Sunday, October 11, 2009

For Yanks, Gitano Hernando's upset in Oak Tree's Goodwood Stakes an upsetting Classic preview

No doubt Gitano Hernando's victory in Saturday's Grade 1 Goodwood Stakes at the Oak Tree meeting at Santa Anita is considered an upset.

But there's also little question that it serves as an unsettling foreshadowing to the Breeders' Cup in November for anyone fielding an American horse in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

The 3-year-old Hernando colt was only Group 3-placed, with a recent conditioned-stakes win on an all-weather track at Wolverhampton to his name, when he departed Italian-born trainer Marco Botti's string at Newmarket in England to be stabled with Paddy Gallagher in California. Then Gitano Hernando at 18/1 upends a field of the West Coast's best in his first U.S. start for owners Team Valor International.

The upstart Brit-bred's victims included 4-year-old multiple Grade 1 winners Colonel John and Tiago, recent Pacific Classic S.-G1 winner Richard's Kid, this year's Kentucky Derby winner Mine That Bird, dual Grade 2 winner on the Cal circuit Informed, G2 winner and G1-placed Tres Borrachos, and Grade 3 winner and multiple-G1-placed Chocolate Candy.

Only the additions of a Well Armed -- who had surgery in August -- or the likes of Rail Trip and Einstein -- whose connections decided not to prep them again between the Pacific Classic and the Breeders' Cup -- could have made that group any more accomplished. And take note that fourth place in the Goodwood, as it did in the Pacific Classic, went to Parading, a former G2 winner on turf.

If Jess Jackson needed any more supporting evidence for his decision months ago to skip this Breeders' Cup with Rachel Alexandra, he certainly keeps getting it. It's too soon to know whether synthetic tracks everywhere are playing specifically in favor of turf-bred horses -- after all, Gitano Hernando also broke maiden at Wolverhampton and is now 3-for-3 on synthetic and just 1-for-4 on turf; he has not been equally successful on both surfaces. But it certainly seems that California's synthetic tracks can often tilt toward the turfers.

Gitano Hernando isn't nominated to the Breeders' Cup, and Team Valor would have to pay $250,000 to supplement him to the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic. But his win should have U.S. horses quaking in their Queen's Plates even if he isn't supplemented to racing's "world championships."

That's because Europe is sending much better than him to Santa Anita next month. Whether or not hands-down European champion Sea the Stars races in the Breeders' Cup Classic.

Rip Van Winkle, a Galileo 3-year-old who has won half of his eight starts including two straight British Group 1 races (and who has suffered three of his four losses in races won by Sea the Stars), is likely Breeders' Cup-bound in hopes of escaping Sea the Stars' shadow.

Conditioner Aidan O'Brien has confirmed that European 2-year-old champion of 2008 and four-time Group 1 winner Mastercraftsman -- a recent Group 3 winner in his first try on an all-weather track at Dundalk (in a B.C. Dirt Marathon win-and-you're-in) and also three times a victim of Sea the Stars in his four defeats -- is likewise headed to Santa Anita for the Classic.

Both Rip Van Winkle and Mastercraftsman were clearly superior 3-year-olds to Gitano Hernando in the U.K.

And, apparently the 12-furlong distance of the Breeders' Cup Turf has spooked the connections of Eclipse turf champion-contender Gio Ponti into a run at the Classic instead. Gio Ponti was upset by Interpatation in the mile-and-a-half Joe Hirsch Turf Classic at Belmont his last out, and his camp has decided not to attempt 12 furlongs again at Santa Anita.

Certainly America's best main-track horses will be there for the Classic, including those from the eastern half of the country such as Grade 1 winner Macho Again and three-times G1-winning 3-year-old Summer Bird. But neither has any promising synthetic track form to hang his bridle on. And we've just seen the Best of the West (minus Rail Trip) beaten over the Pro-Ride course by what previously had been an unequivocally second-tier Euro.

So America's hopefuls are stuck with a Breeders' Cup Classic in which the upper crust of likely contenders -- heaven help them if Sea the Stars shows, plus Rip Van Winkle, Mastercraftsman, Gio Ponti, even the aforementioned Einstein -- are all Grade- or Group 1 winners on grass. Which might mean unbeaten Zenyatta, though a synthetic-track monster in her own right, is better off stuck running against mares again in the Please-Change-the-Name-Back-to-Distaff.

