A strong European contingent came to this year's races at Belmont Park Saturday, hoping to make good on promises that in many years went unfulfilled.
It didn't take long
In the second championship race, the $1 million Juvenile Fillies, Dubai-based Godolphin Racing sent out the 1-2 finishers, Tempera and Imperial Gesture. While both have raced this year in the United States, they now become grist for the Middle Eastern Thoroughbred operation that sends its successful runners around the world.
In the next race, French-bred Val Royal, another California trainee, won the $1 million Breeders' Cup Mile, with Irish-bred and British-based Bach finishing third for trainer Aiden O'Brien.
The $1 million Filly & Mare Turf was a foreign sweep. Banks Hill, a British-bred who had raced recently in France, was the winner with South African-bred Spook Express second and Spring Oak, an English-bred filly, third. Andre Fabre trains both Banks Hill and Spring Oak.
In a major upset, Johannesburg shipped in from England, where he was undefeated in six starts, won the $1 million Juvenile, also under O'Brien's tutelage. Among those left in the colt's wake was undefeated American would-be superstar Officer, who finished fifth after leading.
But the biggest European fireworks were saved for the last and justified some of the intrigue that surrounded a week of Breeders' Cup preparations.
A week ago, it was generally assumed that Godolphin would attack the $2 million Breeders' Cup Turf with Sakhee -- the winner of the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe three weeks earlier -- and send Fantastic Light into the $4 million Classic for a rematch with his Euro-rival, Galileo. Instead, and despite some unsolicited advice from stable rider Frankie Dettori, Godolphin did things the other way around.
The decision paid off. It almost paid off big-time.
Fantastic Light cruised to victory in the Turf, whipping yet another European, Milan, the fifth-place finisher in the Arc. Then in the stretch run of the Classic, Sakhee grabbed the lead from defending champion and North American Horse of the Year Tiznow and seemed headed for victory before Tiznow found another gear and rebounded to win by a nose.
The day got off to an upset start with longshot Unbridled Elaine winning the Distaff by a head over last year's winner, Spain.
In many past runnings of the Breeders' Cup, European hopefuls have failed to live up to their billing. From owners to stablehands, the overseas contingent rejoiced at this year's good fortune.
The joy bubbled over when more than 100 revelers, some toting Irish flags, followed Johannesburg from the track to the winner's circle, cheering and waving their arms.
With New York still recovering from the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, however, many of the Mideast-based owners stayed home from this year's races.
Although its master, Sheikh Mohammed bin Rasheed al Maktoum, was absent, Godolphin donated all of its day's winnings -- $2.5 million -- to the NTRA Charities' New York Heroes Fund. Earlier, the sheikh, who also is defense minister of Dubai, had donated $5 million to the fund outright.
"It's great that we picked up some money and it's going to the fund," Dettori said at a post-race news conference with Tiznow's jockey, Chris McCarron.
Amid the foreign dominance, it was an odd year for American trainers.
After losing with his first two runners Saturday, stretching his Breeders' Cup losing streak to 38 races, trainer Bobby Frankel finally broke through with Squirtle Squirt in the $1 million Sprint. The often-gruff trainer wasn't commenting on the day's results as his other five starters showed little.
Trainer D. Wayne Lukas, often a force on racing's biggest day, scored with Yonaguska in a non-Breeders' Cup race earlier on the program but was shut out in the big races.
Bob Baffert, also normally a formidable presence at the Breeders' Cup, didn't get close to a winner Saturday and saw his best chance, Officer, finish fifth as the heavy favorite in the $1 million Juvenile.
Ironically, Eoin Harty, a one-time Baffert assistant, and Dallas Stewart, once an aide to Lukas, both posted wins.
Belmont Park, hosting the Breeders' Cup for the first time since 1995, enjoyed excellent weather, with generally clear skies and temperatures in the 50s. The day's attendance was announced at 52,987. Total commingled handle for the full 10-race card was $98,757,580 and total handle from all sources was estimated at more than $100 million. Last year's total handle when the races were run at Churchill Downs was $108,603,040.
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