European runners vs. the best of the U.S. in 2017 Breeders' Cup grass races

By Robert Kieckhefer, UPI Racing Writer  |  Oct. 31, 2017 at 9:03 PM
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Oct. 31 (UPI) -- As usual, the big question in the turf races at the Breeders' Cup World Championships is: "How will the Americans stack up against the Euros?"

This year, the home team, while far from hopeless, is likely to struggle against the visitors in Friday's and Saturday's grass events at Del Mar in sunny Southern California.

Breeders' Cup purses are massive relative to European and UK pots. That attraction, plus ever easier and more convenient shipping, has made the grass races very attractive to the overseas trainers.

And, they've learned to target the most appropriate horses -- normally those who prefer firm turf. Autumn races in Europe, England and Ireland typically are run over turf softened by persistent rains. Del Mar, just north of San Diego, enjoys near-perfect weather year-round and this weekend is no exception so it's a natural for European trainers to aim for the fatter rewards in America with horses who like to, as the saying goes, "hear their feet rattle."

Charlie Appleby, who will train some of Godolphin's turf specialists at Del Mar, said Monday, "When I first started at Godolphin, it was my ambition just to have international runners. But it has slightly changed now because I want to have international runners with live chances."

Here's a brief look at how the grass races shape up:

$4 million Longines Turf

Europe is sending some of its best for this 1 1/2-miles event, including defending champion Highland Reel and last year's fourth-place finisher, Ulysses. This year, that order of preference is reversed.

Ulysses is the 7-2 morning-line favorite for Saturday's race after finishing third in the Group 1 Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe Oct. 1. Before that, he won the Group 1 Juddmonte International Stakes, defeating Churchill, who will run in the Classic at Del Mar. Highland Reel, however, is not to be discounted. He has had five runs this year, all but one on less-than-firm going. When given firm turf, as he will have at Del Mar, he won the Group 1 Prince of Wales's Stakes at Royal Ascot rather easily with Decorated Knight second and Ulysses third.

Decorated Knight also is in this field along with fellow trans-Atlantic raiders Talismanic, Cliffs of Moher and Seventh Heaven, any of whom could have a say.

The U.S. team is headed by Beach Patrol, the second-favorite on the morning line at 4-1. His last two starts resulted in victory in the Grade I Arlington Million and the Grade I Turf Classic Invitational. Oscar Performance, winner of three straight graded stakes before taking third in the Turf Classic, is 10-1 on the morning line. And Fanciful Angel, previously trained in England and second in the Million and the Turf Classic, is 12-1.

That translates to: The Americans will need Oscar-worthy performances to keep up with Highland Reel and Ulysses -- and maybe some of the other Europeans, as well.

$2 million Filly & Mare Turf

The sentimental favorite here -- and the 5-2 favorite on the morning line as well -- is Lady Eli. The Chad Brown-trained mare nearly lost her life in 2015 when an injury morphed into a critical hoof disease. Her remarkable physical recovery then morphed into magic on the track as she came back on top after a 13-months absence, reeling off four wins and three seconds in seven subsequent starts.

In last year's Breeders' Cup, Lady Eli lost by just a nose to European long shot Queen's Trust. That rival is back and not to be discounted on firm ground. But she is not the best of the Euros. That would be between Coolmore's Rhododendron and Godolphin Racing's Wuheida. Rhododendron, one of trainer Aidan O'Brien's many talented 3-year-old fillies, has held her own against all of them and won the Group 1 Prix de l'Opera on Arc day in her last start. Wuheida has been fighting unsuitable soft going all season but was beaten only 1/2 length in the Opera and could be a very live and very long shot in this race.

Brown also has Dacita and Grand Jette in the Filly & Mare Turf and they have been at the top level among U.S. turf distaffers all year but if that level is going to have an impact here, any of at least a half dozen need to be considered.

Root for Lady Eli. Don't leave Rhododendron or Wuheida off the trifecta ticket.

$2 million Mile

Ribchester, Roly Poly and Suedois -- three top Europeans -- are at the top of the list here along with Americans Heart to Heart and World Approval.

Ribchester, one of Godolphin's top horses, has not missed a top-three finish yet this year, winning three Group 1 events along the way. Roly Poly, another of O'Brien's 3-year-old fillies, has three Group 1 wins to her credit this season and two more seconds at the top level. Suedois was having a less spectacular season at home but shipped to Kentucky for his last start and won the Grade I Shadwell Turf Mile at Keeneland.

Heart to Heart was the favorite in the Shadwell Turf Mile, led to the final yards and finished second, beaten only 1/2 length. He will go as far as his speed can carry him. World Approval is 4-for-5 this year with his last two races Grade I wins.

The Mile is a race that requires racing luck, though. In a 14-horse field, surprises can result.

$1 million Turf Sprint

This 5-furlongs dash is a dream rematch between Marsha and Lady Aurelia, the 1-2 finishers in the Group 1 Coolmore Nunthorpe Stakes at York in August. In that one, jockey Frankie Dettori thought Lady Aurelia had the race in the bag and was celebrating as he crossed the finish -- a nose behind Marsha, who won with a last lunge well out in the middle of the course. Lady Aurelia, winner of five of seven starts, has not raced since. Marsha went on to finish second in the Group 1 Prix de l'Abbaye de Longchamp on Arc day, beaten only by the remarkable Battaash over unfavorable soft ground.

The others are worth a look and anything can happen in the less than a minute that it takes to run this race. But, wow! What a rematch.

$1 million Juvenile Turf

This race, one of four Breeders' Cup races on the Friday card, is full of promising youngsters and lacks anything resembling a legitimate favorite. Godolphin's Masar, rained by Charlie Appleby, is the pick on the morning line but at odds of 9-2. Stab the program, get lucky and take your friends out for dinner.

$1 million Juvenile Fillies Turf

Ditto for this race, also run on Friday. The morning-line favorite here is Rushing Fall, undefeated in two starts for American trainer Chad Brown. O'Brien has two here -- Happily and September. Happily is the better regarded but September has fared a bit better on firm ground. Canadian-based Dixie Moon could lead the way but drew the No. 12 gate on the far outside.

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