Contemplating the Cup - by Eric Mitchell

Seven weeks out from the Breeders' Cup World Championships and there is much to contemplate about this year's return to Santa Anita Park.

A change to be closely scrutinized is the ban on race-day furosemide (known as Salix or Lasix) in all the 2-year-old races. The ban is the first step toward ending all use of the anti-bleeder medication in Breeders’ Cup races by 2013.

The timing of the ban is particularly interesting considering how loaded trainer Todd Pletcher’s barn is with talented juveniles. Between July 20 and Sept. 1, Pletcher had 25 2-year-old winners on both turf and dirt, running from five furlongs to 11⁄16 miles. All but two of these winners raced at Saratoga, the others winning at Delaware Park. His stable also won four juvenile stakes, including the grade II Three Chimneys Hopeful Stakes with Shanghai Bobby and the Adirondack Stakes (gr. II) with Kauai Katie, and placed in five other stakes.

Pletcher and many of his owners are outspoken supporters of race-day Salix.

It would be hard to imagine too many owners resisting an opportunity to compete in the Breeders’ Cup because of the ban. But if their horses who have been competing well on Salix run poorly in the championships, there will be a firestorm of protests over the patchwork of rules being proposed for Salix use.  

How many Europeans will make the trip to Santa Anita is another question. The Southern California facility was a more attractive option in 2008 and 2009 because the main track was an all-weather surface, which is more suited to turf runners. In 2008 European invaders Raven’s Pass and Henrythenavigator ran 1-2 in the Breeders’ Cup Classic (gr. I). Because the Stronach Group removed the artificial surface and returned to dirt beginning in December 2010, the Europeans are likely to see far fewer opportunities in the Breeders’ Cup.

The turf races are still attractive, but there is another obstacle for Breeders’ Cup to contend with—British Champions Day, which was created last year and will be run two weeks ahead of the North American championships. A commitment from QIPCO Holding, a Qatar private investing company, assures Champions Day can offer £4 million ($6.4 million) in purses through 2017 for its five group races.

Undefeated Frankel, the world’s best horse currently running, has already been committed to the Oct. 20 Champion Stakes (Eng-I). Khalid Abdullah, the owner/breeder of Frankel through his Juddmonte Farms, has been a longtime supporter of the Breeders’ Cup, but in this particular incidence he seems to be deferring to trainer Henry Cecil. The trainer has never been keen on running his horses outside Europe, but more significantly he is quite ill, having been battling stomach cancer for six years.

Add to the mix that the Breeders’ Cup races don’t enjoy stallion-making status among most European horsemen. It is hard to see how the rise of Champions Day won’t continue making it harder for Breeders’ Cup to attract Europe’s best.

One quick note on the Breeders’ Cup Dirt Mile (gr. I), which at Santa Anita will be run around two turns instead of one. We wondered how much the extra turn might influence the quality of the field. Comparing the Dirt Miles run at Santa Anita in 2008-09 with the same race at Churchill Downs in 2010-11, we didn't find a huge discrepancy in the quality of the field. In 2008 the race included nine out of 12 starters that had won a graded stakes (two grade I winners) prior to the Breeders’ Cup during the same year. In 2009 the graded stakes winners made up seven (four grade I winners) of 10 starters. At Churchill Downs in 2010, only one starter had won a grade I race earlier that year, but there were five graded stakes winners and four grade I-placed finishers (twice the number entered in 2008 and 2009 each). The 2011 Dirt Mile, which produced a great showdown between Caleb’s Posse and Shackleford, was an exceptionally deep field that included seven graded stakes winners among the nine starters. The other two had finished second in grade I races that year.

The move to two turns may discourage some better horses from entering, but overall the quality should be good. At least in this year’s Dirt Mile Salix use won’t be an issue.

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