Chris McGrath: Ponti a Classic pick to keep it real

Inside Track at Santa Anita
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The Independent Online

It's not like in the films, you know. In the one they made about Seabiscuit, the grandstand here at Santa Anita – an art deco masterpiece – proved a perfect prop, conveniently preserved as it is. The one drawback was that the horse could duly be seen strolling past the statue of himself in the parade ring.

Now that's the kind of clue to gladden any punter. You would have to assume things are going to turn out pretty well, if they end up preserving your memory in bronze.

But that's only the way things work across town, in Hollywood. At the 26th Breeders' Cup, we will have to make do with real life, and all the equivocations that make it real.

The original Seabiscuit was stabled here, all right. There is a plaque on the wall of his old barn, which they managed to keep out of the movie. As things turned out his revival, in film and print, happened to anticipate a new depression. In the real world, sadly, the champions of today are unable to lend us equivalent succour.

For the 26th Breeders' Cup is staged without either of the three-year-olds most competent to fortify its billing as the World Thoroughbred Championships. Connections of Rachel Alexandra, the outstanding American filly, have cravenly refused to run her on what they disparage as the new "plastic" surface here. They proudly told everyone what good sports they were, when they brought Curlin to the meeting last year; but their reaction to his defeat suggests otherwise.

In the circumstances, those responsible for the European champion, Sea The Stars, might have sensed a moral imperative to come here, on precisely the grounds that Rachel Alexandra did not. California's dirt tracks were dug up to redress an intolerable attrition rate, but powerful interests remain vested in horses bred for the old surfaces. To have delayed the retirement of Sea The Stars would have greatly assisted the hosts in toughing things out with the conservatives.

As it is, two colts he beat at Sandown in midsummer are themselves hot favourites for their respective races today – Conduit in the Turf, which he won so well last year; and Rip Van Winkle, in the Classic itself.

By the end of the weekend, even so, it is perfectly possible that Rachel Alexandra herself will seem diminished by missing the Breeders' Cup, rather than the other way round. For thankfully the connections of Zenyatta, the dominant older filly, are prepared to risk her own immaculate record against colts for the first time in the Classic.

In the absence of helpful statues, punters can find encouragement in last year's unprecedented European spree here – distilled by a ground-breaking success for Raven's Pass, on the new synthetic track, in the Classic itself. With the possible exception of the sprints, they look formidably competitive in every discipline.

This is an especially critical day for Aidan O'Brien, whose success in Europe is in increasing contrast to a losing Breeders' Cup streak of 28 since High Chaparral in 2003. There has been a notable shift in his strategy this time, with several of his best hopes coming here fresh off a break.

What a relief it would be, then, should Viscount Nelson (6.45) land running in the Juvenile Turf – a very plausible scenario, given the class he showed sampling a fast surface for the first time, against a very fast horse in Poet's Voice, at Doncaster last time. He looks an ideal type for the race.

O'Brien also runs two youngsters on the synthetic surface, but Pulsion (8.49) looks value. His trainer, Patrick Biancone, is infectiously confident that this colt can reverse recent course form with the favourite, Lookin At Lucky, having this time exchanged draw advantage.

Ballydoyle provides the undisputed class act in the Dirt Mile, in Mastercraftsman. He looks a certainty if producing his best, but he has had quite a hard career and each-way insurance with a very fresh horse might be prudent as Midshipman (10.12) returns to the scene of his Juvenile success last year.

The Mile and Turf have long been the bedrock for Europe, and Goldikova (9.28) and Conduit (10.57) both have obvious prospects if replicating their performance here last year. But the big one now, at least until the series returns to dirt in Louisville next year, is the Classic.

Rip Van Winkle has confirmed himself top-class in his own right since Sea The Stars stopped persecuting him, and could prove in a league of his own. The presence of Zenyatta could make him a fair price on the pari-mutuel, but best value with British bookmakers is 16-1 against Gio Ponti (11.45).

His fourth consecutive Grade One success in the Arlington Million confirmed him the best American turf performer in years, and he is easily excused a subsequent defeat when trying a longer trip with the Turf in mind. He was caught close home in testing ground that day, but that could prove a blessing in disguise. For he is entitled to precisely the same optimism, switching to this surface, as Rip Van Winkle.

So while you have to wish Zenyatta well, Gio Ponti would be a very fitting winner. He would show American doubters that new horizons bring new opportunity. That is the whole essence of their national mythology, after all. And it should not be confined to scriptwriters in Beverly Hills.

Cecil ‘thrilled’ after Midday secures his first Breeders’ Cup meeting win

No matter what happens today, the 26th Breeders’ Cup is already guaranteed an indelible place in European affections after Henry Cecil last night crowned his professional renaissance with a first ever success at the meeting.

Midday’s win in the Filly and Mare Turf confirmed that Cecil’s personal vicissitudes, far from hastening an incipient decline, have instead spurred him into new focus and determination.

Cecil, who has been fighting stomach cancer for over three years, has only had a handful of Breeders’ Cup runners over the years, but this time came with three strong chances. And despite running in snatches, Midday stole a decisive advantage off the home turn and was always holding Pure Clan. It was an accomplished display by Tom Queally, rewarding Cecil for a conspicuous show of fidelity.

“I’ve always sort of dreaded the Breeders’ Cup, as I haven’t had great success here over the years,” Cecil admitted. “The thrill certainly lives up to my expectations. Prince Khaled loves the Breeders’ Cup and it’s a lovely feeling to have a winner for him here. And once you’ve done it, you like to think you can do it again.”

Sure enough, today they have a chance in the Classic itself with Twice Over. All in all, the preliminary card was mostheartening for the Europeans, with ManOfIron ending Ballydoyle’s barren streak in a photo for the Marathon. The stable then suffereddisappointment, however, with Lillie Langtry well beaten in the Juvenile Fillies’ Turf.

Turf account: Chris McGrath

*NAP Walvis Bay (1.35 Doncaster) Fine sprinting pedigree and won decisively at York. Ample scope to improve past his initial handicap rating.

*NEXT BEST One Way Or Another (3.45 Doncaster) Australian import who failed only narrowly when well backed at Newmarket last time.

*ONE TO WATCH Quantique (Venetia Williams) was beaten a long way on her first start for her new stable at Kempton the other day, but was still close up when missing the last hurdle and quickly eased.

*WHERE THE MONEY'S GOING My Petra is 12-1 from 14-1 with the sponsors for the Paddy Power Gold Cup at Cheltenham next Saturday.