Talking Horses: Europe’s best head to Breeders’ Cup amid Bob Baffert saga

The big names over the jumps are emerging week by week and Cheltenham’s November meeting is on the horizon but the international Flat season has one final flourish to come. The pulling power of Del Mar on the Pacific coast in California – “where the surf meets the turf” – has attracted a huge European team for the 2021 Breeders’ Cup meeting later this week.

More detail about running plans will arrive when the draw for stall positions takes place later on Monday, but the quarantine barn at Del Mar is currently home to 40 horses from stables in Europe. They include Dermot Weld’s Tarnawa, who will attempt to become only the third dual winner of the Turf, and Audarya from James Fanshawe’s Newmarket yard, who defends her title in the Filly & Mare Turf.

The Group One winners Love, Glass Slippers, Teona and Mother Earth are also engaged on the main card on Saturday – which means that half a dozen fillies and mares are the team leaders this weekend – while the juvenile events on turf on Friday’s card are also packed with European challengers.

Hello You (Juvenile Fillies Turf) and Go Bears Go (Juvenile Turf Sprint) are due to line up in the increasingly familiar purple colours of football agent Kia Joorabchian, while Dubawi Legend, the runner-up to Europe’s champion two-year-old Native Trail in the Dewhurst last time, is among several live contenders for the Juvenile Turf.

The Breeders’ Cup’s claim to be the “world championships” of racing may still grate with some on the other side of the Atlantic but it is, by a country mile, as close as we are ever likely to get. As the most valuable meeting in what is still the world’s biggest racing industry, its significance is also understood by international Flat racing’s biggest players. The longstanding, entirely justified complaints about race-day medication should also now be a thing of the past, as this will be the first Breeders’ Cup at which all 14 races are Lasix-free.

While one potential source of controversy has been addressed, another remains in the unmistakable form of the trainer Bob Baffert. The controversy over Medina Spirit’s failed drug test after winning the Kentucky Derby in May has slipped down the news agenda somewhat over the last few months, but the situation is still unresolved and Medina Spirit himself is a contender for Saturday’s $7m Classic.

The British Horseracing Authority has often been criticised for the glacial speed of its disciplinary procedures, but the Medina Spirit case is becoming a “hold my beer” moment for racing in the US. As yet, nearly six months on from the Run for the Roses, Medina Spirit has not been disqualified for testing positive for betamethasone, a banned steroid.

Baffert’s struggle to avoid a DQ for Medina Spirit has disappeared into the rabbit hole of America’s legal system. It is anyone’s guess when a decision might finally emerge. The trainer claims that the positive test was down to inadvertent use of an ointment for a skin complaint, having initially suggested it may have been contaminated by a stable hand urinating in the horse’s box.

Against this backdrop, the Breeders’ Cup approved Baffert to run horses at this year’s meeting two weeks ago, while imposing strict conditions on his runners, including tighter out-of-competition testing in the run-up to the meeting and heightened security at this barn.

In addition to Medina Spirit, Baffert’s runners are expected to include Gamine, the defending champion in the Filly & Mare Sprint and another horse with a chequered medication record. She was disqualified from third place in the Kentucky Oaks in September 2020 after testing positive for betamethasone, which is permitted for use in racing stables as an anti-inflammatory, but with a recommended withdrawal period of 14 days before a race to ensure that it has left the horse’s system.

At a meeting which is always thick with plotlines, this is the one that the Breeders’ Cup could have done without. But it does at least guarantee the eyes of the racing world will be firmly focused on Del Mar throughout the meeting as one of the sport’s biggest events unfolds on the Californian coastline.

Breeders’ Cup draw adds complications
Several of the leading European contenders for the Breeders’ Cup at Del Mar in California this weekend were handed tricky outside draws when the final fields for the $31m meeting were drawn on Monday.

Tarnawa, the defending champion in the Breeders’ Cup Turf, will start from stall 13 in a 14-strong field, while Teona, the Prix Vermeille winner, is on her immediate inside in 12. Tarnawa’s hold-up running style should give her a fair chance to show her best form, however, even around Del Mar’s tight turf track, and she remains a clear favourite at a top price of 7-4, with Teona on offer at 7-1.

Audarya, the defending champion in Saturday’s Breeders’ Cup Filly & Mare Turf, will also start from a wide stall as she attempts to become the first horse to win the race in consecutive years. James Fanshawe’s mare is in 12 and edged out to 5-1 (from 9-2) with Coral as a result.

Kevin Ryan’s Glass Slippers, the defending champion in Saturday’s Turf Sprint, drew stall one, alongside stable companion Emaraaty Ana (2) and likely favourite Golden Pal (3). Glass Slippers is 13-2 (from 9-1) with Coral, while Emaraaty Ana is 5-1 (from 11-2).

The main contenders from British stables in Friday’s Juvenile Turf ended up on opposite sides of the track, as Dubawi Legend, the runner-up behind Native Trail in the Dewhurst Stakes last month, drew widest of all in 14 while Modern Games and Albahr, from Charlie Appleby’s Newmarket yard, will start from stalls one and two respectively.

Dubawi Legend, the most obvious loser among the big European team after the draw, was pushed out to 9-2 (from 3-1) with Paddy Power, while Modern Games is now the new favourite at a top price of 4-1.