Classic Rip Tide

Europe fired off its first salvo at the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I) when the heavy favorite Rip Van Winkle captured Saturday’s Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I) at Ascot, which served as a launching pad for Raven’s Pass’ Classic victory last year.

After the race, trainer Aidan O’Brien confirmed that Rip Van Winkle indeed will be pointed for the Classic, and may be accompanied by Ballydoyle’s other top-class miler Mastercraftsman. O’Brien said that decision will be made by the Coolmore brain trust.

Rip Van Winkle, favored at 8-13, was expected to make all the pace in the talented four-horse field, but it was the Prix du Moulin (Fra-I) winner Aqlaam, the only older horse in the race, who took up the running, with Rip Van Winkle, under Johnny Murtagh, tracking him every step of the way.

As they turned for home, Rip Van Winkle had no trouble disposing of Aqlaam. Second choice, Delegator, from the hot Godolphin stable, launched his run, but made only little headway down the stretch before fading. Rip Van Winkle battled on, only to face another challenge from the vastly improved Michael Stoute-trained Zacinto, who pulled to within a neck of the favorite and appeared to have all the momentum. But Murtagh, down on the rail, switched his whip to his right-hand and brought Rip Van Winkle out to meet his challenger. He responded by finding another gear and actually was drawing away at the end to win by 1 1/4 lengths, with Delegator another 3 1/2 lengths back in third.

The victory was a major relief for O’Brien, who has had to deal with Rip Van Winkle’s physical issues. The colt suffered infections in all four heels that spread to his feet. But he showed vast improvement over the past several weeks and trained in top form, indicating he was ready for a big effort.

Although Rip Van Winkle, a son of Galileo, has won two of most prestigious mile races in England, the Queen Elizabeth II and Sussex Stakes (Eng-I), he also put quite a scare in superstar Sea the Stars in the 1 1/4-mile Eclipse Stakes (Eng-I), pulling on near even terms in deep stretch only to fall a length short. In the 1 1/2-mile English Derby (Eng-I), he ran one well to finish fourth to Sea the Stars, beaten 2 1/2 lengths. Those performances certainly were good enough to suggest he will be extremely tough at 1 1/4 miles over the Pro-Ride surface at Santa Anita. When you can stay on like that and find something more down that long, testing Ascot stretch, staying 10 furlongs over a fast artificial surface should be a piece of cake, as it was for Raven’s Pass and Henry the Navigator last year.

As of now, Sea the Stars is questionable for the Classic, and we’ll have to see if he runs in next Sunday’s Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fra-I) – depending on the ground -- and how he does before we have an idea whether Santa Anita will be a target. Even if it is, Rip Van Winkle will have an extra week to prepare for the race and will be sharper coming off a mile race. There is no doubt Sea the Stars is one of the great horses of this era, but there isn’t a lot separating him from Rip Van Winkle, and O’Brien would welcome another crack at him in the Classic should he wind up making the trip.

Coolmore has been trying to win the Classic since Giant’s Causeway’s heartbreaking neck defeat to Tiznow in 2000. Since then, they have launched an all-out assault on the race, aiming almost every one of their big guns in that direction, including Rip Van Winkle’s sire, Galileo, only to fall short each time. They almost pulled it off last year and could go one better this time around with Rip Van Winkle. They realize, with the Breeders’ Cup run at Santa Anita for an unprecedented two years in a row, this likely is their last chance to take advantage of an artificial surface, which has proven advantageous to the Europeans.

“Phantom” foul

Well, we have a decision on the appeal by Andrew Lloyd-Webber regarding the Prix Vermeille disqualification of his 3-year-old filly Dar Re Mi, who ran down the heavily favored French filly Stacelita at the wire, but was placed fifth for bothering the German filly Soberania.

Despite the controversy surrounding the initial stewards’ decision and the booing of the winning connections after the race by the normally provincial French fans, the France-Galop stewards rejected the appeal Friday afternoon.

According to the Racing Post, Lloyd-Webber's wife Madeleine, who co-owns the filly, and trainer John Gosden attended the two-hour hearing Thursday and left feeling optimistic, with Gosden saying he was “extremely hopeful the injustice will be undone.”

No Englishman should ever feel optimistic in that situation, which many outside of France feel is like pleading your case to Robespierre and the Committee of Public Safety. In this case, however, the only head that was lost was the one that separated Dar Re Mi from Stacelita.

