The Breeders Cup has always been an American party with a sprinkling of Euros to add a touch of exotica but the “World Championships” tag attached to what will unfold in Santa Anita this week looks a hollower boast than ever.
The idea of a “World Championships” without the best of Japan, Australia and other major racing jurisdictions is ludicrous anyway, but even European input appears to be on the slide too.
Coolmore’s American interests mean Aidan O’Brien will always send a numerically strong challenge, this time led by Excelebration and St Nicholas Abbey, but he is very much the exception this year.
Moonlight Cloud is the only other European entry in the Mile, a race all but designed with top Euro horses in mind, and, along with the Turf, one which has been the mainstay of overseas interest over the years.
With Santa Anita back racing on traditional dirt, the Classic will be a domestic affair, as will most of the main-track events, a notable contrast to when the artificial surface was in place, and even to just a few years ago when it wasn’t just Coolmore who pursued the commercial holy-grail of a top turf horse transferring his ability to dirt.
The lessons have taken a long time to be learned but it now seems European priorities lie elsewhere, to places where grass is king and medication isn’t a dark shadow hanging over the whole proceedings.
This year’s Breeders Cup will be Lasix free on race-day but it’s hard to avoid the conclusion such a step, although welcome in itself, is essentially cosmetic in the overall scheme of thing US racing.
Little wonder then that even an automatic starting place in the Turf earned by a runner like Joshua Tree in the Canadian International wasn’t enough to change Marco Botti’s mind about waiting for Hong Kong in December.
The Far East option is becoming much more attractive for top European runners and their connections. Dancing Rain is waiting for Hong Kong. Maarek is going there too. The Arc winner Solemia could go for the Japan Cup. Certainly the days when absolute top-notchers like Dancing Brave, Galileo, Arazi or Sakhee automatically were Breeders Cup bound are long gone.
From a viewing point of view it should still be great stuff although there’s little doubt the Cheltenham curse of spreading things too thin has hit US racing’s greatest shop window as well. However asking those with commercial hats on not to make the most of precious TV time is mission-impossible.
In terms of finding a winner, it’s really shot in the dark stuff at this stage with many of the visitors not even on-site in LA yet. But some bookmakers reckon it is 11-4 favourite about their being four European winners. The Fugue & Co provide a strong hand in the Filly & Turf but there are hardly any other stand-out events to make such a price attractive.
There are plenty who reckon the serious National Hunt stuff begins at Listowel but the main focus really only begins in earnest once we hit November so there are a number of fascinating questions that will be answered over the next few months.
Like for instance is Sir Des Champs the real deal. Bookmakers already reckon he is a 6-1 Gold Cup favourite, a price hard to accept based on solid form in the book but backed up by an unapologetically enthusiastic appraisal by Willie Mullins.
The champion trainer recently described Sir Des Champs as his “big hope for the year” which is some statement considering he has Hurricane Fly, Thousand Stars and a host of other star names in what is by a distance the most powerful yard in Ireland.
Hyping up horses is not Mullins’s style normally but he has never bothered to hide his regard for the French bred. The Durkan in December is likely to be first-up for Sir Des Champs. Who knows: the 6-1 might look value yet.
And even considering the power of Michael O’Leary’s Gigginstown team overall, how interesting will it be to see Don Cossack’s progress over hurdles this winter. The horse described as an “aeroplane” by Gordon Elliott last season holds exceptional promise, and really comes into the “could be anything” category.