizes to the Ground Zero victims’ fund.

It likes to see itself as the world championships of the thoroughbred racehorse, but although the prizes are eye-catching and the prestige enormous, it is, in all honesty, a little short of that. Staged at a time of year that suits the American horses and with five out of the eight races on dirt and only three on turf, it is more a North American and European championships than a true equine Olympics. Truly international racing is more visible these days in Dubai – where the purses for the World Cup fixture total $21m – and in Hong Kong.

There is, too, one other circumstance that disqualifies the Breeders’ Cup from being a true international championship. In the US horses may legitimately be injected before they run with lasix, now marketed as Salix, a substance designed to prevent internal bleeding in the lungs during the stressful process of racing. In most if not all other countries on the international racing circuit, the arrival in a horse’s box of a man with a syringe prepared to administer such a substance would result in the disqualification of the horse and the disciplining of the trainer. But not so in the US, where the practice is excused on the grounds that the tracks are normally firm and the horses are often running in taxingly hot conditions.

Partly in consequence, with European horses at the end of their long season, only once has a US horse failed to take the richest prize of all in the 10-furlong Classic on dirt, when Andre Fabre’s Arcangues triumphed at odds of more than 200/1 in 1993. But this year may be Europe’s chance of the
big one.

Ghostzapper, last year’s outstandingly talented winner, has gone to stud, as have the Dubai World Cup winner Roses in May and the first and second in this year’s Kentucky Derby, Giacomo and Closing Argument, which leaves Rock Hard Ten as the best- known of the Americans.

Though his horse, the massive Starcraft, is untried on dirt, punters have been given a huge hint by Australian owner Paul Makin, one of those rare characters who has made a fortune from backing racehorses and feels he ought to give a few million back to the sport as an owner. Punters could get 6/1 against the prospects of his
colt winning, but Makin has taken rather shorter odds. He has paid $800,000 as a late entry fee to give
himself the chance of winning the $2.4m first prize, although of course Starcraft’s stud fees will soar if he adds the Classic to his tally of Group One victories that includes top one-mile races in Europe and the 12-furlong AJC Derby in Australia.

Makin says he cannot understand why anyone would duck such a challenge. He says of his Queen Elizabeth II Stakes winner at Newmarket: “I am his steward and I have to make him excel. This is a dream every man who has ever had a bet would give his last dollar for.”

That said, he is venturing into the unknown with his horse, which is New Zealand-bred and trained in England by the sophisticated Italian Luca Cumani, because he has only competed previously on grass. All we have to go on is that former jockey Peter Cuddihy, who rode the horse in training on Australia’s Gold Coast, believed Starcraft was even better on an artificial surface.

America’s best hope of retaining the Classic probably lies with Saint Liam, who gave Ghostzapper one of his toughest races in the Woodward Stakes over the Belmont track last year.

But one other character cannot be ruled out. The English Derby winner Motivator has sadly been forced to miss the race at the last minute, being retired to stud after sustaining a leg injury. But Aidan O’Brien’s Oratorio, who has since the Derby twice beaten Motivator by half a length over the shorter distance of 10 furlongs, is turning up in New York. At 10/1, he has to be sound each-way value even though he too is tackling dirt for the first time.

Ironically, courtesy of the after-effects of Hurricane Wilma, the biggest worry for most European contestants this year is that Belmont will ride too sloppy after 14 inches of rain in a fortnight.

The 12-furlong Breeders’ Cup Turf has been a good race for the Europeans. Ireland’s Azamour, the favourite and the winner of the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Diamond Stakes at Newbury this year, has recovered from an injury in this year’s Champion Stakes at Leopardstown and John Oxx, his trainer, does not send contestants just for the air miles. His last Breeders‘ Cup runner was Ridgewood Pearl 10 years ago and she won the Mile. But Azamour will need the weather to dry up, and there is money too for France’s Bago, third in this year’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe after winning it in 2004.

Both should be available at a decent price since US punters will be supporting Shakespeare, a son of the 1987 winner Theatrical, who has been brought on steadily by Bill Mott and who is unbeaten in his five starts.

The European banker will probably be Ouija Board in the Filly and Mare Turf. Last year she and Juvenile race entrant Wilko, trained by Jeremy Noseda, were the only British entries and both won.

Europe’s best race in recent years has tended to be the Mile, on turf, and there is support for the French entries Valixir and Whipper. But they face formidable US defenders.

Last year’s winner Singletary runs again and the real threat is a horse whose name would qualify him better for racing on tracks with a whiff of garlic and onions drifting from the stands. The Brazilian-bred Leroidesanimaux, carrying too many syllables to be a race-caller’s delight, has won from in front and by coming from off the pace. He has triumphed on soft going and on firm, in California and in New York. And on his recent outing at Woodbine in Canada he won by no less than eight lengths. It will take a good European to lower his colours.

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