As I approached Giles Anderson's booth at Equestricon this week, he pulled up the Racing Post on his mobile device, sliding it in front of me to display a photo on the front page of the website. It was of stallion Arrogate, bucking in the air at Kentucky's Juddmonte Farms.
“See,” he said. “An American horse who isn't even running in the Breeders' Cup is on the front page of the Racing Post.”
Clearly, we both surmised, the photo was taken because it was a cool shot and Britain's Racing Post photographer was in Kentucky for the Breeders' Cup and decided to pop by some farms. But that doesn't blur the bigger picture of what Anderson, the publisher of Trainer Magazine, was trying to convey. He'd been telling me that Europe, especially Great Britain, was paying more attention to North America racing. Arrogate was a perfect example.
“Arrogate is one of those horses, just as Winx in Australia, that has captivated a nation. With his stellar victories in the Dubai World Cup and Pegasus, he's got followers on both sides of the pond for sure,” said Anderson, who publishers Trainer as separate editions in Europe and North America.
But as we all know in the racing industry, fandom is a slice of the trend; money is what matters. In Great Britain, “punters” have recently been getting a fat sandwich of American racing because it's being simulcast every night on At the Races, something that wasn't happening before.
“So we get to see a lot of top-notch American racing and with bookmakers staying up open until 9 or 10 at night, they also need product for the betting public,” Anderson said. “North American racing's become a very natural fit for the bookmakers and broadcasters.”
Some American racing observers might have the notion Europeans look down their noses at the product here, but between the bookmakers trying to capitalize and the Breeders' Cup reaching out to overseas competitors through the “Win and You're In” program, it's hard for the European crowd to ignore the opportunities here. One of the moves the Breeders' Cup made four years ago was to assign senior director of racing Josh Christian to recruiting duty in Europe.
“We believe that having Josh on-site for six months of the year demonstrates our commitment to international racing and nominations,” said Breeders' Cup president and CEO Craig Fravel at the time. “Beyond the benefit of having a presence at major racing meets, having a full-time staff member in Europe gives us a greater understanding of the international racing and sales calendar and the needs and concerns of our constituents.”
“He's there to hustle horsemen, talk to trainers, talk to owners, talk to connections and get them to run in the Breeders' Cup,” said Anderson. “The Breeders' Cup has also established itself (for 35 years) as a destination race. In Europe, we see people talk about ‘what is going to be my key end-of-year target?' Is it going to Breeders' Cup or the races in Hong Kong?”
It's been my experience covering the Breeders' Cup that European observers naturally have an inclination to talk about their contenders, and perhaps as history suggests, overplay the chances of those horses winning on American soil. So, I asked Anderson about Roaring Lion, the winner of four consecutive Group 1 races in Europe on the turf. His connections hope to make the 3-year-old a stallion almighty by traversing the Atlantic to win the Classic, although he's a 20-1 morning line chance on the dirt at Churchill Downs.
“Just don't forget who the trainer is, John Gosden,” retorted Anderson. “Remember he won the Classic (with Raven's Pass in 2008 – on synthetic, mind you). Gosden also has to be the most masterful race planner. This year, he's had Enable, Cracksman and Roaring Lion and he's managed to keep their their paths completely separate.”
Anderson continued, reminding me that while we in America tend to think of Roaring Lion's sire, Kittens Joy, as a dominant turf stallion, there's dirt in those bloodlines, as Anderson wrote about earlier this year.
“Remember the sire of Kitten's Joy? It was El Prado. Another son of El Prado is Medaglia d'Oro,” said Anderson. ‘We did it in Trainer Magazine this year, we were talking about the legacy of El Prado. So I have no problems with him on a dirt surface and something like that would not have been lost on John Gosden.”
Anderson believes there's a legitimate recent trend of ‘turf” horses switching to dirt, often in big races. It may go back to Animal Kingdom's victory in the 2011 Kentucky Derby, where Team Valor International had been looking overseas for intriguing non-traditional pedigrees that could agree with dirt racing in America.
“Even this year, look at Yoshida,” said Anderson. “Bill Mott's on the cover of our latest issue of Trainer Magazine for a reason because I like the idea of a switch for that horse from turf to dirt; obviously he justified his slot in the Classic with his win up at Saratoga (winning the Woodward).”
This year's Classic appears to be Exhibit A for this trend: five of the 14 runners have won Group or Grade 1 races on the turf. But back to the money issue, Anderson believes the impetus for these moves goes beyond trainers gambling with pedigrees.
