Gary West.

West: European Success in Breeders’ Cup Turf Races an Enduring Tradition

By Gary West/Special to TVG

Most of the horses that will win Breeders’ Cup races at Del Mar next month are racing this weekend and next. At least that’s what history says. Most Breeders’ Cup winners have had their final preparatory race on the first or second weekend of October. And some of them, again according to history, will be racing in Europe, very possibly near Paris, at Longchamp, in the Sunday-Monday festival featuring the Prix de l’Arc de Triomphe (G1).

One of the most salient, and somewhat surprisingly persistent, Breeders’ Cup trends is the success of European horses in turf races. Their success hasn’t wavered, even as more and more American races are run on the turf and more and more of the top-quality horses are focused on turf careers than ever before. (Only 11 percent of all races were run on grass 10 years ago in North America; that grew to more than 17 percent last year.)

Over the last 10 years, Europeans have won 26 of the 66 Breeders’ Cup turf races, or 39.39 percent. That’s based solely on where the horses raced prior to the Breeders’ Cup and so it doesn’t include winners such as Uni (GB), Sistercharlie (IRE), Main Sequence, and Zagora (FR), who all raced in Europe before coming here, nor does it include Dank (GB), who raced 10 times in Europe before traveling to Arlington, Ill., to win the 2013 Beverly D (G1) in August. After her success at Arlington International, she went back to Europe but didn’t race there; she returned to this country to win the Filly & Mare Turf (G1) on Nov. 2 at Santa Anita. Her final pre-Cup race was here, but all her preparation actually took place with Sir Michael Stoute in England. Include Dank in the calculations, and the Europeans have won 40.09 percent of all the Breeders’ Cup turf races over the last 10 years.

What’s so impressive about that, you might wonder, pointing out that Americans still won a majority of the turf races? True, but the Europeans’ level of success has been vastly disproportionate with their level of participation. Over the same 10 years, Europeans horses comprised only 28.89 percent of the starters in Breeders’ Cup turf races. 

Their success stretches across distances and divisions. European juveniles have enjoyed considerable success, winning 38.46 percent of their races over the last 10 years, but the older Europeans have been most successful, emphatically so. They’ve made up 25.55 percent of the starters in Breeders’ Cup turf races, but 42.5 percent of the winners. And that number probably could have been higher. Over the years, many of the greatest Europeans — such as Frankel (GB), Sea The Stars (IRE), and Treve (FR) — never came here for a Breeders’ Cup; others — such as Galileo (IRE), Sakhee, and Giant’s Causeway — came here but, with the encouragement of the admirably sporting spirit of their connections, raced on dirt, in the Classic (G1).

Never underestimate the Europeans in the Breeders’ Cup. When these horses and their connections travel a great distance despite costs and inconveniences to race here, their odds are almost irrelevant. What matters most is their solemn intentions, their earnest dedication. They’re not here to take the Jungle Cruise at Disneyland.

Glass Slippers (GB) was 10-1 when she won last year’s Turf Sprint (G1) at Keeneland. Her odds could be even longer this year. Iridessa (IRE) was 13-1 when she won the 2019 Filly & Mare Turf; Declarationofpeace and Talismanic (GB) were both 14-1 when they won in 2017 at Del Mar; Karakontie (JPN) was 30-1 when he took the Breeders’ Cup Mile (G1) in 2014; Wrote (IRE) and Flotilla (FR) were both 11-1 when they won their juvenile races. And Order of Australia (IRE) was a 73-1 moonshot when he won last year’s Mile at Keeneland; following him under the wire were two more Europeans, Circus Maximus (IRE) and Lope Y Fernandez (IRE); they combined for a trifecta that returned $8,786 for a buck. European horses nearly duplicated the trick in the Turf (G1), finishing one-two-four. At 9-2, despite stumbling at the start, Tarnawa (IRE) won by a length over Magical (IRE), the favorite, with an American, Channel Maker third. Lord North (IRE) finished fourth.

Tarnawa wins the Breeders’ Cup Turf at Keeneland Race Course on Nov. 7, 2020. Scott Serio/Breeders’ Cup/Eclipse Sportswire/CSM

Yes, it’s a lesson learned long ago but warrants annual repetition: Never underestimate the Europeans. I clearly remember watching the procession of Europeans as they came onto the Santa Anita track for the first time in 2013 and thinking how uncomfortable they looked. They had just cleared quarantine. Some were conspicuously nervous as they sent darting glances in the direction of bystanders on the grandstand apron; all the horses looked around, left and right, taking in their new surroundings, their eyes wide, surveying this totally foreign environment; many perspired heavily on this morning that must have seemed to them unusually warm. That was on Wednesday. On Thursday, they looked much more calm, less anxious. And when they marched out Friday, poised and focused, I remember thinking, they’re amazing, they’ve adapted in three days, and they’re going to kick us to the curb. The Europeans won four of their six races (the Turf Sprint didn’t have a European starter), counting Dank.

Races over the next two weeks will largely determine the starters in the Breeders’ Cup turf races, but already the Europeans looks like they’re going to enjoy Del Mar. Can any American beat the Aga Khan’s superstar mare Tarnawa? She’s aimed at the Arc, but depending on her performance there she might not be favored to repeat in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, so strong are the Europeans. Adayar (IRE), the English Derby (G1) winner, and Hurricane Lane (IRE), winner of the St. Leger, are also possible for the Turf. United and Acclimate might be the best of the West Coast candidates; they meet Saturday in the John Henry Turf Championship (G2) at Santa Anita. But the best American candidate might be Gufo, who’ll race next weekend in the Joe Hirsch Turf Classic (G1) at Belmont.

Mo Forza and Smooth Like Strait race in Saturday’s City of Hope (G2) at Santa Anita, where they could put themselves in consideration for the Breeders’ Cup Mile. The best European milers probably won’t be here, but Order of Australia could return.

After the juveniles sort themselves out this weekend, with races in France, Maryland, New York and California, and next, with races in Kentucky and England, surely a few Americans will look like contenders — perhaps Limited Liability who races Sunday in the Pilgrim (G2) at Belmont, or Kinchen (IRE) who’s among the favorites in Saturday’s Miss Grillo (G2) at Belmont, or Mackinnon who looks to take another step forward Sunday in the Zuma Beach at Santa Anita. But War Like Goddess might represent the best American hope for a green victory in the Breeders’ Cup. She has won four straight, including the Flower Bowl (G1), in dominating style. She’s aimed at the Filly & Mare Turf, where she could take on Audarya, last year’s winner who races Sunday in France.

Whatever the outcomes over the next two weeks, the Europeans are going to be formidable at Del Mar. They always are in the Breeders’ Cup championship races; never underestimate them.

Gary West is a nationally acclaimed turf columnist, racing analyst, author and handicapper who helped pioneer pace figures.