The Breeders' Cup, the self-styled world championship of racing, has taken on a significance far beyond the track. The sport's most lucrative feast is moveable within north America; this year, whether as a result of some sort of divine preordination or merely sod's law, New York is the venue for the $13 million extravaganza. And at Belmont Park on Saturday, 46 days after the events of 11 September and in the middle of a bio-terrorism alert, the locals are aiming to put on a show.
Bill Nader, senior vice-president of the New York Racing Association, is adamant that the occasion can help the healing process. "There were 55,000 people at the Yankees stadium the other night," he said, "and the energy and atmosphere were absolutely electric. Sport has become a rallying point. It is helping to rebuild the psyche of the city."
Breeders' Cup day is to be dedicated to the families of the victims of the atrocities and the tone is likely to be, at times, more prayer meeting than race meeting. Part of the infield has been painted to represent red, white and blue ribbons; the New York Fire Department bagpipe band will play at the opening ceremony and jockeys will unfurl a giant American flag; the city's police and fire commissioners will present prizes.
But if proceedings can stay the right side of bathos it will surely take a heart of stone not to be moved. "It will be an unashamed tribute to the stars and stripes," said Nader, "a day when people will feel good about their country, about the world and the human spirit, an affirmation of life ongoing."
Upbeat talk, but seemingly justified. Not one horse has been withdrawn because of concerns about security or danger and any cancellations by spectators have been swiftly taken up by others. "There has been a groundswell of people wanting to fill the gaps, wanting to make a point," added Nader. "The whole country is rooting for New York and this Breeders' Cup can show that we are not defeated, we are strong and can and get through this together."
John Gosden, who spent the early part of his training career in the States and takes Crystal Music for the Filly and Mare Turf, has picked up the mood of determination. "Friends in New York tell me that, although the city has a different feel to it since that hideous day, it is important to them that the show goes on," he said. "It is slightly the Dunkirk spirit. With the greatest respect to the dead, you have to get on with life, otherwise more power and credence will be given to the terrorists."
One of racing's strengths is its multinational diversity and the fact that a large proportion of Saturday's runners have Muslim Arab connections – the Maktoum family's runners, Ahmed Salman's crack juvenile colt Officer, Khaled Abdullah's Classic contender Aptitude – is neither here nor there. "Hey, New York itself is a melting pot," said Nader. "People here are open-minded. And on Saturday there will be the common bond, a love and appreciation of the horse."
The presence of the 17-strong European contingent is not only greatly appreciated but also must be a matter of some relief to Breeders' Cup officials who, for the first time, have attached the tag World Thoroughbred Championships to the event and might have been looking at a contest as relevant to international competition as the World Series.
Belmont Park, 20 miles from Manhattan, will be hosting the Breeders' Cup for the third time and with its wide turns and cool northern climate, it is regarded as the most foreigner-friendly of tracks in the States. Royal Academy Ridgewood Pearl have taken both the Miles there and In The Wings the Turf in 1990, the same year as Dayjur was famously beaten by his shadow jump in the Sprint.
This year's raiding party looks strong, including as it does Arc hero Sakhee, the great rivals Galileo and Fantastic Light, sprint champion Mozart and Lailani, winner of a straight seven. But enthusiasm should be tempered by the memories of much hopeful travelling followed by disappointed arrival in the past; only six British-trained horses from 114 have returned victorious: Pebbles, Sheikh Albadou, Barathea, Pilsudski, Daylami and Kalanisi. The French have done rather better with 10 triumphs and the Irish have bagged two. (In times of crisis they, of course, become ours; this annual transatlantic rivalry has become the nearest thing racing has to the Ryder Cup.)
Within Team Europe, John Magnier's Coolmore and Sheikh Mohammed's Godolphin will be slugging it out as usual. Aidan O'Brien fields Galileo and Black Minnaloushe in the Classic and Milan in the Turf; the Godolphin camp will decide on Wednesday where to deploy Sakhee and Fantastic Light.
Only one raider, Arcangues (at 133-1), has ever won the Classic but O'Brien in particular – after Giant's Causeway's narrow defeat last year – would like to change that and with Tiznow defending his title and Aptitude on a four-timer the 10-furlong contest looks a worthy finale. Before that, Johannesburg and Sophisticat carry the Ballydoyle banner in the juvenile races, Mozart in the Sprint and Bach faces Godolphin's Noverre in the Mile. From other European stables Alec Stewart's Mutamam goes in the Turf and Ed Dunlop's Lailani heads five raiders in the female version.
But maybe the 18th Breeders' Cup should be regarded as a contest in which the identity of the winners and losers matter less than that the game is played. The American jockey Jerry Bailey, who lives in New York, has pledged five per cent of any winnings to disaster charities. "The horrible tragedy has affected all Americans and it is my privilege to be in a situation where I may be of help," he said simply, rather justifying Breeders' Cup president D G Van Clief's hope that the day would enable the sport to show class and courage.
On the Godolphin promotional desk calendar for 2001, space is reserved each month for a small homily from Sheikh Mohammed. Perhaps appropriately, his final thought for the year is that no race is as important as the human race.Reuse content