Anyone with even half an eye on geopolitics in recent times will be aware that Europeans do not stand united over all things. But, come the last weekend in October, European race fans bury their differences to support “Team Europe” at the Breeders’ Cup.
When appraising the relative strength of this year’s European challenge there needs to be a sense of what could be expected usually of the raiding party. The return for Europe this decade has been 2.4 winners from 23 runners per year.
Europe provides 23 runners, plus one reserve, this time round for the Keeneland extravaganza, and market indications are that somewhere between two and three winners is a sensible expectation. So far, so normal.
What is not normal is that a horse of Golden Horn’s calibre and racing record will be having his swansong in the Longines Breeders’ Cup Turf, or that a horse of Gleneagles’ illustrious background will be taking on American Pharoah, Beholder and company on their own terms in the Breeders’ Cup Classic.
Golden Horn’s task undoubtedly appears the easier. Not only is he a top-class and consistent performer, with tactical versatility, but he will be running on a familiar turf surface and at a distance of a mile and a half, at which he has shown his best form.
A curriculum vitae that includes wins in The Derby at Epsom, the Irish Champion Stakes at Leopardstown and the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe at Longchamp would rival that of most of the legends of yesteryear.
The truth is, however, that Golden Horn is a very good horse but not quite an all-time great in terms of ability (he has a Timeform class-based rating of 133, where 140 or more has occasionally been achieved).
His wins have tended to be workmanlike, rather than spectacular, and that tactical versatility has enabled him to overcome rivals who might have made things much more difficult for him otherwise.
Workmanlike, rather than spectacular, will do very nicely at Keeneland on Saturday night, however. On all known form, Golden Horn should prevail. But doubters will point to a long season – which commenced in April and has had no real let-up – and a sole defeat, at York on rain-softened ground.
The ground may, or may not, be an issue where Golden Horn is concerned, but connections would undoubtedly be happier if the rain stayed away. The ground has been such an issue with Gleneagles that his connections have ducked a number of challenges in Europe this season on even the outside chance of soft terrain.
Connections relented for British Champions Day at Ascot earlier this month, and Gleneagles finished only sixth. Gleneagles is better judged on his trio of wins earlier in the year, including an authoritative one at Royal Ascot, but he now goes into uncharted territory on dirt and up against rivals better than any he has encountered before.
Gleneagles has a Timeform class-based rating of 126, American Pharoah has one of 134 and Beholder (who will get a sex allowance) is on 129: if the first-named can finish within a few lengths of an on-song last two, on an unfamiliar surface and at a distance that may well tax his stamina, then it would be no mean feat.
While Golden Horn may be just about the likeliest individual European winner, strength in numbers points to even better claims collectively in the Mile and the Filly & Mare Turf.
Karakontie is back to defend his title in the former, following a couple of less-than-inspiring efforts on softer going this term, but fellow French raiders Make Believe and Esoterique set a higher standard.
Make Believe got the run of the race to a degree for both his top-level successes this season, but he is high-class in his own right, and that ability to race handily at a mile should prove useful. His stablemate, Esoterique, is nearly as classy, is battle-hardened and brings a stalk-and-pounce profile that could prove very effective in a race that promises to be run at a strong pace.
The really interesting contender is Time Test, who was devastating in victory at a mile and a quarter on the undercard at Royal Ascot and pretty impressive in victory on his first go at a mile at Newmarket last time. Time Test looks to have been done few favours by a post position of 12, but he will surely be dropped in with a number of pace-forcers inside him.
The Filly & Mare Turf looks made for the Irish-trained Legatissimo, who is equally effective at a mile and a mile and a quarter, and who has the pace to be put exactly where her rider pleases. She is good (122 Timeform class-based rating) but does not have much in hand of any of her fellow Europeans. Bawina has not had the rub of the green in recent starts and may outrun her big odds.
The juvenile events on Friday also provide Europe with realistic prospects. Hit It A Bomb looked something out of the ordinary when trotting up in a listed race on Polytrack at Dundalk last time – running the last three furlongs in just 33.08s – but, along with the more proven Cymric, has an outside stall to contend with in the Juvenile Turf. Shogun and Birchwood look a few lengths shy of the usual standard required.
Illuminate has slightly better claims on form in the Juvenile Fillies Turf than Alice Springs or Nemoralia but has stamina to prove, having looked to be coming to the end of her tether at six furlongs in her sole defeat last time. Nemoralia had been building up nicely back in Britain before a never-nearer second to Nickname in the Frizette at Belmont last time and looks over-priced at 15-1 on the Morning Line.
Two winners – with Golden Horn and Legatissimo the likeliest contributors – is the least that European fans will be looking for, and three or four is not out of the question. It promises to be quite an occasion, come what may!
Simon Rowlands is head of international research and development at Timeform.