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BREEDERS' CUP 2011: What's Happened To The Turf?

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When a horse like Dangerous Midge is winning the Breeders' Cup Turf, you know you got issues with turf racing in North America.
When a horse like Dangerous Midge is winning the Breeders' Cup Turf, you know you got issues with turf racing in North America.

The Breeders' Cup Turf has always been one of my favorite races on the Breeders' Cup card, but it's fallen into some rough times over the last four to five years.  The quality of the winners and the fields, in general, has taken a decided downturn along with a small feeling that the race quality is heading in the wrong direction.

A constant refrain throughout the history of Breeders' Cup races on the grass (and, really, any race in America on the grass that isn't a sprint) is that Group 2/3 winners in Europe have the talent to ship over and win our Grade 1 races in fairly easy fashion.  That's pretty much a fact of life these days.  A horse like Cape Blanco (IRE), who was good in Europe but clearly not the best of the Classic contenders, comes over the America an dominates every race he's in.

For the most part, we all know and accept the disparity between North American and European turf horses as reality. But beyond the inherent class advantage of the foreign runners is the decline or stagnation of talent on the North American side of the equation.

We all know that races at a mile and a half are few and far between in the U.S. While the majority of races in this country take place on dirt, we hold just a single Grade 1 race at a mile and a half each year - the Belmont Stakes.  The situation is little better on the lawn; there are five Grade 1 races in the North America at 12 furlongs during the year, with one taking place at Woodbine in Canada: Sword Dancer, Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, Canadian International, Breeders' Cup Turf, and the Hollywood Turf Cup. (I originally had the EP Taylor and Native Dancer listed which is incorrect since they are Grade 1s but not at 12f.) In 2010, there were about 480 graded stakes run in the U.S, but only twenty-three of them took place at a mile and a half, regardless of surface.

This dearth of quality Grade 1/12 furlong turf races and horses on the continent leaves the top events as easy picking for the second and third tier European horses.  (I'd write "international horses", but we've yet to see a non-European international horses compete at a really high level at the Breeders' Cup.  Japanese horses have made an impact in Dubai and in Europe, but they've yet to really make a statement at the Breeders' Cup.)  I'll once again refer to our 2011 European invaders; Cape Blanco comes to the U.S. and sweeps the best turf races in the country.  Stacelita (FR) comes over and, for all intents and purposes, should have won the G1-United Nations the first time off the plane... against the boys.  She then rolls past the competition in the rest of her races. Stacelita was good in Europe.  She's great in the U.S.

The quality turf horses that we actually have in America - horses like Gio Ponti and Acclamation - are generally question marks at a mile and a half. (Acclamation has a win at 12 furlongs on the lawn, but I think most would agree that he's much better at 10 panels.)  Especially Gio Ponti, who is a very nice horse up to about nine or ten furlongs, and then he becomes really vulnerable (with a little help from his jock). If Gio Ponti had been running at a mile throughout his career, we might be talking about him as potentially the greatest American turf miler.

Winchester has been a decent colt the last few years, but when he's the 2nd favorite in the Turf (as he was last year), that's all you need to know about the lack of depth within this division.

Perhaps the most disturbing trend with the Turf is the field size; in three of the last four years the Turf has failed to draw more than eight horses into the starting gate.  A $3 million race that struggles to draw 10 horses?  That's surely and indication that something's wrong. And, unfortunately, that "something" is a generally a lack of depth with American turf horses running 12 furlongs.

In order to get the status of the Turf elevated in the future, I think the race will need a significantly higher purse value - perhaps something in the neighborhood of a $4 or $5 million total purse.  If the Breeders' Cup is trying to compete with the prestige of the Arc, and the purses of Japan and Hong Kong, more money is a crucial factor.  Right now, $3 million just isn't attracting the best contenders from around the world, or even the best on our own continent. If it was, we wouldn't be seeing seven and eight horse fields.

The stated goal of the Breeders' Cup is to be a "World Championship" event and to have the best horses from around the world come to North America to compete in the deep, talent-heavy fields.  Many of the Breeders' Cup races accomplish that goal.  The Turf, sadly, falls short.

