Breeders’ Cup: the strengths and weaknesses of the European challenge

Dubai Sheema Classic winner Old Persian, who goes for the Longines Turf, takes a spin on the dirt at Santa Anita on Wednesday. He is the highest-rated of all European challengers at the Breeders’ Cup this weekend. Photo: Scott Serio/Eclipse Sportswire/Breeders’ Cup/CSM

With Enable leading the way, European stables enjoyed a productive Breeders’ Cup 12 months ago with three winners at Churchill Downs. Sheer weight of numbers suggests further success can be expected at this weekend’s 36th edition at Santa Anita, even if the unfortunate absence of Magical has left a major hole in a raiding party still set to exceed 30.

However, the crucial questions surrounding the visitors remain the same as they’ve always been. Can they be relied upon to reproduce their best form in alien territory, on a tighter track than they’ve ever seen? 

In many cases the Breeders’ Cup might be regarded as an afterthought following championship skirmishes in Ireland and at ParisLongchamp and Ascot – and that is before we get to the vagaries of post-position draw and Lasix.

Then there is the annual conundrum surrounding Europe’s most powerful stable. Only U.S. training giants Bob Baffert and D Wayne Lukas stand above Aidan O’Brien in terms of Cup victories, and yet again the Irish behemoth is set to field a double-figure team with several high-profile names headed by Derby winner Anthony Van Dyck and top miler Circus Maximus.

Yet, as mentioned in this space 12 months ago – when Ballydoyle returned empty-handed from 14 starters – a selective approach remains eminently sensible when considering the stable’s runners.

No European trainer has saddled as many Breeders’ Cup winners as O’Brien, but then again, nobody has saddled anywhere near as many runners. He habitually arrives mob-handed; his overall record stands at 12-for-138 for a strike rate below nine percent.

Despite immense firepower, O’Brien has never won a Breeders’ Cup fillies’ race (Found won the Turf against males); nearly all his victories come from just two races, the Turf (six) and the Juvenile Turf (four). The other two are Johannesburg’s Juvenile (on dirt) and Man Of Iron in the now-defunct Marathon (on synthetic).

O’Brien’s overall North American record in recent seasons is anything but a thing of beauty. A series of lucrative placed efforts from Magic Wand inflates the prize-money total but the fact remains he hasn’t had a winner from 19 runners this term. Athena’s surprise victory in last year’s Belmont Oaks is O’Brien’s sole North American winner since the 2017 Breeders’ Cup. Worth bearing in mind, perhaps.

Then again, O’Brien is by no means the only big name with the odd Breeders’ Cup gap on his CV. 

At times it can seem like ‘Chad Brown vs the Europeans’ on turf – but despite his fully deserved reputation on the green stuff, America’s champion trainer for the last three years has yet to win the Mile, Turf or Juvenile Turf. On the other hand, his overall record of 12-for-83 at a 14.5 percent strike rate isn’t to be sniffed at – and New York-based Brown provides potentially stern opposition for the visitors as he travels to California.

Here, then, with the Ballydoyle battalion to the fore, is a look at the European challenge, along with odds from both sides of the Atlantic. And don’t forget – extra international flavour will be provided by a couple of runners from Japan (Full Flat in the Juvenile and Sprint hope Matera Sky) plus Korea’s Blue Chipper in the Dirt Mile. At 40/1 and better, victory would be a longshot for any of them but their presence is more than welcome.

European-based trainers with more than one BC win

*all wins with one horse (Goldikova and Ouija Board)

JUVENILE TURF SPRINT

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers. AE = also eligible

European record: 0 win 1 race (0%)

A strong-looking European team were largely run off their feet in last year’s inaugural event at Churchill Downs, where nothing was able to land a blow behind all-the-way winner Bulletin; the Euros ended up finishing 3, 4, 6, 8, 9, 11. On the other hand, a similar race on the undercard at Del Mar in 2017 had resulted in a 1-2-3-4 for the visitors.

Star turn

Lightning-fast A’Ali was earmarked for this as soon as he bounced off fast ground at Doncaster to win the Flying Childers Stakes for his third G2 success at 5f under Frankie Dettori. His only below-par performance came when weakening over 6f in top G1 company on heavy ground in France. While it must be a worry that he has never raced around a bend, connections report he switched leads like a pro when given a spin on the AW around Wolverhampton. The draw could have been kinder.

