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The Euro Invasion
By Joe Kristufek
We aren't nearly as familiar with European circuits, jockeys, trainers or horses, and the past performance lines are much different than what we're used to.
So how are we supposed to properly evaluate their chances on Arlington Million Day and for the Breeders' Cup later in the year?
The major difference between European and American racing is that nearly all the races run across the pond are contested on the grass. Tracks are generally outfitted with several courses, and no two turf courses are alike. According to Alastair Donald, of the International Racing, "some have left turns, some have right turns, some race in a straight line for a considerable amount of the distance of ground covered, and in many cases, there are even uphill and downhill sections to some of the courses. There really is no reliance on the clock, because it is worthless to try and compare times."
If times are out of the question, we must first gauge the quality of competition that a horse has been racing with. The one way that European racing is similar to its stateside brother is by the graded/group system. The top races in Europe are classified in the same way that our stake races are. The best races are the Group I events, these races are on par with any Grade I in the states. Therefore if a horse is a Group I winner overseas, then his/her form matches up with the best runners here. The same goes for the correlation between Group II and Grade II as well as Group III/Grade III. From there, European racing offers Listed Stakes that are much like an American overnight stake, and a variety of allowance and maiden races. Most times these races have names, and even sponsors, but be assured that the JRA London Office's Maiden Stakes, or any other similarly named maiden race, is no different than a maiden event at Churchill, Gulfstream, or Santa Anita.
There are no speed figures represented in European past performances, but runners can be gauged by their Racing Post Rating. The higher the number, the better. These ratings are very subjective and are considered to be a weight assignment, not a calculation as to how fast a horse ran. They can, however, give a handicapper the best indication as to how strong a particular horse may be compared to his overseas peers. For his third place run in the Group I Prince of Wales Stakes at Ascot, Tazeez earned a solid 121 Racing Post Rating, easily the best of any of the Euro Million contenders.
European track conditions differ when compared with American conditions. For example, a turf course listed overseas as ‘Good' is quite often a turf course with very little give to it and equates to our ‘Firm'. You'll also see 'gf' listed several times as the condition of a turf course. This is ‘Good to Firm', and it is also a hard and fast surface. Very similar to a hard west coast turf course.
Most European races are contested over yielding or soft turf courses. The reason for this is simple, the average rainfall in Northern Europe (England and Ireland, specifically) tends to be on par with that in the Pacific Northwest. As a result, there tends to be a good deal of moisture that builds up on the turf course and saturates the ground. Since all races are run on the grass, the option to 'move' these races to the dirt after a heavy rain is not an option. Therefore many Euro races are run over soft and slow ground.
Many of the European horses that come to the States are trying to avoid softer going, and are looking to run on firm ground. A horse that has been failing overseas when running over this bogged down turf courses are candidates for improvement when getting on fast going.
Much like the U.S., racing in the different European districts varies in quality. The hierarchy generally begins in the North and works its way down the continent. Ireland, England, and France offer the best racing with German and Italian holding lesser quality. Several smaller tracks exist in other countries, but much like county fair racing here, they barely register a blip on the mainstream European racing radar.
Much like the traditional American past performances, the European lines do provide the top three finishers in each race, but their trackmen take it a step further. The comment lines paint a much better picture and you will also find where other key performers finished in the same race.
For example, in Million contender Summit Surge's most recent running line, a win in the Group 2 York Stakes, the comment reads "rank in last, progress 3f out, drifted left & led 150y out. Debussy fourth". Through the eyes of the trackman, one can tell that he was a unsettled early at the back of the pack, made his move nearing the stretch run, and battled gamely for the win. The comment line also tells us that fellow Million contender Debussy, who happened to be the lukewarm race favorite, was fourth.
Here are a few other hints when handicapping European turf horses against their American counterparts.
- It is easier to stay longer trips at turning tracks, so a sprinter on turf can often stay a mile, and Euro milers are usually capable of performing well over nine, or even ten furlongs in the States.
- Post positions mean very little in European races run at a mile or further, with outside draws in mile races at Longchamp in France being a rare exception
- Use the Racing Post website as a tool. You can find articles on races and horses, and valuable trainer quotes.
- Know your trainers and jockeys. Which Euro trainers have success when sending horses overseas? If a serious Euro jockey is following a horse to the United States, chances are they have a big shot.
- Pay close attention to the Euros in their morning work in the days leading up to the race. Some lose weight during their voyage, and if they don't gain it back, chances are they won't be in peak form on race day. Look for horses who appear happy and healthy, and are galloping strongly in the days leading up to their assignment.