(Originally published in the October 29, 2011 issue of The
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By Eric Mitchell - @EJMitchellKy on Twitter
The $3 million Breeders’ Cup Turf (gr. IT) offers almost as much in prize money as the entire British QIPCO Champions Day card, and yet the race is hardly the magnet it used to be for top European runners.
Only seven horses have contested the Turf in each of the last two runnings—the smallest fields for this race since the inaugural Breeders’ Cup in 1984. For this year 11 horses have been pre-entered with six expected to make the trip from Europe.
The lack of European contenders, and not just for the Turf, is threatening to become an ongoing problem for the Breeders’ Cup, an event that takes pride in attracting runners from around the world and that has stepped up significantly its recruiting efforts through more overseas “Win and You’re In” races and increased stallion nominations.
A successful inaugural British Champions Day Oct. 15 has taken a lot of talent away from this year’s Breeders’ Cup.
Americans will not see the likes of Qatar Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (Fr-I) winner Danedream; QIPCO Champion Stakes (Eng-I) winner Cirrus des Aigles; Excelebration, who finished second to European superstar Frankel in the Queen Elizabeth II Stakes (Eng-I) on Champions day; or Snow Fairy, third behind Cirrus des Aigles and So You Think in the Champion Stakes. The Breeders’ Cup has never even been on the radar for the handlers of Frankel, arguably the most talented 3-year-old in the world.
Most top European runners will be shipped instead to either Hong Kong or Japan where the purse money is higher—the Japan Cup (Jpn-I) has a $6.5 million purse, the Japan Cup Dirt (Jpn-I) is worth nearly $3.4 million, and Hong Kong offers a total of $8.7 million for its Cathay Pacific International races. Also attractive to the Europeans are uniform medication rules, free travel for the horses, and first-class travel and hotel accommodations for the connections.
Next year will be an even greater challenge for Breeders’ Cup because British Champions Day is scheduled for Oct. 20, only two weeks before the Breeders’ Cup at Santa Anita Park. The Japanese and Hong Kong alternatives in November and December will be a lot more enticing.
Added to next year’s challenge is the change of Santa Anita’s main track from synthetic back to dirt. The synthetic surface was attractive to Europeans in 2008, seen by many trainers as a step in the right direction and a good option for turf runners. Horses in Europe train and race on synthetic surfaces every day.
One step toward rebuilding Breeders’ Cup as a necessary goal on the international racing calendar is the decision to eliminate the use of all race-day medication by 2013. Europeans have reportedly become more unhappy with the use of race-day medication in the U.S., feeling its use puts them at a disadvantage. Even though European horses are allowed to run on Salix in Breeders’ Cup races, it is a medication they are not accustomed to getting regularly. Some trainers report their horses have run poorly on it because it upset their internal constitutions. The problem with eliminating race-day Salix is the championship may lose American trainers along the way.
Another bright spot is a proposal to move British Champions Day to mid-September. Mid-October is considered pretty risky weather-wise, so the change could put Breeders’ Cup in a better spot.
Clearly a lot of work lies ahead if Breeders’ Cup is to retain its international flavor. Right now, weight allowances are made for horses bred on Southern Hemisphere time. Perhaps it is time to consider carding some races exclusively for Southern Hemisphere horses, so the ages and maturity of the horses are more comparable. Such a change could open up Breeders’ Cup to a number of new markets.
The Breeders’ Cup is a valuable property, valuable enough to draw the likes of So You Think to the Classic. Let’s hope renewed coordination with overseas racing schedules and innovations such as common-pool wagering with mega-gambling markets such as Hong Kong and Japan keep our championships growing.