With all due respect to Australia, where the Melbourne Cup is due to stop the nation at around 4am GMT on Tuesday, the attention of the racing world this week will focus squarely on the Kentucky bluegrass, and the 14 Grade One events that make up the 39th running of the Breeders’ Cup at Keeneland in Lexington this weekend.
This news may also grate with diehard fans of the jumps, who will argue that the Grand Sefton Chase over the National fences at Aintree will generate far more betting turnover in the UK on Saturday than any of the events in Kentucky. But the simple fact remains that jumping is a niche activity in the global racing industry, enjoyed almost exclusively in Britain, Ireland and France, while the Breeders’ Cup is the richest and most prestigious meeting of the year in the country which has, by several measures, the biggest racing and breeding industry on the planet.
It is also an industry that is showing distinct signs of turning a corner after many years when it seemed that American racing was doomed to inevitable – and often self-inflicted decline.
The Horse Racing Integrity and Safety Act – which, among other things, transfers responsibility for dope testing and medication rules away from individual state racing commissions – came into effect on 1 July. As a result, use of the raceday drug Lasix is expected to be steadily phased out across the US, and last year’s Breeders’ Cup was the first to be entirely Lasix-free.
Other key indicators are also positive. The US’s total “handle”, or turnover, on racing jumped by nearly 12% last year, to $12.2bn [£10.6bn], the highest figure since 2009 despite a drop of 30% in the number of races (from 49,368 to 33,567) over the intervening dozen years. Total prize money, meanwhile, was $1.1bn [£956m], more than six times the UK figure of £146m on offer in around a third of the number of races.
As a result, John Quinn’s Highfield Princess, already a Group One winner in three different countries in her last three starts, will be chasing the biggest pot of her career by some margin when she goes to post for the Breeders’ Cup Turf Sprint on Saturday. And that is one of the six events with a purse of “only” $1m. Six more, including the Mile and the Filly & Mare Turf, both of which have several leading contenders from European stables, are $2m races, while the Turf and Classic are worth $4m and $6m respectively.
For a relatively small – and, to my mind at least, still criminally under-appreciated – trainer like Quinn, it is an astonishing opportunity, and with the Wesley Ward-trained Golden Pal, the winner of the race for the last two seasons, also in the field, it promises to be a compelling spectacle for the fans too.
In all, there were 45 runners from outside the US among the 205 pre-entries for this year’s meeting, including Nashwa, the likely favourite for the Filly & Mare Turf on Saturday when Hollie Doyle will hope to get her first Breeders’ Cup winner on the board. European-trained runners are favourite for six of the seven turf events, while Highfield Princess is a narrow second-favourite for the other.
Most positive of all from an American perspective, meanwhile, is the prospect of a meeting that builds towards the Classic, the 14th and final Breeders’ Cup race, on Saturday evening, when the exceptional Flightline will attempt to defend his unbeaten record against a field that includes Life Is Good, last year’s winner of the Dirt Mile.
Flightline’s emergence as the highest-rated dirt horse since global rankings began has gone a little under the radar on this side of the Atlantic, but he is the superstar that American racing needs as it looks to maintain the recent upswing in its fortunes. His astonishing romp in the Pacific Classic at Del Mar in early September saw Flightline’s rating leap to 139, just 1lb below Frankel’s benchmark figure – for any surface – of 140, and with just five runs in the book at the age of four, there is every reason to think he can push that higher still on Saturday.
Europeans stables and viewers may concentrate on the turf events but Flightline is poised to join the likes of Secretariat, Man O’ War and Seattle Slew on the list of America’s greatest champions. Even the most fervent of jump-racing diehards could well find something to appreciate when he goes to post at 9.40pm.