Andrew Beyer: A very Euro-friendly Breeders' Cup
ARCADIA, CALIF. European horses won two of the six Breeders' Cup events at Santa Anita on Friday, and their performances were almost certainly a harbinger of many more victories Saturday afternoon. If the invaders should dominate, their success won't be an accident, and it won't be solely due to the superiority of the horses. It will be the result of an effort by the Breeders' Cup organization to make the event more Euro-friendly. Some observers might even say that the Cup has stacked the deck in favor of the visitors.
There was certainly nothing accidental about the victory of the English 3-year-old Midday in the $2 million Filly and Mare Turf. She is a high-class runner, and she outclassed her opposition, sharing top honors for the day with Life is Sweet, the California-based filly who won the $2 million Ladies' Classic. However, Man of Iron, the Irish colt who won the Marathon, might be seen as evidence of the stack-the-deck theory. Contested at 1 3/4 miles, a distance rarely seen in U.S. racing, the event is made to order for European horses who are more often bred and trained for such tests of stamina. The Marathon was added to the Breeders' Cup lineup last year, and British horses have won them both.
The intention of aiding Europeans might appear a bit perverse. After all, the Breeders' Cup is heavily funded by nomination fees that U. S. breeders pay to make their stallions' offspring eligible for the event. So why would the Breeders' Cup want outsiders to walk off with some of the biggest prizes in the sport?
The reason is that the U. S. horse industry is beset with serious problems; the national economy has taken a severe toll on the business of racetracks from coast to coast. The Breeders' Cup organization believes it has one special asset to help it cope in this difficult environment. Its president, Greg Avioli, said: "What separates the Breeders' Cup from other horse racing events is that we are a true world championship. When we add international horses it reinforces the world championship aspect and it brings more opportunities for international horseplayers to bet on horses they're familiar with. Our growth is going to come from outside the United States."
To help spur that desired growth in betting totals, the Breeders' Cup this year entered a deal with Betfair, the British-based gambling giant, which will feed wagers from abroad into the Breeders' Cup pari-mutuel pool. Gerard Cunningham, president of Betfair USA, says he expects a surge in interest "because of the sheer number of European horses."
Thus, the Europeans are good for business. And the Breeders' Cup has aided the Europeans in two ways. When the Cup decided to expand its format, it not only added the Marathon but also turf races for sprinters, for 2-year-old colts and for 2-year-old fillies -- all of which play to the Europeans' strength. (The most talented American 2-year-olds and sprinters rarely run on grass.) But the greatest boost to Europe was the decision to run the Cup in both 2008 and 2009 on Santa Anita's synthetic surface. Turf horses adapt readily to the synthetics -- a perception that was bolstered when European turfers ran 1-2 in the Classic last year. That result helped spur this year's big turnout from overseas. Now there is speculation that the Breeders' Cup will create a system for rotating the site of the event so that half of the Breeders' Cups in the future will be run on synthetic surfaces.
Perhaps these changes are innocuous or even favorable. Even those of us with no fondness for synthetic surfaces have to concede that Santa Anita's Pro-Ride has produced exciting, satisfying results. It gives the stretch-runners a much fairer chance than they have on dirt, and makes possible dramatic last-to-first rallies like Zenyatta's last year.
But the Breeders' Cup's embrace of synthetic surfaces subverts the very raison d'être of the event: to be a definitive year-end championship event. Because many top dirt horses aren't as effective on synthetics, the races at Santa Anita aren't a meaningful test of their talent. As a result, Rachel Alexandra, America's star racehorse, skipped Saturday's Classic; owner Jess Jackson didn't want to race her over the Pro-Ride surface. Fabulous Strike, the country's best sprinter on dirt, stayed away because he's not as adept on synthetics. And so did plenty of other good horses.
When good dirt runners try the synthetics and fail, the results are always ambiguous. Did the track cause their defeat? Proponents of synthetic tracks will argue that the opposite case is equally true: Many synthetic specialists would not find dirt a fair test of their special talents. They argue that if the Breeders' Cup is run over a synthetic track, that surface ought to be the championship test for everybody.
But this flies in the face of history and tradition. Thoroughbred championships in the United States have almost always been bestowed on dirt horses -- except in categories specifically for turf runners. Even though grass racing has an important place in the United States, no turf specialist has ever been named a champion 3-year-old colt. So how can this brand-new invention of synthetic-track racing claim parity with America's long history of racing on dirt?
If the Breeders' Cup is a championship race, it's the championship of California, Britain and a few scattered tracks that have installed synthetic surfaces. But it is not a championship event in the way its creators intended. That's the downside of Europeanization.