In the Racing Post report, appeal board chairman Dr. Jean-Pierre Colombu, chief steward of France-Galop, stated they had upheld the Longchamp stewards’ decision that Dar Re Mi caused Soberania at least one, maybe two placings.

In a statement issued by the board: “Soberania...regained ground on her rivals after the incident and was only beaten a short neck for fourth place, and it should also be noted that a short head separated the filly who finished fourth from the third-placed filly.”

Now that the appeal has been rejected, it will be interesting to see if the Lloyd-Webbers send Dar Re Mi back to Longchamp for the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe or go elsewhere in protest.

She has been quoted at 10-1 for the Arc with Totesport.

From a personal viewpoint, I did not see a head-on view of the incident, but from the regular race camera, it looked as if Dar Re Mi and Soberania went for the same opening – Dar Re Mi perhaps a bit more aggressively. But at no point did it look as if Soberania’s jockey had to stop riding his horse or even check slightly. It’s not every day that you can get French racing fans to boo the disqualification of an English horse, in which the heavy French favorite is placed first. You can form your own conclusions from that.

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It will be also be interesting to see how the California stewards deal with jockey Joel Rosario and his agent Vic Stauffer following a rather unusual and ill-timed series of events that brought about a complaint by the California Horse Racing Board that Rosario failed “to put forth his best effort” in a ride at Del Mar on Sept. 6. Rosario is scheduled to appear before the stewards in early October. One of the rules Rosario is accused of violating is the one that reads in part: “No jockey shall take his horse back without reasonable cause ... or otherwise ride in a manner which is inconsistent with using the best efforts of the horse he is riding,”

Rather than comment before any rulings are issued, the advice here is to go watch Rosario’s ride on Cedros after reading the stories detailing the events that preceded and followed (especially followed) it and form your own conclusions. Just listen to track announcer Trevor Denman’s call of Cedros’ abrupt retreat. The incident was spurred on when Stauffer contacted Cedros’ owner and trainer John Glenney following the horse’s questionable fourth-place finish, in which he still was beaten only 3 1/2 lengths, and asked him whether the horse was for sale. That sent up the proverbial red flare and made Glenney suspicious enough to bring it to the attention of the stewards. They obviously saw and heard enough to take action and call for a hearing.

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A group is forming on Facebook called “We Want Lava Man to Stay Retired.” Comments on MySpace echoed those sentiments, many in harsher terms. Those community outlets and several blunt columns posted on major racing websites suggest the decision to bring Lava Man to the races could prove to be an unpopular one. All we can do is hope the potential for a great story in the end overcomes the potential for a bad one. At this point, there is no right or wrong.

Lava Man’s owners and trainer realize there is a great deal of pressure on them, especially in this post-Eight Belles era, and yet they stand by their decision. They have monitored Lava Man’s progress since his retirement with microscopic scrutiny and we can only place our trust in their judgment.

As we all know, accidents, whether serious or not, can happen at any time and any place and could have absolutely nothing to do with a horse’s soundness. That is why Doug O’Neill, the Kenly family, and Jason Wood will face pressure on a daily basis once Lava Man returns to serious training and even more once he starts racing. So, it is apparent they believe strongly what they are doing is the right thing. But the term “right thing” has yet to be defined other than to say the horse is telling them this is what he wants to do.  But horses are like children in that the things they want to do are not always the “right thing” for them. It is up to the good judgment of the parents or owners to make that decision for them.

O’Neill and the veterinarians insist Lava Man is as sound as he’s ever been and is showing them all the right signs. People can agree or disagree and make their feelings known via the various outlets, but in the long run it is no one’s decision to make other than the owners. All anyone can do after voicing their opinion is to wish them well for Lava Man’s sake. At least we know O'Neill is the kind of trainer who will make all the right moves to try to get the horse back to top form without pushing him beyond his limitations.

You know there are going to be a number of dissenters who are already loading their weapons in case they feel compelled to fire them. But this is not an occasion where anyone wants to be proven right, so people should just wait and see what transpires and hope the fairy tale has a happy ending.

In the meantime, Michael Blowen will have a nice big paddock waiting for him at Old Friends once he does arrive. Unlike at his previous home, he will be inundated with groups of adoring fans several times each day, and like all the other equine residents at Old Friends, will be treated like a member of Blowen’s family.

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