Clouds on the horizon for Breeders' Cup as reversion to US Dirt puts off European elite
20:30 GMT, 29 October 2012
A glance across the idyllic scene from the magnificent Santa Anita grandstand suggests all is wonderful in the world of the Breeders’ Cup.
In the foreground, racehorses perform their daily work-out routines on the same circuit where the great Seabiscuit both ran and had his remarkable life committed to cinematic glory.
Not a fleck of white cloud spoils the azure blue sky and in the distance the San Gabriel mountains rise as a striking backdrop as if created by a celestial set designer.
The stage is set: Blue skies bathe the glorious Santa Anita but there may be trouble ahead
The stage is set for the 29th Breeders’ Cup, the world’s richest race meeting which will see $25million up for grabs on Friday and Saturday.
But beneath the surface there is a rumble of uncertainty and questions surrounding the fixture which likes to think of itself as the annual world cup of Flat racing.
It may not have the long history of Royal Ascot and the Prix de L’Arc de Triomphe in Europe or of the prestigious Kentucky Derby Stateside but the most glamorous race meeting on the globe since 1984 has always had glitter.
Horses like 2009 Breeders’ Cup Classic winner Zenyatta added the sort of glamour more associated with that showbusiness mecca just a few miles from Santa Anita, Hollywood.
But, Sir Henry Cecil’s Frankel, the A list topper this year, has not made the trip to California.
A combination of the 1.3million British Champion Day at Ascot, run for the second time this year and one of the growing number of global counter-attractions to the Breeders’ Cup, was his preferred target to the feature 10-furlong Classic on Saturday.
That shows the ever-evolving state of global racing – something that meeting promoters constantly battle.
But it was also a factor that Santa Anita, where John Gosden’s Raven’s Pass became the first British-trained winner of the Classic under Frankie Dettori in 2008, has ripped up its synthetic Pro-Ride surface and reverted to the traditional US Dirt so alien to European runners.
The result is that Aidan O’Brien’s 2011 Ascot Gold Cup winner Fame And Glory and Dermot Weld’s Sense of Purpose – both entered in Friday’s Marathon – plus Tom Dascombe’s Ceiling Kitty (Juvenile Sprint) are the only Europeans being raced on the dirt here.
The secret is in the dirt: The traditional American racing surface is putting off European runners
The hope of a synthetic surfaces, similar to those used in Europe, being more widely used across American to provide a more universal playing field appears to be a dashed dream with the US breeding industry fiercely protective of the Dirt which has helped its bloodlines and studs develop.
That money-talks pressure has largely won over against the fears that Dirt is an animal welfare concern with an overly-high risk of attrition.
There is also disagreement surrounding the use of race-day medication – a regime US racing has developed.
Many want it banned because it allows the fallibility of certain lines to perpetuate with medical protection and penalises the sound and strong during an age where sports across the spectrum are desperate to look clean.
But there are fears from punters that established form will go out of the window and virtually every single racing body in America is keen to keep the status quo for fear of the commercial fall-out.
However, for the first time this year, all the two-year-old races at the Breeders’ Cup will be contested by runners who have been banned from using diuretic Furosemide, something only allowed during training in Britain but which must have cleared the system before a horse races.
Better known as Lasix or Salix – it is used as standard in America as a means of preventing horses breaking blood vessels during racing.
Its Breeders’ Cup ban has infuriated some of the domestic audience. Top New York-based owner Mike Repole has boycotted the meeting in protest.
Marathon runner: Ascot Gold Cup winner Fame and Glory is one of the only European horses this year
But if the Breeders Cup sticks to its guns, it will also outlaw race-day medication from all races at the meeting next year and that could lead to drastic action, according to British-born trainer Simon Callaghan who is carving out a successful career from his Santa Anita base.
Callaghan said: ‘With no Lasix in the two-year-old races it makes it a fair level playing field, although the American horses have run on it all year and then have to come off it for the Breeders’ Cup.
‘I personally feel that Lasix is something which helps horses and prevents them from bleeding and that would be the feeing of the majority of trainers over here.
'If next year is a totally medication-free meeting, I think some people, although not me, might take a stand and not run their horses.’
Breeders’ Cup President Craig Favel, however, insists there will be no back tracking in their thinking.
Favel said: ‘It has been highly controversial, not so much the Breeders’ Cup but the whole issue of race-day medication.
‘In terms of the Breeders’ Cup, I think the industry has been very supportive but when you put on a championship, you can do it under the rules you present.
‘I talked to (top trainer) Todd Pletcher the other day and thanked him – he disagrees with (the policy) but he is here to run which is a credit to people’s sportsmanship.
‘Life has very few guarantees but our board has made no indication to back off of that.’
If they do stick to their guns, the line up for the 2013 and 30th Breeders’ Cup could be very interesting.
It will be a significant milestone but also a worrying one for the Breeders’ Cup as it strives to maintain its place at the top of the racing world.