And certainly it could be that all the main-track Yanks will be stuck looking forward to 2010 when the Classic gets back onto real, live dirt at Churchill Downs.


  1. Or it may just mean that "turf" horses like Einstein and the Coolmore armada are simply, well, BETTER.

    Even though I am convinced that a likely defeat of Summer Bird, Colonel John and Macho Again will be used to deride the SA surface once more, any handicapper should be aware that it's hard to make a case for any of these horses over the likes of Mastercraftsman and Sea the Stars; or for Tiago and Colonel John over a peak-form Einstein.
    Cases could probably be made for RA or even Zenyatta, but then it's so much more convenient to not show up at all and then bitch about those who did (not that I want to accuse you of doing that, but I can think of a guy or four who already do, and many more who are likely to do on the first Sunday in November).

    The fact is: the depth of the 3yo dirt division in America is mediocre, that of the dirt 4yo&up's is just unworthy.
    If, other factors remaining the same, American horses rebound big time at CD next year, it will be because they run on a track uniquely geared towards their interests, and totally alien to racing as it is conducted elsewhere. It is likely to work, but it is unlikely to prove anything.

    Constantly blaming the surface for the lack of success is, in my opinion, akin to saying "we're the world's best in football - and if all those rugby union, soccer, rugby league, Gaelic and Aussie rules players would just come over to our place for a game of Gridiron, we can prove it, too."

  2. I think you could make the argument that if Mastercrafstman or Rip Van Winkle won the Classic, that they were superior horses to begin with. I don't think you'd ever (previously anyway) even consider such a possibility with Gitano Hernando.

    And while "true" dirt racing might be alien to western Europe, it isn't alien to the entire rest of the world. The richest race on the globe is a dirt race NOT run in the United States, the Dubai World Cup.

    At first I thought your football reference wasn't very fitting, but I've decided that it is -- more in support of the American case than you might have thought.

    You wouldn't hold a "Super Bowl" every year, but one year under American football rules, the next Australian, and the next World Cup soccer (football) rules. What would be the point? ... Year to year, you're not playing the same game.

    Horse racing tracks are notorious for their biases. Some are speed-favoring, others help set up the race for a closer. Some are closer to a fair shake for both.

    But I believe that synthetic is a different game, really as compared to both dirt and turf. I don't think it's a straight-up turf "comparable." But I do think it plays closer to turf than it does to dirt.

    And so if a horseman breeds a horse for the American classics -- the Kentucky Derby, Preakness and Belmont, the Haskell and Travers, or the big handicap races of the older-horse division like the Jockey Club Gold Cup -- he likely has a very different animal than someone breeding for the European classics. Or, now, even for the California classics.

    That doesn't in itself make the dirt horse inferior.

    Which brings us back to the issue of blaming the surface.

    If the Americans do "rebound big time at CD next year," and it is "because they run on a track uniquely geared towards their interests," then if the Euros race and lose, isn't that still blaming the course? Shouldn't truly superior horses beat the Americans anyway?

    If we're being dismissive of surface-related excuses, that is.

  3. Malcer, by your "logic" Tiago must be a better horse than Curlin since he came in ahead of him on the pro-ride. But if Tiago was actually "well, BETTER" than Curlin, then why did Curlin beat him by a significant margin at every other track where they met?

    Even the European media last year acknowledged that the "bouncy" pro-ride surface is the reason their horses fared so well in the BC Classic. (And they actually used the word bouncy.)

    I'm unaware of any bouncy natural surface so on one point I must agree with Jess Jackson - fake surfaces produce fake champions.

  4. With "alien" I didn't only mean the speed-favoring dirt of Churchill. Just as important is the fact that unlike Dubai or, f.e., Belmont, CD is a very tight track and has much more horses competing in the BC races than reasonably should compete on such a track, creating races that are totally different from anything you'll see elsewhere (or even what you will see at CD on another day).

    "Shouldn't truly superior horses beat the Americans anyway?" - that's exactly my point. Even in BCs at Churchill or Monmouth, International horses haven't been without a chance (Giants Causeway as a close second to Tiznow in 2000 comes to mind, there were only 3 dirt starters in the last two Churchill BCs, or 4 if you count Invasor). But even though the unfavorable surface was acknowledged as a factor, European horsemen and fans never so fervently thrashed the track as the one reason for everything - and they certainly didn't advocate that Europe's best horses should just stay home.
    Early indications are, however, that they might do precisely that next year, on the one hand because of the safety factor (as George Washington's demise was rather squarely blamed on Monmouth's Churchill-esque track), but also because there is growing frustration with great performances at OSA being dismissed even before they happen.

