Yesterday's G2-San Marcos at Santa Anita was another reminder of sometimes glaring disparity in talent level between turf races in North America and those in Europe. If you follow the results of European turf shippers to North America on a yearly basis, it's readily apparent that low-level Group winners in England, Ireland and France can, many times, immediately challenge Grade 1 level horses in North America. At the Breeders' Cup, the two-day collection of North America's top racing talents, horses that haven't even won at the Group level in Europe can hold their own in most of the turf races.
The San Marcos was won in gate to wire fashion by Slim Shadey (GB), a four-year-old gelding that recently shipped to the United States from the U.K. after finding little success in his native land. He won just one race from fifteen starts, a novice stakes at Ascot in July of 2010, and was thoroughly trashed by Frankel (GB) in last year's 2,000 Guineas, losing by over 17 lengths. He lost the Irish 2,000 Guineas by ten lengths to Roderic O'Connor (IRE) and spent the rest of the year running up the track in non-Group races. Slim Shadey made his U.S. debut against Allowance competition in Jan 2nd and ran poorly once again. Finally, in his last start before the San Marcos, after being stretched back out to 10 furlongs, he found a measure of success en route to a 1 1/4 length victory against Optional Claiming/N1X company. He had run at 10 furlongs twice in England and lost by a combined 53 1/4 lengths against non-group competition.
To be fair to Slim Shadey, lots of horses got thrashed by Frankel last year, many of which are very talented. On the other hand, Frankel wasn't the only horse to thrash Slim Shadey; he lost badly in a variety of conditions.
There are certainly several things that could have aided Slim Shadey once he came to the United States. It's possible that running on the anti-bleeding medication Lasix solved some of the problems he experienced in Europe. Or perhaps he found the completely flat, hard, and non-taxing turf courses in North America much more to his liking. Or maybe he's just a late developer that didn't realize his fully talents until his four-year-old year (not uncommon among horses). While any combination of those factors probably a roll in Slim Shadey going from European also-ran to North American graded stakes winner, the weakness of the turf races in this country can't be ignored as a major factor in this turnaround.
Sanagas (GER), the favorite for yesterday's San Marcos, is another example of a so-so European horses immediately competing at the highest level in North America. Prior to shipping to North America, Sanagas had found success in minor events in Germany but had never so much as raced against Group competition in his career. In six starts since he came to North America, he's won three races, including the G3-Sycamore at Keeneland and the G1-Hollywood Turf Cup. Again, there could be a number of factors that led to Sanagas improvement once he came to the United States, but there's a difference between a horse that improves and one that all of a sudden becomes a graded stakes winner.
We need no more evidence of disparity between turf racing in North America and Europe than the fact that it is extremely rare to see any horses from North America ship to Europe and successfully compete against Group competition. In the last few years, trainer Wesley Ward has sent a group of juveniles to England and France after the Keeneland spring meet and has found moderate success, primarily against non-group competition. In the big picture, however, Ward is the extreme exception to the rule. Not only do North American horses never compete at the highest level in Europe, very few owners and trainers even make an attempt. One has to do a lot of digging just to find North American horses that have even competed in races like the Epsom Derby, Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe, or 2,000 Guineas.
While the reality of the vast difference between North American and European turf horses is quite apparent to most racing fans, it's still somewhat amazing to see horses that weren't even close to becoming Group winners in Europe come to America and win at some of the highest levels offered on the lawn.