Chris McGrath: In the hometown of Ali Zenyatta faces final test to prove she's the greatest
Saturday 06 November 2010
At the 25th and 26th Breeders' Cups, staged between the mountains and the ocean at Santa Anita, Californian climate and culture seemed to offer their own reward.
Its return today to grey, chilly, blue-collar Louisville, however, might leave horsemen to ponder many different paths to fulfilment. Adjacent streets downtown honour both Muhammad Ali, the Louisville lip himself, and Thomas Merton, the Trappist writer buried at the nearby Gethsemani Abbey. Different journeys, values, satisfactions – no less than those that can be charted, like a grid map of converging talents and ambitions, in the 27th edition of the Turf's most intoxicating carnival.
Take the crossroads reached by Richard Hughes, who has surrendered the mount on Paco Boy in the Mile to take his pursuit of Paul Hanagan in the jockeys' championship to the bitter end. The rivals arrive for the final card of the season at Doncaster today, clinging to each other like a pair of punch-drunk boxers. Their duel has been every bit as gruelling as when Jamie Spencer drew level with Seb Sanders in the very last race in 2007. Most people would be gratified by a similar outcome this time, but Hanagan retained a lead of two last night after they exchanged three winners apiece on the penultimate day of the campaign. And that leaves Hughes haunted by the harrowing possibility that Paco Boy could compound his disappointment just hours after conceding the title.
What makes the situation especially piquant is that Hughes has always tended to value quality over quantity. And the white-knuckle ride of a tight mile on fast ground is exactly the kind of thing to get the very best out of him, above all on a horse like Paco Boy, who needs to be settled and produced late. As a master in his prime, the involvement of Hughes would only have assisted the drama of Goldikova's quest for an unprecedented third Breeders' Cup success.
His anguished dilemma should reconcile British visitors here to the fact that they must miss the reappearance at Down Royal of no less a horse than Kauto Star. Despite perseverance over this longer trip by Sizing Europe, the champion should outclass his six rivals in preparation for a possible crack at the Hennessy Gold Cup.
If it is impossible to be in two places at once, another type of quandary faced connections of Workforce, the most accomplished British horse to come here in some years – the first Derby winner, for instance, since High Chaparral. Continued procrastination over his participation in the Turf, on account of the firm ground, has been perceived as an attempt to force the track management to increase watering. One official has been muttering about the "arrogance" of certain European trainers. But he would know that they meant every syllable if they went ahead and withdrew one of the hottest favourites of the meeting, after flying him all this way.
In principle, Workforce could make short work of his few rivals but the memory of that ghastly performance at Ascot in July diminishes confidence. Either he was unhappy on the ground, or had yet to recover from his generous effort at Epsom. You could renew the same reservations here, if you suspect that freshness was critical to his Arc success, while his brawny physique makes it easy to see why he might be inhibited by firm going. But all that is amply factored into odds that will look very generous if he does show his best.
Goldikova and Workforce headline a European challenge that has reverted to its core strength, in the turf races. The raiders' depredations on the synthetic track at Santa Anita always had a bittersweet flavour, in that the series was scheduled to return to dirt in Louisville for the next two years. The lamentable news in the meantime, that Santa Anita is restoring dirt, has completed the process of disillusion. Fortunately the organisers have made radical new concessions from next year, in costs and eligibility, and that should sustain an impressive renewal in their series.
Only last year, after all, it was rejected by the outstanding three-year-olds either side of the Atlantic, in Sea The Stars and Rachel Alexandra. In the event, the notion that their absence had belittled the Breeders' Cup was dramatically reversed by the astonishing success of Zenyatta in the Classic. And only the most parochial of Europeans will fail to recognise her defence of that prize, with a record of 19 wins in 19 starts, as an assignment of epoch-making potential.
After all, Zenyatta is very much associated with California's painful experiment with synthetic tracks, and must now take on all comers on dirt. The Europeans ardently endorsed the new surfaces on welfare grounds, but it was certainly convenient that they proved so congenial to turf horses. There are traditionalists, equally, who would find a petty relish in seeing Zenyatta's immaculate record finally ruined here, at the proving ground of so many dirt champions over 136 Kentucky Derbys.
If Zenyatta can transcend these divisions then she will truly have parity, on the Turf, with this city's most famous son, in the boxing ring. "Only a man who knows what it is like to be defeated can reach down to the bottom of his soul, and come up with the extra ounce it takes to win when the match is even." That's what Ali reckoned. And that remains the unaccountable miracle of Zenyatta.
Shared Account keeps shocks coming after Marathon brawl
A narrow defeat for Midday, odds-on favourite for the Filly & Mare Turf, last night completed a dispiriting whitewash for the Europeans on the opening Breeders' Cup card. Tom Queally, her jockey, found himself short of room after a steady pace had permitted too many rivals to hold their position turning in, and Midday then took a bump at the top of the stretch. It was only at the furlong pole that Queally was finally able to commit for home, but Midday was accompanied through by Shared Account on the inside. And it was the outsider who was always keeping her at bay thereafter, at 46-1 landing the second biggest shock in Breeders' Cup history by a neck.
Things had started badly in the Marathon, Precision Break dropping out after racing prominently and Bright Horizon always struggling on the dirt. None of the four raiders ever threatened to land a blow behind More Than Real in the Juvenile Fillies Turf, Together faring best in sixth, and while Theyskens' Theory showed up for a long way in the dirt equivalent, she eventually faded into sixth. Suddenly Santa Anita seemed a long way away. If they didn't know already, connections of Goldikova and Workforce will realise they are in a fight here.
The ferocity of competition had been made sensationally apparent after the Marathon, when two top jockeys began brawling in the crowded winner's enclosure. Calvin Borel, winner of three of the last four Kentucky Derbys, had been incensed by dangerous riding during the race from Javier Castellano, who was disqualified from second. Borel, fourth after suffering interference, was making his displeasure known when Castellano ill-advisedly pushed his helmet. Borel went berserk, and had to be heavily restrained for several minutes. Nobody will be giving any races away this weekend.
Turf Account: Chris McGrath
Chris McGrath's Nap
Smarty Socks (2.00 Doncaster)
One of several to draw attention to the talents of his rookie trainer this season, and returning to the distance of two wins during the summer will suit after he faltered late over another furlong at York last time – forgivably enough, after mounting a strong initial challenge.
Willing Foe (3.10 Doncaster)
Any deterioration in conditions would represent uncharted territory, but otherwise only inexperience in a big field discourages confidence that this rapid improver will prove far better than his present rating.
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