Rows over dirt, drugs and dates make equine 'Ryder Cup' a bigger clash of civilisations
North America and Europe drift apart over traditions and methods on eve of Breeders' Cup
When you bring different cultures together, the first thing you see is what sets them apart. As horseracing's greatest international carnival convenes for a 29th time, however, fresh schisms continue to emerge. The Breeders' Cup finds the global racing community at a crossroads – and if the map is seized by its most insular forces, they may yet lead their sport in the wrong direction.
On either side of the Atlantic, parochialism seems to gain perversely in strength even as the Breeders' Cup itself manifests a new sense of adventure. Recognising the "Ryder Cup" element as integral to its success, the organisers have introduced new races, playing to European strengths; they have removed prohibitive financial barriers to eligibility and travel; and now, this year, they have even begun to dismantle the local medication regime that has historically caused such mistrust.
Their reward, from Little Englander newcomers to the sport, is a Champions Day at Ascot set up not to complement the season's international climax – but in direct competition, specifically discouraging a champion like Frankel from trying something new at the end of his career. And meanwhile the Breeders' Cup must also fight a battle on its home front.
The American professional community has rallied to protect its vested interests. After the Europeans enjoyed unprecedented success on a synthetic track here in 2008 and 2009, its conservatives insisted on the restoration of dirt to Santa Anita. Now they are vexed afresh by a Breeders' Cup ban on Lasix – an anti-bleeding diuretic – in all the two-year-old races, prior to a blanket prohibition next year.
Constantly taking one step forward, and one back, might leave you in the more or less the same place. But it hardly suggests stability. It is imperative, then, that narrow minds on both sides of the water suspend an automatic assumption of superiority. European trainers cannot expect their rivals here to welcome radical changes in their working environment, purely on account of a condescending assurance that our way of doing things – the surfaces we use, the drugs we don't – is more legitimate.
One leading Canadian trainer this week gave furious vent to widespread frustration over the Lasix ban, which is perceived as a coarse political gesture. "Unfortunately, a lot of trainers haven't stepped up," Mark Casse said. "So I [will]. This is my life. Nobody loves horses more than I do. If we let this happen, we are wrong. We are barking up the wrong tree. I hear about this study, that study. I've been studying for 34 years, every day. The people making these decisions, I don't know where they gain their knowledge – but they didn't gain it being around horses every day."
He dismissed suggestions that this was a Lance Armstrong catharsis for the sport. The use of Lasix was not only open and registered, it prevented recourse to quack alternatives inimical to welfare. "It would never happen here," he said. "These are the best trainers in the world at the Breeders' Cup. But there are crazy people out there. The alternative for some is to withhold food and water from the horse 24, even 48 hours before the race. I know the extreme measures some people will take. If people think Lasix is hard on horses, the alternative is worse."
Defenders of Lasix contend that it prevents harm, but others believe it enhances performance. John Gosden, who began his career here and returns as Britain's champion trainer-elect, offers a reliably seasoned perspective. "It becomes a sort of dependency," he admitted. "Lasix reduces body weight, and pressure on the capillaries. There's no doubt it helps horses to run faster."
The stand being made by the Breeders' Cup would be welcomed by anyone trying to buy a yearling in Kentucky. "You're looking at six or seven generations of horses that have raced on quite strong medication," Gosden said. "If you're having a so-called world championship, from that point of view you probably need to have it drug-free. The American thoroughbred is not the tough creature of old, that's for sure. I can understand where people who train here are coming from, but if you're talking as a purist, and for the breed, I can strongly see why it is being done."
Aidan O'Brien, whose patrons at Coolmore Stud view this meeting as vital to the making of an international stallion, takes a similar view. "For the breed, the less medication used the better, because it clears up the whole muddy picture about ability," he said. "It can mask a lot of stuff. It's a hard thing to change because it's part of the culture. Trying to keep horses sound and get them to the track is more difficult here.
"It's a tough surface. A lot of horses do bleed when they're trained hard, and medication can stop that. But I suppose it goes right back to the pedigrees: [with] the horses that don't need medication, you're training the pure horse."
Jeremy Noseda, like Gosden, began his career here and stresses that dirt represents an authentic racing discipline in its own right – making different but wholly valid demands of the horse. "When they had a synthetic track here Europe had first and second in the Classic," he said. "But so long as the Kentucky Derby and Triple Crown races are staged on dirt, I don't see how we can expect the Classic to be on anything else."
He is adamant that the new Champions Day at home is far too late in the season, and politely regrets that connections of Frankel did not bring their champion here. And the fact is that far too many of Noseda's compatriots, even as they are challenged to show greater enterprise, are retrenching. With no obvious genetic predisposition, remember, many turf champions have adapted superbly to dirt – including Sakhee and Swain in the Classic.
Having been spoilt by the experiment with a synthetic circuit, European trainers may now be less prepared to gamble. As in any walk of life, however, it would be dangerous to assume that the most enlightened perspective will prevail, purely through the willingness of others to take a risk.
Chris McGrath's Nap:
Spruzzo (2.10 Ayr)
Falcarragh (1.05 Wetherby)
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