They conquered, somewhat.
The Europeans left, from virtually all accounts, pleased that they made the approximately 5,500-mile journey over the Atlantic Ocean, and the length of the U.S.A., for last weekend's $26.5 million Breeders' Cup World Championships, hosted for the first time by Del Mar. They left impressed with what they saw of the track and the surrounding area, and mostly happy with what they accomplished.
A record 46 horses based in Europe were pre-entered for last weekend's Breeders' Cup races. Forty-two ultimately made the journey and 35 were announced among the final fields.
Only the scratch of multiple Group I winner Ulysses, the morning line favorite in the Longines Breeders' Cup Turf on the eve of the race due to inflammation in his left front ankle, prevented the European participation from being a record and instead dropped Del Mar into a tie with Santa Anita, 2009.
When the sun set late Saturday afternoon following Gun Runner's victory in the $6 million Classic, the European contingent could look back upon victories by Mendelssohn in the $1 million Juvenile Turf on Friday and, on Saturday, Wuheida in the $2 million Filly & Mare Turf and Talismanic in the $4 million Longines Turf.
Jockey William Buick (Wuheida) could reflect on Del Mar as the place where he notched his first Breeders' Cup win on his 12th mount in six years of Cup competition. And jockey Mickael Barzalona (Talismanic) will remember Del Mar as the place where he scored his first win with his first Breeders' Cup mount.
Trainer Aidan O'Brien, who brought 13 horses over from Ireland to the seaside track, added to his dominance in the Breeders' Cup grass races by winning the Juvenile Turf with Mendelssohn. Overall, 10 of O'Brien's 12 Breeders' Cup winners have come in turf races with four of them in the Juvenile Turf.
The win by Mendelssohn, touted by O'Brien afterward as a prime candidate for the 2018 Kentucky Derby, put the Irish conditioner third on the list of Breeders' Cup trainers for wins, two behind Bob Baffert, two ahead of Chad Brown and eight behind the record 20 of D. Wayne Lukas. It placed O'Brien third on the trainer-earnings list with $22,025,590, trailing only Lukas ($22,580,520) and Baffert ($27,555,000).
Three men who worked with the European horsemen – International Racing Bureau Directors Alastair Donald and Adrian Beaumont, along with Josh Christian, Senior Director of Racing and Nominations for the Breeders' Cup – said that feedback from European horsemen was overwhelmingly positive.
“At a first-time venue it's always difficult to know what to expect,” Donald said via email. “The considerations of the main track are really secondary. With the exception of Aidan O'Brien shooting for glory in the Classic and running one in the Juvenile, the remainder were all turf runners.
“The Europeans were told to expect a firm turf course, with tight turns and a short stretch, and that is what they got. There wasn't a great deal of point in bringing horses who were looking for some cut in the ground, so trainers didn't. There was also the perception that on the turf in particular a wide draw was a major disadvantage and hard to overcome, and it is probably fair to say that proved to be the case.
“When it came to the races themselves, there was quite a lot of comment in the press back here about their unpredictability, when a lot of favourites were not only beaten, but in a number of cases were not even able to hit the board. Lady Aurelia, Unique Bella, Lady Eli, Drefong, Ribchester, Bolt d'Oro and Highland Reel all being beaten favourites on Saturday before Gun Runner's win in the Classic.
“It did seem that races did play out a little differently to what was anticipated. Some of the comments are, of course, people talking through their pockets!
“My overall impression from being around the quarantine barn all week was that the European horsemen were pretty happy with the set-up at Del Mar. There were few, if any, negatives leading up to the weekend. I'm confident that if the Breeders' Cup were to return to Del Mar, European trainers would support it in numbers again.”
Christian's home is in Lexington, Kentucky, where Breeders' Cup Limited is headquartered. He spends a portion of the year in England, however, working with top trainers and riders leading up to the Breeders' Cup.
The feedback he received and impressions from European contacts were similar to Donald's. He also received a text from champion jockey Ryan Moore (who won on Mendelssohn for O'Brien) that provided one perspective on a turf course that some had described as “tricky” or “quirky” to ride, forgetting that European jockeys negotiate widely differing courses in several countries during the year.
“(Moore) loved it,” Christian said. “He thought everything was great and people were overthinking the draw bias against outside horses.”
Beaumont worked closely with Del Mar Executive Vice President, Racing and Industry Relations, Tom Robbins and sent the following email:
“We really appreciated your advice and cooperation. I have never worked with a racecourse team more willing to deal with everything in such a positive manner and it made for a happy experience. Newmarket trainer Richard Spencer was so enthused he told (IRB West Coast representative) Cindy Niemetz he wants to bring a team over for your summer meeting next season.”
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