Horseplayers often have to think long and hard about whether to bet on European horses running on the dirt at the Breeders Cup thoroughbred championships.
Given there are few horse race resume details to compare to American horses — such as record at a given track, surface peculiarities and the fields they competed against — handicapping becomes a tough puzzle to solve.
European trainers, too, have much to weigh when deciding whether to cross the pond for the United States’ ultimate day of racing.
6,000 Miles Is a Long Way to Go
For one: The long shipping. This year’s race is Nov. 5-6 at Del Mar in Southern California — that’s about 6,000 miles and at least a half a day in the air if they choose to go direct.
In some trainers’ minds, there’s also the prestige — or lack thereof. For them, the gold-standard races are those such as the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe, among others in Europe and Dubai, for example.
Just because the United States says the Breeders Cup is the be-all, end-all doesn’t mean the entire world agrees.
Dirt Is Just Not the Same as Turf
However, the Euros have come to dominate the BC’s turf races over the event’s 37-year history, and rightfully so. Dirt or synthetic tracks are simply not too common abroad for these horses that thrive on the grass.
On the other hand, should a talented turf-based horse enter and win (or perform extraordinarily well) in a BC dirt race, that horse’s breeding fees will skyrocket, says New York Racing Association handicapper Andy Serling. All of a sudden, the horse’s owners can say he or she is proven on both surfaces, he says.
This week, Mishriff was an interesting case that proves both points. On Wednesday, the John Gosden-trained horse dominated the Grade 1 International in York, England. He won by six lengths and earned a “free ticket” to Del Mar for the Classic, which is run on dirt, the same type of surface that Mishriff won the $20 million Saudi Cup on in February.
“But when you think about Mishriff’s earnings already, having won so many big races, saving that $100,000 fee is just not that big of a deal,” Serling says. “It would not shock me if he skips the Classic.”
Mishriff has more than $15 million in earnings over 13 career starts, including seven wins and 11 times in the money.
Taking a Jab at the Del Mar Track Configuration
Gosden spoke about the horse’s connections’ ambitions after the race, taking a poke at the track configuration at Del Mar, among other things.
Of the nine qualifying races for the Breeders’ Cup Classic, the International is the only one held in Europe and the only one that is run on turf. Though Mishriff won the Saudi Cup, Gosden said in March that he did not expect to ship the colt to America.
“Having had a lot of success at Del Mar over the years, I do know that straight very well,” Gosden told RTÉ. “And I always feel they should pick up the finishing wire and move it another 100 yards down. It’s a very short straight and a different style of racing. This is a horse who enjoys the length of the straight. I don’t think it’s going to suit him.”
On Wednesday, Gosden reiterated his preferences for this fall, telling reporters at York, “I would be inclined to look towards the Arc and Champions Day races.”
The Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe is a 1 1/2-mile race at ParisLongchamp on Oct. 3. The Champion Stakes at Ascot is 1 1/4 miles at Ascot on Oct. 16. The Breeders’ Cup Classic is Nov. 6.
Let’s See What Happens After the Arc
“I think the focus will be one race at a time — the Arc first and then go from there,” says Jessica Paquette, racing analyst at Colonial Downs. “Though he has been successful on dirt in a big way, the Classic field is shaping up to be deep this year, and he’s a truly exceptional turf horse.”
Gosden started as a trainer in California and had success in the 1980s before going to Europe. Horseplayer Mike Koblenz, of Arlington, Va., says, “He knows U.S. and California racing very well, and if he says the track configuration doesn’t work for Mishriff, I’m sure he’s right.
“I rarely hear a trainer talk about the length of stretch as a reason to bring or not bring a horse to the United States or to the Breeders Cup. Sometimes there may be a comment about tight turns, or Lasix.
“But the most common reason I hear from trainers about their decisions to bring a horse here is for the firm ground. That would be especially true at Del Mar or Santa Anita, because you know you’re getting a firm turf course. Firm ground never exists for some major European tracks, especially in the fall.”
Koblenz says Gosden has not often shied from bringing horses to the Breeders’ Cup. He last won a BC race in 2018 when Enable captured the Turf.
“While many European trainers don’t send horses here for the BC, or treat it as an afterthought, Gosden regularly brings horses to the Breeders’ Cup,” Koblenz says. “He likes to run horses in the BC. He’ll probably know six months in advance if he’s bringing a horse here and plans that horse’s schedule accordingly. So, it’s actually news if he’s not bringing Mishriff here.”