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Early bird gets lucky at the Breeders' Cup

ARCADIA, Calif. --- Like most Easterners on vacation in California, the Happy Handicapper found himself wide awake a 6:30 a.m. Saturday. What else could he do but shower, shave and drive his rental car over to Santa Anita Park, where the Breeders' Cup races would begin in just 3 1/2 hours.

His was about the 10th car into his section of the parking lot, just ahead of a pair of young men with English accents.

They said they were from "the North of England" and went to the races all over that country.

"Do you think your horses can win some races today?" the H.H. asked.

"We've come to get Curlin," one said.

"You've come all this way to see Curlin?" the Buffalo guy asked, referring to the big favorite in the $5 million Breeders' Cup Classic, the last of nine Breeders' Cup races on the day's schedule.

"No, we've come to get Curlin," he replied. "We've got three horses who can beat Curlin."

As they chatted on the way to the entrance, the Englishmen told the guy from Buffalo that they didn't think horses from Europe won't be deterred by Santa Anita's very firm, closely clipped turf track. Neither would they be bothered by the synthetic Pro-Ride main track. They said there are several synthetic tracks in England where horses train and race, even in bad weather.

They parted ways and the H.H. quickly forgot about their conversation. Until about 3:45, a few minutes before post time for the Classic.

As the day unfolded, English horses did pretty well. Very well.

Muhannak, an Irish-bred gelding making his first start in North America after 10 races in England and one in Ireland, won the $500,000 Marathon at 12-1 odds. Goldikova, an Irish-bred filly who had raced exclusively in France, took the Mile as the 9-5 favorite.

Donativum, an English-bred gelding whose career consisted of five races in England, took the Juvenile Turf at almost 6-1 for trainer John Gosden and jockey Frankie Dettori, who celebrated in the winner's circle with his famous flying dismount.

At the press conference after that race, Gosden --- an Englishman who formerly raced in Southern California --- gave glowing praise to the Santa Anita track and the way the Breeders' Cup has  evolved since it began in 1984, when Gosden won his only previous Breeders' Cup race. He also said the overseas trainers have learned a bit in those 25 years too.

"I think we're a lot more savvy than we used to be," Gosden said. "I think we've gotten a little smarter. We tend not to drain them [the horses] too hard through the season, into the fall. ... It's very tempting to go for those Grade One's [top class races in Europe], but you want to try to come here with a fresh horse, if you can."

Gosden also said "the whole game is opened up for us now because of the synthetic surfaces. ... It's a level playing field for us. It's neither dirt, it's neither turf. ... You're bringing them together with the introduction of synthetic tracks."

Two races after those remarks, Conduit, an Irish-bred colt that had raced only in England, won the $3 million Turf at almost 6-1. There was one race to go, time for Horse of the Year candidate Curlin's defense of his Classic title as the odds-on favorite in the $5 million race.

By this point, the Happy Handicapper's bankroll was in sad shape. His public selections had come up with just one winner (Midshipman in the Juvenile for a $9.20 payoff) and although he was hoping Curlin would give him a race to remember, he was ready to try to get even with a bet on Colonel John, who still owed him for not winning the Kentucky Derby.

He remembered the "Root for Curlin, but bet against him" headline over Andrew Beyer's column in the Daily Racing Form. And that's just what the H.H. was going to do with Colonel John.

But a few moments before post time, the scales fell from his eyes. He remembered those English guys and what they said. They might be right. The Europeans sure were having a good day. They'd won four of the first eight races. Maybe they did have three horses who could beat Curlin.

So when the H.H. went to the betting window, he made his planned win and place bets on Colonel John. But also bought $4 tickets on each of the English long shots --- Duke of Marmalade (No. 4), Henrythenavigator (5) and Raven's Pass (8) --- and boxed them in the exacta.

Like most everybody watching, his heart skipped a beat when Curlin made his big move on the far turn and took the lead at the top of the stretch. But it soon became apparent that Curlin was not going to pull away from the pack. As race announcer Pete Szymanski used to say at Buffalo Raceway, "Here they all come."

And come they did. By time the race was over, Raven's Pass (also trained by Gosden and ridden by Dettori) had won by 1 3/4 lengths with Henrythenavigator second. Curlin had faded to fourth.

Wow. Raven's Pass --- making his U.S. debut after 11 races in England --- paid $29 to win and the exacta combining the top two returned $159.50 for $1. The Handicapper's tickets were worth $217.50.

He flew to the cashier right after Dettori did another flying dismount.

"When I crossed the line, I didn't really know if it was true or a dream," Dettori said later. "But I realized straightaway it was true, and I'm delighted."

It certainly was a delightful day for England.

And also for the lucky one who got up early and met Englishmen in the parking lot.

--- Bob Summers

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