30 October 2005

The British raider’s attempt to notch back-to-back Breeders’ Cup victories is thwarted on a day when Shirocco flies the flag for Europe

With British hopes failing to hit the board except for Ouija Board’s gallant second, it was a night to fly the European flag and to hail the German-bred and French-trained Shirocco’s win from the Irish pair Ace and Azamour in the Breeders’ Cup Turf.

Azamour was unlucky not to finish at least second as he got trapped back along the rail. By the time Mick Kinane finally got him clear he had a full six lengths to make up on Shirocco on whom Christophe Soumillon had led the pack in pursuit of the long-time front- runner Shake The Pack. It was a cool winning ride but owed plenty to his trainer Andre Fabre who wanted the big- striding German horse kept balanced and close to the lead. It was Fabre’s fifth Breeders’ Cup race and, as is his custom, it was achieved without resorting to the use of drugs which, shamefully, are still allowed here.

An hour earlier there had been no victorious second coming in America for Ouija Board but there was plenty of glory in defeat. Attacking off the final turn Jerry Bailey had her coursing outsider Intercontinental to no avail all the way to the line. The bold decision to race her for a third season here earned her an extra $200,000 and a ticket to tilt for more in the Far East.

Being drawn out wide 13th of 14 is no help on the tightly turning inside turf track but Bailey has not been the nation’s leading rider without knowing how to stay calm as the kaleidoscope of a race is shaken around him. He had Ouija Board in mid division down the back stretch and then moved to attack round that final spinning turn. The filly responded well but Intercontinental was already in charge and never looked like stopping.

“She handled the ground (good to soft in our terms) well,” said Jerry Bailey afterwards, “she is more effective at a mile and a half possibly. I thought the leader might come back to us but she never did.” Trainer Ed Dunlop was delighted to have got his ace back to form and will now aim for the Japan Cup or the Hong Kong Vase.

The four other Europeans had much less to shout about. Favourable Terms did well enough to make fifth, but Karen’s Caper was back in ninth, Mona Lisa 10th and Frankie Dettori plum last on Godolphin’s Sundrop. Things got a bit better in the Mile when the French-trained Whipper got blocked in the straight but sprinted home to be fourth and the Newmarket-trained Major’s Cast was a brave if tiring fifth under Dettori. But at least that was on the turf. On the dirt reality hit early.

For Leo and Ivan Denisovich in the Juvenile, it took about four strides and four great mouthfuls of sand.

Admittedly Leo battled into it very bravely from his No 3 trap close to the rail to finally get home in ninth but alongside him in the two trap Ivan Denisovich was slowly out and never faced up at all. All trainer Aidan O’Brien’s efforts in getting last year’s American starter over to Tipperary for stalls practice were immediately wasted. “It was a whole new experience for him,” said Kieren Fallon afterwards, “and he didn’t like it at all.”

Leo’s effort was much better and running towards the turn Dettori was not much further away than he had been before his shock win on Wilko last year. “But he was getting intimidated by the others,” said Dettori. “It was a bit much for him and when I pulled him wide in the straight he was gone.”

With the French-trained Set Alight also way out the back, European travails were just a sand-caked sideshow as American racing was gifted a public relations dream winner with legendary entertainer Merv Griffin singing away as owner of Stevie Wonderboy. Way back in 1950, Merv had a No 1 hit with, wait for it, “A lovely bunch of coconuts” and had Stevie Wonder on his show as a 17-year-old. As silver-haired Merv warbled away about Kentucky Derby dreams, we were a world away from European failures. Not for the first time in the Breeders’ Cup 22-year history you wonder why we bothered.

Australian owner Paul Makin had bothered to the tune of $800,000 supplementary entry for the Classic for his enormous New Zealand-bred Starcraft. But the outside draw and the struggle of coping with his first effort on dirt sapped even his 570-kilo strength. For a few awesome moments going into the final turn Pat Valenzuela seemed to have a lot of mighty horse beneath him. But when the sand hit in the straight so Starcraft’s action was lost and he went the way of the other challengers on the dirt.

Yet hope springs eternal and you would have to be made of stone not to have journeyed to Belmont yesterday morning with something close to a song in the heart. Down 7th Avenue we went to Penn Station and the Long Island Railway through Jamaica to the racetrack at the end of the line. Packed in tight we were, a babel of racegoing voices, English, Italian and of course all pervading Irish adding to the American drawl. Two Dubliners sat next to me. They liked Leo in the Juvenile. They wondered which of the Ballydoyle team to back. They weren’t bothered about Belmont’s impending bankruptcy, about the absurdity of calling this The World Thoroughbred Championships without an entry from Japan, about the iniquity, 21 years on, of the continuing allowance of drugs.

For this game is nothing if not a celebration of hope against experience. Much of American racing, most particularly poor tired and tatty old Belmont in this centenary year, is going through a bad experience. But yesterday was hope. If the Breeders’ Cup gives anything, it should always be that.

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