Not to be a killjoy, but the fact is some of the best horses in the country likely will not be showing up at the Breeders' Cup this year. The following are those horses who have either been ruled out by their owners or have run so terribly on a synthetic surface it would be seem unlikely they will show up at Santa Anita.
Before getting too disheartened, people do change their minds, so this is not etched in stone. And there are more promising aspects to the Breeders' Cup later on in this column.
Rachel Alexandra - More than enough has been written about Jess Jackson's announcement that Rachel will not run on "plastics." So, unless he has a drastic change of heart, as he did last year with Curlin, the Breeders' Cup will lose a horse it cannot afford to lose. It must be pointed out that Rachel won her only start on synthetics in fast time over Keeneland's Polytrack, but Jackson apparently still has a sour taste in his mouth from last year's decision reversal and seeing Curlin close out his illustrious career with his only ever out-of-the-money performance.
Fabulous Strike - Arguably the top sprinter in the country, at least older sprinter, he ran an uncharacteristically subpar race in last year's BC Sprint, finishing a well-beaten fifth, and his connections would have to do some serious soul searching before going out there again. He would be a major loss to the Sprint.
Macho Again - The most accomplished older horse in the East on dirt, having won the grade I Stephen Foster and grade II New Orleans Handicap this year, his two lifetime efforts on a synthetic surface were a disaster, and his connections are already talking about the Jockey Club Gold Cup and Clark Handicap as possible targets. He's been inconsistent, but on his best days he's a tiger who can strike quickly. He would have bolstered the American team in the Classic, but on dirt.
Munnings - The fastest rising star in the 3-year-old ranks, with brilliant victories in the Woody Stephens and Tom Fool against older horses, he has thrown in only one poor race in his career and that was a 10th-place finish in last year's Breeders' Cup Juvenile. The one promising note is that he was only beaten 4 3/4 lengths in what turned out to be a totally bizarre race, more like a European turf finish. But it was evident he didn't handle that track the way he handled the dirt. Todd Pletcher has a history of loading up big-time in the Breeders' Cup, but unlike some years when he's had as many as 17 starters, he only sent five to Santa Anita last year. Coolmore, however, loves the international spotlight, so who knows? He certainly would be one of the favorites, if not the favorite, in the BC Mile, but it would be a gamble.
Seattle Smooth - A winner of five straight stakes on dirt, including a grade I and three grade 2s, she will be sorely missed in the Ladies Classic. The leading older filly and mare in the East was banished from California by her owner after running dismally for the most part on the synthetic surfaces and given sanctuary on the dirt. She has not been defeated since, so it seems inconceivable they would return her to the scene of her worst performances.
Charitable Man - One of the leading 3-year-olds, he did very little running in the Toyota Blue Grass Stakes, finishing a lackluster seventh in his only appearance on a synthetic surface. Owner William Warren and trainer Kiaran McLaughlin will have to think this one over. There might be some hope here if they feel they have a shot at the 3-year-old title. But again, he just might have a disdain for synthetic surfaces. It's difficult to tell for sure from the Blue Grass, because it was his first start in seven months.
Unbridled Belle - The Queen of Delaware and winner of the Beldame Stakes, her lone appearance on a synthetic surface resulted in a dreadful ninth-place finish in the Spinster Stakes last year, in which she was beaten 14 1/2 lengths and never picked up her feet on the Polytrack.
Commentator - Nick Zito simply does not like synthetic surfaces and never once thought of sending Commentator to Santa Anita last year when he was at the top of his game, so there is no reason to think this year will be any different, especially with the two-time Whitney winner now 8-years-old.
Arson Squad - Another who was saved from synthetic mediocrity by his owner after compiling a perfect record on synthetics in California - seven starts and seven times out of the money. Since coming east, he has won the Meadowlands Cup and was a fast-closing fourth, beaten only a length, in the Cigar Mile. In the Stephen Foster, he again closed fast to finish fourth, beaten only 1 1/4 lengths. No way he's going back to California, especially with owner Jay Em Ess Stable having the exciting Hollywood Gold Cup winner Rail Trip.
Benny the Bull - Although it was back in April 2007, he did finish a dull sixth over Keeneland's Polytrack in his only ever appearance on a synthetic surface. He's come a long way since, and that may be a mere speck in the past to IEAH Stables and Rick Dutrow. But it is still there.
Again, we're not saying that none of these horses will run in the Breeders' Cup, but from their record and the actions and comments of their owners, it seems unlikely or at best questionable at this time, with the emphasis on "at this time."
Now, let's look at the bright side. As mentioned, we found an exciting new star in Rail Trip, who turned in a huge performance in the Hollywood Gold Cup. And it couldn't have come at a more opportune moment. Now is the time to begin fortifying our army if we want to have any hope of turning back the impending European onslaught this year. This applies mainly to the Classic, following our ignominious defeat last year at the hands of two Euro milers.