“Also think of it from a commercial standpoint. If you can get a horse to perform well on the dirt, it opens up your opportunity at stud, so you're not just booking a group of mares that might have a particular turf bias,” said Anderson. “I think it's interesting to note that Mendelssohn is listed as going to Ashford with a fee ‘too be confirmed,' so that's obviously dependent on what happens this weekend. Coolmore are great sportsmen but they're also great businessmen, and they know that a roll of the dice in North America's biggest race could well change the destiny of a stallion prospect.”
As for Roaring Lion's stablemate, Enable, who will likely be a heavy favorite in the Breeders' Cup Turf after consecutive Arc wins, Anderson said her chances of completing the first Arc-Turf double are enhanced by her light, two-race resume for 2018, leaving her fresh. But at her likely odds, even he would refrain from going to the windows. There are just too many options.
“Although the Arc winner hasn't necessarily done their job, remember Aidan O'Brien comes in with a win from our sort of Filly & Mare Turf at 1 1/2 miles on Champions Day (Magical). She's got a great shot there but also look at the horse that ran fourth in the Arc, and that one's got a good chance as well (Waldgeist).
But lest you conclude Anderson, like some Europeans, will play a European horse for the sake of it, he most certainly won't. He's well aware of the success of North American horses at shorter distances, in particular. Euros might not get his money in any of the sprint races.
“I think with some of the Europeans, as we've seen with Wesley Ward when he's come over to Ascot, the Europeans haven't quite had the answers for some of those speed bullet type of affairs.
“Also remember, sprints are one-turn in U.S.; often they are straightaways in Europe, so that's something to take into consideration in terms of preparations.”
Durkin Looks Back At The Day That Started It All
By Natalie Voss
A lot has changed in 34 years. Since the first Breeders' Cup was run in 1984, the series and the racing industry have evolved from a crazy idea to a central part of the sport's calendar. One person who has had a bird's eye view on it all is announcer Tom Durkin, who called the races from their start until 2005.
Durkin took attendees down memory lane this week at Equestricon, recounting his experiences of the first-ever Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984.
From Durkin's viewpoint, the Breeders' Cup changed the racing industry in ways that could only become clear later. For one thing, the prestige of fall racing schedules at Belmont Park declined as trainers began saving their better horses for the Breeders' Cup, raiding the fields of historically-significant Grade 1s like the Vosburgh. Other races, like the Jockey Club Gold Cup, were shortened to make them good prep races for the Classic. The Gold Cup was once 1 ½ miles, and eventually lengthened to 2 miles in Kelso's day, but is now run at 1 ¼ miles.
He also believes the Breeders' Cup has failed in its initial conception…but that doesn't mean it isn't worthwhile.
“The idea of the Breeders' Cup has not been fulfilled,” Durkin declared at the beginning of his presentation. “The idea was to have a television program so huge it would become part of the general sports consciousness in America. I'm not really a football fan. My mother was not really a football fan, but we always watched the Super Bowl. Lots of people watch it. The television rating is 43 or 44.
“That was the original object. That has not been fulfilled. They were hoping to get a five rating. NBC actually paid Breeders' Cup $5 million for the first five years, thinking it was going to be a ratings bonanza. It did not turn out to be that. The rating last year I think was three maybe. [Editor's note: it was 1.3].”
It has of course, grown in other ways. Purses have grown, and as a result it has changed the way owners and trainer spend their money and campaign their horses – on the track and in the auction ring. Another initial goal was to contest year-end divisional championships in a race, rather than through asking the media to vote, which could lead to East Coast or West Coast bias. That, in his view, has been accomplished, as Eclipse Award votes more often than not fall into line with the winners of each race.
“It still is a vote, but it's so much dependent on how the horses race against each other,” he said. “When you do it on the track and you get those horses facing each other you can say ‘Yes, he is the champion.'”
After watching a replay of the Juvenile Fillies, in which Fran's Valentine was disqualified for the ride of Patrick Valenzuela, Durkin also supposed stewarding has changed considerably since 1984. Fran's Valentine bumped rival Pirate's Glow hard in upper stretch, and went on to win while Pirate's Glow finished tenth. Fran's Valentine was placed tenth by the stewards for her interference, but Durkin suspects recent rule changes would prevent that from happening now.
“I'm not so sure if that number would be taken down today,” he said. “The rule is now that the stewards have a pretty wide berth. If they thought the other horse didn't have a chance to win, they would not have disqualified Fran's Valentine.”
What many fans may not realize is Durkin's first Breeders' Cup experience involved a little jogging. Bidding for the first Breeders' Cup was intense, and the previous year, Hollywood Park owner Marjorie Everett constructed an enormous new building to house exclusive boxes for the celebrities who often attended the races. When it was completed however, the boxes didn't have a view of the finish. As Durkin remembers it, track officials decided to create additional finish lines on the dirt and turf courses so people seated in the new building could see the conclusion of at least some of the day's events.
