(By Avalyn Hunter)
Animal Kingdom's quest to become the first grade or group I winner on three different surfaces--and on three different continents to boot--fizzled ingloriously June 18 in the Queen Anne Stakes (Eng-I) at Royal Ascot. Nonetheless, it was a noble attempt and a sporting gesture by the colt's owners. It was also one of the relatively few occasions on which an older American-bred horse based and trained outside Europe has appeared at one of Europe's marquee race meets. While Wesley Ward is becoming something of a Royal Ascot regular in the juvenile races, America's best 3-year-olds and older horses seldom are seen abroad other than in Dubai and at the Japan Cup.
Part of the issue is timing. Because the World Cup falls relatively early in the racing calendar and the Japan Cup is usually several weeks after the Breeders' Cup, an American runner can travel to either and still make an appearance in the Breeders' Cup--an important consideration for a horse in the hunt for a championship. Even if a horse comes home from the trip to Dubai worse for wear, the animal can have several months to freshen up and still get in a prep race prior to the Breeders' Cup. A trip to Royal Ascot or Glorious Goodwood might not faze some horses at all, but a travel-worn horse would be on a much tighter schedule to make the Breeders' Cup. As for the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe meeting at Longchamp and the Champions Day meeting at Newmarket, both effectively rule out the Breeders' Cup.
Another issue is the difficulty of prepping a horse for races on courses that often bear little resemblance to the completely level left-handed ovals seen in American racing. European courses can have turns in either direction and both uphill and downhill stretches and are difficult to prepare for without actually being there. It also helps to have a jockey who is familiar with the course, though in Animal Kingdom's case, the presence of John Velazquez in the saddle as opposed to one of the leading English riders probably made little difference.
There is no question that American-breds can still be competitive in Europe; one need look no further for proof than Queen Anne victor Declaration of War, a Kentucky-bred whose parents, grandparents, and great-grandparents were all bred in North America with the sole exception of French-bred great-grandsire Blushing Groom. His victory is a welcome advertisement for the value of American bloodstock in the world market and demonstrates that American horses can compete at the top levels anywhere without needing medication. Nonetheless, Declaration of War trains in Europe. That is the most common scenario for American horses abroad for good reason and doubtless will remain so. Nonetheless, it would be nice to see a few more American owners and trainers taking up the challenges that Animal Kingdom's connections and Wesley Ward have tackled, both for the sheer sport of it and for the value of each victory to the market for American horses.