Rail Trip, who began his career with five soft races, was never asked to run to the wire and must have thought this was an easy game. Therefore, he was not prepared when top-class horses looked him in the eye and refused to go away. So, he had to learn his lessons under fire against stakes horses. His two defeats in graded stakes made him grow up in a hurry and he was primed and ready for the Hollywood Gold Cup. What was encouraging was the way he stalked the pace and then blew the doors off last year's Swaps Stakes winner Tres Borrachos, who finished nearly five lengths clear of the third horse. His final quarter in :24 3/5 suggests the boy has turned into a man. Now that we know he is effective at 1 1/4 miles and has the right running style and temperament for the BC Classic, he should be able to give anyone -- Americans and Euros -- all they can handle.
We can only hope Zenyatta continues her unbeaten streak and heads to the Classic to give the home team and the race itself some extra spark, as Curlin did last year. That would leave stablemate Life is Sweet to be the star of the Ladies Classic, unless she, too, heads to the "other" Classic following her impressive third-place finish in the Hollywood Gold Cup. We know Einstein certainly is a worthy combatant. We have no idea what's happening with Well Armed, who turned in the biggest shocker last year when he faded badly in the BC Dirt Mile, which for the third year since its inception will not be run at a mile on the dirt. After his Dubai World Cup demolition, perhaps they'll try their luck at the Classic this year. We still don't know if he's better on dirt or synthetic. We're also playing the waiting game with Tiago and Colonel John, whose return would be welcome for sure.
And the jury definitely is still out on synthetic virgins Dry Martini and Asiatic Boy, one-two, respectively in the Suburban Handicap; and Texas Mile and Cornhusker winner, the venerable 7-year-old horse Jonesboro.
On the 3-year-old front, we'll have to wait to see how the "Bird Brothers," Mine That Bird and Summer Bird, fare this summer, as well as some of the other top-class sophomores still in training. It says a lot for this year's crop, which has been decimated by injury, that there are so many horses still around that could be major factors in the Classic if they can handle the Pro-Ride. The recent loss of Pioneerof the Nile was a major blow.
Fortunately, we know that Mine That Bird can handle Woodbine's Polytrack, so that is at least encouraging. But we won't know if Summer Bird, Quality Road and the others will handle the synthetic until they run on it. One 3-year-old with enormous potential who has run well on both dirt and synthetic is Mythical Power, an imposing colt who could become a major force in the division. And let's see how far California-based Grazen wants to go after his victory in the Affirmed Handicap, his third straight win.
As much as we try to raise our hopes, we must remember that the Europeans could be a lot more powerful than last year if their leading horses head this way. Sea the Stars, winner of the English 2,000 Guineas, English Derby, and Coral Eclipse Stakes, is on the threshold of superstardom, and has already been mentioned as a possible BC Classic candidate. And Coolmore's Irish Derby winner Fame and Glory, Irish 2,000 Guineas and St. James's Palace Stakes winner Mastercraftsman, Irish Derby runner-up Golden Sword, and Eclipse runner-up Rip Van Winkle, and several others from Ballydoyle are not far behind. Last year's impressive BC Turf winner Conduit is still around and in good form, and Prince of Wales's Stakes and Prix Ganay winner Vision d'Etat, who captured last year's French Derby, looks to be a formidable foe at 1 1/4 miles.
Although all the filly talk here is of Rachel Alexandra and Zenyatta (and let's not forget the imminent return of Stardom Bound who loves the Pro-Ride), Europe has several budding female superstars in undefeated French Oaks winner Stacelita, English and Irish Oaks winner Sariska, and the brilliant miler Ghanaati, winner of the 1,000 Guineas and Coronation Stakes. Together, they have won 11 of 13 starts. And let's not forget that Goldikova, who had jaws dropping in the BC Mile last year, is rounding back in form after winning the group I Falmouth Stakes last weekend. That is some group of femme fatales to keep an eye on. Combined with the aforementioned colts, and others lurking in the wings, such as Michael Stoute's hard-knocking Coronation Cup and Yorkshire Cup winner Ask, Europe could be on the verge of launching one of its most potent invasions ever.
Our main hopes right now are the ever-improving Man o' War winner Gio Ponti, who is rapidly developing into a Manila-like grass star that can do anything, and the swashbuckling Presious Passion, who is unlike anything the Europeans have ever seen. The only horses over there that run with the same reckless abandon and gusto on the front end are no-hope pacesetters who usually barely make it to the finish line. The Euros have never encountered a horse like Presious Passion, who runs as if he's being chased by demons. He can open 10, 15, or 20 lengths on you and rip off dazzling fractions, and even if you catch up to him, good luck getting by him. And even if you do get by him, try staying there. Relax for one second and he's all over you again. Remember Michael Meyers from "Halloween?" Every time you think he's dead, there is he coming at you again.
Another synthetic horse who should be tough to beat in the BC Sprint if he continues to progress and mature is the pure speed freak Zensational, who ran older horses off their feet in the grade I Triple Bend last week, going seven furlongs for the first time.
So, although it will be a major disappointment if we lose so many major stars, there is a glimmer of hope. There better be, or else Santa Anita could very well be a playground for the Europeans once again.