Below is a look at the last five winners of the Breeders' Cup Turf.

-2010 winner Dangerous Midge is barely a Group 3 horse in Europe.  Barely. (Actually, you wouldn't have to argue with me too hard to convince me that he's not even Group 3 quality. He's raced three times this year and finished 14th, 7th, and 6th.  In his last two races, he's been beaten by 23 ½ and 19 ½ lengths... against Group 3 and ALLOWANCE fields.  Yikes!)  Yet he won last year's Turf in fairly easy fashion.

-2008 and 2009 winner Conduit was much better than Dangerous Midge (a lot better) and had wins in the St Leger Stakes and the King George VI and Queen Elizabeth Stakes. His resume is pretty thin after those, but at least he had some Group 1 success.

-2007 winner English Channel was probably the most consistent horse to win the Turf in the last five years when he won over that bog of a turf course at Monmouth Park, defeating Arc winner Dylan Thomas (IRE) in the process. English Channel's resume was quite strong prior to his Breeders' Cup win and he was a deserving winner in 2007.

-2006 winner Red Rocks (IRE) ran well in the U.S. but was pretty ordinary in Europe. Perhaps that's a bit harsh; he was 2nd and 3rd to some good horses in Europe but he didn't win very often. Decent winner (better than Dangerous Midge) but, again, he was probably a Group 2 horse in Europe.

Okay, so that's my morning rant on the state of the Breeders' Cup Turf, at least over the last few years. How is this year's event shaping up?  Well, I think it's going to be better than last years, while still lacking a "championship" feel.

The 2011 Turf

This year's Turf is missing a good, solid, top North America contender. Acclamation, the most consistent North American-based turf horse this year, won't make the Breeders' Cup.  After that, things are pretty thin:

Al Khali - He's a decent horse but he struggled last year against a field that was really, really weak. He's also 6-0-0-3 at a mile and a half.  That's not very encouraging.

Brilliant Speed - He appears to be a lot better on turf than he was on dirt. He's never tried 12 furlongs on the lawn, but he might enjoy stretching out from his usual mile and an eighth journey.

Bourbon Bay - Solid Grade 2/Grade 3 horse and he likes the distance (5-3-1-0).

Celtic New Year - Continues the trend of American-based horses - decent horse that feels like a Grade 2/Grade 3 type, at best.

Dean's Kitten - Very consistent, even if he generally doesn't come out on top.  His first try at a mile and a half was quite good when he was a nose 2nd to Cape Blanco in the Turf Classic at Belmont. Could make for a good long shot play.

Grassy - Same as everyone above with added questions about his stamina (4-0-1-2 at 12 furlongs).

Mission Approved - He'll set the pace but will need really soft splits to take them all the way.

Teaks North - He's had a really nice year with wins in the G1-United Nations and the G3-Monmouth Stakes. With Acclamation out, he might be the best of the North American contingent.

Winchester- I feel the same about him as I do Al Khali; it's hard to get on his bandwagon when he couldn't beat Dangerous Midge last year. The best thing about Winchester is that he's proven he can win at the distance (12-3-1-1).

Anyway, you get the point.  Do any of those North American horses really scream Breeders' Cup Turf winner to you? They don't to me.

Sarafina (FR), favorite for the Arc just four weeks ago, is now likely to run in the Turf.  With Cape Blanco off to stud following an injury, and the connections of Arc winner Danedream (GER) bypassing a trip to the U.S., Sarafina will likely find herself the favorite on Nov. 5th. Her Arc run was pretty bad when you look at the final numbers (7th, beaten 6 ¼ lengths).  But we should remember that a) Danedream won by 5 lengths, and b) Sarafina was attempting to make up a lot of ground over a surface that played much more favorable to speed than we normally see.  Despite her poor showing at Longchamp, Sarafina will be a legit favorite and a tough filly to beat if she's able to bounce back to her pre-Arc form. But that's always a question mark with Arc horses; their connections spend the year prepping them for the Arc, not the BC Turf.