Commentary

The Grass isn't always greener

Europeans continue to show their dominance in turf races

Updated: August 19, 2014, 1:26 PM ET
By Gary West | Special to ESPN.com

SARATOGA SPRINGS, N.Y. -- In 1799, as the story goes, in Epsom, in Surrey, England, at a gathering to celebrate the first running of the Oaks Stakes, the partygoers decided to create a companion race to be run the following year. It was to be named after either the 12th Earl of Derby or Sir Charles Bunbury. Lord Derby won the coin flip, for which the world can give thanks, and the next year Diomed won the first Epsom Derby. (He was owned, by the way, in one of fate's great acts of conciliation, by Bunbury.)

Two hundred years later, or 201 for the nitpickers, John Henry won the first Arlington Million. And that rather succinctly describes the difference between turf racing in Europe and America, two centuries. Actually, though, a head start isn't the only reason Europe's turf horses are generally superior to America's. And all the reasons were evident this past weekend, when five Grade 1 turf stakes were run across the country -- the Arlington Million, Beverly D and Secretariat at Arlington Park; the Del Mar Oaks in California; and Sunday's Sword Dancer here at Saratoga, where Main Sequence made an emphatic statement, winning by a head after leaving the starting gate awkwardly and spotting his American rivals about five lengths.

Nine of the 40 horses, or 22.5 percent, that ran in the weekend's major turf stakes were based in Europe. And they won three of the races, or 60 percent. Adelaide, who was the only Euro in the field, won the Secretariat. The appropriately named Euro Charline, who came here after winning a minor stakes at Ascot, won the Beverly D, where Irish filly Just The Judge finished third. And six of the nine Euros, or 66.7 percent, "hit the board," finishing in the top three.

"He was a very good horse in Europe," said winning trainer Graham Motion about Main Sequence, who two years ago finished second in the Epsom Derby. But last year, although close in a few major stakes, he was winless while racing in England. Since coming to America, however, he has won two Grade 1 stakes in as many starts, preceding Sunday's victory with a score in the United Nations Stakes at Monmouth Park. "In Europe, the quality of turf racing is just that much better."

And with his Saratoga victory, Main Sequence argued that he should be regarded as one of the early favorites for the Breeders' Cup Turf.

And with his Saratoga victory, Main Sequence argued that he should be regarded as one of the early favorites for the Breeders' Cup Turf. He was leaning backwards when the latches of the gate opened, and then he bumped the side trying to recover, all of which must have left his supporters, who made him the 2-1 favorite, with insides that felt like a wrung-out dishrag. With a quarter-mile remaining in the 1 ½-mile race, Main Sequence still lagged far behind, having passed only one horse. But jockey Rajiv Maragh guided the handsome chestnut to the outside for a clear run home, and Main Sequence ran an extraordinary final quarter-mile, in about 22 seconds, dropping every jaw in the house.

Of course, some horses racing in Europe might be better suited to racing in America, where the turf, or ground, is generally firmer and the pace usually quicker. Main Sequence is clearly such a horse. But all things being equal, the Europeans are just better. It's that simple. In some cases, they're so superior they can travel halfway around the world into completely unfamiliar surroundings, walk off the plane and then off a van, look around and then defeat the best America has to offer. Euro Charline, for example, had never raced in this country and had never won a major stakes, but the 3-year-old filly beat her elders Saturday at Arlington Park.

"They have a much larger pool of turf horses to choose from," said Hall of Fame trainer Bill Mott, about the best of Europe's grass horses. Mott has won the Sword Dancer on three occasions, and he has trained two turf champions, Paradise Creek and Theatrical. He also has assumed training responsibilities for many imports and taken on many Europeans with American horses, such as Secretariat runner-up Tourist. Mott isn't just one of the country's best horsemen; he's also an expert on the European-American racing relationship. And when he says the Europeans have a much larger group of runners, he's emphasizing that as a profound distinction. It might seem obvious, with all of Europe's most significant races run on turf, but the discrepancy is even more dramatic than you might think.

Last year, 58,138 horses raced in North America, according to The Jockey Club, and, of course, far fewer than half those raced on turf. But about 170,000 horses race throughout Europe, according to a 2008 economic impact study conducted by the European Pari Mutuel Association.

"And for years they've been skimming off the best of our turf pedigrees," Mott continued, referring to European owners and breeders. "They have many great turf horses, but they got a lot of them here [at sales] and got some of the best breeding, but that's just the way the commercial market is."

The export of Thoroughbreds from North America peaked in 2009, with 3,534, according to The Jockey Club. That same year, only 672 were imported, a difference of 2,862. The deficit has declined in recent years, but there remains a continuous flow of American bloodstock to Europe and elsewhere, with 2,185 horses exported just last year.

And turf racing is relatively new here. Compared to Europe's most prestigious races, America's are parvenues, arrivistes, downright upstarts. Churchill Downs didn't even have a turf course until 1985. The Joe Hirsch Turf Classic, arguably the most prestigious turf stakes in New York, was first run as the Aqueduct Turf Classic in 1977. Moved to Belmont Park in 1984, it immediately became a significant preparatory event for the new Breeders' Cup Turf. The Sword Dancer, originally run on dirt, wasn't moved to the turf until 1980.

The Irish Derby, on the other hand, was first run in 1817. A very modern event by European standards, the Prix de l'Arc de Triomphe was first run in 1920.

And in this country, Mott pointed out, many horses only move to the turf after they've disappointed on the dirt. For some, the turf represents a place of last resort, a desperate attempt to save something from a disappointing investment. Most of the money here rewards horses that succeed on dirt, and so, quite naturally, the best horses are bred and prepared to race there.

In Europe, on the other hand, racing has a very green foundation and history. That was evident this weekend, as was the European's superiority.

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