The Breeders’ Cup presents a handicapping challenge in weighing the merits of so many legitimate contenders, especially the international shippers. It can help to view their performances in the context of historical trends. This method not only highlights the most productive preps, but also reveals changing patterns over time, and how they’ve applied to the nine previous Breeders’ Cups hosted at Santa Anita.
Arc to the Turf
Europeans logically have had great success in the 35-year history of the Turf (G1), with a total of 22 winners based across the pond, including eight in the last 10 years. Of the 22 international winners, 10 were trained in Great Britain, six in France, and Aidan O’Brien is single-handedly responsible for Ireland’s six. The unifying theme across all three countries is the significance of the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1): 12 Turf winners competed in that fall’s Arc, five for O’Brien alone.
The Arc angle, arising with In the Wings (1990), has become an enduring trend that’s continued apace. Just in the past decade, five Turf winners had a recent start in the French showpiece. That stat would increase to six if you include a European who’d run in a previous year’s Arc. Talismanic, the 2017 Turf winner, skipped that season’s Arc but had gone unplaced in the 2016 edition. (Also, recall that the scratched favorite in the 2017 Turf, Ulysses, was coming off a third in the Arc and might well have furthered the stat had he run.)
Until Enable came along to make history in 2018, the reigning Arc winner had never won a Breeders’ Cup race. The trend is reliant upon horses beaten in the Arc, for they often have the class to rebound in more favorable American conditions.
If you restrict the results just to the runnings at Santa Anita, however, the internationals are no longer dominant in the Turf. In fact, the tally is tied at five winners apiece for Europe and North America – a stat embodied in the 2003 Turf dead-heat between O’Brien’s defending champion High Chaparral and Richard Mandella’s Johar. Three of those European winners at Santa Anita, including High Chaparral, brought the gold standard of Arc form.
Filly & Mare Turf
The Filly & Mare Turf (G1) presents an opposite picture. European shippers are less successful overall, taking just eight of the 20 runnings. But their percentage is much better at Santa Anita, where British-based distaffers have won four of the seven run over this course. Three of those four were trained by Sir Michael Stoute. Note that O’Brien has never won this race, and France hasn’t had a winner since Banks Hill (2001).
Although the Europeans have used various stepping stones to victory, there has been an evolution in the type of races that produce winners. In the early years after the Filly & Mare Turf was introduced (1999), the international heroines were all coming out of Group 1s versus males. In the last decade, however, with the strengthening of the European pattern race program for fillies and mares, winners are able to continue at the top level in their own division.
The Prix de l’Opera (G1) is beginning to emerge as a key race, producing two of the last four European winners as well as last year’s runner-up, Wild Illusion. That makes sense because the Opera is the marquee option for distaffers on the Arc undercard, and it might become roughly analogous to the Arc’s role as a pointer to the Turf. Interestingly, the parallel could extend even further: both of the Filly & Mare Turf winners exiting the Opera had lost there (Midday was third in 2009 and Wuheida fourth in 2017). This hasn’t reached the resonance of the “Arc losers in the Turf” angle, but it’s worth watching.
European shippers have managed to wrest the Mile (G1) trophy in only 14 of 35 runnings, but as with the Filly & Mare Turf, Santa Anita has been friendlier to their prospects. Five of the nine editions staged here have gone to the internationals, or more specifically to the French.
France has excelled in this race, prevailing 10 times compared to the mere two apiece registered by Great Britain and Ireland (neither for Aidan O’Brien). The Gallic flair comes in part from Miesque (1987-88) and Goldikova (2008-10), together responsible for half the total. But even if you remove the great distaffers from the ledger, France has still won more Miles than Britain and Ireland combined.
The Prix du Moulin (G1) and Prix de la Foret (G1) are accordingly the obvious preps, but not only for the French. Just last fall, British shipper Expert Eye used the Moulin as his springboard to a coup in the Mile.
The most notable prep trend is a negative one, against the Queen Elizabeth II (G1) at Ascot. That wasn’t the case in the first decade or so of the Breeders’ Cup, when three Mile winners came out of placed efforts in the QE II. Since Ridgewood Pearl (1995), however, no QE II alum has gone on to capture the Mile.
Juvenile Turf/Fillies Turf
The Juvenile Turf (G1) and Juvenile Fillies Turf (G1) trends are in stark contrast to each other. As my colleague Vance Hanson recently observed, Europeans have landed eight of 12 editions of the Juvenile Turf, but scored only twice in the Juvenile Fillies Turf. And if you regard Wesley Ward’s Hootenanny (2014) as a quasi-European after his summer campaign abroad, the international impact on the Juvenile Turf is even greater.
It’s no surprise that O’Brien has won the Juvenile Turf four times, but British trainers John Gosden and Charlie Appleby have each taken it twice. Three of the last seven winners were exiting defeats in the Dewhurst (G1).
While the Europeans’ Juvenile Turf strike rate is the same at Santa Anita (four of six runnings), the reverse is true of the Juvenile Fillies Turf. The only two European-based fillies to prevail in that race did so at Santa Anita. The venue might not have been as significant as the fact that both Flotilla (2012), a future French classic winner, and Britain’s ill-fated Chriselliam (2013) were exceptional.
American-based sprinters are pitching a shut-out so far in the Turf Sprint (G1), sweeping all 11 runnings. Even worse, only one international shipper has even hit the board, Diabolical (2008), arguably because of his original American background. The results underscore how European sprinters can find this a different discipline from their straight-course game, one demanding not just high speed but proficiency around a tight-turning track with a shorter stretch.
The Juvenile Turf Sprint (G2) is too new to draw conclusions. In last year’s inaugural running, Todd Pletcher’s Bulletin went wire to wire, but Europeans finished third and fourth. The youngsters could prove more adaptable than their elders, so this race might not follow the lopsided trend of the Turf Sprint proper.
Highland Reel wins the 2016 Breeders’ Cup Turf at Santa Anita (Cecilia Gustavsson/Horsephotos.com)