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Thursday, October 30, 2008

Invaders from…Europe!

Apparently, European invaders are not just an American problem vis-à-vis last weekend’s Breeders’ Cup—the Australian racing community is up in arms about the issue as well. Spring racing there is ratcheting up, with a number of lucrative purses already awarded in key prep races leading up to next Tuesday’s running of the $5.65 million G1 Melbourne Cup.

While Godolphin’s first Australian G1 winner, $2.5 million Caulfield Cup victor All The Good, pulled up lame yesterday in training and is possibly scratched, a fresh batch of invaders from the stables of Aidan O’Brien (Septimus, with his rabbits...I mean, pacesetters...Honolulu and Alessandro Volta), Luca Cumani (Mad Rush, Bauer), and Dermot Weld (Profound Beauty) take aim on Australia’s richest race. Moreover, at a distance of two miles, this test of staying power likely puts the Europeans at an advantage, at least based on current fitness levels of European horses coming in with long route races under their belts.

With last year’s Melbourne Cup winner Efficient scratched due to injury, Aussie hopes are dwindling and, even before the race is run, emotions are running high. On the one hand, Hall of Fame trainer Gai Waterhouse has been quoted in the press saying the European invasion verifies the international reputation and prestige of the Melbourne Cup:

“I think the internationals add so much presence to the race," Waterhouse said. "If we have two or 12 horses from overseas, it shouldn't matter. You want the best horses and if they are the best horses, then they should be in the field. When the Melbourne Cup is run, it's not just Australians who watch it. Racing people all over the world tune in. It showcases our racing on the world stage. ...It is not easy to bring a horse halfway around the world then expect it to perform at its best. If the internationals come here and win the race, then good luck to them. They deserve it.”

Bart Cummings, another Hall of Fame trainer, takes exception to that attitude, lashing out in the press: “Gai doesn't mind, she hasn't got a runner. If she had a runner it might be different.”

His point of contention is not based on a perceived superiority or advantage European stayers have, but rather to limiting their number in the race when qualified local runners (such as Moonee Valley Cup winner Gallopin) are excluded from entry. There are 11 “exempt” races (read: Win-and-You’re-In), six of which are held overseas. Horses need to qualify or be selected via ballot to make the field of 24 runners; there are currently 39 horses hoping to make the field. Final decisions on Cup entrants will be made following Saturday’s G3 Saab Quality Stakes at Flemington.

Despite this war of words played out in the press and on talk-radio on a daily basis in Australia, most appear to side with Waterhouse's assessment that the European presence only validates the high esteem with which this historic race is held internationally.

Substitute “Melbourne Cup” with “Breeders’ Cup” and you clearly see the similarities in attitude—on the one hand, genuine pride in the races' significance beyond borders, and yet, on the other, fear for loss of livelihood and self-serving egotism. Such insular thinking threatens growth and prosperity, and certainly spreading racing beyond local, regional or national fiefdoms can only benefit the sport of horseracing's growth.

Yet, the key difference as I see it is that the European invaders in Melbourne are still running on grass, just as they did at home. The Breeders’ Cup problem is putting North American horses comfortable with racing on real dirt at a disadvantage by running on an artificial surface that reacts more like turf. Thus, I reiterate my pre-BC argument—if we claim the Breeders’ Cup races are “championship races”, then we must test champions on those surfaces upon which they perform their best—whether it be turf, dirt or some form of all-weather surface. Otherwise, running championships on Pro-Ride, Tapeta, Polytrack or whatever recycled carpet fibers guck you want are not true tests for horses who run on real dirt as we have in this country since, what, 1821?

I have yet to hear a compelling reason for why the Breeders' Cup must only be a one or two day event held at one track. Three racing carnivals—held on Saturdays and spread out over the course of three or four weeks—at three different tracks will not delude the quality of the races. Keep only the most fundamental races—sprint, mile, classic. Throw in a marathon only if it is actually 2 miles and when there are quality races of that distance reintroduced into condition books. Schedule the events in conjunction with host tracks putting together highly competitive tiered programs of stakes races for G2 or G3 horses and state-breds. Make it an event that the racing fan can afford and enjoy right alongside wealthy owners, breeders and trainers. Allow people to fall—either again or for the first time—in love with the sport, and watch it grow.


Winston...not really said...

Stop making sense I say. Just stop it.

The selection by ballot, is that an actual vote? Outside of the exempt races, what determines entry?

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Anne S said...

Hi Valerie,

It's great to have a view of the European Invasion from across the world.

My view is that the Australian breeding industry tends to focus on quick results these days and is totally without the patience to train a stayer. Staying races are few and far between these days, so there's not much money in it. A pity that mercantile interests have influenced the industry to such an extent.

We in Australia are devastated that the great grey hope Efficient has been scratched from the cup. I suppose we shall have to look to New Zealand again to keep the Cup in this hemisphere.