This is the time of year when we should be excitedly ushering in the new Jumps season. After all, it’s only two weeks to Cheltenham’s superb three-day Open meeting and only four weeks to Newbury’s under-rated three-day Hennessy meeting.
Instead our attention is diverted to sunnier climes in the USA and Australia by the Breeders’ Cup and the Melbourne Cup.
Partly, it must be said, because of the misguided emphasis placed on these events by the national racing media.
Don’t get me wrong. Both events are hugely significant on the international programme. But cocooned as they are in their Press boxes in the sky, in danger of becoming detached from racing reality, the mediamen cannot convince me that UK punters won’t be taking more interest in what’s happening at Ascot, Wetherby, Down Royal and Newmarket this weekend than the action at Santa Anita and Flemington.
Despite its rich reputation and tantalising tradition, the Melbourne Cup is a race that has never floated my boat. Maybe because it’s run in the middle of the night before a work morning when I’m fast off in bed. Maybe because it is, after all, a 2m handicap often run on very fast or even hard ground. Maybe because I’m peeved that its slogan, ‘the race that stops a nation’, is constantly used in this country as a stick with which to beat and belitte the Epsom Derby, a race that no longer boasts the same public appeal.
Notwithstanding that, I do hope BROWN PANTHER can become the first British-trained winner of the race next week. This is a high-class horse who, in my opinion, has been poorly placed since finishing second in the 2011 St Leger. He has been crying out for the Melbourne Cup trip of 2m, yet has tackled it only once -- when a convincing winner of the Goodwood Cup in August.
One of the horses Michael Owen’s five-year-old had behind him on the Sussex Downs was MOUNT ATHOS, who was an unlucky loser in the 2012 Flemington showpiece. The formbook suggestion that Luca Cumani and Dr Marwan Koukash’s gelding has declined this season is an illusion. His campaign has been cleverly engineered towards a repeat tilt at the Melbourne Cup under a manageable weight.
I have less antipathy towards the Breeders’ Cup than the Australian shindig. I enjoy watching it, particularly the slick, professional coverage of the US TV networks, and I am not one of those who thinks the meeting has been diluted by its extension to two nights.
However, it still isn’t an event that would tempt me into having a serious bet. The sheer volume of racing in the UK and Ireland creates time constraints that restrict my knowledge of US form. And while the hosts try their best to trumpet the meeting as a world championship, it is palpably not, given that the European raiders make the journey at the end of a long campaign back home, sometimes as an after-thought.
The need to acclimatise quickly to very different conditions is often beyond horses trained in Europe, while trainers face the dilemma of whether or not to run on the anti-bleeding drug, Lasix.
Furthermore, the Santa Anita racing surface is now made entirely of Dirt, having been synthetic and 70% Polytrack back in 2009 when overseas challengers returned home with a record six wins (from 14 contests), Dirt tends to favour front-runners and prominent racers, a bias accentuated here because the Californian track is only 7f in circumference. It also tends to favour horses specifically bred to handle such a surface.
Little wonder then that so much pessimism surrounds this year’s European party. It numbers 16 horses, but seven of those are concentrated on the two Juvenile Turf races on Friday evening, which are Lasix-free.
Very few of the Euro raiders have been aimed specifically at the meeting -- with the exception of Sir Michael Stoute’s DANK, who will take all the beating in the Filly And Mare Turf after a sparkling success in the Grade One Beverley D Stakes elsewhere in the States, at Arlington, Illinois two months ago.
Equally, very few are bred to appreciate Dirt, although two notable exceptions are the Aidan O’Brien duo, GIOVANNI BOLDINI and DECLARATION OF WAR.
The former is regarded as one of Ballydoyle’s top four juveniles at this stage (alongside Australia, War Command and Geoffrey Chaucer). He goes for the Juvenile Turf, rather than the Juvenile Dirt, but still looks sure to go close in a race the stable have won for the past two years.
Declaration Of War, brilliant dual Grade One winner of the Queen Anne Stakes at Royal Ascot and the Juddmonte International at York, has been handed the ambitious target of the biggest Breeders’ Cup race of all, the Classic, scheduled for the early hours of Sunday morning.
Victory would be a monumental achievement, even by O’Brien’s lofty standards. But the possibility is at least worth staying up for!