    Btw: the Gitano Hernando you saw has nothing to do with the one who raced on any surface in Europe. In such an improvement, the footing of the track most certainly doesn't play a major role.

  5. And a Breeders' Cup Classic run in the ocean would be won by a fish.

    Sorry, that just popped into my head.

    I *am* starting to think that there needs to be a championship, Stateside anyway, for all-weather horses, just as there is an Eclipse award for top turf horse.

    I don't dislike synthetics, per se. But I am becoming a believer that they are quite different from both dirt and turf; again, with turf horses *generally* showing more affinity for them and a better ability to adapt.

  6. Malcer: I posted my "fish" comment while you were typing your latest, but it appears after. It wasn't a direct response to your most recent comments.

    However, this bears some exploration. You write: "Btw: the Gitano Hernando you saw has nothing to do with the one who raced on any surface in Europe. In such an improvement, the footing of the track most certainly doesn't play a major role."

    May I presume you're silently pointing instead to U.S. permitted medications?

  7. I can buy-in to the idea that the Euro turf specialists are going to have a field day during the Breeders' Cup this year, but the Classic will be hellaciously competitive. Einstein is an all-surface horse who absolutely loved Santa Anita in his only start (this spring in the big 'Cap). I believe the Classic will be his final start (it's time for him to spread his "love"), so the jockey can use him completely. The Euros better look out for Einstein!

    Not that I'm biased or anything :p

  8. @Glenn: It would be foolish to entirely rule "magic potion" out as a factor, but I don't think it can be the whole explanation, plus there have been stunning improvements for other reasons too, this is only a lightly-raced 3yo after all.

    @Daniel C: obviously that's not what I think. Curlin was a better horse who (for reasons discussed a hundred times and thus not repeated here) looked shaky for last year's BC Classic. Form beats class dozens of times every day in racing. I also don't think that a peak-form Tiago is a lesser racehorse than Monzante, and yet the former's last place definitely wasn't the track's fault.

  9. @malcer @glenn re: Gitano Hernando

    It's been common for decades for G3 type European horses to come here and defeat US stakes horses, but what made Gitano Hernando even more intriguing as a betting play was that he really relishes the AW; also, Barry Irwin bought the horse originally as a Belmont Stakes candidate, and Mr. Irwin is very sharp in placing his horses. He wouldn't have paid money to ship the horse from Europe to the west coast unless he felt he has a legitimate shot. Also, you wouldn't need a "magic potion" to move up a Euro here -- bute and Lasix alone on a first-time Euro starter does wonders, although in his case I don't know if he raced on medication or not. I do know, however, that Mr. Irwin is a fine judge of racehorses, and his track record here and in South Africa is pretty impressive.

  10. Barry Irwin does know how to pick a racehorse.

    On the subject of meds, I'm sure European race fans consider bute and Lasix would be like the tonic of the Gods compared what horses get on race day over there. That being nothing.

  11. Glenn, first time poster here, have been enjoying your blog.

    Please don't suggest we have add a championship for synthetics -- that only gives the surface credibility. The reason given for installing these surfaces is increased safety for the horses (and hence their riders). There is no increased safety to the horses -- and we have two jockeys paralyzed in a single meet on this surface. (It amazes me that this fact seems to be lost on everyone out there -- this is a horrendous thing to have happened to these two young men, and we're not trying to find out why?)

    We need to remove these artificial surfaces, not give them credibility.

  12. I'm all for finding out whether synthetics are really any safer -- for horses or for riders -- and I have my doubts that they are.

    But California is running on them exclusively (at major tracks) and synthetics have been installed at Arlington and at one of the true marquee-meet tracks in all of America, Keeneland.

    I do see your point about legitimizing an unproven surface.

    But do you think synthetics are going away anytime soon?

  13. IMHO what All Weather tracks reward is not turf talent, per se: it is stamina, whether a natural inclination or the result of proper conditioning. Why do Tiznows take to AW? Because their sire had stamina in spades. Euro horses get better conditioning (as opposed to speed training) than US ones, many more miles, even if it is just walk/trotting out to the gallops.


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