Europeans Unleashed as Santa Anita is Struck by Tragedy

Auguste Rodin with his regular rider Rachel Richardson | Emma Berry


ARCADIA, USA–Against the most stunning backdrop in world racing, just as the pre-dawn sky started to pinken with promise, a metaphorical dark cloud was cast across Santa Anita racetrack. Practical Move (Practical Joke), a leading contender for the Breeders' Cup Dirt Mile, collapsed and died of an apparent heart attack on his way back in from exercise in front of onlookers on the apron. The screens arrived eventually, but not soon enough to remind those present of the occasionally desperate nature of the sport we love, and how such a scene threatens its very future.

This fatality, coming on the back of Saturday's serious injury to supposed Classic runner Geaux Rocket Ride (Candy Ride {Arg}) and the withdrawal on Tuesday morning from that same race of Arcangelo (Arrogate), one of this season's feel-good stories, means that the 40th running of the Breeders' Cup will take place in less than auspicious circumstances.

Work continued on the track after a pause. It had to, of course. This was the morning when the international shippers were released from quarantine and into the big wide open expanse of the Santa Anita dirt, wrapped around the turf. Take your pick.

John Gosden, striding down the track alongside his long-term lieutenant Tony Proctor, chose the green grass of home for the first spin of Mostahdaf (Ire) and Inspiral (GB). It made perfect sense, as the son and daughter of Frankel (GB) are the leading lights in their respective targets, both on that surface. Gosden is of course more familiar with Santa Anita than his fellow travellers, having been based here for a time during the 1980s and among the winners of the inaugural Breeders' Cup at Hollywood Park in 1984, when Royal Heroine (Ire) landed the Mile for Robert Sangster. 

With the post-work debrief drifting from his own horses to the outstanding performance of Equinox (Jpn) (Kitasan Black {Jpn}) at the weekend, Gosden cast his mind back to that champion's great grandsire. 

“He is an absolute freak, isn't he, an extraordinary horse,” he said of Sunday's GI Tenno Sho winner. “When you look at him, he looks almost like a Stubbs painting, or a JF Herring Sr painting. He's not what we are used to. He's just one of those extraordinary athletes who can go at an incredibly strong pace and maintain and maintain it.

“The Japanese breed for this. Deep Impact went two miles, and what a star he was. Sunday Silence, such a great horse, trained by Charlie [Whittingham] right over there,” he added, gesturing across to the barns beyond the quarantine facility. “This aversion to horses who can win over a mile and a half, a mile six, we've gone too far the other way, and we have to be careful. Suddenly a mile and a half becomes a marathon.”

Of his own pair, Gosden added, “They're very happy, they were pleased to get out. They've been behind those screens [of the quarantine area] and they were thrilled to get out and have some fresh air. They flew on Saturday and they cleared quarantine at six o'clock last night.”

Frankie Dettori was aboard Inspiral for her morning exertions, ponied on and off the track by a companion, while Mostahdaf followed at a distance on his own, each of them having an easy stretch of a canter on the turf before taking several turns of the paddock. 

Once they and the trio of Japanese turf workers, Win Marilyn (Jpn) (Screen Hero {Jpn}), Shahryar (Jpn) (Deep Impact {Jpn}) and Jaspar Crone (Frosted), had made their way back to the barns, another wave of Europeans took to the track. The O'Brien clan was out in force. Led by Joseph and Lumiere Rock (Ire) (Saxon Warrior {Jpn}), Donnacha took to the saddle of a quarter horse to accompany Porta Fortuna (Ire) (Caravaggio) and the Juvenile Turf Sprint reserve Asean (Ire) (Ten Sovereigns). Finally Aidan, along with a group including his wife Annemarie, owner Paul Smith and vet John Halley, made his way along the apron close to the winning post to watch his team of ten trot the reverse way round the track before turning and hack-cantering back. The dual Derby winner Auguste Rodin (Ire), himself from the final crop of the aforementioned Deep Impact, took in his surroundings with a keen eye, with the sturdy juvenile Mountain Bear (Ire) (No Nay Never) a little on his toes some way behind him, and the neat and composed Warm Heart (Ire) (Galileo {Ire}) further back still and looking every bit as delightful as her name suggests. 

Ralph Beckett, who has enjoyed a tremendous season back home and notched another stakes win only a day earlier at Saint-Cloud, was on foot between his duo of State Occasion (GB) (Iffraaj {GB}) and the youngster Starlust (GB) (Zoustar {Aus}) as they proceeded to the main track for an easy exercise. 

The riding skills of Robson Aguiar were on show aboard the Norfolk S. winner Valiant Force (Malibu Moon), a horse plucked from the Keeneland September Yearling Sale by him and Roger O'Callaghan and now trained by Adrian Murray for a partnership involving their two wives and Amo Racing. Aguiar has also been associated with Champion S. winner and Breeders' Cup Turf runner King Of Steel (Wootton Bassett {GB}) since his early days, having broken him in for the Amo team, of which he is a key part. He was back on board the giant grey on Tuesday morning and reported that he felt in good order after the exertions of Ascot less than a fortnight ago. “It is a short straight though,” he cautioned of the Santa Anita turf track.

When the sun has risen fully over Santa Anita, defining the contours of the San Gabriel mountains that set the stage for the unmistakable “Great Race Place”, the visual assault is so striking that it is hard to feel that there is much wrong with the world. Young Thoroughbreds appear from every which way, the equine players adorned here and there with colour-coded Breeders' Cup saddle cloths to identify the 'special ones'. But anyone involved closely with horses should know that they are all special, whether they make it to this exalted level, or perhaps just run with great heart in a bog at Catterick, as this correspondent's shared horse was doing, watched from a small screen in the palm of a hand, with the almost bizarre juxtaposition of Auguste Rodin striding alongside in the Californian sun. 

Even with such brilliant beauty close at hand, it was hard to revel in what should have been a joyful morning as the image of the prone Practical Move lingered on in the mind's eye.



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