Support team

Band Practice has won on faster ground than that on which she completed a hat-trick in France by making nearly all last time out (sire Society Rock, also sire of A’Ali, was notable for his G1 success on ground at both ends of the scale). Alligator Alley got upset in the starting gate before disappointing as favourite at Doncaster and is capable of better but this looks a very different assignment from the Dundalk Polytrack contest in which Dr Simpson showed a clean pair of heels to a field of seasoned older sprinters.

Home is where the heart is

This is all about Wesley Ward, who seemingly has all bases covered with his three-pronged attack of Four Wheel Drive (races prominently, unbeaten), Kimari (missed break latest before spectacular last-to-first victory but likely to race mid-division, unlucky not to be unbeaten) and Cambria (wide draw but comes from behind, unbeaten).

JUVENILE FILLIES TURF

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers

European record: 2 wins 11 races (18.1%)

Nowhere near as formidable as might be imagined given the annual firepower. French-trained Flotilla in 2012 and Charlie Hills’s Chriselliam a year later are the only visitors to have scored; despite plenty of runners, Aidan O’Brien has never got closer than Heart Shaped, edged out by Maram in the first running in 2008.

Star turn

Top-grade European form is represented by Albigna, who stayed on for a decisive victory last time out in the G1 Prix Marcel Boussac and is now set to become trainer Jessica Harrington’s first-ever runner at the Breeders’ Cup. Although it was soft in France, Albigna has form on quicker ground; on the downside, this may not offer enough of a stamina test for her liking.

Support team

Smart and consistent, Daahyeh is battling for favouritism in Europe, where she has three wins and two seconds to her name from five starts. If she’s ever going to get the mile trip, this is probably the place. Though Etoile looks O’Brien’s second string according to the odds and jockey bookings, fast ground is expected to bring out the best in her, though a wide post makes life tough.

Home is where the heart is

Chad Brown will be looking for his fifth win in six years via Selflessly, who landed the G2 Miss Grillo Stakes at Belmont on her most recent outing – a race claimed by four of Brown’s previous winners. Betting suggests she might be trumped by Sweet Melania, so impressive last time out in a Keeneland ‘Win and You’re In’ race for Todd Pletcher. Neither has been done many favours by the draw, though.

JUVENILE TURF presented by Coolmore America

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers

European record: 8 wins from 12 races (75%)

No other Breeders’ Cup race has been as kind to transatlantic visitors; the Charlie Appleby-trained Line Of Duty kept up the good work 12 months ago.

Star turn

Generally speaking this is race in which Aidan O’Brien has absolutely thrived with four wins and four seconds, though Anthony Van Dyck rather let the side down with a dull effort from a wide draw 12 months ago. Again the O’Brien pair could have fared better at the draw but Arizona’s high-level European form puts him well clear of his rivals on RPRs. He was runner-up to superstar Pinatubo in the Dewhurst Stakes; Ballydoyle’s 2017 winner Mendelssohn and 2016 runner-up Lancaster Bomber were also placed in what is in effect Europe’s 2yo championship event. Stablemate Fort Myers, a winner on synthetics last time in minor listed company at Dundalk, is a U.S.-bred son of War Front on the improve.

Home is where the heart is

One to note at a double-figure price might be ex-Irish-trained Vitalogy, who was beaten by a wide draw when charging home on his most recent start at Keeneland. Other plausible suspects are headed by Decorated Invader, driven out to win the Summer Stakes at Woodbine for turf specialist Christophe Clement, and Pilgrim Stakes victor Structor.

BIG ASS FANS DIRT MILE

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers

European record: 0 wins from 12 races (0%)

Not a race usually on the radar of European stables. Bred to improve for switching to dirt, Ambassadorial is nevertheless a massive longshot in a field headed by one-time Kentucky Derby favourite Omaha Beach, so impressive returning after a layoff over an inadequate trip four weeks ago. Of the others, Bob Baffert is forecasting a big effort from Improbable, cutting back to a mile, while Spun To Run posted a huge Beyer at Parx. While it might easily be dubious, the odds will be enticing enough to risk finding out.

MAKER’S MARK FILLY & MARE TURF

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers

European record: 8 wins from 20 races (40%)

Always a race where the Euros fancy their chances, but the prize has stayed at home six times in the last ten years – including 12 months ago when Sistercharlie (ex-French, admittedly) thwarted a heavy European presence. That was over 1m3f at Churchill Downs; we’re back to 1m2f now owing to Santa Anita’s track configuration.

