Wise Dan to outsmart O'Brien colt
RACING: AS IRELAND’S most successful ever Breeders’ Cup trainer, Aidan O’Brien is the perfect fit to fly the Irish flag solo at Santa Anita tonight, where, despite the self-proclaimed “World Championship” billing, the flavour will be more fervently stars-and-stripes than ever.
US racing’s richest and most important advertisement may have got under way last night but it is centre-stage stuff this evening, culminating in a $5 million Classic highlight that is as all-American as the nearby Hollywood sign.
But it’s not just the big race that exudes a return to the tried-and-trusted from an American viewpoint. In 2008 and 2009, a total of 11 European-trained winners occurred at Santa Anita, helped by a synthetic main track that has since been ripped up and replaced by traditional dirt.
It’s little wonder then that no European runner contests the Classic and that the Euro challenge in general pales in comparison to even just a few years ago when the two-day $25 million extravaganza began its bloat into a 15-race marathon that boosts betting handle but dilutes overall quality.
The drug issue faced by US racing also persists but the fascination of comparing transatlantic form does too. And O’Brien’s half dozen runners contain the two star international names tonight, in the Mile favourite Excelebration and St Nicholas Abbey, who defends the Turf title he won so memorably in Kentucky last year.
As the horse that represents most strongly the lines of form that have many proclaiming Frankel to be the best European runner ever, Excelebration will be a focus of interest for everyone and, significantly, the Mile has been piked up the schedule to play main support to the Classic.
That has something to do with the Irish star but probably more to do with how last year’s Kentucky Derby hero Animal Kingdom switches to grass and is backed up by the outstanding American miler Wise Dan.
There are plenty who believe Excelebration put in a career best performance in the QEII just a fortnight ago and O’Brien’s comments trackside suggest someone who believes the only danger may be the short two-week turn-around.
“It was always the plan to come on to the Breeders’ Cup after Ascot,” said the champion trainer. “I suppose there is always the chance that two Group One races in two weeks is asking too much of the horse, but he seems in very good form.”
But there is also the factor of a 6,000-mile trip and a tight inside course that will be alien to anything Excelebration has faced before. And there is also a significant form line to consider. Excelebration beat Cityscape by three lengths at Ascot: Wise Dan beat Cityscape by further in Canada last month and was just as impressive. He has also won again since and yet has had a perfect lead-in to this task. He is also on home ground. There is also the not insignificant plus of having Johnny Velazquez on his back. All those points can swing it Wise Dan’s way.
St Nicholas Abbey is joined by Treasure Beach in the Turf where the main home dirt hope Point Of Entry might find this opposition a very different kettle of fish to what he has been beating up. France’s Shareta in particular is proven on quick ground, looked brilliant in the Vermeille, and got bogged down in the Arc.
Ballydoyle pitches both George Vancouver and Lines Of Battle into a Juvenile Turf for males that Wrote won last year but they will do well to cope with the well-bred Noble Tune.
A Dirt Mile win for the ultra-game Shackleford would be hugely popular and he can out-stay Godolphin’s Emcee in his first Santa Anita start while Power Broker overcame a wide draw in the Norfolk and can do the same in the Juvenile.
It will be Sunday morning by the time the local specialist Game On Dude tries to go one better in the Classic where bookmakers reckon Bill Mott’s Flat Out is his big danger. Taking a chance on another of the Mott team, Ron The Greek, bouncing back to form over the course and distance of his Santa Anita Handicap win in March, may pay off though.
BRIAN’S SELECTIONS: 6.50, Noble Tune; 7.35, Groupie Doll; 8.14, Shackleford; 8.57, Unbridled’s Note; 9.36, Power Broker; 10.18, Shareta; 10.58, Coil; 11.40, Wise Dan; 12.35, Ron The Greek.