“I spent the day running back from the announcer's booth to this plywood shack they put up over the other finish line,” he said. “It was very, very odd. Once in a while out there, not on Breeders' Cup day, but other days jockeys would misjudge the finish line. It drove them batty, too.”
After a long work day, Durkin collected his binoculars and left the announcer's booth in search of a drink and wandered over to a tent set up near the grandstand. He spotted two security guards at the entrance to what seemed like a bar or party of some sort, and asked one whether he could watch the binoculars to ensure they weren't stolen.
“He said, ‘Sure, but when my man goes, I have to go. He points over my shoulder, and I turn around,'” Durkin recalled. “President Gerald R. Ford. And then I look over there, and is that Elizabeth Taylor talking to Frank Sinatra? That's Fred Astaire! That's Cary Grant! That's Zsa Zsa Gabor.
“I guzzle down my beer. Now at that time there were no phones on the racetrack, but I know there's got to be one in the racing secretary's office, so I take the elevator down and say, ‘Guys, mind if I make a long distance phone call?' And I'm just on cloud nine. I dialed the number. I pick it up and I'm like, ‘Mom! You cannot believe who I'm partying with!'”
Durkin's pick for the Classic? He thinks Thunder Snow is bringing his A game.
This Year's Breeders' Cup Packed With Personality
Say what you will about the quality of the fields in this year's Breeders' Cup races: there's certainly no shortage of personality in them. Equine personality, that is.
In a panel discussion for Breeders' Cup trainers at Equestricon Monday, Ron Moquett looked back on the early days of Sprint contender Whitmore. As a 2-year-old at auction, Moquett remembered the colt parking himself on the rail and refusing to train, which scared off potential buyers and made way for Moquett to buy him privately from trainer John Liviakis.
“We brought him to the barn, and we took him out there. My wife gallops for me, and she called me while I was on the way to Saratoga and asked ‘What in the hell is this?'” he remembered. “And I said, ‘What's wrong?' and she said, ‘Well he froze up with me on the rail, and when the outrider came to take us off the rail, he kicked the outrider.'”
Moquett remembers Whitmore was gelded within a day or two after the incident.
The horse is still spirited (or, as Moquett happily admits, “crazy”), but now Moquett and his team have figured out how to work around Whitmore's quirks, and he now seems happy to go to work in the mornings. That doesn't mean Moquett hasn't held his breath a few times.
“When I got ready to work him for the Kentucky Derby, no [television stations] had ever followed us around (even with Far Right the year before) and wanted to watch our work,” he remembered. “I lost like ten pounds worrying about this work. He's been great, but there's a potential he turns around and gives us the middle finger and refuses to work. On television. In front of everyone.”
Of course, Whitmore behaved himself, and while he didn't place well in the Kentucky Derby, he has certainly made up for his hijinks since, as the earner of over $2 million.
Trainer Chad Summers says he's still working on his 2018 Breeders' Cup playlist for Classic hopeful Mind Your Biscuits. Summers noticed a few years ago the animated colt seemed to relax when he had music playing, and has developed a sense for what the horse prefers. While Biscuits enjoys early 2000s hip hop, his tastes have evolved to include some of the soundtrack from the musical ‘Hamilton.' Summers is asking fans to tweet suggestions to America's Best Racing for hip hop and R&B songs to add to this year's playlist for the horse.
“You like to try and keep everything as loose as you can until showtime,” he said. “Horses are creatures of habit and if you're nervous, they pick up on that.”
“I don't know why horse racing doesn't have lead-ups like they do in baseball,” Moquett suggested. “They could play ‘Wild Thing' and all that stuff. Give fans a chance to see their personality.”
Music has been a recurring theme for Summers and the chestnut colt, who was named for country singer Kacey Musgraves' hit ‘Biscuits.' And he's not the only one; fellow panelists compared notes on horses they'd known with strong musical influence. Tom Amoss recalled hearing that Seattle Slew enjoyed rock ‘n' roll and had his own radio tuned to a rock station. When grooms changed it one afternoon to listen to the World Series, the horse allegedly became agitated and would not relax until the station was switched back.
Ron Moquett pointed out Richard Mandella has piped classical music into his horses' stalls, while Chad Summers says New York conditioner Eddie Barker has Christmas music playing at his barn for at least five months out of the year.
No matter what their horses preferences may be, the trainers are no doubt hoping to be whistling ‘We're In The Money' come Saturday.
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