Surface, sport big winners at Breeders' Cup

Updated: October 27, 2008, 3:23 AM ET
Associated Press

ARCADIA, Calif. -- Forget the 14 races, the $25 million in purses and the tens of millions in wagering.

The biggest number to come out of the Breeders' Cup may be zero -- as in zero breakdowns on Santa Anita's new synthetic Pro-Ride surface during two electrifying days of racing that gave the sport a much-needed image boost following a long, scrutiny-filled summer.

More than 150 horses headed to the post looking for their share at horse racing's richest event. Only 14 won, but the entire field made it around the sun-dappled track intact.

"There was no carnage," said trainer Eoin Harty.

That's a victory in itself for an industry trying to move past the high-profile breakdown of filly Eight Belles moments after this year's Kentucky Derby, and Derby winner Big Brown's controversial run at a Triple Crown.

"All in all it was a real celebration of racing and the best of racing," said trainer John Gosden, who saddled Raven's Pass to an upset win over Curlin in the $5 million Classic. "That's what American racing needed from the Breeders' Cup and they got it."

Gosden said before the Breeders' Cup began that the new surface would level the playing field between North American and European horses.

Did it ever.

Five European horses reached the winner's circle Saturday, led by Gosden's brilliant 3-year-old. Raven's Pass, a turf horse making his first start on a synthetic surface, looked right at home on the mixture of fiber, rubber and sand. He surged by the reigning Horse of the Year down the stretch for a convincing 1 3/4 lengths win.

Gosden didn't rule out bringing his star back to defend his title. If he does, he won't be alone. After watching so many Euros run so well, expect the road back to Santa Anita for next year's Breeders' Cup to be packed.

"I should think it will be tough getting in the races next year," Gosden said. "There will be a lot of people disappointed on the also eligible list."

Breeders' Cup president Greg Avioli acknowledged he was worried about his decision to bring the event to Santa Anita when the track's first try at an artificial surface proved disastrous. Pro-Ride was installed in July, and Avioli said he's gotten nothing but rave reviews.

"We haven't been vindicated but Santa Anita has and Pro-Ride has," Avioli said. "They said they would get this right and they got this right and my hat's off to them."

Gosden, who began his career training in California before moving his operations to England in 1988, said he was so impressed by the surface that he'd consider running on it full-time.

"If I was told I could only train on one surface for the rest of my career, I wouldn't be far off picking that main track there," he said. "I really wouldn't."

Even some of the naysayers seemed to find success. Bob Baffert, who has never been a fan of synthetics, picked up two victories over the weekend, including the second Juvenile title of his career with Midshipman.

"All the skeptics seemed to win races," Harty said.

Baffert doesn't consider himself a convert yet, but knows the surface is no excuse not to come to one of racing's most high-profile events.

"It's a Breeders' Cup, and you have to run in it," Baffert said. "All the good horses should show up, and that's what it's all about."

One horse who almost certainly won't be back is Curlin. Looking for a second straight win in the Classic to cement his status as one of the sport's all-time greats, Curlin made his patented surge to the front before fading in the final yards to finish out of the money for the first time in his career.

Trainer Steve Asmussen offered no excuses for the loss, but was among those not won over by the surface.

"He works harder to go through it than he does off the dirt," Asmussen said.

Curlin was scheduled to ship to Churchill Downs late Sunday night and his racing future is uncertain. Asmussen said he and majority owner Jess Jackson would sit down in the next few days to determine which path the 4-year-old will take.

"Nothing at all has been said about what's the next step," Asmussen said.

Racing, meanwhile, hopes for a quiet winter. After months of talking about steroids, medication and long awaited reform, if the last image the masses see this year is Raven's Pass dashing to the wire with the field scrambling after, that's not a bad thing.

"(It is) the perception that we have to be so careful of," Gosden said. "To have a great Breeders' Cup is important. We need positive news and it was a positive news weekend."


Copyright 2008 by The Associated Press

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