Star turn

In the absence of Magical, little to choose between any of the remaining visitors, Iridessa is already a three-time G1 winner with a decent turn of foot. Fast enough to score at the top level over a mile (beating dual Guineas heroine Hermosa), she is better at this 1m2f distance and may well be able to overturn recent form with Billesdon Brook.

Support team

French Guineas winner Castle Lady came back with a fine performance after a layoff to claim second on firm ground at Keeneland last time and should be primed for a peak effort. Although Villa Marina is an unknown quantity on anything faster than good, she has shown a high level of form at 1m2f, having won her last three starts at the trip, including when showing nice acceleration to win the G1 Prix de l’Opera from consistent Fleeting, who might find this a bit sharp.

Home is where the heart is

Reigning champion turf filly Sistercharlie will be many people’s idea of banker material. There is a reason for that: but for a neck and a head, she would be unbeaten in nine U.S. starts, eight of them at the top level. Okay she was no more than businesslike in her final prep and has never seen the west coast, but her powerful closing burst is a potent weapon indeed. Regular pacemaker Thais is on hand to ensure a decent gallop; Chad Brown has supplied four of the last seven winners.

TVG MILE

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers

European record: 14 wins in 35 runnings (40%)

Trends players were left licking their wounds 12 months ago when Expert Eye became the first British- or Irish-trained horse to win since Ridgewood Pearl at Belmont Park in 1995. France, though, has provided no fewer than ten winners, among them Miesque and Goldikova. Shame they haven’t got a runner this time around.

Star turn

With no clear stand-out performer at a mile in Europe this year, Circus Maximus isn’t far off the first among relative equals as a dual G1 winner at the trip since the blinkers were added. Indeed, the son of Galileo would have a more impressive CV if he had never been tried beyond a mile, though he is a really strong stayer at the distance, which raises concerns this might not be stiff enough. The ground could be another issue as Aidan O’Brien seeks his first winner.

Support team

No shortage of visitors in an open contest, including that admirable pair of veteran geldings Lord Glitters and Suedois. Let’s be honest, though: with 14 runners hurtling around a tight track, this can be a crapshoot. At big odds, keep an eye on fast-ground lover Hey Gaman, the sort of European 7f specialist that often thrives around a two-turn mile in the U.S. and could become a ‘wiseguy’ selection. Jersey Stakes victor Space Traveller is a hold-up type who won nicely last time over a mile at Leopardstown.

Home is where the heart is

Habitual closer Uni has been supplemented for $100,000 after a stunning victory in the G1 First Lady at Keeneland, where she broke the track record. The only worry is that it can be hard to make up ground on Santa Anita turf. Chad Brown also saddles last year’s St James’s Palace Stakes winner Without Parole, who has sneaked into the field for his U.S. debut after losing his way with John Gosden. He’s been working with Turf contender Bricks And Mortar.

LONGINES TURF

*Best Racing Post Rating achieved in career; ** morning line odds as per breederscup.com; ***odds generally available with British bookmakers

European record: 22 wins from 35 runnings (62.6%)

Enable embellished an excellent European record last year when she won her epic battle with Magical, thereby denying Aidan O’Brien a seventh victory in a race he has farmed.

Star turn

Old Persian’s recent victory in Canada came in what must have been a contender for arguably the softest G1 of the season. Still, it was a nice enough prep race and the Godolphin 4yo is actually a couple of pounds higher than Epsom Derby hero Anthony Van Dyck on RPRs, having looked a top-class middle-distance performer when beating a solid field in the Dubai Sheema Classic.

Support team

Anthony Van Dyck does the honours for Ballydoyle in one of the stable’s favourite races. Fast ground is the key to a horse whose only career blemishes have come in softer, including a dismal effort in the King George in July and on yielding ground at Churchill Downs 12 months ago. That said, the son of Galileo looks only an average Derby winner.

Home is where the heart is

Bricks And Mortar is sure to start favourite as he bids to extend his winning sequence to seven out of seven since he came back from injury at the end of 2018. Victory here on his final start before retirement will confirm his status as a leading contender for Horse of the Year honours. Anyone searching for chinks in his armour will point out he has never been as far as 1m4f. But, though he’s clearly a top-class turf horse, wouldn’t you have just loved to see this son of Giant’s Causeway having a crack on dirt in the Classic?

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