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Breeders' Cup takes a step forward

In racing, Europeans tend to discover evidence of parochialism in the United States faster than you can say “baseball world series”.

But the real insularity comes in the failure, this side of the water, to grasp momentous efforts being made by the Breeders' Cup to justify its billing as the World Thoroughbred Championships.

Though so far received as little more than a bureaucratic footnote, there is a case for wondering whether the latest such initiative will prove one of the most significant in the history of the international sport.

For with a single, bold stroke, the Breeders' Cup — which takes place on November 6 — has dismantled the barriers that have historically confined European participation to a minority blessed by unusual luck or resources.

Up until now, overseas horses that were not nominated as foals — an utterly random blessing — could only be entered for an eye-watering supplementary fee. It could cost as much as 250,000 dollars to supplement a horse to the Breeders' Cup Classic. And this was even true of those that won the various challenge races, either side of the Atlantic, which guarantee a starting berth at the Breeders' Cup — marketed, rather speciously, as the “win and you're in” series.

Now, however, all bets are off. Instead of leaving it to owners of each individual foal to find 500 dollars to nominate, from 2011 the Breeders' Cup will now automatically register all stock by overseas stallions whose owners pay 50 per cent of a single covering fee for each relevant crop.

No stud farm with the faintest commercial self-respect will fail to absorb that expense. As a result, the organisers hope that overseas eligibility for the Breeders' Cup will soar from 1,200 horses to 20,000.

What is more, next year the “qualifying” programme will become exactly that. The winners will have their entry fees paid, along with a travel bursary.

This completely transforms the landscape for winners of several elite prizes in Europe. No longer need connections ask why they should pay so much to go to the Breeders' Cup, when generous subsidies tempt them to places like Hong Kong and Dubai?

The timing of the announcement offers precious succour to the Europeans, just when it seemed as though conservative, vested interests in the American sport had fatally reversed all the progress made over the past two years.

Last month it was announced that the synthetic surface at Santa Anita — springboard to unprecedented European success at the 2008 and 2009 Breeders' Cups — is to be dug up, and replaced by the sort of traditional dirt track that has long seemed inimical to turf horses.

Both this autumn and next, moreover, the series returns to dirt at Churchill Downs in Kentucky.

To Europeans, the bitter controversies over the new tracks — primarily their properties in terms of equine welfare — had seemed to divide the best and worst of America. On the one hand, there were those prepared to compromise, to assimilate other cultures in the hope of producing something better — on the other, some could not care less about the global resonance of what they were doing, so long as they were comfortable with it (starting, you have to suspect, with the huge fees commanded by some dirt stallions).

The fact that the Breeders' Cup is prepared once again to challenge the reactionaries — who immediately objected that the new nomination scheme was prejudicial to North Americans — represents cheering evidence that the return to dirt at Santa Anita was only a battle lost, and not a war.

Closer to home, incidentally, there are one or two decent midweek distractions today.

Sandown and Yarmouth both stage listed races, while Listowel celebrates one of the first big steeplechases of the Irish campaign, in the Guinness Kerry National.

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