Butler's attack plan pays off in land of opportunity
Newmarket trainer bridges transatlantic gap to field live chance in the Ladies' Classic tonight
To meaner perspectives, responsible for culpable retrenchment on either shore, the ocean may seem to be widening again. On this side, for instance, they have sulkily restored the dirt surface so inimical to the Europeans at Santa Anita, where the Breeders' Cup returns next year. Back in the old world, the scheduling of the new Champions Day at Ascot for now remains in myopic competition with this carnival. True to the national mythology, however, some can still come to America and discover in the insularity of others only the opportunity for fresh adventure.
So much so, in the case of one Newmarket trainer, that there is no point seeking his star filly among the other "Euros" in the quarantine barn. Pachattack is instead stabled among her indigenous rivals, several blocks away on the back stretch. She was one of five horses flown to Chicago by Gerard Butler in the spring, and her presence in the Ladies' Classic – climax of the preliminary Breeders' Cup card tonight – is a spectacular vindication of a gamble that shames trainers with far less to lose.
Over breakfast at Wagner's Pharmacy, Butler reflected on the hazards and rewards of his pioneering experiment. Founded in 1922, Wagner's is an institution of the American Turf, its walls covered by photographs of Kentucky Derby winners trained by its patrons. It came as something of a surprise, then, that Butler had never been here during his apprenticeship under Wayne Lukas.
Lukas, whose tally of 18 Breeders' Cup wins remains at least double that of any other trainer, had horses from Del Mar to Saratoga – and several of those to whom he duly delegated responsibility have become outstanding trainers, not least the record-breaking Todd Pletcher. Butler has precious memories of the Californian grounding of Serena's Song, who ran stablemate Flanders to a head in an epic duel for the Juvenile Fillies here at Churchill Downs in 1994, and Timber Country, winner of the Juvenile the same year.
He has looked very much at home this week, leading Pachattack out on his pony. But it was not this affinity with the milieu that prompted him to undertake a weekly transatlantic commute, or to post Andrew Morris here to supervise the satellite operation day-to-day. Between saluting various local trainers at their eggs and biscuits, Butler related that one of his horses had won a race at Kempton the previous evening – with a princely return of £1,500. An inveterate worker, he stresses an undiminished commitment to his team at home. "But by offering my clients the chance to come here, as well, at least we've done something positive," he said. "If prize-money at home can be nearly pointless, that doesn't necessarily mean things are hopeless. Here you can run for proper money – and, if you pick the right spots, you may not have to run any faster."
In Britain, Pachattack was no more productive or competitive than her record suggests: a Group Three bit player. On her first start in Arlington, she won a Grade Three prize worth £36,000 by six lengths, and she has earned her place here by finishing second in consecutive Grade One starts at Saratoga and Keeneland. The consequences for her value as a broodmare are infinite, never mind how enjoyable the odyssey has proved for her engaging owner, Michael Deegan, and his family.
"She has a dirt pedigree and that's where the gap is," Butler explained. "Kentucky is the biggest producer of foals in the world. But many of them go to Europe – and how many fulfil their racing potential there? I do think their grounding helps. The ones we have shipped back here are mature, have a sounder base, because training youngsters on dirt every day can bring its problems. And obviously they can be nice horses on turf. But if their pedigree and conformation is all dirt, they can achieve so much more over here. It's like tennis. Nadal is very competitive at Wimbledon, but at the French Open he's invincible. Look at Michael's other filly, Maristar. She won off 76 at Southwell in April. On Saturday she's running in a Grade Two race here worth $175,000 [£109,000], and she's second or third favourite on the morning line."
Butler, 45, has not had the raw materials his talents warrant since announcing himself with the Group One wins of Compton Admiral and Elusive City. But nor has he sat on his backside grumbling, and a podium finish here would be an achievement commensurate with a win for more powerful raiders tonight. Among these Nahrain and Elusive Kate take winning runs of four on to the turf, while an American pedigree qualifies the latter's stablemate, Questing, for a switch to the dirt. Should she win, however, she will not so much be setting an example as following one.
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