European horses are different from American horses. They may look the same and have the same genes, but when they accelerate in the stretch, they seem to possess a gear that U.S. runners lack.
It was with this typical late burst that French 2-year-olds captured the first two events of the International Turf Festival at Laurel yesterday. Tycoon's Drama rallied from last place to win the Selima Stakes for fillies. And then River Traffic came from far behind to win the Laurel Futurity.
An expatriate American was responsible for both victories. Cash Asmussen, a former leading jockey in New York before he moved permanently to France, graced the winner's circle after each $300,000 race.
In the Futurity, River Traffic beat a formidable rival who embodied the typical strength of U.S. horses: pure speed. Fourstars Allstar came to Laurel after scoring an impressive front-running victory in New York, and yesterday's race looked made to order for him. He was the only speedster in the 13-horse field and figured to control the pace from start to finish.
Which he did. He popped out of the gate quickly and jockey Mike Smith sent him to the front. After dusting off a brief challenge from one long shot, Fourstars Allstar set leisurely fractions -- a half-mile in 48 seconds, three-quarters in 1:13 4/5 -- as he gained a commanding lead.
Share The Glory, a New York-based colt who was the second choice in the wagering, took the first shot at the leader, making a powerful three-wide move on the turn. He looked momentarily as if he was going to surge to the lead, but Fourstars Allstar was still strong and repulsed the challenge.
But River Traffic, the 8-5 favorite, was just starting to dig in. Asmussen had angled over from Post 13 to save ground early -- "the outside was a big concern," he said -- and stayed near the rail on the backstretch. As he turned for home, he angled to the outside for clear racing room. He surged past Share The Glory -- a strong finisher by U.S. standards -- and then shifted into that extra gear to catch the leader and win by a neck, with Share The Glory third. The most talked-about horse in the Futurity, the English colt Timeless Times, failed dismally in his attempt to score a record 17th victory in his 2-year-old season. He wound up a distant last.
Why do European horses so often finish with the big kick that River Traffic showed? His trainer, John Hammond, said, "The French horses are trained to run like that. There is often no pace in Parisian racing, and horses have to learn to relax and finish well. And this horse is naturally that type anyway."
Tycoon's Daughter won the Selima by only a half-length, but it was an authoritative half-length. The New York-based speedster, Majesty's Bloom, had opened an early two-length lead; the favored French filly dropped back to last place. "She didn't break and run," Asmussen said. "I was not really content to be last early."
But as the field approached the final turn, with the pacesetter starting to weaken and Irish Linnet moving inside her to take the lead, Tycoon's Daughter had advanced to the middle of the pack without any urging from Asmussen. She reached striking position on the turn and the jockey still hadn't sat down in the saddle. He was in no hurry. "I knew my filly would finish well and strong," he said. "And she did."
Asmussen finally drew his whip in midstretch, and the 2-1 shot wore down the game Irish Linnet, with Bursting third and Fashion Miss fourth. She covered the 1 1/16 miles in 1:44 3/5 -- one-fifth of a second faster than the colts.
Both winners will go back to France to prepare for stakes competition as 3-year-olds. But both trainers may bring the horses back to the United States again next year -- especially if they can find such lucrative easy pickings as they did today.