Many thanks to Nick King, who pointed out that Europeans won 2 of the 8 Breeders’ Cup races that were on Pro-Ride last year and 5 of the 14 overall.
There are trainers, most notably men like D. Wayne Lukas and Nick Zito, who have never liked synthetic race tracks. Zito has never run a horse in California — over dirt or synthetic track. He chose to skip last year’s Breeders’ Cup that was run over Santa Anita’s synthetic Pro-Ride surface, and despite the fact he told us last October he’d most likely come out this year, it would still be a surprise if he showed up in November for Breeders’ Cup XXVI at Santa Anita’s Oak Tree meet on Nov. 6-7.
It’s a new concern for Breeders’ Cup officials, having to deal with people staying away from their event because of artificial tracks. Jess Jackson, co-owner of the most popular horse in training, Rachel Alexandra, is not coming this year because he says he doesn’t like “plastic tracks.” We all know the real reason is because Curlin, whom Jackson also owned, got beat at Santa Anita last year in the Breeders’ Cup Classic after taking the lead at the top of the stretch.
“It definitely concerns us whenever we’re not able to include a top horse in the championship, but if you’ve been in this game long enough you know that people have lots of different reasons for why they choose to enter or not to enter a horse in a particular race,” Breeders’ Cup president Greg Avioli told me last week in an exclusive interview. “But I can tell you that if we were not running on a synthetic surface this year, there would be a number of owners who would identify that we were running on dirt as the reason they did not want to come to the championships. So it’s a very difficult business with literally thousands of owners and hundreds of trainers.
“Can you please everyone? Ultimately, the event is judged by the horses that participate in the event, and I think we are going to have an exceptional group of horses, maybe the most and the best we’ve ever had.”
The biggest group of horses that would stay home if this year’s event were run over the dirt at Churchill Downs or Belmont Park is the Europeans, who won five of the 14 Breeders’ Cup races last year, including Raven’s Pass in the $5 million Classic. There were 31 Europeans who started last year, a figure that could easily be surpassed if the world’s economy doesn’t keep some of the overseas horsemen home. In a normal economy, you might see upwards of 50 Europeans this year. As it is, 35 to 40 could show up.
“I get calls. I get e-mails (from disgruntled horsemen),” Avioli said. “There are lots of differing opinions out there, and we do our best to satisfy as many of our top owners, breeders and trainers as we can, and we’re going to keep working every day to try to get the event to the right track to satisfy the most people.”