I'm headed out to Emerald Downs today for what looks like a perfect day for racing here in the Pacific Northwest. Clear. Sunny. Temps around 80 degrees. Can't ask for much better on a pre-Fourth of July weekend. (The old adage around here is that summer doesn't begin in Seattle until the day after the Fourth of July.) Before I head out for a full day of simulcasting and live racing, here are some random thoughts kicking around my head on this Saturday morning.
- Just one Grade 1 race on the schedule this weekend, the Mother Goose at Belmont, and it drew a paltry field of just five three-year-old fillies. The field is pretty competitive with Dreaming of Julia and Close Hatches but, five entries. Bleh.
Out at Hollywood they will run the G2-Hollywood Oaks and, like New York, just five contenders will line up in the starting gate.
If you're looking for some turf races to bet on, along with some big fields, Colonial Downs has a fantastic card lined up. The G3-All Along (race 6) and G2-Colonial Turf Cup (race 7) are the feature races on the card.
- Churchill Downs will run the Debutante on Saturday with an almost-full field of 11 juvenile fillies led by Steve Asmussen's Teardrop (2/1). In fact, the whole card at Churchill Downs on Saturday is pretty good, and it's a twilight card with first post at 6:00 p.m. local time.
- Speaking cards with big, full fields; the slot money at Prairie Meadows has surely made an impact on the fields at that facility. On Friday night, the Altoona, Iowa track carded nine races with fields of 5, 7, 6, 9, 8, 10, 12 (with 2 AEs), 6 and 10. On Saturday, the nine races will feature field of 8, 7, 8, 7, 9, 8, 9, 6, 10. The Maiden Special Weight races carry a purse of $27,000, and their stat-bred MSWs feature a slot-infused $34,857 purse, quite nice for a claiming track.
Cards at Prairie Meadows begin at 6:30 p.m. Central time on Fridays and Saturdays, and 1:00 p.m. on Sundays.
I've been thinking about the Animal Kingdom flop at Royal Ascot the last couple of days. Like many fans, I was hoping for a top-level performance from the Derby and World Cup winner and we got something much less. I suppose we shouldn't have been that surprised that Animal Kingdom didn't fare that well in the Queen Anne given the fact that Animal Kingdom has never won a stakes race on grass. Yeah, he won on synthetics and those play well for turf horses, but that's not an absolute. And while he ran a great race in the Breeders' Cup Mile to finish second to Wise Dan, American turf horses, in general, don't measure up well against the top runners from Europe on a year-to-year basis. We see it year after year after year, borderline Group 2 and Group 3 horses in Europe can come to America and win our Grade 1s (Dangerous Midge, anyone?), but our top turf horses don't even attempt to win in Europe. Hell, Animal Kingdom is the first Derby winner to run at Royal Ascot since the 30s.
As much as I loved watching Animal Kingdom during his career, I think if we are honest with ourselves we would admit that he simply wasn't good enough on grass to win at Royal Ascot. Sure, he was rank, but we've seen good horses get rank early and still win. Yeah, he didn't have a lot of cover but he didn't have any cover at Medan and he thrashed the field in the World Cup. If he was good enough, he would have won, cause it wasn't like he was facing a field loaded with Group 1 winners in the Queen Anne.
While Wesley Ward has proven repeatedly that American-trained juveniles can compete in Europe at the top level that success has yet to translate older horses. I thought Animal Kingdom had a shot to change that but, sadly, he didn't. Personally, I'm not sure there's an older turf horse in the country right now that could compete at the Group 1 level in Europe. Prior to this week I would have said Wise Dan or Point of Entry might have a chance. Now? Eh. I'd love to see them try but I wouldn't bet a dime of my money on either one in a race on non-North American soil.
I suppose the short and near-term future of American-trained horses competing at the international level is synthetic runners in Dubai and juveniles in Europe (where they can use their speed to their advantage in five furlong sprints).
I guess this whole rambling stream of thoughts leads me to this question: why do American horses fail in grass races at the international scale? Initially, I want to answer "pedigree" and "breeding habits/priorities", but I don't think that really gets at the heart of the issue. While the breeding industry in this country is clearly geared towards producing speed on the dirt, I don't think that's the crux of the problem, or at least not the only problem.
*Of course, this leads to a further discussion that the terms "American-bred" or "Irish-bred" can be completely misleading. Animal Kingdom was American-bred but there's no way you look at his pedigree and see a purely, unadulterated American style bloodline. His sire was Leroidesanimaux and his dam was the German-bred Dalicia out of the noted German stamina influence Acatenango. So, yeah, Animal Kingdom is technically an American-bred horse but he's not carrying the torch for Mr. Prospector, et. al. The same is true for some of the foreign-bred horses, which at times sport very American pedigrees but are technically Irish, French or English bred horses. We can find very "International" pedigrees these days.
If you follow international racing at all, especially the group stakes in Europe, American-bred horses (or horses that are European-bred but sport a clear American pedigree) are able to win or compete at the group level. They don't dominate and you don't see a ton of American-bred horses at the group level in Europe, but they aren't completely absent. So I don't think the issue is as much pedigree as it is training styles. Or perhaps it's more accurate to write that the training style and our racing conditions contribute as much to the issue as our speed and dirt-based breeding.
Anyway, who knows how long it will take for an American-trained horse to win a major Group race in Europe (or Japan, or Australia, or on grass at Meydan), but this certainly wasn't the year. And that's too bad cause for many of us, (and I put myself at the top of that list) this looked like the best chance yet for one of our older horses to score at a major European meet.